Photos by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — It takes two things to build a ship in a bottle: skill and patience.
National Ships-in-Bottles Day will be celebrated for the first time ever today, making one Kingsport woman very happy. She’s been building ships in bottles since 1999 and is the current president and editor of the Ships-In-Bottles Association of America.
Terry Butler’s love of putting ships in bottles blossomed when she was living in England.
“We took a vacation to Land’s End ... and we went in a little gift shop,” she said. “One end of the small gift shop had a wall of shelves, and the thing was loaded with ships in bottles, well-made ships in bottles. ... I saw that wall and I wanted to take the whole wall home with me.”
Butler and her husband, who was in the Air Force at the time, had a limited budget and could afford only one of the ships on the wall. Ever crafty, Butler decided if she couldn’t afford to buy the wall, she would make her own.
She made her first attempt at building a ship in a bottle in 1999. She found a book about the craft, but it confused her and some of the instructions in it were difficult to understand. So she called the publisher to see if she could talk with the author of the book.
The author and publisher turned out to be the same person.
Butler quickly found a mentor and, after getting her questions answered, she began building her own ships in bottles.
After a few years with the craft, she was asked by the studio producing the 2006 CIA movie “The Good Shepherd” to make the ships in bottles that would be used throughout the film. She sold some of her ships to Robert De Niro for his grandkids and taught Matt Damon how to place a ship inside a bottle.
In 2007, Butler was named president and editor of the Ships-In-Bottles Association of America.
Putting a ship inside a bottle is a multipart process.
The builder must find a bottle and choose a type of ship, being sure to measure the diameter of the opening of the bottle because the size of the hull of the ship has to be less than that of the opening of the bottle.
Next comes the building of the ship itself. The hull is first, followed by the masts, spurs and sails — all built separately. Holes are drilled in the hull where the masts go. At the base of each of the masts, a hinge is added to allow the sails to bend at a 90-degree angle. The masts and sails are added to the boat, and then thread is strung around them.
At this time, clay or putty must be added to the bottom of the bottle. (The choice of clay is twofold: to hold the ship in place and to represent the sea. Some don’t use clay at all.)
The masts are bent forward and placed inside the bottle. The thread is gently pulled to raise the masts, one at a time. The thread is then cut away, the cork added and the ship in a bottle is complete.
Butler said she can build a decent ship in a bottle in a week, if that’s all she’s doing. Usually, it takes her more time.
A few years ago, SIBAA began lobbying for a National Ships-in-Bottles Day. The efforts fell short every time and at one point the group decided to give it up. Then the first president of SIBAA passed away.
The association decided to try again, this time asking for the birthday of its first president. This time, the members got their d a y.
To honor the first National Ships-in-Bottles Day, members of SIBAA are doing a group build that starts today and runs through April. Members plan to post their progress and updates to the group’s Facebook page.