The Times West Virginian

February 13, 2013

Intricate models

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Please don’t ask Charlie Fawcett if he makes those little model ships in a glass bottle.

Just don’t.

For the past 30 years or so, he’s been recreating wooden scale models of actual historic British warships.  

It’s fun, a great way to spend the time.

It started with a Christmas card he got years ago that had a picture of a wooden ship on it.

“I thought it was cool and I’d like to build one. I’m pretty handy with my hands, so I gave it a shot.

“And it’s an exercise in patience,” he said with a laugh.

“Oh, I had none. I thought this might teach me patience ... and it did.

“You can’t hurry. When I was younger, I built a couple of those plastic kits. I was in a rush and ended up throwing the whole thing away, it looked so bad.

“With these, you might have to wait a week for it to strengthen so you can work on it. You can’t be in a hurry.

“Taught me patience? Absolutely. Anybody who knew me back in the early days says, ‘What happened to Charlie?’ I used to fly off the handle quick. I was not very patient,” he said with a chuckle.

“But now I’m easy-going. I don’t expect people to rush around. Anything you want to do right deserves the time to do it.”

It took him three years to build that first ship, he said.

“They’re very intricate, very detailed, and take a lot of work. Besides, I was working then and could spend only about an hour or two an evening on it.

“Now that I’m retired, I can knock one out in six months.”

These are not your hobby store plastic kits, he said.

“They’re designed to be built like a real ship. They’re just scaled down.

“You get a whole bunch of wood, plans ... and you go at it.”

Now that he’s retired, he can spend more time on his hobby and would like to find some local model ship builders.

“As far as I know, I’m alone around here. I’ve gone as far as Connecticut to be around people who build model ships.

“I’m hoping this will strike a chord and someone will call me.”

And the hobby is expensive.

“Kits are getting more and more expensive. The basic kit for the whaling ship was $700. The basic plan for the British frigate was $1,300.

“They’re not made out of balsa,” he said of the models. “They’re made out of maple, teak, mahogany. Whatever was used on the original ship, that’s what you’re building out of. I try to stay as authentic as possible.

“The kit I’m doing now is expensive. I don’t have to worry about throwing it in the garbage. I’m too tight for that,” he laughed.

He orders his kits from an online specialty model store.

“I buy imported kits for the most part, like Italian,” Fawcett said. “I like the quality of the wood. And its descriptions of plans are better than others.”

The very first ship he built was an award-winner, he said.

“I went to a judged competition ... only once. I was never interested in them but I wanted to know how this stacked up against other people’s.”

His model ended up winning best in class and best in show at Modcon 7 in Morgantown, he added.

“This was the first ... and last time I went to a show. But since I’m retired, I’ll start showing again.”

He’s got seven completed ships and is about a third of the way through another, he said.

“They’re what some people call ‘tall ships.’ I enjoy them all but my favorites are 16th- and 17th-century British warships.”

If  you’ve seen the movie “Master and Commander ...” then you know what he’s talking about.

The last one he finished was a New Bedford whaler, based on an actual ship sitting in drydock in Mystic Seaport, Conn.

He visited that ship. He relies on the plans, but also likes to visit the actual ships and take photographs, if possible, before starting the project.

“I like to walk on the ship if possible. The plans may deviate or may not be accurate. But if I’ve been on board and know what the ships did in that time period, if I don’t understand the plans, then I can rely on what I did and photographed. It’s easier if you see it.”

These ships are more than wooden sailing vessels.

“They’re beautiful works of art,” Fawcett said. “They are intricate and ornate. The British were way ahead of the game in that type of ship. They spent a lot of money on warships, and it shows.

“I don’t build ships in a bottle. But I did once to shut a friend up. He kept asking me but never asked again.”

His recreations range in size from 18 inches long to 4 feet long, up to 3 feet tall and weigh from 200-300 pounds.

A larger ship can take from six months to a  year to build, he said.

“I don’t enjoy working fast. I like perfection. I don’t like mistakes. Even if a mistake is visible from only under a microscope, I’ll know it’s there.”

One of his favorites is the whaler, the Charles W. Morgan. He’s also fond of The Flying Fish.

“It’s a fishing schooner. It’s very beautiful. It’s the only one I’ve seen in full sail. I love it,” Fawcett said.

Additional models include U.S. Revenue Cutters the Katherine and the Dallas, the British frigate HMS Victory and the privateer Golden Hind.

The kits come in three levels, he said. Don’t even think about trying advanced or even intermediary until you’ve done a beginner.

“If you can put that together, you can graduate to the next level,” he said.

“Starting on an advanced would be like a 6-year-old trying to take out an appendix.

“I’ve been at the advanced level for a long time.”

He and his wife were looking at a museum-quality model when his wife said his model was better.

“So I decided to see how mine would stack up in a show,” he said.

“I consider myself to have built what is called museum quality. That means it’s historically accurate and could be displayed in a museum behind safety glass.”

That’s where the Charles W. Morgan is headed, he said.

“I’m thinking of donating it to a maritime museum, maybe in Mystic Seaport.”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.