Friday, February 22, 2013


When I was a kid I liked to make models. There was a store in town next to the IGA Grocery called Cressy’s. My mother called it the five-and-dime. It turns out Wikipedia has a definition for five-and-dime so apparently it’s a real term. Cressy’s was too far from our house so I wasn’t allowed to walk there on my own but sometimes, if I made enough of a nuisance of myself in the IGA when my mother was busy shopping for groceries, she’d kick me out of the store and send me across to Cressy’s.

I remember thinking the place was huge, but I drove through that town again not too long ago and nothing there was huge. Before going back I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that our favorite sledding spot, Baker Adams’ hill, was taller than Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, and that Sam Walton got the idea from Cressy. So I guess I was pretty little. In spite of all that time I spent in Cressy’s, all I really remember about the inside of the place was the carousel style Matchbox car display case and the shelves full of Revell models. They must have sold other stuff in there, but I was all set with the match box cars and the models.

When you look back as an adult it’s easy to pick out the quirks that stayed with you. Lately I have been watching my own young kids trying on all kinds of mannerisms and traits to see which ones fit. Some of them will be discarded but others will stick and form habits, and eventually carve out a distinct personality. I can’t wait to see which ones are which. When I look back it seems that a lot of who I am now, a lot of the parts that stuck, started out with the Revell models from Cressy’s.

I don’t know whether my design office compatriot, Sam Chamberlin, has his own version of Cressy’s and Revell models. I’ll have to ask him. But I bet he can also look back and tell you where and when this whole design pursuit started for him. The point of all of this is that we are still making models. As it happens I have been spending a lot of time on one particular model at work recently so when we were talking about what to blog about this week Sam suggested ‘what about all of the different kinds of boat models?’ What a totally great idea. Absolutely. What about models?

It turns out people build models for a lot of different reasons. All the way back in 1957 the Monogram Model company commissioned a study and interviewed 270 people to learn more about those reasons. I suppose the thinking was that if you understood why people buy your product you could do a better job making and selling that product. I found the study here. You gotta love the internet.

While it’s not the most elegant piece of writing you will come across, many of the ideas are intriguing. The Monogram study identified an almost universal fascination with transportation, but also anxiety about a rapidly changing American cultural landscape where post war mass production had begun to undermine the notion of individuality. The authors of the study noted that many people are drawn to occupations that demand accuracy, exactness, and offer completion. Furthermore many people learn to be creative and experience a sense of accomplishment from working with their hands and with tools and when these attributes are missing from professional pursuits people tend to seek out recreational ones that provide them. In the interviews people described model making as a source of vicarious adventure and as an opportunity to bond with children through shared interests. The study also highlighted the fact that as people are driven toward specialization in their professional lives that they rarely have the opportunity to glimpse the entirety of what they are working on. It seems few individuals in American society have an opportunity to see a project from conceptualization through to execution. Curiously, a significant percentage of those interviewed for the study described model making as among the few pursuits still “reserved for men.” Now obviously this study only touches on a small sliver of the changing American cultural landscape in 1957 but it seems to me a good many people would describe some of these same trends in their lives today.

So that was a long winded way of getting around to the fact that here at Rockport Marine, and in boatyards and design offices everywhere we still build models for many of the same reasons people did in 1957. In fact I think clients, designers, and boat builders are motivated by these same factors not only in the models we make but in the creation of the real things. So I thought it would be fun to look at the kinds of models we make and use every day.

Years ago boat design was model making. Nathaniel G Herreshoff produced his many designs, from the 12-1/2 to his Americas Cup winners by carving scale models. Here is a shot of the famous model room at the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Bristol Rhode Island, but be sure to check out the interactive panorama of the room at the museum website here:

The fact is there is still no better way to evaluate your creation than to produce a scale model that you can hold in your hands and experience in its entirety. Does it look like you thought it would? If there something, anything that is out of place or just not quite right you still have an opportunity to address it before construction takes place. The effort of the model is wholly worth while.

Later when boat designers had made the transition from carving blocks of wood to the drafting table, ship’s curves, and spline weights, designers and builders began building models from “lifts” or slices of wood.

The slices are shaped to the waterlines (or buttocks or sections) of the design, glued or pinned together, and then the corners and high spots are carefully carved off taking special care not to go beyond the interior corners. Here is a good illustration of the process. These are from the website of Moose Island Design in Eastport, Me. I am not familiar with their work but they appear to have done a lovely job of this model of the 1812 Schooner ZEBRA.

Boat builders and designers use several other types of models as well, perhaps none more fascinating than the type used for tow tank testing. I wish I had more experience with tow tank testing than I do. To date the projects I have had a chance to work on haven’t afforded the opportunity. I’m going to skip the long description here and direct you instead to a pair of youtube videos and a particularly informative Wikipedia article. And of course as interesting as the models are, they are nothing compared to the model basin facilities themselves. 

I will just take this opportunity to point out that while the article describes that the models used for tank testing are made with computerized milling machines, and many are, Rockport Marine’s own John England has built several tow tank models by hand for renowned naval architect and yacht designer Bruce King.

Finally, no discussion of boat models is complete without some mention of the presentation model. We really don't do these at Rockport Marine.  Our presentation models are the real thing.  Our clients tend to take exceptional care of their boats but we eschew glass cases. We prefer that you go out and use your boat, because well, that's what they are for.   If some mishap befalls your boat we will take care of it.  Then when it is time to think about your new boat…well, here in the design office that is our favorite part. When we’ve got a preliminary design prepared and you find yourself wondering how this thing is really going to look… that’s where guys like Rob Eddy and Reuben Brown Come in. Presentation models are a world unto themselves. Take a look at the work of Messrs Eddy and Brown.

If your aesthetic preferences lean toward more traditional craft you may prefer the work of Erik A.R. Ronnberg Jr. I first noticed Mr. Ronnberg’s work in the pages of WoodenBoat Magazine. The model was of an oyster shallop. She was a working craft that Mr. Ronnberg had presented replete with rusty chainplates, and Chesapeake Bay mud clinging to the oysters on deck. I couldn’t find photos of that model but I did find these images of Mr. Ronnberg’s exquisite model of the Friendship sloop Little Hattie.

Finally here are a few screen shots of the model we’ve been working on. If you’ve read our older posts you’ll recognize her as LAYLA.

I am pleased to be able to report that the blog above grabbed the attention of a past customer and we are now developing this design for a client. We’ve refined it somewhat. The smoke stack is gone (which will come as a great relief to many of the people who posted commentary when Maria published the original images on We’ve raised the freeboard aft, increased the beam a touch and modified some of the hatches and cabin structures. While it is still just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in a computer, we’re at that stage where it is time to make the model. Actually I placed the order today. We are working with David Spiegel and his team at Modelvision Inc in New Milford Connecticut. They will print the model and appendages with a 3D printer using a process called steriolithography. We will receive the boat in two parts made of something called DSM SOMOS 10122. The model is split at the waterline so that the upper half may be removed from the lower and placed on the table. In this way the whole shape, or that portion visible above the water may be experienced in the same model. We will print several appendages and auxiliary components like the masts, rudder, propeller and steering wheel, but the model will stop well short of what Robert Eddy, Reuben Brown, and Erik Ronnberg Jr. would call “detailed.” Let’s call it a geometry study. And if the client is sufficiently inspired when he sees it we’ll do our detailed model at full size.


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