07/24/2014 11:19AM ● Published by Claudia Mosby
Photos: Brett Faulknor
Ron Stuart, Model Ship Builder
A popular credo affirms the belief that before the thing comes the thought. While unloading containers in a Philadelphia shipyard, Ron Stuart’s thoughts were of ornate and elegant ships, thoughts that preceded his foray into building models of them.
“I have always thought the older tall ships are awesome,” says Stuart. “I just took a saw and file and started making a hull to make my own ship because I was too cheap to buy a kit.”
From his first vessel—an uncomplicated two-mast built out of a four-by-four using a hand file and rasp—to more complex projects, Stuart has honed his talent for recreating from pictures large scale model ships. (A hobby shop that had one of his early ships on display had to tell its customers there was no kit for the ship they wanted to copy.)
“If I mess with it off and on every day, it may take three or four months to complete a project,” he says. “It depends on how much detail and where my brain goes with it.” One model took four years to complete.
After leaving the shipyard, Stuart worked laying track at the railroad and driving a truck cross-country until insulin dependence for diabetes ended his life on the road. He later went to work at his brother-in-law’s cabinet manufacturing and installation business.
“I think I really got that (carpentry skill) from my grandpa who was a furniture builder in North Dakota,” Stuart says. “When I was a kid, my dad showed me how to use the keyhole saw and I would draw toy guns and cut them out. I just like building things out of wood.”
Over time, his projects grew bigger and bolder. “When I home-schooled my daughter in the seventh grade,” he says, “I went to meet with the supervising teacher at Sequoia Middle School and saw a Smithsonian magazine with a Viking ship on the cover. It included all kinds of detail and I told the teacher I could build it and bring it in for the kids to see.”
His masterpiece to date is a model of a Greek Trimere ship (think Trojan War), weighing in at 40 pounds and measuring almost eight feet from bow to stern, three feet from hull to mast tip and, with oars extended, more than two feet across.
With easy access to the Internet, Stuart began turning increasingly for inspiration to websites featuring ancient ships. With his daughter’s assistance, he printed various pictures and then organized them into a detailed visual template.
Although he found cutaways revealing the interior of the Greek Trimere, he says pictures of the living quarters of the oldest ships are largely absent, adding, “Even the model kits are just a plankon frame and hollow inside.”
Using his imagination, he has begun detailing what he thinks the inside of ships might have looked like on his two most recent projects, The USS Constellation (a sister ship to Old Ironsides) and the Black Pearl from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” both of which feature lighted interiors with removable panels.
“I detailed the living quarters with actual tables and maps (in the Black Pearl),” says Stuart,“ and I created a living area with hammocks. When I was in the Marine Corps, we were on modern ships with beds but I was thinking about what they would have used then.” Both ships will have cannons on deck.
Using recycled supply pellets he obtains from a friend, Stuart cuts the predominantly pine wood to 1/8-inch thickness or less, buying only necessary hardware, string and sail material to complete each model.
“The top two desks of the Trimere have brass nails and I used about 10 or 15 feet of string, just enough to let the wind turn the sail and to raise it up and down,” he says. “I’ve made all the pulleys and block and tackle. It depends on what kind of nails I want to put in the deck, but I do not think I have ever spent more than $40.”
Stuart does not sell his work, nor with few exceptions, display it. Retired from the Marine Corps in 1972, it was only after talking with a Veterans Administration representative in 1999 that Stuart realized his post-traumatic stress disorder. The shipbuilding is for his enjoyment. “You have to do something,” he says. “You can’t sit and feel sorry for yourself. It keeps me sane.”
Today, his model of the Greek Trimere is housed at the Sequoia Middle School Library.