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Prisoner of War bone model c. 1800 by shipmodel - restoration by Dan Pariser

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Hello to all who followed me here from my prior build log of the James B Colgate, and to all those who are interested in the bone and ivory ship models made, mostly, by the French prisoners taken by the British navy in the Napoleonic wars.


I was recently asked to repair an attractive example of the type that had some substantial damage over the past centuries, as well as suffering some repairs, good and bad.  In this log I will detail my progress and, in addition to some techniques that I have used before, I will ask for additional ideas from the collective wisdom of our community here.


So here she is in the photographs sent for me to consider doing the restoration.  I asked for digital shots of the entire model and close-ups of the damage.   First, the overall look, including the wooden base, the primary damages, and the large glass case.




With the case removed you can see the extensive damage.  The bowsprit, mainmast and mizzen are all clearly broken and the associated rigging in disarray.  The balance of the standing rigging seems to be mostly intact except for the mizzen stay which is broken just below the crowsfoot.  Sitting on the base are the flag and staff for the stern.




In close-up here is the bowsprit, with the jib boom broken at the level of the bowsprit cap and the Y-shaped martingale hanging, literally, by a thread.  I don’t recall seeing that type of martingale on any of the POW models whose photos I have seen.  Even at this stage I thought it was probably a later replacement.




The mainmast was snapped just below the crosstrees at the base of the t’gallant mast.  From the way the rigging lines retained the kinks and bends I was pretty sure that they had been hardened in some way.  This could indicate that much of it might have to be removed and replaced.  The mizzen was similarly snapped below the t’gallant top.  In addition the mizzen t’gallant mast was snapped as well about halfway up its length, just where the hole was drilled for the t’gallant lift.  Here the rigging was also kinked, but more worrying was the mass of overlapped rigging lines around the doubling.  I have seen this before when prior restorers have simply looped new lines over old ones and glued the mass together.




Based on these pictures I gave the client a very vague ballpark idea of the cost of repair to see if he was serious about going forward.  I told him that if he was, I would need to see the model in person and evaluate it in detail before giving him a firm price.  After a few months of thinking about it he brought the model to my Brooklyn studio and left it with me for examination.  In this posting I examine the hull and its fittings.


The model was uncased and the glass cover removed. It was made of ¼” thick fish tank glass and I was surprised at how heavy it was.  By my bathroom scale it weighs some 19 pounds!  This probably contributed to the damage. Anyone lifting the cover will have a hard time unless he is prepared for the sudden weight.  Trying to lift it clear would be difficult and the lower edge might well have contacted and broken the tops of the masts. 


In any event, the model matched the photos, which is not always the case.  With the jib boom in approximate place the model measures 15 ½” x 12” x 4”.  By measuring the spacing between ratlines (3mm) and the height of the bulwarks (11mm) and the height of the rope rail amidships (15mm), I determined that the approximate scale is between 1/80 and 1/100.  I could not be more certain because none of these has a standard height and the modelmakers were not quite exact in rendering them.  Two of the cannon and their carriages were loose, and a third was found detached on deck.




The hull and deck are planked in bone with ivory (elephant or whale tooth is unclear) making up the balance of the structure and carved details.  She carries 40 guns, 12 in each broadside on the gun deck, 5 on the quarterdeck, 3 on the forecastle.  This is a lot for what appears to be a small ship.  She is certainly not a match to any of the 40-gun ships in my library.




She sits on a series of wood keel blocks with a larger built up central cradle.  Three metal pins, two seen here and one in the center, go through the blocks and into the baseboard.  When received the model did not sit vertically, but listed a bit to starboard.




Ahe bow there was a nicely carved figurehead of a female bust with a Greek-style helmet and a pugnacious expression .   It  looked to me to be in the wrong place, slid down below the hair rail.  Behind it was a mass of greyish putty hiding some additional damage.  There was a similar mass on the port side




Despite its small size the lower gun deck cannon are made to retract.  Here they are retracted, then extended.  The retraction mechanism can be seen through the open main hatch.  The cannon barrels are mounted on a moveable wood strip.  The client also sent a video taken of the interior through a borescope.  It is poor quality but it does show the presence of some springs which would push the cannon out.  Unfortunately the cords to operate the system are missing.




On deck just ahead of the mizzen mast is a carved seat for the officer of the deck.  This is a particularly French detail, even though the model carries English flags.  The locations for the detached cannon can be seen against the far bulwark where the prior glue has yellowed.  Hidden behind the rigging is a metal post where the capstan should be, and a single stand for the ship’s wheel, although the wheel and second stand are missing.




A ship’s boat hangs in davits at the stern.  The thwarts for the boat have been repaired before with a glue/varnish that has yellowed with time.  Just ahead of it is a curved boomkin for the main yard brace, but no lines are tied to it.




The rudder is clearly a replacement.  It is too thin and too white, while the pintles and their straps are not properly set on the rudder.




That was my detailed examination of the hull.  In the next segment I will document the detailed examination of the masts and rigging.  Lots of problems, as you might expect.


Be well, stay safe.



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Hi again to all, and thanks for the comments and interest in this restoration.


After reviewing the hull I turned to the masts, spars and rigging.  The news was both good and not so good.    First, to get an idea of what the model was like when she was built, I examined the best of the remaining masts and rigging, the foremast.  Here are some photos of the details and some of my conclusions.  Of course there are lots more of both, but that would take too much time to relate here.


The foremast is well-proportioned to the ship and has several bands of woolding as would be proper.  The fore spar is hung on jeers although there is no parrell, just a simple sling.  It carries stun’s’l booms on each end.  The shrouds are well-proportioned to the mast and the ratlines are appropriately thin.  They are spaced at 3mm intervals, which also seems right.  The deadeyes are carved from bone, 3mm in diameter, and generally well rigged.  The forestay and preventer are correctly sized, with bone hearts and collars.  They are even snaked together.  A crowsfoot is laced with brown line to a bone euphroe on the stay.




The fore topmast looks correctly sized, as does the doubling. However the mast cap has a through tenon, which is English practice, which contrasts with the French deck bench noted in the last segment.  The fore course yard and topsail yard are rigged with lifts and braces, but no sheets or sheet blocks.  There are nicely done futtock shrouds and upper shrouds with ratlines.  Although extremely small, the ratlines appear to be rigged with clove hitches.




The t’gallant mast and spar are well done, as are the two bone crosstrees.  Here can be seen some of the prior repairs.  The lower topmast stays (the lowest ones in the photo) appear to be original.  They show a lay to the line and are served and seized as they go around the doubling.  The four other stays all have fairly crude ties and seizings, with stubs of the seizing line sticking out.  A gentle feel of the various lines confirmed that the upper ones are smooth and new, rather than the older, original ones.




The main stay is original, as is the preventer stay below it.  They are rigged with a proper mouse and eye on each with fore topmast braces and blocks tied to them.




However, the hearts and collars are damaged.  The preventer stay collar has been replaced with a line of the wrong size, the wrong color, and which goes under the bow pinrail, causing it to kink.  It is seized to the bowsprit with a very crude knot. The main stay heart and collar are missing entirely.




The mizzen stay is also original but broken completely.  The several lumps on it are probably evidence of prior repairs that were less than successful.   The crowsfoot is completely torn and the euphroe detached.  I was provided with it in a separate envelope.  You can also see that the sling/parrell line that should run from the lower mizzen yard jeer to the mast is broken.




I believe that there were several sets of repairs in the past.  For example, here are the main lower shroud deadeyes.  The forward three are completely original, with bone deadeyes, the upper ones properly turned in and the lanyards appropriately sized and laced.  The aft four have had the upper deadeyes replaced with metal castings.  I thought that the rough look to them was lead bloom, but it turned out to be only the paint used to try to match them to the original bone color (whew!).  I believe that this was the earlier of the repairs, since the lanyards of the two on the shrouds match the original ones and are properly laced.  I believe that the aft two on the backstays represent a second repair since the lanyards are different and are incorrectly laced and tied off below the lower deadeyes.




I found the same situation at the main mast.  The topmast shrouds and deadeyes appear to be original, but the backstays are a completely different quality of line.  The lifts look original but the upper stays are replacements with crude siezings.




Viewed from behind I could see that there was a huge mass of mounded lines around the head of the topmast.  This was where the original backstays were simply cut loose, leaving some stubs of line that can still be seen.  The replacements were looped over them and glued in place, making a mess that may have contributed to the break.




Although the main topmast shrouds seem to have survived, the same was not true for the mizzen topmast shrouds.  The break was offset to port, so those shrouds were not stressed.  The starboard ones were not so lucky.  The forward two parted company from the futtock shrouds at the level of the top.  The aft one held on at the lower end, but broke at the masthead.  As a result all of the ratlines between the second and third shrouds parted.




In addition to these issues, a fair number of the rigging lines did not run to their proper blocks or tie off to proper locations.  For example, the main yard brace is misplaced, since it should run to the stern where there is an eyebolt and boomkin, but just ties off amidships.  This and other evidence convinced me that at least one of the restorers did not know how a ship was rigged.


After long discussion with the client about whether the model was worth the cost of restoration, he decided to go forward.  We decided on a cost based on leaving as much of the current rigging, right or wrong, in place, but replacing what was needed and cleaning up the rest.


With this understanding I very gently started to wiggle the broken pieces to see what could be retained and what had to be removed to get the pieces back into proper orientation.  At the bow the jib boom could be gently manipulated to get the heel of the break to meet the head of the lower piece, but it would not straighten out.  Several of the lines had shrunk and prevented it.  I found that the shrunken lines were not original, but were part of some of the prior repairs.  I believe that the glass cover had created a greenhouse effect that ‘cooked’ the lines over time and shortened them enough that they may have actually broken the boom.  Note that the forestay and preventer, both original lines, are not taut.




Unfortunately, even the original lines have been cooked.  Even a gentle brush of a finger against the fore preventer stay was enough to break it in two places.




I immediately stopped all touching of the lines until I could figure out how to deal with the cooked rigging.   In the envelope of loose parts was one small deadeye with a piece of the original shroud still around it.  I went to remove and examine the stropping only to find that it did not unwrap, but crumbled.  The line was much more brittle than I anticipated and weaker than any I had run into in prior restorations.  This will be a major problem if it cannot be corrected.




So here is my first question to the group - - what method do you think will work to strengthen the lines and make them more flexible so that I can work on them?  I am considering taking distilled water and painting it onto the lines to open the fibers, then a second coat of thinned white pH neutral PVA glue.  Has anyone done this before, or successfully used another technique?


In the meanwhile I have turned to fixing some of the hull and fittings issues noted in the first build log segment.  I will detail those next.


Until then, stay safe and well.




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Hi Vaddoc - 


Unfortunately not.  The amount of additional work involved would have increased the fee to a point where the client would simply junk the model.  

I have a particular fondness for the bone and ivory models and I didn't want that to happen, so we reached a compromise.  I will do what can be done without stripping it to the sticks and starting again, which may well be a solution for the next generation of ship model restorers, if there are any.



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In this case I would think CA glue, which has actually been used previously in this model and can be removed with debonder. PVA glue might work as well. I wonder if varnish could be an option. Also, in the past I have used women's hair spray to preserve dried flowers, it works very well, it strengthen them and prevents the fragile leaves from falling apart-(is it a form of lacquer?). Maybe it would work.

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Hi Vaddoc - 


Yes, all good ideas.  I will be experimenting with cyano, PVA, shellac and other glues and finishes.  I worked with hair spray once on some scale trees in an architectural diorama which were losing their leaves.  It worked quite well since I could spray it gently using several coats.  I recall that it dried a bit stiff, but that was not a problem in that setting.


I'll report my findings soon.



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Hi again to all.


I spent yesterday working on things other than the rigging.  First I did some cleaning.  The hull and deck were pretty clean, being protected from dust by the case.  I still wiped them down with some distilled water, no soap or solvent was needed.  As a mop I used half of a cotton swab in a drafting pencil handle.  It is important to use the kind with a paper shaft rather than the plastic one.  As can be seen in the picture, paper ones can be bent so it sits flat with the handle angled up so it can reach through spaces in the rigging.  In this configuration it also can slide under deck fittings like the bitts and pinrails.




The metal tool is a plaque scraper that I got from my dentist.  There are lots of dental tools and supplies that transfer easily to ship modeling.  I asked mine to set them aside when he was going to replace them anyway, and he was happy to do so.  I used it as a scraper for the dried glue and it worked quite well.  Here are the spots where the three loose cannon came from, and the same area after scraping.   I went around the ship, as much as was possible, and removed the worst of it where possible. 






After cleaning I worked on the ship’s boat.  It was detachable, so I did not have to worry at all about touching the rigging.  Here it is, as received, hanging in the stern davits.  I was a bit concerned that the thwarts were replacements since they do not appear to match the color of the boat’s hull.




I gently bent the hooks open and slid the boat off.  Now I could see that the thwarts had been glued in with the same stuff that was scraped off the deck.




From this angle it was even more evident that the thwarts did not match, either in color or in the quality of workmanship.  Their ends are ragged and they do not sit perpendicular to the centerline.




The dried glue was little obstacle to removal of the thwarts using only gentle leverage.




The inside of the boat’s hull was scraped clean and the thwarts sanded lightly to remove discolorations.  With a few tweaks of the ends they were straightened out and levelled.  I reattached them using small drops of gel cyano glue.  It is the best that I have found for bone-to-bone, and bone-to-ivory, connection.  It is stronger and more rigid than PVA, drop for drop, so I can use less and not leave a glue mound.  It is also very clear and stays that way, at least over the 35 years that I have evidence for.  But it can be brittle, so where the joint will be under strain I also give it a second thin coat of PVA as a shock absorber.  That was not necessary here.




I think the boat is much improved.  I just hope the rest of the repairs go as well.




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Hi all - 


Thanks for the likes and comments.


Phil - I am pretty well convinced that it started out, two centuries ago, as a nice example of a POW model.

It has many of the characteristics that I have seen in many museum pieces and under all the restorations there are well-crafted and delicate details.

Construction methods match those described in the several books on POW models that I have.


Druxey - the HMG glue sounds interesting.  I will look into it.  Do you know where I can buy some online?



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1 hour ago, Roger Pellett said:

That the guys that built these were able to create anything resembling a ship is amazing.  They worked in primitive conditions with hand tools, and inadequate lighting.  If their results look crude by today’s standards that understandable.

I have the pleasure of owning a copy of  Prisoner of War Ship Models by Manfred Stein, While some of them are a bit crude in their appearance others are exquisite works of art. Like Navy Dockyard models many of them were built by committee and by some of the finest craftsmen of their day.

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Hi all - 


Druxey - yes, and thank you .  I have ordered some of the glue and will test it with the others that I have.


Roger -  the conditions of French POWs was not usually that dismal.  Yes, the prison hulks were not pleasant, but you do not abuse the enemy's POWs or he may retaliate against yours.  In fact, towards the middle of the period most of the naval POWs were housed in large camps like Norman Cross.  Think "The Great Escape" or "Hogan's Heroes" rather than "The Bridge on the River Kwai".  Officers could give their parole and live outside camp in nearby villages.  All sorts of activities and athletics were permitted.  There is even evidence that there were fencing lessons.


The British also believed in having the prisoners keep busy, so they allowed them to make all sorts of handicrafts, not just ship models.  There were bone spinning jennys, bone guillotines, and straw work of all kinds, like this jewelry box.









The POWs were allowed on market day once a week to sell their wares to local customers at tables outside the camp stockade. 




They also sold to merchants and brokers in larger volume.  Since they did not have labor costs, and did have lots of time, they excelled at making time consuming products like lace and straw hats.  This trade grew so great, since they could easily undercut the competition, that the English lacemakers and straw hatters petitioned Parliament for help and the POWs were prohibited from making them.


If you can find it, this is the bible on the POW arts and crafts.





Stay safe.



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Hi again to all –


As you can tell, I really like POW models.  I first ran into one at an antiques show that my mother dragged me to when I was about 10.  I found that it was pretty interesting looking at old artworks and furniture.  But a large, intricate, bright white model of a sailing warship captivated me.  When I was told that it was made of bones and rigged with human hair, I begged my mother to buy it.  I have no idea why she decided not to  spend $7,000 (about the cost of a good car back then) on such a simple request.  In the 60 years since then I have learned many things about them, such as that they were not actually rigged with hair, and that I still can’t afford one.


I do get a bit of satisfaction in restoring them for others.  I have been fortunate enough to be given this pleasant task several times.  Each is its own unique fine art object, and each has its unique set of restoration puzzles to be solved. 


For this one I spent that past two days trying to solve the hull puzzles.    The easiest one to access was the small triangle at the gripe where the wide stem plank had lost its point.  It had been repaired by replacing it with a piece that was much too white for the surrounding bone planking.




I removed the offending triangle with a dental pick.  It turned out not to be ivory, as I expected, but was actually a hard plastic.   Not very original.  The old glue in the corners was removed with the pick and the tip of a hobby knife.  




To fill the hole I used the ivory top of a piano key.  I have a small stash of ivory, most of it whale tooth ivory, from when I was playing around with scrimshaw.   It was also too white, but unlike the plastic I could change it.  Many years ago I came across an article that recommended using used coffee grounds as an ‘aging’ agent for ivory.   Fresh grounds have too much acid and volatile chemicals to use for this.  I have used the method before with good results.  Here is the key with its left end having been buried in damp grounds overnight.  




After drying out, a piece of the stained side was cut and fitted.  It was installed with PVA since it is mounted on the wood of the stem.




I next turned to the figurehead.  It had obviously suffered some serious damage in the past.  Although the figurehead itself was in pretty good shape, the area behind it was missing all of the hull planking.  It had been crudely filled in with a putty of some kind that was tinted grey or had aged that color.  As I said in an earlier post, I also did not like where the head was fitted.  My understanding is that the back of the bust’s head should be at the level of the topmost rail, which is why it is called the ‘hair rail’.  This bust was mounted at least ¼” too low.




Using rotary tool I carefully ground away the putty.  I used a flat bottomed bit to help insure that I would not unintentionally dig too deep into the original substance of the model.  With the putty mostly removed I found that the entire tip of the stem was a replacement, being a separate piece of wood carved to fit.  Removal of the putty also revealed a hole in the shoulder of the bust, probably indicating where a separate arm once fit.   It was while taking this photo that I realized that there was a gap between the bust and the scroll which the bobstay runs against.




On the port side the putty was similarly removed.  It revealed a clearly broken end to the upper planking.  It must have been quite an impact to do that much damage.  But the bobstay appears to be original and shows no break or repair.  How that could be possible I don’t know.  The loose lines that are in the photo are some replacements that ran to the incorrect and broken martingale.  They were soon removed to keep them from getting in the way.




I thought about moving the bust up to its proper place and then carving a middle piece, perhaps a dress, out of ivory.  But the bust would not come loose with gentle leverage, so I left it in place.  All I could do was to fill in the open spaces with new planking.  To take the shapes needed I laid on some translucent tape and drew the outlines.




The tape was laid on the aged ivory and pieces cut out.  I drilled holes for metal pins that would help secure the pieces to the hull.  These are for the port side




Here they are test fit, ready for final shaping.




And here they have been glued and pinned in place.  I also carved a rounded wedge of ivory to fit in the gap below the bust.  This is the finished port side




And the starboard side.




I’m considering scratching some ‘grain’ into the ivory to make it look a bit more like bone, but that may be a bit on the obsessive side.  It’s still an option.


Stay safe



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On 2/11/2021 at 3:34 PM, shipmodel said:

Yes, the prison hulks were not pleasant, but you do not abuse the enemy's POWs or he may retaliate against yours.


Residents of British prison hulks during the American Revolution would beg to disagree, though I defer to your superior knowledge in this case. Why were the French treated so much better than the Americans?

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The British considered Colonists (Americans) who revolted to be traitors, and treated them accordingly ... and often appallingly. (ref; the Paoli massacre, where Redcoats surprised and encampment of U.S. soldiers in the pre-dawn hours and bayonetted them rather than take prisoners.)  The fight between France and England, on the other hand, was not a revolution (revolt against divinely ordained authority) - but a 'civilized' war (England and France had many wars over the centuries over a variety of political squabbles) between established (recognized) 'Nations'.  Tut-tut, cheerio ... mum's the word.


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Cathead - I think Johnny has it right.  It was a mostly question of respect for a long time adversary rather than anger at traitorous colonists.  This was especially true for sailors, who all understood that their true enemy was not the other fleet but the sea herself.  The other issue was one of numbers.  The land armies of Napoleon and those of the various opponents, Russia, Austria, Spain, England, etc., generally captured about equivalent numbers of soldiers, so exchanges could be arranged on more or less equal terms.  However, the British Navy captured more French sailors by several orders of magnitude than the French captured English sailors.  Equivalent exchanges could not be arranged, so the sailors had to be held for much longer periods of time.  The British did not want to hold them, and feed them, as evidenced by the wholesale emptying of the POW camps and repatriation of prisoners whenever there was a 'peace treaty' between the countries.  Captains Hornblower and Aubrey are always concerned that they will end up on the beach without a command whenever that happened.


Barkeater - I have some bone, but it is in large chunks and is much more difficult to work with since it has dried out completely and tends to snap.  For these small areas I chose the ivory as being easier to work without much difference in the look of the final repair.    


I am waiting on the delivery of several kinds of glue/finish products and will report on their suitability when they come in.


Till then, stay safe.



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Hi to all - 


I am back in the shop today and the glues and finishes that I ordered have arrived.  I will experiment with them in the next few days and report on my findings.

In the meanwhile my client has located some documents from when his uncle had the model repaired in 1956.  Here is a photo that the uncle sent to the Mariner's Museum in Virginia asking for information.




Notice that the damages are very similar to those that I am repairing - broken bowsprit, main and mizzen masts.  The entire figurehead area is missing.  I do not know if the bust that is on the model was original or if it was added.  The museum was not too helpful, but eventually he located a restorer named C.M. Smeltzer, Jr. at a company called Authentiscale in Metuchen, NJ.  I could not find any existing information on either the man or the company.  In any event, they reached an agreement that the repairs would cost $210.00 with an additional $40 for a case.  I don't know what that converts to in 2021 dollars.


I do not have a photo of the model after repairs and before the current damages, but my client is still looking.


More soon.


Stay well






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