Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Model Ships: Miniature Pleasures

Nov 09, 2010 09:41PM ● By Anonymous


Model ships have been around as long as boats have been built. One type of model, prized by collectors, is called a builder’s model because during the 17th and 18th centuries these models were a part of the construction process. During the 19th century the models were used as samples to show prospective customers. They were also kept as mementos by the owners of particular vessels.

The second type of ship model is called a sailor’s model because they were often made by sailors who were attempting to re-create ships on which they had sailed.

Ship models dating back as early as 2500 B.C. have been found stored inside Egyptian tombs. Nowadays computer software can help naval architects study boat designs, but hundreds of years ago small prototype boats enabled shipbuilders to take designs apart and determine ballast and water displacement.

Building model ships as a pastime first developed as a means for prisoners of war to stave off boredom during the War of 1812. Sailors on whaling vessels carved ship models of whalebone, while seamen and officers alike on naval and merchant vessels took delight in carving wooden hulls, sewing sails, and arranging authentic rigging.

Ship models can provide us with an overview of the evolution of the world’s shipping history.

In general collectors prefer ships inside glass cases because they don’t have to worry about dusting them and potentially damaging lines or sails. However, the cases take up more space than the boats alone do, and this can make it harder for prospective owners to find space to display their newest acquisitions.

Enter the ship in a bottle, another area of model boat collecting, which certainly does not require as much space as collecting boats in cases. Due to construction limitations, models inside bottles tend not to be as elaborate as others. But it is amazing how much artisans can achieve by using specially designed long-handled tools. The concept is to create a collapsed model to slide into the bottle and then assemble and unfurl the sails once the pieces are in position.

Among dealers and collectors there is much dispute as to when ships inside bottles were first made. Clear glass bottles were commercially available at the beginning of the 19th century. Various other examples from the 17th and 18th centuries do exist. The age of the bottle helps in dating the model.

By the 1930s instructional books were published and ship model kits were sold, including ship-in-a-bottle kits. Original models, even contemporary ones, made without the aid of a kit are always more desirable since they are one-of-a-kind. The price of a 19thcentury sailor’s model can range from $200 to $5,000, whereas a ship builder’s model of the same era can command prices from $4,000 to $40,000. As with any antique, condition, rarity, complexity, and size are primary factors in establishing worth.