This past spring, Rebecca decided to scratch-build USS Cumberland as a ship-in-a-bottle. Since some folks have expressed interest in seeing how she did it, today we embark on a 2-part Mewsing about the process. It all began in the basement of Civil War Tails…
Some time back, while cleaning up the basement, Rebecca found an old glass bottle, still with its porcelain stopper mechanism. Well, ever since successfully assembling a ship-in-a-bottle kit, any time she sees a big bottle, she immediately envisions putting a ship in it. This one, with its character and age, practically begged for a ship. On April 10, 2022, the time had come. But which ship? Rebecca finally decided on USS Cumberland, which CSS Virginia (Merrimack) rammed and sank on March 8, 1862—the day before the Confederate ironclad faced USS Monitor. Someday we hope to build a diorama of Cumberland being rammed, and this project allowed Rebecca to do the preliminary research and measurement calculations.
First, she had to figure out how big the ship could be. The bottle’s base has a diameter of a little over 4 inches, with thick glass sides, so she decided that ~3.5 inches should work. When the scale calculations were finished, Cumberland’s hull came out to be 3-3/8 inches long, with the height of the masts about the same. But the width of the hull was 3/4 inches, and the opening of the neck is only 5/8 inches in diameter. Because of the masts, dividing the hull down the middle was not an option, so she made it in three pieces: a middle and two sides.
With a kit, the model is completely assembled outside of the bottle. Then the masts fold down, the ship slides into the bottle and is glued down, and then the masts are raised by pulling on the few remaining long strings of rigging. On Cumberland, Rebecca drilled holes in the masts and made hinges out of wire, allowing the masts to fold astern. They folded every-which-way because of how the wire “hinges” were placed, but it turned out that allowed space for all the spars, sails, rigging, fighting tops, and other masts to get out of each other’s way in the narrow neck.
The masts are made from a bamboo skewer that was cut and shaved down to the correct sizes and dimensions. It turned out that the scrap pieces were perfect for shaping into spars. An unexpected bonus was that bamboo is somewhat flexible and forgiving, so the spars could bend without breaking as they squeezed into the bottle.
Adding the sails was next. But would all the fabric fit through the neck of the bottle? “We’ll find out!” Since everything needed to be flexible enough to fold this way and that, Rebecca had to choose which rigging to include and which to leave off, as too much would hinder the free movement of the spars. We mentioned earlier that pulling on the rigging raises the masts. In the picture, note the thread running from the top of the mizzen mast (the little mast on the stern) forward to the mainmast, then to the foremast, then to the bowsprit. Each mast has one. But those threads don’t get tied at the bowsprit. A long length is left that will reach outside the bottle. This way, tugging on them will pull on the masts and raise them. Then, a dot of glue on the bowsprit will anchor the thread, and the excess can be cut off. With Cumberland, there were quite a few stays running between masts and on to the bowsprit. That meant a lot of threads to keep track of and run out the neck of the bottle.
After finishing the rigging and sails, Rebecca did a dry run of fitting the hull into the bottle. The collapsed ship reminded her of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. During the process, one corner of a sail pulled off the spar below, a thread of rigging nearly shredded apart under the strain, and one bit of rigging that tied the mainmast to the mizzen prevented the two masts from collapsing properly. The issues were simple to fix, and it was time to move on to the final touches.
The final details: painting the hull, making the flag, and making the anchors. (Not until after completing the ship did Rebecca realize she had not painted the hull correctly. But she wasn’t about to try and reach a paintbrush into the bottle to fix it!)
Finally, the big moment had come. But would the ship successfully make it into the bottle? Would Rebecca be able to navigate inside the bottle to finish it? Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out!