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LI man makes art with smaller boats models

Christopher Hale prefers using recycled pieces of shapeable

Christopher Hale prefers using recycled pieces of shapeable wood such as mahogany, spruce and poplar to build his half-model boats. (July 16, 2013) Credit: Heather Walsh

There's nothing remotely elegant about the starting point of one of Christopher Hale's projects: just a stack of several pieces of different types and lengths of wood glued together.

But after as little as 30 minutes or as much as several hours of cutting, planing and sanding, the Medford resident will have produced a side view "half model" of a boat that is clearly a work of art and a demonstration of a type of historical maritime craftsmanship that is becoming increasingly rare.

Hale, 51, has been involved in boatbuilding one way or another since starting a two-year trade school program in Maine when he was 18. For the past 15 years, his day job has been building and repairing craft at the historic Frank M. Weeks Yacht Yard in Patchogue. Before that, Hale worked at Seafarer Yachts, then at Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard on Shelter Island and for traditional wood boatbuilder Fred Scopinich of East Quogue, who is also a carver of half models.

But his hobby and sideline business since the mid-1990s has been carving half models, usually in the shavings-layered shed behind his house.

"My great-grandfather was a boatbuilder in Brooklyn in the late 1800s and early 1900s" and built half models as part of that business, Hale said. He inherited three of his ancestor's workboat half models, which are now mounted on the wall of his living room. "I always thought they were kind of cool," Hale added.

Hale, who is self-taught, figures he has made at least 150 half models of powered craft and sailboats.

Traditionally, half-model carving was a quick and easy way for local builders to design a boat.

"Half-model making helped guide the boat builders so they could make sure that the customer understood the kind of boat they were going to get," said Nancy Solomon, executive director of Long Island Traditions, a nonprofit history group that specializes in maritime heritage and has an exhibition on historical boatyards underway in Port Jefferson, where Hale will demonstrate his craft Aug. 3-4. "But it also served as a physical artifact that many boatbuilders considered part of their heritage."

Though Hale said boatbuilders "had nautical drafting and naval architecture since at least the 1700s," Solomon noted that "blueprints were used much more by higher-end boatbuilders." At the height of Long Island boatbuilding, there would have been dozens of builders along the shoreline using the half-model techniques from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s, she said.

Some custom wooden boatbuilders still carve half models for the traditional purposes and then present them to the owners of the boats they build. But Hale has little company carving half models as stand-alone projects.


Skillful shaping

In pursuing his form of traditional folk art, Hale works with some historical tools such as small shaving planes, but much of his work embraces power saws and sanders.

He sells to people who have boats and want a folk art replica, and to those who just like maritime folk art. Hale charges $75 for a painted clamboat, and sailboats start at $125.

The models are rarely carved from a single piece of wood. "That would take a lot of time, and it's bad for your wrist," Hale said.

There are various methods for making a half model using layers of wood. Traditionally, layers are screwed or glued together horizontally to outline the shape of the hull. Then, after rough cutting the layers, they are disassembled for finishing.

Hale prefers to carve the whole assembly together. "It takes way too long to cut those pieces down," he said. "I'm very skilled with the disk sander and grinder, and I've created modified special tools to do this."

Hale starts with a photograph or drawing of a boat and then uses architect's proportional dividers to calculate the dimensions for the desired scale of his carving.

Once he has his assemblage of wood layers, he uses flat wood patterns to trace the side view on one side and the top-down view on the top, and make initial cuts in the shape of the hull on his electric band saw. Then, he'll spend a half-hour or more with an electric disk sander, then start doing finer work with the hand planes and finishing with hand sanding, repeating the cycle as necessary.

Hale uses various types of easily shaped wood -- primarily mahogany, spruce and poplar. He prefers old recycled wood. "It means taking less trees down and it looks good," he said. "It's got tighter grain usually."

In Hale's skilled hands, a foot-long model of a garvey -- a local powered workboat -- takes about an hour from start to finish since he has already made the wooden pattern. The larger 3-foot-long traditional America's Cup sailing yacht models that are his passion take about six hours to fashion.

For models of specific sailboats with precise lines, Hale will check his potentially finished work against the original dimensions. But for workboats with variable designs like the Great South Bay garvey, Hale has another barometer.

"I know when to stop -- when it looks right."



To see more on shore


Boat half-model carver Christopher Hale will demonstrate his craft at a maritime event Aug. 3-4 in Port Jefferson.

His appearance is part of an exhibition sponsored by the nonprofit history group Long Island Traditions, whose "From Shore to Shore: Boat Builders of Westchester and Long Island" is on display at the Port Jefferson Village Center in a restored building at the former Bayles Shipyard at 101 E. Broadway. It runs until Sept. 2; hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission to the exhibition and program is free.

More information is available at or at 516-767-8803.

For more information on Hale and his half models, he can be reached at -- BILL BLEYER

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