DADE CITY — John Evenhouse works until his eyes water. The sunlit family room at his 10-acre homestead is cluttered with reference books, blueprints and materials dedicated to the lost art of building small-scale versions of historic ships. The 1776 Continental Navy ship the USS Boston is perched on the grand piano awaiting lathe-turned brass cannons. A Bermuda sloop named The Lady Hamilton remains on the staircase landing in need of finishing touches.
Evenhouse, 70, concentrates on other projects as he connects hundreds of nautical pieces with fine hemp lines and Elmer's glue. He builds small vessels with tiny drills and punches, straight and curved hemostats, long-nosed tweezers, surgical scissors and clothespins — all improvised tools stored in a cigar box.
The appeal "is to take a set of plans and a flat piece of wood and make something beautiful," says the hobbyist, whose first public exhibition of six 17th century galleons opens Saturday at the HiBrow Art Gallery at the Dade City Center for the Arts.
Evenhouse retired in 1997 after moving his ailing mother, Esther Herman Evenhouse, from South Tampa to the hills of Blanton. For the next five years he served as her primary caregiver and returned to the childhood shipbuilding passion she encouraged. Esther lived to 94 watching her oldest son progress to crafting ships from scratch.
"I raised my hand to join the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War," Evenhouse said. He dodged antiaircraft fire and then spent five years flying radioactive materials around the country for an engineering firm. He'd rather reminisce, though, about scoring a hole-in-one at the Abbey golf course on Sept. 11, 2010. With degrees from the University of South Florida in business and geology, Evenhouse spent most of his career working in the Florida freshwater well fields.
Drawing on naval experience and descent from Dutch East Indian Corp. shipbuilders, Evenhouse understands the designs and functions aboard military ships. His reference library includes Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, the 1768 text by naval architect Fredrik Henrik Af Chapman; a series of 19th century designs from Charles Davis, including Ship Model Builder's Assistant; and Evenhouse's bible, Historic Ship Models, a dog-eared paperback with a split spine worn out from overuse.
Evenhouse orders blueprints from the Smithsonian Institution's Collection of Warship Plans, shops for custom-milled woods from catalogs, then orders tiny accoutrements from a hobbyist supplier in Fort Lauderdale.
"Once you capture the essence and maintain historic links, it's no longer a toy," Evenhouse said. "It becomes a significant replica."
At 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, the 1811 French warship L'Astrolabe is his largest model, valued by Evenhouse at $2,500. The battleship has a walnut hull with horizontal yards and triple masts built of beech, attached by 300 yards of hemp lines.
"It took me 400 hours to finish and every aspect is adjustable and functional," he said. (To be precise, the 14 turned-brass pivoting cannons don't actually fire.)
When Evenhouse went to the Kumquat Festival in Dade City for a piece of pie in January, he wandered into the HiBrow and met Stuart Marcus, the art center's event director. They got to talking, and the idea for the exhibit took shape. It will feature six ships — four built from model kits and two built from scratch — on loan from collectors who bought the ships from Evenhouse.
"It was so unique that I said 'Great. Let's do it,' " Marcus said.
Among the ships on display is a model of the storied Golden Hind. Under the command of Sir Francis Drake, the ship sailed around the world and brought back loads of riches from the Far East.
Evenhouse feels a special connection to the Roter Lowe (circa 1597), a massive Dutch galleon measuring 92 feet by 26 feet prow to stern.
"My family's name remains on a shipbuilding warehouse in Groningen, Holland," he said. "It's all that's left since their steamships were confiscated and sunk by the Nazis."
Evenhouse has four children and lives with John Jr., 31, who thinks his dad will get back to golfing and weekend outings. But Evenhouse has already prepared his basement for his next venture.