Model citizen gets ship shape
St. Clair Shores man with eye for detail nears completion of Bramble replica

By STEPHEN TAIT
Times Herald
August 23, 2009

ST. CLAIR SHORES -- Herman Chapman sits in the basement of his ranch home wearing a plaid, short-sleeve shirt with shiny snap buttons and a pair of thick black glasses with bifocals.

Dwindling white hair covers the sides and back of his head -- the top of which is bald and freckled.

On the sawdust-coated table in front of him, dozens of small tools and paint brushes are scattered about. In the middle sits an intricate one-eighth-scale model of the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bramble.

It isn't a plastic model born from a box bought at a dime store. This is Chapman's own creation -- carved from wood and detailed with countless, tiny boat parts positioned on the model ship exactly as they are on the real thing.

And despite its impressive detail, it's weeks or months from being a finished product.

The 82-year-old isn't positive, but he said the Bramble is the 42nd ship he's built in more than six decades of work.

"I can't even remember them all," he said.

It may seem like a low production rate. But consider this: Chapman puts months of research into each ship he builds, tirelessly hunting down original blueprints, bid sheets and photographs of the vessels.

Then, for months at a time, he sits in the basement of his St. Clair Shores home -- where a heater keeps him warm and a radio keeps him entertained -- and whittles.

"When I get going I spend six, eight hours a day down here," he said.

Chapman's work is a local treasure.

Fourteen of his model vessels are on display at the Huron Lightship in Port Huron -- a miniature history of the lightships that have served on the Great Lakes. Several others are at the Port Huron Museum.

Jerry Rome, the lightship's manager, said the models are "priceless."

Through the years, Rome said regular offers to buy the models have rolled in. Professional model ship builders stand amazed at the work, he said.

"The last one commentated that he could never afford to put the detail on the ships that Herman does and sell them," he said.

Chapman said he sold one ship, the Columbia, and, "afterward, I was a little sorry I let it go." 

Not only does Chapman know it would be difficult to put a price on something that takes years to make, but he said he doesn't want the ships to go to someone who doesn't appreciate the ship.

"People do so much talking," he said, "But they don't really know the history of the vessels."

The Bramble model is destined for the ship, which is docked at the Seaway Terminal in Port Huron. It's a gift to its crew, Chapman said.

Chapman, a retired electrician, served in the Navy, but his love for model ships started when he was a boy.

He said he used to buy the "real cheap models" from the store "but I didn't have enough research." He said his father didn't have a wood-working shop, so he started with a knife and block of wood on the front porch.

Chapman's house -- particularly a back room and the basement -- is home to about dozen or so ships.

"I've got my own little museum," he says as he walks down into the basement.

There is the J.T Wing, a tall ship, the HP Chapman, the Centurion. There is a model of the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw 2, the Detroit Edison and the George A. Sloan, a project that took Chapman a year each for the boat and the equally daunting device used aboard for unloading.

There is the Wilfred Sykes -- a model that is about 6 feet long -- and the Louis McLane, the Great Lakes' first lightship. There is also the John Kendall, a steam-powered fire boat used in Detroit.

Each of the boats is replete with detail. The Kendall, for instance, has axes hanging from some places and hoses running here and there.

Passenger boats -- the South America and Tashmoo -- have small lines serving as the deck railings, chairs positioned just right on deck and life boats tucked away just so. Beyond that there are benches, life preservers, portholes and stairways. The only thing seemingly missing is 1/8 scale people.

DELICATE TOUCH: Herman Chapman of St. Clair Shores holds a block and tackle for a scale model of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bramble.
STEADY: Herman Chapman works on a scale model of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bramble in the basement of his St. Clair Shores home. The model is expected to be finished next year. (Photos by RALPH W. POLOVICH, For the Times Herald)
LOOKING GOOD: Herman Chapman works recently on a scale model of the U.S. Coast Guard Bramble in the basement of his St. Clair Shores home. (Photos by RALPH W. POLOVICH, For the Times Herald)
DOING HIS HOMEWORK: Herman Chapman of St. Clair Shores does plenty of research before starting a model ship, including gathering photos, drawings and bids.
Herman Chapman

Chapman makes the small parts for historical accuracy.

A bookshelf in his basement stores dozens of binders. 

On the spine of each of the at least 35 books is the name of a ship or two. Inside is the information Chapman used to get each detail just right: the angle of the lines from the bow to the mast, the position of the cargo on the middle deck.

Chapman said the research is the key to the success of the models.

"If you don't do that," he said, "you're sunk."

Take the Louis McLane, for instance. The vessel is the first lightship in the Great Lakes, but the information for how she was built eluded Chapman for 10 years.

The ship was the missing link in Chapman's series of light ships on the Great Lakes. Chapman said after a decade, he finally contacted a museum curator who had a bid sheet for the McLane.

"That got me going," he said.

And he's still going today.

Though an octogenarian, Chapman said he's not ready to stop building ships yet.

"It keeps you going," he said. "If you can get your mind busy and keep going, then you're all set."

Contact Stephen Tait at (810) 989-6275 or at stait@gannett.com.