PIRACY in the HIGH “C’s”: THOSE (MUCH TOO) EXPENSIVE IMPORTED SHIP MODEL KITS
Charles O. McDonald
The following excerpt which appeared in the Nautical Research Journal and Ship Modeler's Shop Notes is reprinted here to give guidance to builders who desire to construct accurate and representative ship models. This material is as applicable now as when it was first written. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Nautical Research Guild.
by Charles O. McDonald
Nautical Research Journal, Volume 28, Number 4 (December 1982)
In recent issues of NRJ, our editor (Merritt Edson), voicing what I assume is not solely his concern, has written of expensive imported ship model kits of doubtful or deficient authenticity and difficult or unsatisfactory constructional methods, most notably kits of the plank-on-bulkhead sort. Such kits are all too often bought by novice or naive modelers who expect what, despite loving care in the building, the kits frequently can-not deliver; a good and true ship model. Since the prices of these kits can reach $1400 or $1500 or so, and since their packaging suggests a certain initial plausibility and even a certain "deluxe" way to arrive at an imposing end-result, it is important that the prospective purchaser realize just what is at stake in laying out 10 or 15 "C" notes for such goods. It is to that end that the present account, ultimately to focus on Sergal's Sovereign of the Seas kit, but with relevance to many others of the same sort, is written. No names are changed to protect the innocent, because there are, seemingly, no innocent.
I. Expensiveness is no Guarantee of Anything
All ship model kits are a compromise between a manufacturer's desire to make a profit and his (presumed) desire to supply its buyer with materials that, with care, will produce a good model. If these motives conflict, the second will almost always be sacrificed to the first - and by unscrupulous or uncaring manufacturers unconscienably so. But a buyer should be able to expect certain things: basically reliable research and plans, practical building techniques, and satisfactory materials are minimal expectations when the cash outlay is hundreds, or even a thousand or more, of dollars.
Equally, some things cannot be expected of any kit. The very best ship models are mostly unique "one-of" products of highly skilled professionals working on subjects neglected by kit producers or from data more extensive than a kit manufacturer could be expected to, or could afford to provide. This is understandable for several reasons. First, all kits are by nature multiple versions of the same subject with no claim to uniqueness apart from extra detailing or remedying of research deficiencies the individual kit builder provides - and too often the kit and its supplied materials are the be-all and end-all of the builder's efforts. Second, the time a manufacturer devotes to the production of a kit is a major cost factor for him and ties up his research, design and production engineers and plant facilities, as does his materials cost, to the extent of a considerable initial investment before he ever sells a kit. Therefore, he faces a natural economic bind in which something will have to give; any or all of the factors mentioned may suffer; materials shorted, research skimped, untested methods of construction suggested, plans unscaled in certain respects (often to take advantage of fittings from other kits), etc.
Perhaps the least pardonable manufacturer's offense, though it may be the most frequent one either through ignorance or haste or both, is neglecting research and producing inauthentic fittings or plans which the inexperienced assume are correct. For any deficiency in materials of a kit can be made up by the dedicated builder, if only the research and resultant plans are right. But mistakes in research concealed by conjecture or perpetrated in ignorance are not often caught by the inexperienced, and oven the builder who knows something is wrong may be at a loss where to look to rectify it. Besides, kits give an illusion of being authoritative about their subjects. Why, the buyer thinks, would anyone mislead him? The foregoing remarks are designed to indicate why it happens through ignorance, necessity, or downright sloppiness and a knowing intent to cheat.
Manufacturers can provide good kits and improve them as new data becomes available - the Model Shipways line of American kits is an outstanding example - or they can produce more an illusion of quality then the thing itself - which seems to be the way of many of the presently available European kits in which "special fittings" (themselves often inauthentic) are sprinkled lavishly over a model the basic configuration of which has not had anything like proper attention to research for authenticity (a few models are of wholly imaginary ships for which a bogus advertising "history" has been concocted out of whole cloth). Such latter kits are the purest (or impurest) of rip-offs. But even those of named ships of undoubted historicity are often sadly misrepresented in the versions now available - the kit price is no index to their fidelity to their subjects.
These kits represent a "new approach" to the problems of kit production indicated above (and some others), but it is an approach that seems to meet them all badly, let me explain.
Kit buyers want a base from which to start, with much of the hardest work done (research, plans, fittings, materials, etc.) and this the manufacturer must supply willy-nilly. If he meets the demand well, the price will be high and profit modest; if he leaves too much to the builder, despite his ability to lower price he may scare his buyer off - "too difficult." This dilemma adds a further dimension to the problems already indicated and has bred the kind of kit we are concerned with, which seeks to achieve the best of all possible worlds, high price, buyer appeal, and, at least, a suggestion of authenticity; only in the last category does is fall, but it fails there resoundingly. The manufacturer's faulty reasoning may be represented thus:
(2) The kit subject ought to be highly intricate and ornate or give the appearance of being so, and thus the choice of early 17th century ships with elaborate carvings which can be made up as "special fittings," and though requiring no real skill on the part of the modeler (except enough to glue and fasten them in place) give an illusion of uniqueness, since most such early models are rare and reside in museum collections. Hence, the Sovereign of the Seas, the Soleil Royale, the Vasa, etc. of the new kits, and almost all based on questionable research. The practice ignores the fact that much more intricacy, research, and real skill (indeed, an amazing level of each) are demonstrated in modern models of relatively "simple" ships - Lightly's 18th century bomb ketch in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich or Hahn's recently completed Hancock, to name only two examples, both real plank-on-frame models.
(3) In all respects the model should look complex, whether really so or not. Here the kit makers seem intentionally to have gone astray, particularly in rigging. These kits, especially the Sovereign of the Seas examined in detail below, are a mass of inauthentic and fanciful leads, out-of-scale blocks, deadeyes, tops, spars, and so forth. Indeed, it is not too much to say that virtually every lead of line shown on the out of scale Sergal plan for Sovereign is wrong, and that a novice or relatively inexperienced modeler would have no way of knowing that to a knowledgeable eye he was stringing up an enormously elaborate counterpart to the "galleon" model Aunt Tilly won in a 1930's raffle at St. Sulpicia's Festival for the Bald and has kept in a place of honor (or dishonor) on the mantel ever since. Further, to make matters worse, certain errors cannot be corrected, no matter what the modeler's intent, unless he is aware of them beforehand.
Sergal is not the only offender here; virtually every European manufacturer of note is equally guilty to varying extents, and all share the same failings: plank-on-frame construction with the real difficulties of planking - such as following sheer lines, tapering of planking, and use of stealers - virtually ignored; ornate carvings and fittings of dubious authenticity or simply out-of-scale or both; and highly elaborate "rigging" often out of scale and mixing the conventions of several centuries, or countries, or both, and sometimes with no rhyme nor reason nor function ever known to a real sailing ship.
Only extensive research or familiarity with sailing ships could redeem such hodgepodges, and the prices charged for these kits lull the buyer into thinking such effort unnecessary, that the designer was not just a production engineer, but a ship enthusiast. After all, for $1495 . . .
Such a situation deserves strong protest and exposure to keep beginners, and even those of advanced modeling techniques, if not historical knowledge, from being victimized and thereafter swearing off one of the most fascinating, challenging, and instructive of all hobbies. Further, such exposure is necessary to prevent such models, however skillfully but uncritically executed, from creeping into the collections of the wealthy but uninformed and casting a pall of suspicion over the genuinely authentic efforts of highly skilled artisan-historians who do really recreate the past in their more sophisticated models. "Calling things by their right rather than their wrong names" is the duty of any conscientious historical ship modeler, and the best will always seek to do just that in their work insofar as they are able.
II. The Kit That Launched a Thousand Tirades:
Sergal' Sovereign of the Seas
The author continues on for six pages commenting on specific deficiencies in design and production of the kit. You may order a photocopy of the article or the entire back issue (subject to availability). Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for confirmation and pricing.