main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

Ships Built to Scale

The Role of the Models

Sailors in the U.S. Navy put in long hours to maintain and preserve their ships from the effects of the elements and time. They chip and paint, scrape and sand, and replace worn out parts to keep these national treasures in a constant state of readiness.

In similar fashion, Don Preul, the U.S. Naval Academy's curator of ship models, leads a team of more than 20 volunteers to painstakingly preserve more than 5,000 ship models in the academy's museum collection.

The models serve as a tool to teach the thousands of midshipmen at the academy and the general public the rich heritage of the Navy and its evolving ship designs. The academy inherited its collection through donations.

In 1935, Army Colonel Henry Rogers, an avid ship model collector, bequeathed 108 of his personal models to the academy. There are 50 original "dock yard" models in the collection spanning 200 years of shipbuilding. The oldest dock yard model was built in 1650 and is a model of a British third rate. Rogers' will required that his collection stay at the academy and that the collection would maintained. Since 1937, there have only been four curators of the collection.

Another notable ship model is the "Saint George of 1701." The 312-year-old ship model is the most pristine model for its age at the museum. It has not had any repairs and has been in its original case since 1701.

The museum also has 35 "prisoner of war models" constructed during the Napoleonic Wars. French sailors carved ship models from their beef rations from memory. They used the bones to carve and made glue from the hides.

Preul and his volunteer team check each model, clean it, and make minor repairs as necessary. Each model takes anywhere between one to four weeks in the museum's ship model workshop.

"I have a great volunteer group to support what our mission is at the museum," said Preul. "We are here for the midshipmen to understand their role as future leaders."

Midshipmen can see where men like John Paul Jones, or Oliver Hazard Parry served. Preul said the museum exists primarily for educating and inspiring the visiting midshipmen. They are able to use the models to compare and study ship designs that have evolved from the early 1600s to the late 1900s.

"We hope they look back into the historical aspect of these models...and see what these guys actually accomplished... and say, 'Yeah, boy, I want to emulate this type of leadership.'"

Preul inspects and dusts the models, then cleans them. In true military fashion, he said best method to clean a wooden ship model is old-fashioned spit-and-shine.

"I have a method that I've been using for years now," Preul said. "I take one square inch. I brush it with a soft brush and I observe the one square inch. Then I move on to the next square inch."

Peter Gutterman has been volunteering to help preserve the ship models at the academy's Ship Model Society for three-and-a-half years. He has never served in the military, but his father served in the Navy during World War II, and this is his way of serving.

"We're here because there are guys who served on these ships, guys like my dad," Gutterman said. "And, the guys who are serving now. You are who makes this happen for me. So, I am happy to be of service in preserving this for you. This is my way of giving back and saying, 'Thanks.'"

Ensuring the models are in their best shape, ensures history is being preserved for the midshipmen and the public, Preul said. For Preul and his volunteers, ship model building and preservation is more than a hobby. It involves research and artistry.

"It truly is an art," Pruel said. "You work with every type of medium and you're recreating a piece of history."

Preul also said the models in the collection are one of a kind and irreplaceable.

"I can't give a monetary value to them," he said. "Because they are invaluable."