Artisan preserving crafts of the bay

August 15, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

After six months of painstaking shift work, Charles O. Hacker has completed his scale model of the topsail schooner Dapper Tom, a Baltimore-built privateering ship used during the War of 1812 to help break the British blockade.

At 73, it is not as easy as it once was to knot the tiny threads and paint the fine lines that make Hacker's reduced reproductions true. He must perform his most tedious work with the aid of a magnifying glass. But cataracts and a failing back have not prevented Hacker, a man with an engineering mind and dexterous fingers, from completing his labor of love.

Hacker's graceful, 25-inch reproduction of the swift ship is built almost entirely from scratch. The hull is carved from a block of soft basswood, its rigging is made of waxed thread. The deadeyes, blocks, mast, bowsprit, jib boom and spars are hewn from skinny dowels, the eagle beak figurehead is hand carved. The ratlines -- rope ladders used by sailors to climb to the top of a boat -- are woven with needle and thread and hand-tied.

"At this stage, I can almost picture myself working these lines . . . and being a sailor," says Hacker of his latest and, he claims, last nautical creation.

Hacker has demonstrated his craft at the Maryland Historical Society exhibit "The Art of Ship-Model Building," on display through Sept. 29. He has also contributed many hours to the repair and upkeep of models that belong to the Radcliffe Maritime Museum, the society's permanent exhibition of Chesapeake Bay history and lore.

Beyond the society, Hacker, a Highlandtown resident, has acquired a national reputation as an exacting and passionate boat-model builder.

A copy of the Federalist, a square rigger presented to George Washington by the state of Maryland in 1788, reproduced by Hacker and Baltimorean Lewis A. Beck Jr., is on display in the Maryland Statehouse. Several models, including a skipjack, bugeye and trawler made by Hacker are exhibited in Loews Annapolis Hotel.

One of Hacker's reproductions of the Pride I is exhibited in Baltimore's sister port of Nagoya, Japan. Another is installed in New York's World Trade Center. As one who lovingly watched the doomed first Pride rise, stage by stage, in its Inner Harbor cradle, he has not been able to bring himself to build a Pride II, Hacker says.

Hacker's work -- he estimates that he has built 75 to 100 scale models -- is represented in the private collections of many boat enthusiasts. Toting a "doctor's kit" filled with the tools of his trade -- hair-fine dentist drills and probes, precise X-ACTO knives and saws -- he also makes house calls, replacing broken bowsprits and doing paint touch ups. Repainting a boat owned by a local developer, almost "caused me to lose my religion," Hacker says.

Though he used plans to build the Dapper Tom, Hacker need only make a sketch or use a picture postcard to calculate the dimensions of his models and make his own draftings.

"I have a knack of putting down on paper what I see with my eyes," says Hacker, who retired in 1977 after working 33 years as a Baltimore bus driver and streetcar operator.

As he speaks, Hacker sits in the kitchen of the Highlandtown row house where he and Ruth, his wife of 52 years, live. Ruth Hacker supplies homemade doughnuts along with the dates that may have slipped her husband's mind as he relates his evolving fascination with maritime lore.

As a child, Hacker was an avid airplane model maker. While in the Navy during World War II, he fell in love with the sea and the body nautical history and knowledge. With occasional exceptions, he later concentrated his energies on making boat models and painting seascapes. (As an ensign in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, Hacker also instructs youngsters planning to enter the Coast Guard.)

After the war, the Hackers returned to Baltimore, where he discovered the majesty of the Chesapeake Bay, plied by steamers, sails and oars. By making scale models of tongers, topsail schooners, log canoes and bugeyes, "I'm trying to keep the old bay craft alive," Hacker says. "They're dying and nobody's paying that much attention other than the museums."

Baltimore bay craft -- its tongers, skipjacks and log canoes, among other endangered boats -- may be disappearing from Maryland's waters, but the craft of building boat reproductions is alive and well, says Mary Ellen Hayward, curator of the Historical Society's model show. As an occupation for prisoners of war and sailors, an emblem of a ship owner's pride, a pastime for maritime students with an engineering bent, a mechanism for design and experimentation, the art of constructing models has been kept vital for centuries.

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