McCulloh Steen is a former industrial arts teacher, now into his sixth year of retirement. He has a wife, a house in the country, an apple orchard, and a basement workshop.

But inside the mature citizen, one suspects, is a wide-eyed little boy who has just discovered that most mysterious and fascinating of objects: the ship in a bottle.

Any kid, seeing a proud tall ship in full sail captured inside a whiskey bottle, will be, first, struck dumb with amazement, and secondly, full of questions. ("Wow! How did they do that?") By now Mac Steen knows all the answers -- he's been making the model ships since before his retirement -- but some of that youthful fascination remains.

The hobby is a demanding one, requiring a steady hand, tireless eyes and plenty of patience, but he still finds it wholly absorbing.

"You start working on one of these, and as you get halfway through each model you're saying 'Why am I doing this?' " he admits with a laugh. "But it's like a challenge. I always want the next one to be better."

Mr. Steen is a member of the Ships-in-Bottles Association of America, a fraternity of about 400 model-makers. There are eight Maryland members, four of whom are showing their work at the Top of the World Museum, on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center in the Inner Harbor. The exhibit, which also features ships by William Cronin, Michael Moriarty, and William Westervelt, will be on display through Oct. 31.

There are affiliated societies in Europe and the Far East; although the earliest known bottled ship was created in Germany in 1837, seafaring men spread the craft around the globe.

"In Japan, they put the ship in in reverse," Mr. Steen points out. "Our ships are all put in with the bow facing the hole, but theirs go in the other way. I guess it's like the British driving on the left side of the road."

Many ship-in-bottle makers have carved out their own niche in the field.

Bill Cronin, a retired oceanographer for Johns Hopkins University and the Chesapeake Bay Institute, is an all-around expert on life on the Chesapeake. Naturally, his bottle specialty is Chesapeake Bay boats: old-fashioned styles, such as log canoes and the pungeys once used for oystering, and historic boats such as the Peggy Stewart and the Defence, Maryland's first warship. Mr. Cronin, who lives in Annapolis, also makes simple ship-in-a-bottle kits, which he sells at crafts fairs.

Michael Moriarty, an employee of the U.S. Naval Academy, is known for his scrupulous realism. His ships are based on vessel plans which he researches in the academy's museum. Mr. Moriarty is responsible for the tiniest ship in the show, which is nestled in a doll house-scale bottle.

The magnificent creations of William Westervelt of Hampstead, president of the Maryland Chapter of the SIBAA, are among the (( show's most detailed; one of his bottles includes not only a ship, but a lighthouse, trees, and sea gulls.

Mr. Westervelt has been a bottle-shipwright for more than 30 years. "We had a lot of children, and I knew it was an inexpensive hobby," he says, explaining that he built his first ship in the formula bottle that came home from the hospital with his baby daughter.

"What you don't have, you can make. The only thing that limits you is your imagination."

He is well-known for seeking out wood from the ships themselves with which to build his models. One example is the Star of India, an 1863 barque now berthed in a San Diego museum. When it was restored, he was able to obtain pieces of the original deck.

Elaborately rigged ships of the Cutty Sark ilk, which have taken the fancy of many model makers, hold little enchantment for Mr. Steen. Like Mr. Cronin, he is attracted instead to the work boats of the Chesapeake Bay, from the swift clipper privateers of the early 19th century, which harried British merchant ships, to the sturdy skipjacks used by Maryland watermen.

"My grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, ran away from Scotland as a boy and sailed the old windjammers," he says. "He was a son-of-a-gun. He wound up in Baltimore, and became what you'd call today a born-again Christian. He became a minister down in the Port Mission."

On the other side of his family, he continues, his great-great-grandfather Joseph Despeaux was an 18th century Baltimore shipbuilder whose portrait hangs at the Maryland Historical Society.

His wife, Phyllis, also hails from a nautical family. She was born in Crisfield, where her family owned a fleet of skipjacks.

When Mr. Steen caught the bottled-ship bug, he discovered that kits were a rarity, information scarce, and tools non-existent. He learned the craft mostly from books -- he recommends "Ships in Bottles: A Step by Step Guide to a Venerable Nautical Craft" by Donald Hubbard, president of the SIBAA -- and developed some of his own techniques.

His experience teaching wood and metal shop courses came in handy when he began making the necessary long-handled tools. He also uses a variety of dental tools.

Although ships-in-bottle makers joke that the most enjoyable step is emptying the bottle, most of Mr. Steen's bottles are gifts from friends. His basement is stocked with bottles, from airline-style miniatures to a five-gallon antique bottle purchased at a local auction.

The ship-building process has many steps, and is too intricate to go into in detail. But it begins with a "blank" of basswood, cut, shaped, sanded and painted to look like a miniature hull. The work is done while the ship is screwed firmly onto a cross-shaped pine frame.

Masts are made of toothpicks, broom-straw, or bamboo kebab skewers, trimmed to the requisite thinness. Each mast has a piece of floral wire lashed to the bottom. These wires are %J threaded through tiny holes drilled in the hull, and bent over underneath to secure them.

The rigging is made of thread, and the sails of tracing paper, painted with watercolors to give them the requisite grubby patina. The "lines" are threaded through the tiniest of holes drilled in the hulls, masts and spars; the leftover thread is left long, and taped to the crossbar of the pine frame.

Before the ship can go in the bottle, the "sea" must be installed. Some craftsmen use colored modeling clay; Mr. Steen makes his sea from narrow strips of wood, topped with heavy foil which has been crinkled and painted to imitate waves.

Now it's time to put the ship in the bottle.

The sails are tightly rolled. The masts can be flattened against the deck, thanks to their hidden wires, and the spars fold sideways. With everything collapsed, the ship presents a surprisingly small profile, allowing it to be slid into the narrow neck of the bottle.

Once the ship is installed, the sails are hoisted by pulling the long ends of the rigging threads. Different long-handled tools are used to get the boat shipshape, to add glue to hold the lines in place, and to snip off the excess thread when the glue has dried.

Working several hours each day, Mac Steen might take three weeks to a couple of months to finish a ship. While some craftsmen have been very successful selling their work -- one, Gil Charbonneau of Maine, sells his ships for $2,000 to $10,000 apiece -- for most it's a labor of love, not a living.

"I just love these old bay boats," Mr. Steen says. "It's a shame, because they're going. It may sound corny, but it's like I'm trying to capture time and put it in a bottle."

Bottle-shipwright demonstrations

The "magic" required to put a ship in a bottle will be revealed Oct. 5, 12 and 19, when representatives from the Maryland chapter of the Ships-in-Bottles Association of America present Saturday workshops on the venerable nautical craft. The bottle-shipwrights will demonstrate some of the processes they use, and talk to visitors about their craft and their organization.

The workshops will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Top of the World Observation Level and Museum, where an exhibition of locally made ships-in-bottles will be on display through Oct. 31. Top of the World is on the 27th floor of the World Trade !B Center, 401 E. Pratt St. at the Inner Harbor.

The event is being held in conjunction with Baltimore on the Bay, a festival celebrating Baltimore's maritime and seafood heritage.

The workshops are free with admission to Top of the World: $2 general, $1 for senior citizens and young people 5 through 15. Children under 5 are admitted free. Top of the World is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays.

4( For more information, call 837-4515.


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