Jim Plante skillfully guides a 3-by-3-inch chunk of wood through a band saw, producing what look like square-ended Popsicle sticks. Another pass and the sticks are reduced to coffee stirrers. Eventually they become impossibly thin—one-quarter-inch wide by one-eighth-inch thick—and are ready to become deck boards for a miniature replica of the 19th-century clipper ship, the Great Republic.
“Just like slicing baloney,” says Plante, a model shipwright in Rehoboth, Mass. (pop. 11,159), who has crafted more than 50 ships ranging in size from 18 inches to 12 feet.
It will take about six months of steady work to re-create the Great Republic, far less time than it took to build its sizeable seagoing predecessor. Yet Plante will be working with something the original shipwright could only guess at—an understanding of the ship’s place in history. The first Great Republic—at 300-feet, the largest clipper ever built—never unfurled its sails. In 1853, it burned to the waterline in New York harbor, and though it was eventually rebuilt, its dimensions were far smaller.
“Each ship has a history,” says Plante, who has turned down offers to build modern-day ships. “Researching them is like playing detective. That’s the most satisfying part.”
Plante’s unusual vocation arose when he was laid off from an engineering job in 1989. To fill time, he decided to build a ship model from scratch. No stranger to the ocean, he had spent his childhood boating with his father on Narragansett Bay and did a stint on a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat. But clipper ships (used for hauling cargo) and whalers (used for hunting whales) were what most intrigued him.
“The clippers were big and heavily rigged,” he says. “They were the race cars of the seas. I think the Moby Dick movie got me interested in whalers.”
His first model—a whaler fashioned from ancient whalebone and ivory—was displayed in a friend’s store window and sold immediately for $7,500. Today, some of his models, commissioned by private buyers or corporations, can fetch 10 times that amount.
But before a single plank is cut, Plante begins researching. He tracked down the plans for the HMS Britannia in Scotland while the Republic’s plans came from the book British and American Clippers. Most early sailing ships were insured with Lloyd’s of London, from whom he often obtains the ships’ manifests.
After a thorough investigation, Plante builds a plywood framework, then painstakingly constructs it out with exotic woods such as padauk or ebony. No detail is overlooked, right down to the microscopic “nails” in each plank that he fashions out of tiny brass rods. Some ships are highly ornate, like the USS Constitution with its copper hull and elaborate painting. Plante’s wife and shipwright partner, Lynda, tackles the detailed painting and yards of rigging.
Rhode Island businessman Steve Barlow has three of Plante’s models, including the whaler, Kutusof, which stumped the shipwright at first. Paintings depicted the ship with a bow that was too stubby for a clipper but not as stubby as a whaler. At the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Mass., he discovered the Kutusof had actually begun life as a packet ship, a forerunner of the clipper.
“One of the things that sets Jim’s work apart is accuracy,” Barlow says. “You can get your nose right down on the ship and see it—the way the knots were tied, the belaying pins. You know it’s true to what it was.”
His love of history even led him to team up with Rehoboth’s museum, the Carpenter Museum. In 2003, he unveiled his small-scale diorama of the Mason Barney Shipyard, which for 60 years during the 19th century was the town’s largest employer. Plante helped raise more than $10,000 to cover the cost of creating the model, which featured Sparkling Wave, a clipper built at the shipyard 150 years ago.
“A lot of history is written or pictorial,” Plante says. “Some people can’t conceptualize history that way, so I’m putting history into three-dimensional form for them.”