Technology in hand, model maker builds on history of craftsmanship

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At Built To Scale (BTS), a handful of artisans fashion a myriad of tiny detailed parts into, among other things, vessel models. The shop, a kind of computerized Santa’s workshop free of snow and dwarfs but stuffed with tools, materials and models, is nestled in a pastoral setting east of the picturesque community of Fairhope, Ala., on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore.

“There are about 45 model builders that are in the same league as us, especially when specializing in marine models,” said BTS owner Matt Aubrey. “And of those, only a handful that have the production capability that we have.”

In 2015, Aubrey bought the business from his father-in-law, Randy Skinner, who founded Skinner Models some 30 years ago. The Skinner shop established a legacy in the model-building community, primarily creating one-of-a-kind re-creations. Skinner, also a commercial shrimper, has moved on to design trawl systems that minimize damage to the sea floor and reduce protected by-catch.

For 25 years, Aubrey was a land surveyor, construction engineer and construction superintendent, predominantly employed building bridges and highways. He also worked for Skinner building models for a couple of years before acquiring the company.

Built To Scale owner Matt Aubrey uses a 3-D printer to make model parts such as spotlights and bulbous bows. The company complements computer-aided design and production with hands-on craftsmanship.

The scope of BTS extends beyond the marine industry to include the automotive and aviation industries and the architectural community. It also includes constructing 1:1 models of equipment for trade shows, projects that are driven by the cost savings and efficiency realized by handling light models of heavy equipment.

One of those models was a hybrid electric generator for BAE Systems, Aubrey said. It would have been costly and cumbersome for BAE to transport an actual 900-pound generator from trade show to trade show, then hire expensive staff to set it up on the show floor. The model weighs 27 pounds (127 pounds in its case). Two people can roll the model to the booth.

“The manufacturer mistook the model for being the actual generator,” Aubrey said. On another project, BTS built a trade show model of a 15,000-pound anchor winch that weighed in at 100 pounds.

“We can do the crating and create custom displays including the lighting,” Aubrey said. “It all depends on how much the customer wants us to do.”

Stephanie Kurz sets up the CNC laser cutter to fabricate small replica winches. The device can make precise cuts in plastic as fine as a strand of human hair.

Vessel models measuring 24 to 36 inches with a reasonable amount of detail cost from $7,500 to $8,500. Those that are about 8 feet long with a lot of detail, such as the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), cost $20,000 and up.

BTS also built a model of the carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-80) — a story with an interesting background. The founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Jack C. Taylor, flew an F6F Hellcat fighter from the deck of USS Enterprise (CV-6) during World War II, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Navy Air Medal. He named his company after the vessel. Enterprise Rent-A-Car contracted Skinner Models to build a 1:350 scale version of CVN-80, the new 1,106-foot carrier under construction at Huntington Ingalls in Newport News, Va. The vessel will be composed in part with recycled steel from CV-6’s namesake successor, CVN-65, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which was decommissioned this year.

Subsequently, Enterprise contracted BTS to build six more models of U.S. Navy vessels bearing the name Enterprise since the Revolutionary War. The first four ships were sailing vessels built in 1775, 1776, 1799 and 1831. Next was a steam screw sloop built in 1874. The sixth was a 66-foot motorized wooden-hull patrol boat built in 1917. BTS also built a model for St. Louis-based Enterprise of USS St. Louis (LCS 19), a Freedom-class littoral combat ship being constructed by Marinette Marine.

A model of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 80) is displayed in the Built To Scale workshop. Enterprise Rent-A-Car has contracted the company to build seven models of U.S. Navy ships bearing the Enterprise name.

BTS’ list of clients since Aubrey took ownership of the company runs to 32 companies, including Austal USA, BAE Systems, Bay Shipbuilding, Dann Ocean Towing, Maersk Lines, Foss, Harvey Gulf International, Eastern Shipbuilding, C&C Marine, Cummins Mid-South, Jeffboat, Mid Ocean Marine, Savage Services and Robert Allan Ltd. Some of the projects have involved restoring antique models and building models of individuals’ personal vessels.

As with most things, the process is much more automated than it was when Skinner founded the company. “The detail work was a lot more involved back then, and we still do some of that,” Aubrey said. “We will make a two-part mold and do a casting to make multiple replications of a part that can be used on similar size and type models.”

Today, there is computer-aided design (CAD) software to create three-dimensional files that are fed into a computer numerical control (CNC) router, a CNC laser cutter, and 3-D printers to form the components that are assembled into a model.

Even so, there is still a great deal of handcraft involved in the modern process. BTS craftsmen Michael Dana, Bill Brewer, Ed Shultz, Alan Willcutt and engineering technician Stephanie Kurz quietly go about the business of drafting, cutting, shaping and assembling high-quality models.

Michael Dana organizes tiny vents that will be affixed to barge models for Savage Services. Dana and Bill Brewer handle most of the finish detail work for Built To Scale.

The model-building process begins with general arrangement drawings, profile drawings and line drawings. “We use AutoCAD and SolidWorks software to produce a three-dimensional model from the drawings,” Aubrey said.

Next, hull sections are milled out of rigid foam using the CNC router. The sections are glued together and the assembly is overlaid with fiberglass.

The decks and bulkhead sections above the waterline are cut out of ABS plastic or vinyl sheets with a CNC laser cutter. The device can make cuts and openings in plastic that are as fine as a strand of human hair, in any shape that fits inside the laser bed.

“In conjunction with shaping the hull on the CNC router, and making the smaller parts with the CNC cutter, we are also making small three-dimensional parts such as bitts, winches, capstans and stacks with the 3-D printers,” Aubrey said.

Fabricated triple z-drives await installation on a pushboat model for C&C Marine.

BTS uses two types of printers for the 3-D work. One is an extrusion type that melts solid material and distributes it in layers that are one ten-thousandth of an inch thick. It also fabricates material for creating parts of a ship with sharp overhangs or interior voids, such as the bridge.

A second type of 3-D printer uses a liquid plastic support material to fabricate small, super-sharp and intricate parts such as engine components and machinery.

Then the hull is completed, primarily by Willcutt, all of the small parts are gathered, and the painting and finish process begins. The finishing is done primarily by Brewer and Dana. “Those two guys do 90 percent of the finish detail work to produce the end result,” Aubrey said.

Dana said the work can be tedious and repetitious, such as affixing 90 or more tires on a long crew boat. “You glue them on, one after another, until you get all the way around the boat,” he said. “But each boat is different, so it is always interesting.”

By Professional Mariner Staff