by Connie Bond
photography by John Allen
Down on the wooded neck between the Wye River and Greenwood Creek on Maryland's Eastern Shore lives a woodsman named Tom Willey. Not a woodsman in the olde English sense, with the pointed cap and an ax on his shoulder; but rather in the sense that he lives, breathes and would probably eat wood if he could. Which is great for the rest of us, because under the name of Wye River Models, Willey creates and sells kits of skipjacks, bugeyes, Hooper Island draketails, Virginia round sterns and other historic vessels of the Chesapeake Bay, which the rest of us can put together when lousy weather keeps us from the only other thing we'd rather be doing.
Willey lives with his wife Michelle, a schoolteacher, and two of their four kids (the older two are in college) in a cedar house under a canopy of beech and oak. By day, he's a trim carpenter and a builder of houses, including his own, and just about anything else made of wood. (When the waterfront gazebo at Washington College in Chestertown burned down, for example, he rebuilt it.) After a day's work and dinner with the family, Willey goes out back to his bright two-story workshop. Its floors are covered with wood shavings, its air is filled with the scent of cedar, its high racks hold long strips of wood. In one corner are two band saws, a radial arm saw, table saw and planer, and on countertops sit partially assembled kits. Willey's 7-year-old son Josh tags along, wearing his kid-size tan leather tool belt around his hips.
Born in Easton, Md., and raised in Queenstown, Willey has always been around boats and the water. "My great grandfather had a log canoe," he says. "One of my grandfathers was captain of his own skipjack, and he also made sails in Oxford. I was always on the water as a kid, but it was burned into my brain, 'Don'tbe a waterman when you grow up-no money.' So I learned how to build houses instead."
And he learned how to build model boats. "My first one was for my grandfather," says Willey, who built it when he was just 12. "He had a boat named thePrairie Moon." From the top of a filing cabinet, he takes down a two-foot-long workboat, white with a red bottom, a bit battered. On its stern, the name
Prairie Moonis painted in shaky capital letters, the first
isuperimposed over a misplaced
r, the work of an obviously youthful hand. Years after he made this model, Willey says, his mom dug it out of the attic and gave it back to him. "I said, 'Mom, it's a mess. The planks run the wrong way!' But she said, 'You didn't know any better.' She made me swear I wouldn't change a thing on it." Willey says he has another model that he made for his grandfather when he was 18, a sportfisher that had been built by Buck Thompson in Queenstown in the mid-1970s. "The planks run the right way on that one!" he says with a laugh.
By the mid-1990s, Willey was building model boats for the local church bazaar and the Chester Wye Foundation to be auctioned off as fundraisers (which he still does). But he never intended to sell kits. "I was forced into it," he says. "People came up to me and asked, 'Hey, can I get one of those?' and I said, 'Well, I wasn't planning to do this again.' So I got a box, threw in some sticks, typed up some directions, and took it to a hobby shop. Now, a dozen years later, I have nine kits on the market and a website [www.wye-river-models.com], and this is all while I'm trying to build houses."
Willey creates the prototypes for his kits by closely studying actual boats and taking dozens of photographs of them. Then, he builds a prototype and a "one-off" at the same time, so that as he sees his mistakes in the prototype he can correct them immediately in the one-off. Before attaching each piece to the one-off, he makes a pattern of it, and he shoots pictures of his progress at every step. When he's finished, he has a parts list and all the patterns; and with the pictures as a guide, he then writes detailed instructions. The only things the kits don't include are paint and glue, because of their limited shelf life.
The models vary in difficulty, with features like planked hulls and extensive rigging adding to the challenge. The easiest to assemble is the gunning skiff, 16 inches long, on a scale of one inch to one foot. "Even though it's planked, a beginner can do it in a weekend," Willey says. The kit includes instructions, blueprints, all of the precut wood pieces, shotgun parts, even 12 tiny duck decoys. "I have a little mold to make the duck halves with plastic resin," says Willey. "People paint 'em all up." Most difficult to assemble is the 22-inch-long bugeye. At 1/4 inch to a foot, it's on a much smaller scale than the skiff and has far more planks, as well as extensive rigging (right down to 20 tiny mast hoops, 15 screw eyes, 4 turnbuckles and piano wire for the travelers and rudder linkage). Putting together the bugeye takes an experienced model builder about a hundred hours.
Like the workshop out back, the Willeys' cozy, birch-paneled living room is all about wood and boats. A handsome skipjack model sits on the fireplace mantel, and other models sit on shelves around the room-a bugeye, a log canoe, a Smith Island crabbing boat, a Virginia round stern (his newest one), a buyboat (his most popular seller) and a variety of others.
Not surprisingly, Willey has firm opinions about the relative beauty of these traditional Bay boats. He takes the bugeye off its stand and cradles it in his hands with easy familiarity. "The bugeye is the most pleasing; it's very well proportioned," he says, holding it up to eyeball its length as he talks. "So is a log boat. And the Virginia round stern . . . the sheer, it's just right, you know what I mean?" He puts the bugeye back and takes down the skipjack. "But the problem with the skipjack," he continues, again sighting down the length of the boat's hull, "is that the sheer isn't . . . isn't . . . " He gropes for the right word. "It just isn't asright."
Willey replaces the skipjack on its base, then puts an arm around Michelle. "There's a funny story about this skipjack," he says, to which she smiles and rolls her eyes. "I made one for her ten years ago-it took me about two hundred hours-and we put it on the mantel. But then someone came to visit, fell in love with it, made an offer . . . and I sold it to him."
"We had a growing family," Michelle says with a laugh and a playful nudge of her husband's ribs. "It seemed like a bundle."
"So I built her another one," he continues. "And it happened again."
Back to the workshop he went, and built his wife athirdskipjack. "Only this time," he says, "I painted her name on the bowsprit in huge letters, so I wouldn't be tempted to sell it no matter how much somebody offered." Since then, the
Michelle Leehas remained on the mantel, her high, raked mast nearly brushing the ceiling, queen of the fleet ranged on the walls around her.
One boat, however, isn't on display-the sportfisher that Willey built for his grandfather. Instead, Josh is playing with it on the floor. It's two-and-a-half feet long, with cream topsides, a copper bottom and perfectly fitted planking. Propelled by the boy's hand, it moves in slow, wide arcs on the nubby carpet. Makes you kind of wonder what this boy's going to do when he grows up.