Nautical perfection on the small side

Jim Pendleton at work on is latest model. Photo by John Gold

June 2022

Story and photos by John Gold

Fans of E.B. White’s Stuart Little would be enthralled with the nautical creations that come out of Jim Pendleton’s cozy home in Buxton. And even those who don’t know of the tiny vehicles created for the author’s diminutive character will be fascinated by the detailed boat models Pendleton builds.

A native of the island of North Haven, Maine, Pendleton is the son of a farmer. Married to a former lobsterwoman who hails from the same island, he acknowledges she may have more of a nautical background than he does. Growing up they each owned 14-foot wooden boats, but today those vessels are long gone and the boats they own are measured in inches, not feet.

Despite that and the decidedly sylvan setting, Pendleton’s nautical chops can be seen in the intricate boat models he produces from small strips of pine. Dories, rowboats and lobster boats are his specialties. Their creation involves traditional boat-building techniques, including plank on frame as well as slab-sided dories that at full size would be stitch and taped plywood. The models, which incorporate tiny, painstakingly shaped, thole pins, ribs, gunwales, steering wheels, rudders, propellers and oars, fill shelves and a display case in his home.

There would be more, but many have been given away to family and friends over the years. Their two sons Leslie and Clarence each have a collection and others in their circle have been awarded boats over the years.

Pendleton, who recently turned 90, isn’t certain how many he’s made in the 15 years he’s been building the models. “Forty-five,” he estimates at one point. “One hundred,” Marjorie, his wife of 50 years, says later in the interview.

Marjorie, or Marj, as she prefers, introduced Jim to the hobby when she gave him a book on building model boats. It was a hobby her grandfather and father pursued, and, actually, Jim’s first boat was a dory that Marjorie’s father had started but never finished.

“He had two of them, all cut out, but not put together,” Marj said. “And so, Jimmy finished making those and we have pictures of our little boys sitting in them.”

The work came naturally to Pendleton, a retired Geology professor who at the time was running his own woodworking business, making furniture and other crafts like clocks, picture frames and creches.

The models, which run about 17 inches in length, are not built to a specific scale but to Pendleton’s sense of aesthetic.

“Most of what I do is, does it look good?” he said.

Each model begins as a pine board which Pendleton planes to his desired thickness and then, using a table saw, rips a series of planks in a shop outside his house.

Once done with the stock creation, the rest of the work is completed at a small card table placed next to a window overlooking the couple’s wooded lot. His tools are simple – a small vise, tiny hammer (once owned by Marj’s grandfather), some pliers, sandpaper, glue and an ancient jackknife that Pendleton has modified to serve as a nail puller.

The planks are soaked in ammonia in a PVC tube to make them pliable (“If it was a real boat, I’d be steaming these,” Pendleton says, noting the variation from traditional boat construction), then tacked to a nail-hole-riddled mold where they are shaped.

The process is painstaking. After each plank is fitted to the mold, it is allowed to dry for a day. Pendleton shapes two planks a day, one on each side of the hull.

Once dried, Pendleton removes the shaped planks, sands and trims them, applies a bead of glue to their edges using a syringe. The planks are placed back on the mold and nailed in place next to the previous plank.

He repeats the process until the hull is fully formed. He then removes the nails and then carefully pulls the hull from the mold. It is a fragile piece at this point, held together only by the thin glued edges of his planks. Pendleton acknowledges there have been accidents in the past.

At the same time, Pendleton begins creating the other components of the boat. Ribs are soaked and shaped over a different mold. Trim, gunwales and other details are fabricated, trimmed and sanded and then fitted to the hull. He also carves a pair of oars for each rowing craft.

Then the hull is sanded, faired using wood filler, sanded again and painted in a variety of colors.

The simplest boats, slab-sided dories, take about three weeks to complete. A plank on rib rowboat might take six weeks. A lobster boat will fill an entire winter.

Pendleton is modest about his creations and is quick to acknowledge that the designs come from plan books. Marj corrects him though, noting that he does make adjustments in the design as he sees fit.

He always has a boat in progress.

He turns to his current project, a partially completed plank-on-frame rowboat. As of this writing there are about 10 planks in place on the mold, each carefully numbered and identified. The ribs for the boat are being shaped over a separate mold. In a few weeks it will all come together as a completed craft, with its own stand, ready to be added to his collection, or given away to a lucky recipient.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “Some people don’t have anything to do when they get up in the morning. But not me.”

John Gold is the Art Director for Points East. As a child he enjoyed building models of just about anything and yes, he is a fan of E.B. White’s Stuart Little.