Shipbuilder sets sail inside small bottles Painstaking hobby has raft of secrets NORTH --Manchester * Hampstead * Lineboro

March 31, 1993|By Pat Brodowski | Pat Brodowski,Contributing Writer

Bill Westervelt of Hampstead is a builder of ships. Ships famous for adventures at sea; ships revered quietly by men who served upon them; ships that discovered a watery graveyard in the harbor at Baltimore.

His ships sail a timeless voyage. The ocean waves never crest, the sea gulls' flight is frozen. Bill Westervelt's ships sail inside bottles.

A fleet of ships-in-bottles coasts proudly over the family fireplace. More are neatly harbored in Mr. Westervelt's hobby room.

In a two-ounce Pinch Scotch miniature sails a 2-inch-high J.T. Leonard, a Chesapeake Bay sloop. Inside an enormous 1,000-watt light bulb rests the Star of India, an 8-inch, three-masted marvel of puffy sails. A bottle with necks at both ends sports the Purnell T. White, lost at sea a half-dozen times and under water today off Hawkin's Point, near Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

"Everyone who comes to the house think he's going to sea," laughs his wife, Betty Westervelt. "We have all these ships sitting around."

Building a ship begins with the bottle.

Mr. Westervelt says the flask from Pinch brand Scotch was designed just for ships-in-bottles. It has three sides of distortion-free glass and a seam at the top, out of view.

Four years ago, the Pinch bottle was redesigned, said Michael Stoner of Schieffelin and Somerset, U.S. importer of Pinch. The new design flattened one of the three concave sides. The neck is larger, too. All the better for sailing a ship inside.

Mr. Westervelt scales each ship to fill the bottle.

"That's where the wonderment comes in," he says. "You're not supposed to see how I got it in there. Think about it. You can't blow the bottle around the ship because glass is molten at 2,700 degrees."

In Mr. Westervelt's boatyard, several more of his tiny fleet are under construction. They are dwarfed by a map of the world's oceans, a chest full of miniature tools, and shelves of books about sailing ships.

He usually carves the hull from wood from the actual ship. From a drawerful of history, he pulls out a dozen blocks of wood, each the size of a candy bar.

"Here's the Katherine May, the Kohler, the William T. Parker, the Pride of Baltimore II," he says.

Some came from sunken wrecks. Some wood, like that from the Pride, was saved during remodeling.

Months are spent finding photographs or drawings that he will copy with wood, thread, paper and cloth. Accuracy is paramount.

Ropes (thread) are lighter if weather-beaten or ragged.

Accuracy also depends upon skill.

"These are rat lines," says Mr. Westervelt, draping an inch of webbing sailors would climb to set the sails. It covers his thumb. "I put it on all my ships now."

People, with heads the size of pins, are created of clay on armatures of wire. They're for models usually larger than Mr. Westervelt makes.

"It can be done when you're good enough," he says.

Three times a year, fellow bottle shipwrights meet to show and share.

"We swap information," says Mr. Westervelt.

He is president of the Maryland chapter of the Ships in Bottles Association of America (SIBAA). The national organization has about 400 members, including some from Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and India.

About 250 pursue this hobby in the United States, 11 in Maryland. Mr. Westervelt belongs to ship-in-bottle societies of Great Britain and Germany.

Building inside a bottle is not limited to ships.

Some folks build Victorian mansions inside. Harold Whiting of Plainfield, N.J., inserts trucks. Mr. Westervelt worked with him at the Smithsonian Institution. Together they showed the public the intricate magic of their hobby.

Mr. Westervelt spent additional hours restoring a collection of folk art-in-bottles at the Smithsonian. "One was called Labor of Love. I found the name inside" while sorting through the jumbled figures. The bottle had been closed with a four-pronged plug. "The stopper looks impossible to get out, but not when you find the key," he said.

Like a magician, Mr. Westervelt plans the launch of his ships. Everything must fit through the neck of the chosen bottle. With 30 years of building, he has a full bag of tricks.

Masts, for example, are hinged. No wider than a toothpick, each is laminated of three sections and pegged delicately with wooden pins. A typical three-step mast takes nine pieces.

The masts fold against the ship like wings on a bird. After sliding the complete ship into the bottle, Mr. Westervelt pulls up the masts with a series of strings. Then he noses in the "furniture" -- barrels and boxes on the deck.

An average model takes 18 months, or about 150 hours, to complete.

"It's not something you can do quick," said Mr. Westervelt. "It's like working needlepoint, one stitch at a time. You just sit down for 10 or 15 minutes. Eventually, you get done."

Completed ships in bottles range in value from $35 to more than $15,000.

Mr. Westervelt, who works at a machine shop in Cockeysville, speaks in the language of thousandths. He's making deck planks in strips 10,000ths of an inch thick.

"You mike it," he says, "use a micrometer."

About 50 strips of his hand-crafted decking will cover the USS Iowa. It's a model of sentimental value; he served on the Iowa for two years.

With 11 decks, superstructure and a hull more than 2 inches wide, he's aiming the Iowa for a custom-blown Pyrex bottle -- with a three-quarter-inch neck.

Slyly, he reveals another trade secret: the split hull. Every piece of the ship has been sliced like cake. It all fits together with wooden pins.

He built his first ship in 1962, after the birth of his fifth child.

"I was looking for an inexpensive hobby. We were raising five kids," he said.

"All you need is a tube of glue, paint, and everything else is scavenging. I just happened to stay with it."

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