BATH – How did they get that ship into that bottle?

It’s a time-honored question about a time-honored activity, and one Jim Nelson has answered through one of several workshops the Maine Maritime Museum is offering this summer.

Nelson, an educator with the museum and a maritime author, is wrapping up his first ship-in-a-bottle workshop and plans a second for November. He’s been building ships in bottles for 15 years.

“I keep telling these guys they’re the guinea pigs,” the Harpswell man said of his two pupils.

Last week those men, Sandy Dickson and Dick Ronan, were approaching that final critical step of pushing their miniature schooners into half-gallon bottles to rest on a clay ocean.

It can take about 30 hours to prepare the model, and 10 or 15 minutes to insert it into the bottle.

Their models rested on rigging trestles, on which they threaded the complex arrangement of rigging and kept each of the 11 strings separated and labeled.

“One of the biggest issues you have is keeping these strings organized,” Nelson said.

This was their fourth Friday evening class, held inside the museum’s boat shop, although the two men have done much of the work at home. Their first class included a tour of the museum, where an exhibit of mariner folk art is on display this summer and includes historic bottled ships.

In the second, Dickson and Ronan put the bulwarks on the hull and made the deck furniture.

Both men have taken half-hull model-making courses at the museum – the models that lie sideways and flat against a wooden board – and they decided to try their hand at bottled ships.

The “ocean” in the bottle is created when clay is rolled into a thin tube and squeezed inside, after which a curved tool is used to shape the clay into something aquatic in nature. White paint is applied to the blue clay to give the impression of whitecaps.

Nelson obtained the bottles through a company in Oregon. When purchasing them, he endures the task of getting rid of the bottles’ often alcoholic contents.

“I emptied one myself the old-fashioned way,” Nelson said with a smile. “One of the fun parts is draining the bottle.”

Gin, Jack Daniels and pinch whiskey bottles work well, he said. Some vinegar bottles do, too.

“You find yourself going through supermarkets and holding bottles sideways,” Nelson said.

The third class saw completion of the masts, which have tiny holes through which the rigging is threaded. The sails were made of bond paper and soaked in diluted coffee to give them an aged look.

“One good thing about this is that the expenses are pretty low,” Nelson said. “I literally fished this out of the scrap bin.”

Each ship is designed to fold down, with the sails pushed out of the way. Once the ship is pushed in by tweezers, Nelson pulls the rigging strings from outside the bottle to raise the sails, and presto – the ship is in place and ready to be glued down.

“The idea is to get the maximum amount of ship in there,” he said. “The more space it takes up, the more impressive it looks.”


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