SEARSPORT, Maine — It takes a special kind of hobbyist to get into wooden ship modeling. A lot of time, deft fingers and a keen eye are key to tackling projects that can be shockingly involved for someone who doesn’t know what they’re getting into.
Take Maine-based BlueJacket Shipcrafter’s U.S.S. Kearsarge modeling kit, for example. The Kittery-built Civil War steam sloop carried a pair of 11-inch guns as part of its armament. To recreate just one of these guns, a modeler has to assemble, glue and paint more than 50 individual pieces.
“Modeling isn’t about the destination of the final product,” said Nic Damuck, owner of BlueJacket, the country’s oldest model ship business. “It’s about getting there.”
BlueJacket is based in a former stripmall along Route 1, known for its faux lighthouse overlooking the tourist-laden road.
Its walls house a smaller-scale history of seafaring in Maine and abroad. On display are dozens of model ships, ranging from the Belfast-based lobster boat Red Baron to one of the world’s most famous warships, the Boston-based USS Constitution. In all, BlueJacket carries 86 different models of ships.
These models represent hundreds of thousands of hours of painstaking work and more than a century of experience.
BlueJacket started in 1905, when a French-born naval architect name Horace Boucher employed by the U.S. Navy to make scale models of warships realized that model shipbuilding, while popular in Europe, hadn’t caught on in the U.S.
Boucher left his Navy job and launched his new company along with a partner in New York City. He realized he could mass produce small fittings — anchors, cannons, helms — and sell them as kits to home hobby builders. Boucher’s models were widely known for their accuracy and detail, which is why they can be found in museums across the globe, including 40 at the Smithsonian alone.
In the early 1970s, a Connecticut man purchased the business and moved it to that state. In the 1980s, Fred Nichols bought it and moved the operation to Castine, according to Damuck. A few years later, the business relocated to Stockton Springs before changing hands again and moving to Searsport, where it’s been based for 22 years. Damuck, a lifelong model hobbyist purchased the company in 2013.
“I was a BlueJacket customer for 35 years,” he said during a recent interview at the business.
His first model was a plastic Japanese Zero fighter plane, which he assembled out of a kit. Damuck said he was sickly as a child and was forced to spend time out of school. To pass the time, he built models.
As he got older, the Connecticut native progressed to more and more complicated projects, including wooden ships. He frequently bought ship components from BlueJacket and decided to buy the company after retiring from his career in industrial control sales.
When designing scale models, the company can spend years researching the ships to ensure period accuracy. Al Ross, son of a WWII Navy officer, drafts the models and instructions for BlueJacket kits. He used to write design manuals for nuclear power plants. Currently, Ross is working on a model of the USS Cairo, a Civil War steamship designed for river battles.
“We try to make models of interesting ships with interesting histories,” Damuck said. Each kit comes with detailed instructions and the story behind the ship included. The company offers a series of WWII-era naval vessels, some of which have been purchased by veterans who served on those ships.
“We always want to honor that history by making these as accurate as possible,” Damuck said.
BlueJacket’s model kits range from about $100 to more than $700, depending on how complex they are. BlueJacket also sells pre-assembled models, but the prices are significantly higher because of the hundreds of hours staff spend putting them together. For example, the most complex kit, the USS Constitution, sells for $685. If you want the completed version, it runs for $12,500. Someone purchased a completed Constitution from a display case in the store this winter.
Some of the more complex models are made up of thousands of individual pieces, many of them tiny. Almost all of these are made in BlueJacket’s backroom workshops. The Searsport shop is home to more than 2,500 individual molds which are used to cast pieces ranging from helms and anchors to rigging loops. BlueJacket goes through about 800 pounds of pewter each year.
The Constitution comes with more than 2,600 individual metal fittings, 20 different sizes and colors of sail rigging, and sheets of photo-etched brass pieces. It can take even an experienced modeler about 750 to 1,000 hours to finish, Damuch said.
“Well, there have been people who have started with the [USS] Constitution,” Dumack said of first-time builders. “The success rate hasn’t been high.”
The company does what it can to help those who get in over their heads and struggle to navigate their way through the assembly processes. For modelers who hit inevitable stumbling blocks, BlueJacket has a toll-free tip line.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.