Retired McMurray man uses expertise to build model ships

June 19, 2017
Image description
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
James Drake of McMurray holds his latest project, a model of the sailing ship Berlin. A tool and die maker by trade, he applies the precision he used in his work to the models he builds in his retirement. Order a Print
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Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
James Drake of McMurray points to the spot where he will be installing fabric sails onto the rigging, the next step in building his model of the ship Berlin. Order a Print
Image description
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
James Drake of McMurray shows the spot where he will be installing fabric sails onto the rigging, the next step in building his model of the ship Berlin. A tool and die maker by trade, Jim applies the precision he used in his work to the models he builds in his retirement. Order a Print
Image description
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
James Drake of McMurray shows the wood strips that had to be bent to form the hull in building his model of the sailing ship Berlin. A tool and die maker by trade, Jim applies the precision he used in his work to the models he builds in his retirement. Order a Print

James Drake is a model guy, of sorts.

Macaque in the trees
James Drake of McMurray points to the spot where he will be installing fabric sails onto the rigging, the next step in building his model of the ship Berlin.
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter

The 85-year-old Peters Township man builds model ships, and his basement workshop is filled with replicas of famous wooden tall ships.

His ship-building hobby, which he took up in 2007, takes patience, a steady hand – and a lot of time.

“It usually takes between 600 and 2,000 hours to finish a model,” said Drake, who keeps a detailed log of the time he spends on each model.

Drake’s passion for model building started when he was young.

Growing up in Lincoln Place, near Allegheny County Airport, Drake made model airplanes and tanks, and he built and flew radio control airplanes.

“All of my life, I’ve built models,” said Drake, a tool and die maker who retired from Daugherty Tool & Die Inc. in Buena Vista in 1994.

“I’d build anything just to build.”

His first boat kit was Bluenose, a celebrated racing ship and fishing vessel built in Nova Scotia in 1921.

Macaque in the trees
James Drake of McMurray shows the spot where he will be installing fabric sails onto the rigging, the next step in building his model of the ship Berlin. A tool and die maker by trade, Jim applies the precision he used in his work to the models he builds in his retirement.
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter

Once he completed it, he decided to continue.

“I think it’s fun to do. I’m sure not everything thinks so,” laughed Drake.

Drake’s tools are stored neatly in the wooden toolbox he used at Daugherty, and supplies and blueprints are organized on tidy work tables. Among the tools of his trade are razors, pliers, tweezers, vices, files and scissors.

Building models, Drake admits, appeals to his fastidious nature.

“Everything has to be accurate, it’s very detailed, and everything has to be just right. I’ve worked real close-up at my jobs,” said Drake, who also spent four years as a machinist in the U.S. Navy. “That’s just how I am. I’m particular. It’s almost a handicap.”

Kits, which can cost upwards of $600 (Drake always waits for them to go on sale), arrive with raw materials and a set of instructions. It’s up to Drake to size, sand, cut, soak and bend the wood, tie the rigging, assemble masts and build cannons.

To date, he’s built models of seven ships, including the USS Constitution, the oldest original ship in the United States, now dry docked in Charlestown, Mass.; the USS Niagara, once commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry and an important part of the Battle of Lake Erie (a “Don’t give up the ship” banner hangs above the model); and the HMS Victory, the Royal Navy’s most famous warship, launched in 1765. It is the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission.

Macaque in the trees
James Drake of McMurray shows the wood strips that had to be bent to form the hull in building his model of the sailing ship Berlin. A tool and die maker by trade, Jim applies the precision he used in his work to the models he builds in his retirement.
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter

Drake is currently working on a German tall ship called the Berlin, built in 1675 and propelled by sail and oar.

When the Berlin kit arrived, Drake faced a hurdle: instructions are written in Italian, which Drake is not familiar with.

“I can’t read Italian,” said Drake. “I convert for millimeters and I follow the diagrams. You wouldn’t want this to be your first ship.”

For the Berlin, Drake has taken on a new challenge. He is making the ship’s sails.

“It’s a new adventure. I’m getting help from my wife,” said Drake.

The models, which often contain more than 1,500 pieces, are impressively intricate and accurate.

Drake typically works on projects for a few hours at a time, taking breaks to do yard work and jobs around the house.

“It will be the fall before I’m done. You just can’t do this for hours and hours at a time,” said Drake. “I’m just lucky because my hands don’t shake yet or anything. I’m still chugging along.”

For Drake, building model ships has given him an understanding of the complexity of building ships centuries ago, and an appreciation of the men who sailed them.

“It just amazes me to think how, in the 1600s, they built a thing like this,” he said. “It’s almost incomprehensible. What they accomplished without computers and modern tools is incredible.”

He traveled to Erie to see the replica of the USS Niagara, anchored at the Erie Maritime Museum, and drove to Massachusetts to tour the USS Constitution. Drake is awed by how closely the models resemble the tall ships.

Drake still occasionally flies radio control planes, and he has been “playing with a drone,” which he said “is good for the hands and the mind.”

But right now, building model ships has become a passion.

“If you do it right, everything fits and it’s satisfying,” said Drake. “I don’t have any pieces left over.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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