Model Boat Building Documents the Past

When you ask a model boat builder why they do it, the answers are usually the same – the people are interesting – and the hobby is challenging and fun. The Eastern Shore has many model boat builders – previous sailors and powerboaters who have caught the hobbyist and/or racing bug.

“There are some very skilled model builders on the Mid Shore who have a phenomenal grasp of boat building and boat building technologies,” comments Gary Nylander, treasurer of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Model Guild and Commodore of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Model Sailing Club, who has been involved with model boat building for over 20 years.

Gary Nylander, of St. Michaels, has been involved with model boat building for over 20 years.

Gary attributes these hobbyists’ interest to their experience on the water. “Most people who get into model boat building used to own boats. Those who race model sailboats and powerboats used to race sailboats and powerboats themselves, developing boating skills and tactics,” he adds.

At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM), model boat builders have two options. They can join the museum’s Model Guild and/or the Model Sailing Club, both of which started in the 1980s. The CBMM Model Guild has about 40 members. Members help build exhibits at the museum and produce model boat kits for the museum’s store, including the Lark, a sailing crabbing boat; a Smith Island crab skiff; the Martha, a local workboat, and a model of the Hooper Strait Light.

“These are exhibit models of boats and buildings which are local and have a relationship to the museum and the Chesapeake Bay,” Gary explains.

Members of the Model Guild also share information on the projects they are doing and participate in offering classes to the public. For CBMM festivals, the members create kits of a workboat and skipjack for kids to assemble and float in a pond created on the grounds of CBMM. The guild sells about 100 boats at each festival. “It helps teach kids how boats are made and how they work – either by sailing or powering them,” he adds.

These five-foot Chesapeake Bay skipjacks raced in 2020 COVID-restricted regattas held by the CBMM Model Sailing Club. The club hopes to continue that same format for 2021.

The CBMM draws around 45 nationally known boat modelers/ship artists from the Mid-Atlantic region to the Maritime Model Boat Expo held in the spring or fall of each year, featuring “live” steamboat models, skipjacks with working sails, speedboats, tugs, and other radio-controlled miniatures. The guild assembles a 40 x 70-foot pond for the boats to be demonstrated. The exhibit displays range from Chesapeake-style craft such as skiffs, sailboats, crab and oyster boats, to historical ships, motorboats, and much more. The techniques used to build these craft range from established shipbuilding skills from over a century ago to more modern techniques such as photogrammetry.

Ed Thieler, a well-known model boat artisan, has facilitated scheduling the modelers and their displays at the expos. His appreciation of this modeler/artist community is the heart and soul of the festival. “Putting these boats on display is rewarding as we can spread the word about the water-based culture and history of the Eastern Shore,” Ed states.

A retired orthopedic surgeon, Ed needed something to do with his head and his hands after he retired. First, he volunteered with the Murphy brothers, watermen in Tilghman Island who were rebuilding the skipjack, Thomas Clyde.

CBMM’s model of the Martha workboat is made by the Model Guild and sold through the museum’s Store. A smaller kit version is being developed.

“Later, I began working on a model skipjack and became familiar with the small wooden boat plans drafted by Howard Chapelle of Cambridge, renowned marine historian and board member of CBMM. I realized I could preserve history by making model boats based on his plans as well as other local plan sources. Some of Ed’s models are the only three-dimensional representations of these now extinct boats. It is remarkable how these people figured out how to make boats,” he adds.

“It’s been instructive and educational for me. Moving to the Chesapeake Bay and learning about the whole way of life, based on these small crabbing skiffs, I have met many hard-working, innovative people in the process. The boat plans led me to people and the people led me to the boat plans. I hardly ever made the same boat twice,” he quips.

Ed has built between 20 and 30 scale model boats to date – many known for their incredible detail. He also became interested in the Smith Island outboard crabbing skiff and helped develop the kit now sold in the CBMM store.

In addition to the Model Guild, the CBMM Model Sailing Club has about 25 members who are interested in racing model sailboats. This club focuses on racing radio-controlled one-design type of boats in Tuesday regattas in the summer months on Fogg’s Cove. The club focuses specifically on racing five-foot-models of Chesapeake Bay skipjacks, originally drawn by a Solomon’s Island model boat builder in 1980. Other styles of boats are also used. The appeal of racing model sailboats is increasing with the mass production of plastic ‘almost ready to sail’ kit boats that are gaining popularity among model sailboat racers.

“Local yacht clubs are hosting model sailboat racing to keep members engaged and excited about boating. Many of these people used to race their own sailboats before they aged and are no longer racing full-sized sailboats, but still have the interest,” comments Gary.

“There are all different sizes, scales, and interest levels in model boat building. We encourage people to come and check us out. It is a very rewarding hobby.”

Both the CBMM Model Boat Guild and Model Sailing Club are looking for new members. To join both, or either, people only need to be members of CBMM and sign up as a volunteer. There are no dues for the Model Guild, which meets on Monday mornings at CBMM. Dues for the Model Sailing Club are $20 a year. While knowledge of woodworking is encouraged for the Model Guild and knowledge of sailing and tactics is helpful for the Model Sailing Club, neither is required to become a member. The Model Sailing Club hopes to continue its regattas on Tuesdays, starting in May.

For further information about either the CBMM Model Guild or the Model Sailing Club, contact Gary Nylander at 410-310-0929 or email Or visit

~ Written by Amelia Blades Steward.

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