Alaska historical museum displays model boats

Danelle Landis Ketchikan Daily News
Friday, February 15, 2019
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AP PHOTO
Terry Richardson holds a scale model hull of the Johnnie B. salmon seiner at Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Jan. 31. The Johnnie B. was built around 1930, measures at 62 feet long and was grandfathered into the Alaska statutes, which set 58 feet as the maximum length permitted for a salmon seiner.

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — Terry Richardson blends art, science and patience to create intricately accurate models of marine vessels and aircraft, of which a few specimens can be seen in the Tongass Historical Museum.

Richardson explained the history, process and materials involved in his passion for creating the models to an audience of about 25 people at a "Museum Midday" talk Thursday afternoon in the museum.

"I do enjoy doing this, what I do," Richardson said after he was introduced by museum Senior Curator of Programs Marni Rickelmann. "I started at about five."

His first models at that young age were crude, he said, but he could pull them around in the water and enjoy playing with them.

When he tried making bigger, more realistic scale models as he grew older, he'd been surprised to learn that they wouldn't float upright, because they didn't have the weight in the keel like an actual vessel.

"Then I went more to making static models," he said.

As a teenager, he used his building skills to work on cars with friends. He came back to model building later, he explained, to de-stress during a time of working in a very stressful job.

"I could just go from my job into doing this, and it's a whole different world in your mind," he said. "It was a lot of fun, a lot of late nights."

At first, he would give away extra models to friends.

Ketchikan local Snapper Carson first gave Richardson the idea to start selling the models, Richardson said.

He built a model of Carson's fishing tender "Crane," Richardson said, and that started a chain of requests for custom models from Sitka to California and as far flung as Pennsylvania.

"A lot of these guys, like all the rest of us, are getting older, and are not fishing them anymore, so in retirement they can see their boats in their house," Richardson said.

Richardson then referred to a large blueprint of the F/V Quaker Maid, clipped to a board that sat on a nearby table, leaning against the wall. He explained he uses such blueprints to design his scale models.

The Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham, Washington and the The Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society in Seattle both have been excellent resources for such boat plans and other materials as he conducts research, Richardson said.

He said that each model boat requires about 10 months of focused building work, and about two weeks to a month of research.

He displayed the early stages of the fishing packer "Westward" model hull he's been working on, using a method of building called "plank on bulkhead," rather than the "plank on frames" method he'd been using previously, which he said he's found to be a superior method.

Richardson said he will spend quite a bit of time "lofting" — measuring the dimensions — of a vessel to create his plan for building a model of it. He also takes about 500 photos of the vessel, minimum, during this process as well.

If the boat is in the water, that stage can be more challenging, as he has to make educated guesses as to the structure of the keel area.

The hulls of his model boats usually are planked with yellow cedar.

"Snapper Carson, when he was here, and had his little sawmill, he would get logs that had been pickled in the saltwater for however long, and he would saw them and make lumber out of them and sell them to people. I would get all the edges where he couldn't make any kind of a board out of it," Richardson explained.

He then would cut those scraps into thin strips, and create tiny, model-sized planks for his creations.

He displayed the scalesized barrels, skiff buoys and the halibut schooner skiffs and seine boat skiffs he had created using a vacuum form machine. He described the process, in which he places a form that he makes with wood under a heating element that softens a sheet of plastic. When the plastic is pliable enough, it is lowered onto the form, where it creates a light, tough replica of the form.

"In order to make this boat look like — which was my whole goal in this, you could walk aboard and sail away in it, I had to do all of the stuff and put it in there," he said.

There were seine skiff hulls and airplane wings for a model Cessna 185 on Richardson's display table that he'd made with that process, as well as fish totes he made with a reverse vacuum process.

A realistic detail he said he puts inside his fishing vessels is tiny books, suggested by pictures that Richardson said his wife creates by shrinking down photos from magazines or life-sized books.

Richardson said that he builds the models full time now, and that he feels very lucky to have an extremely supportive wife.

With his dedication to detail, Richardson said he welcomes positive input from those knowledgeable with maritime history.

One time, he said, he used the color international orange on a pre-World War II model schooner's flagpoles.

"An old-timer called me up and said, 'You know what? We didn't have international orange until after World War II,' so I went down and repainted them to the right color of red," Richardson said.

Another method he uses to create the small items needed for a realistic model is to use a watery plastic compound that he can pour into two-part molds he shapes to create propellers and other details like vents. The unfinished floatplane that he displayed had wings made with that process, as he said the poured process preserves the small details like the fine ridges on the wing edges.

Currently, Richardson said, he is working on boat models to donate to the museum.

He has donated models of local seiners Libby III and Rio Grande, as well as the tender Amelie and a model of a Grumman Goose airplane.

"I just want to see where younger people can come in and say, 'OK, that's possible to do," Richardson said.

"It's just been enjoyable," he concluded.

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