Ships' legacy has been preserved in tabletops Furniture made from hatch covers

October 11, 1993|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Many of the Liberty and Victory ships from World War II were scuttled years ago, but thanks to William Harlan, pieces of the historic vessels keep turning up in living rooms across America.

The president of Annapolis-based Sub-Sea Artifacts Inc. has spent 20 years turning wooden hatch covers and pulley blocks from the ships into tables, benches and lamps.

So far, he has converted 3,000 of the pine hatch covers into furniture. He has 2,000 in storage -- enough to last until retirement.

Mr. Harlan, 52, grew up in Indiana, but a scuba-diving expedition in the Great Lakes after college hooked him on the water.

He moved to Annapolis about 25 years ago, when the last of the Liberty and Victory ships, which carried supplies, were being scuttled. In those days, pieces from the boats were cheap, with the wooden hatch covers selling for only $20 each.

Having heard of craftsmen who made furniture from the hatch covers, Mr. Harlan saw an opportunity and began to snatch up as many of the covers as he could find. "We bought out every ship yard we could," he said.

It turns out Mr. Harlan had a keen eye for business. Today the tables his company makes fetch as much as $2,000 each. He sells 100 pieces of furniture a year, generating about $100,000 annually.

Mr. Harlan said he can command such high prices because the furniture is made from a dwindling resource. The Liberty and Victory ships were the last vessels to be made with wooden hatch covers, and now they are gone.

About 1,000 Liberty ships were made during War II. Each was equipped with about 400 hatches to allow access to its cargo. Mr. Harlan estimates that three-quarters of those covers were lost or destroyed. He snatched up half the rest.

Even fewer Victory ships were built. He estimates that 200 of those were christened, each with about 500 hatch covers.

Mr. Harlan is one of only a few craftsmen still making furniture from the ships' equipment.

Mr. Harlan designs the furniture and employs three craftsmen to make the pieces. They work in a two-story shed off Solomons Island Road. Blue plastic on the windows imparts an eerie glow. The smell of lacquer and wood stain fills the air.

The workers sand and repair the cracked, weathered wood, stain it and cover it with a polyurethane coating. Sometimes initials carved by sailors who served on the vessels can still be seen on the finished pieces.

Each item is tagged with a brass plate indicating the ship from which it came. Buyers also receive certificates with a brief history of the ship.

Mr. Harlan said occasionally veterans who served aboard the Liberty ships come looking to buy pieces from the ships on which they sailed. Usually, they are disappointed. Mr. Harlan only works on pieces from one or two ships at any one time. Currently, furniture is being made from the hatch covers of the Zane Grey Liberty ship and the Diamond Head Victory ship.

Mr. Harlan calculates that the remaining hatch covers will keep his business operating another 20 years, unless a big order comes along. But he said he is not worried about being forced into retirement. "I figure I'll die before then."

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