Miniature Magic

Putting boats in bottles is an ancient form of art that Dan McGuire has mastered, albeit with the occasional use of salty language
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Dan McGuire is a retired teacher whose California home could qualify as an extension of the Watercraft Collection at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum. But his latest obsession is coaxing tiny boat models into bottles.

He got the idea when he was a child, from a television show with “some old man of nautical ilk who hunkered over a bottle and was fiddling with lines running in through the neck,” McGuire says. “Then, like magic, he pulled on the lines and the spars of a clipper under full sail erupted in the bottle.” Someday, he vowed, he would pull a string to create this kind of magic. But this dream had to wait while he taught elementary school and later alternative education, showing students how to restore donated boats.

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Many years later, McGuire’s wife, Adrienne, gave him a children’s book about bottle ships. “[Dan] working on boats, whether 6 inches or 16 feet, is a good thing for both of us, even when foul language is bluing the air,” she says.

Over the years, she’d watched McGuire’s Backyard Boatworks take over the driveway, the garage, the porch and her garden. “Happily, for the well-being of our marriage, the boat room became available at about the same time the takeover of the kitchen table, the counter and my antique dining table became a real issue,” she says. “Picture upwards of 50 to 60 glass bottles, tiny saws, dental tools and blocks of wood. And everywhere, sawdust. I was beyond excited to move him into the room farthest from the rest of the house. No more boat bits in the salad.”

Finding good bottles, which are clear or lightly tinted with suitable openings, has become a chore, so McGuire trolls recycling centers and garage sales for old milk or syrup bottles. During these hunts, his gift for gab is an asset, netting, for instance, two bottles from a kind lady who told him her parents once used them to make home-brewed Kahlua. “Everything has a story,” McGuire says. “She was delighted to hear what the bottles’ next life would entail. It harkens to the day when sailors would see another ship at sea, sail towards each other and heave to, and gam.”

McGuire has received his share of high-end spirits in exquisite bottles. Sipping the contents helps him imagine what kind of boat might fit inside the elegant container someday.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when this boatbuilding craft came into its own, sailors often created bottle ships during off-watch in the fo’c’sle, where quarters were tight, lights were dim and circumstances were not exactly salubrious. They had to make do with primitive tools, driftwood and bits and pieces of detritus. Honoring this recycling tradition, McGuire’s ships consist mostly of recycled materials. “When I construct a vessel, it is important to use wood salvaged from an actual boat, ideally from the actual boat I’m replicating,” he says.

Clockwise from top left: Cockpit location is drawn; the hull of Tally Ho, a 1910 pilot cutter; Tally Ho is pre-assembled outside the bottle, then inserted.

Clockwise from top left: Cockpit location is drawn; the hull of Tally Ho, a 1910 pilot cutter; Tally Ho is pre-assembled outside the bottle, then inserted.

In a pinch, nice pieces of driftwood will do. To McGuire, it’s not about perfection, but authenticity. Boats and bottles can have nicks, dings, warts and wrinkles, just like the people who used them.

Finding vessels that inspire his models is an organic process aided by serendipity. Take the 1929 workboat David B., a desolate 65-footer McGuire noticed off Lopez Island, Washington. Years later, he read More Faster Backwards, the book about her revival and new career as a charter vessel. “Dan read about that and told us he wanted to come by,” Capt. Jeffrey Smith remembers. “He showed up with a pizza and beer and the David B. in a bottle.”

Typically, bottled boats “float” on a sea that consists of linseed oil, plumber’s putty and paint. The combination creates an opaque surface that hides the details below the waterline. To create a more complete view of the vessel as it surges through the water, McGuire pours Castin’ Craft clear polyester casting resin into the bottle in small increments. With each layer, “I try to estimate where the ship is actually going to rest and apply a modicum of white caulk in long streaks from the (position of the) bow, trailing to the aft end of the bottle.”

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To create the wake, he changes the bottle’s position and adds more layers, as needed. He says it’s a balancing act to position the ship correctly, so it looks realistic, “using tweezers, bamboo skewers, a lucky lean against the bottle, whatever it takes,” before pouring another layer of resin to secure the vessel permanently to the “sea.” After that, it is all about the “bone in her teeth” and stirring up a few whitecaps.

But there’s much to do before the boat gets  inserted through the opening and the neck of the bottle, or “crosses the bar,” as McGuire says. “Imagine what your boat looks like in length, beam and height,” he says. “Then think of the same vessel in terms of a stack of Legos. Each block will need to cross the bar easily. Width and height are critical.” He approximates the ratios to determine the length of the pieces corresponding to the vessel’s proportions and the dimensions of the bottle. He roughs out a topside view of the vessel and pencils in a side view on the block and the centerline.

Next, he drills vertical and horizontal holes, a surgical procedure for the pegs that hold the bitty pieces together. Using a band saw, he cuts the hull to shape in three steps: keel, keel to waterline, and then the topsides, seeking to hide the last cut behind a rubrail or other nautical detail. Then he inserts the pegs into the blocks and trims them flush. “If all goes well, I have a basic block upon which I can carve a vessel that keeps its integrity,” McGuire says, likening it to Michelangelo’s approach. “The statue was there; he just had to remove the rock around it. [But] I know I am not creating any ‘David’ here, just shamelessly pirating his process.”

The bottle boatyard, his inner sanctum on the sunny side of the house, is a creative clutter of boxes, boats, bikes and art, home to his workbench and an arsenal of knives, dental picks, tweezers, quivers, skewers, toothpicks, bailing wire, copper wire, spools of thread and whipping line, dental floss and small hand drills. For more advanced tasks, McGuire uses a tabletop drill press and a Dremel knockoff that can turn tiny drill bits to put tiny holes into a tiny spar. A mug holds his custom tools, like a long skewer with a wire cradle whipped to the end and cured with Super Glue. He designed that tool to hang a tender off a skipjack’s stern davits. For future projects, he’s experimenting with an old stovetop milk steamer for shaping mini-planks in a mini-steam box.

McGuire holds wood that might become a catboat model

McGuire holds wood that might become a catboat model

Using some of these tools outside the bottle, he builds spars and sails, which get permanently attached to the deck by a simple wire hinge, a miniature tabernacle. With sails furled and rig lowered to the deck, the whole assemblage can be inserted into the bottle.Then it’s time for the magic moment. “Once inside, the foreguy, which is connected to the mast, is pulled into position with a pair of tweezers to raise the mast and the attached sails,” he says. “Spars and sails are stopped in their proper position and rake by the stays.”

A drop of glue holds the foreguy in place, and an X-Acto knife trims away any excess. It sounds easy enough, in theory at least.  “It is usually at this point where I have been known to use less than appropriate language, as if it might help in some way. It doesn’t,” McGuire jokes. “I need to be quieter with my expletives. If seems that I swing in a pretty large arc between Zen-like bliss and raging hysteria. But I want to reassure you that it is not that extreme; it’s more like light comedy.”

With three grown kids and a teaching career in his wake, McGuire simply ran out of excuses for failing to take up this craft, which he believes is about honoring a vessel, her crew and her voyages. This hobby is his excuse for communing and giving, so others shall receive and get a chance to reciprocate, if they so choose. “Never sold a ship in a bottle, and don’t plan to ever do so,” he says.

McGuire defines priceless as the look on the face of a surprised boat owner who receives a model of his boat in a bottle. “I have sent my ships as far as Spain, and as close as across our street,” he says. “I feel it somehow binds me to a world that I believe needs more connections, free of personal commercial gain. It’s about the conversation, the story, the gam and the quiet, happy, insipid smiles we share.”

A small tug on Lopez Island inspired this miniature.

A small tug on Lopez Island inspired this miniature.

Getting into the Game

Building ships in a bottle is a rewarding process, but with few opportunities to hide mistakes from scrutinizing gazes, it requires a high degree of research, planning, patience and attention to detail. The concern for quality must be present from the first cut to the final touches, such as whipping the line around the bottleneck and sealing the cork in place. On the upside, there is little waste, most tools and materials are cheap, and the craft requires little more space than a good-sized and well-lit workbench or desk. Basic instructions can be found on YouTube, on various Wiki sites and with a bit more detail on madehow.com.

If reading how-to books is more your thing, here are a couple of options: Ships in Bottles, A Step-by-Step Guide to a Venerable Nautical Craft by Donald Hubbard, Ships in Bottles by Guy DeMarco, Modelling Ships in Bottles by Jack Needham, and two by Capt. Daniel Berg: Build a Ship in a Bottle and Shipwreck in a Bottle. Other sources of information include any one of the several vibrant communities of hobby builders that exist in the U.S., Europe and Japan, all with associations that publish newsletters and arrange competitions and exhibits.

If building from scratch isn’t your thing, there are kits of prefabricated vessels from Modelers Central ($125), and lower-end merchandise on Amazon. If building or assembling is not (yet) an option, online vendors happily sell finished bottle ships. Those vendors include Ships in Bottles in Georgia, the U.S. distributor for German manufacturer Buddelschiff Bini, which offers customized products with your choice of flag, logo and ship’s name. The products run the gamut from cheap and corny to “museum quality.” ­

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.