It's a craft, an art, a quest for perfection -- and hard work

Mike Walling is the kind of person who will spend hundreds or even thousands of hours crafting a wooden ship model until he gets it just right. So is George Willis. So is Rich Kurz. And there are at least 122 other people in the Boston area -- men and women, lawyers, dentists, government workers -- who happily spend much of their off-work time shaping miniature hulls, spars, gun turrets, and propellers. These are the local members of the Model Shipwright Guild of New England. If you include members in other parts of the country, and even overseas, who keep in touch through correspondence and guild publications, the modelers number 250.

Lanky, dungarees-clad Mr. Walling, current ``captain'' of the guild (all the officers are given nautical titles), points out that the organization started only six years ago with a membership of 10. It soon became associated with the dockside USS Constitution Museum, which gave the group a place to meet and to display the results of all those hours of meticulous work with tweezers, knives, and pen vises.

And the results are glorious -- at least to anyone who has a love of the sea, a taste for fine craftsmanship, or even a faint yearning for the age of sail. Whether it's an impeccably varnished replica of a galleon, sparkling with brass fittings, or a modern destroyer cutting through waves coaxed from plastic resin, the handiwork is remarkable, showing the true craftsman's quest for perfection.

It's that yearning for one more touch of realism, one more breakthrough in technique, that keeps many of the guild members at their workbenches, says Walling, who is a professional modeler with his own company. ``It's a craft, and yet it's an art,'' he says. ``It's an artistic judgment call on what the ship actually looked like.'' He makes a distinction, too, between ``models,'' which approximate the original, and ``replicas,'' which strive for authentic detail.

An example of the latter is close at hand in the guild's well-stocked showroom at the USS Constitution Museum -- a cut-away rendition of the venerable ``Old Ironsides,'' pieced together by guild member George Kaiser just as an 18th-century shipwright would have built the real thing (which, incidentally, is moored only a short distance away). Walling notes that Mr. Kaiser, a telecommunication manager with the AVCO corporation, has probably invested 1,000 hours in the project, and it's still not done.

George Willis, like Walling a professional in the model-building business, estimates he's built 12 ships in the last 11 years. On the job, he builds for Modelworks of Stowe, Mass., which produces models of all kinds, including some for museum exhibits. His shipbuilding is done at home and entails two or three hours of carving, gluing, and painting every weekday and up to eight hours on weekends. He admits it's intensely solitary work, but ``I find it to be therapy,'' he says.

And his family? Mr. Willis feels his love of modelmaking has helped draw them closer. With a touch of fatherly pride, he mentions that his six-year-old son just began his first ``man kit,'' as the youngster calls the models designed for adults rather than children. It must seem the natural thing for a Willis offspring, since George's own father was a model builder and toy designer.

The third guild member on hand this morning, Rich Kurz, is newer to the craft than either Walling or Willis. He explains that he built plastic models from kits as a youngster and had always wanted to attempt a wooden one. So one day, as he happened by a crafts store, he decided the time had come. What he finds in ship modeling, he says, is a sense of independence, a feeling that ``no matter what else you're doing, this is something no one else can take away from you.'' And Mr. Kurz has a good deal else to do as chief energy engineer for Massport, the agency that oversees most of the state's harbor operations and Logan International Airport, among other things.

One thing experienced ship modelers seem to have in common is a distaste for the outsider's stock comment, ``You have so much patience!'' George Willis probably speaks for them all: ``It's not patience -- I just love doing it.'' In fact, what patience there is can wear quite thin, especially when it comes to the painfully close work of tying ratlines and the other teeth-gritting rigging challenges on sailing-ship models. ``I get to the rigging and it's ridiculous,'' admits Kurz.

But even that -- the knowledge you've made it through the sticky parts -- adds to the satisfaction, all three agree. For both modeler and admiring onlooker, there's a bit of awe when the job is done. What's left, as Walling says, is a ``sense of wonderment'' at having made ``the leap from a pile of disassociated parts to a ship.''

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