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Valrico hobbyists create small worlds


Robert Fiske uses a pair of tweezers and a steady hand to weave the minute rigging attached to the sail of a replica British sailing yacht, the Royal Caroline.

The real ship was built for King George II in 1749 and dismantled in 1820. But, for the past year, Fiske, 73, has been fastidiously building a 3-foot-long replica down to the elaborate figurehead on the ship's bow and the gilded carvings on the stern.

Once completed, the diminutive boat will sit in a custom-made case and head to auction to benefit one of the many Brandon charities Fiske supports.

Building the model ships is a hobby that dates back 40 years for Fiske, a retired nonprofit executive.

In the 1970s, he lived in Boston and enjoyed exploring the U.S. warship, the USS Constitution, and watching the Parade of Tall Ships sail through Boston Harbor.

"Then I came across a model of the Constitution and began building it," said Fiske, who lives in Valrico. "I found it to be a very relaxing pastime."

It took six months to build that first model. Later, Fiske had an opportunity to explore the whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, in Mystic Seaport, Conn.

"I bought and built that model, and I was hooked," said Fiske, who spends $300 to $800 for each model ship kit.

Over the years, he has built more than 30 models, each requiring 1,000 to 2,000 hours to construct.

The largest was the HMS Victory, which was about 4 feet long and 2 ½ feet tall. He built it after visiting the actual ship in Plymouth, England, taking photos of it from all angles to have on hand when he built the model.

He also built the Cutty Sark after visiting the real ship in Greenwich, England.

All but a handful of the models have been given away to charities to raise funds or to benefactors as a token of thanks, Fiske said.

He recently completed a replica of the San Felipe, a 1690 Spanish vessel, which nearly rivaled the HMS Victory in size.

"It was a very complicated project," he said.

Valued around $4,000, the completed ship, consisting of about 10,000 pieces, took 1,800 hours to build. Fiske, a member of Rotary's Camp Florida board of directors, donated it to Rotary's Camp Florida to raise money for the camp's expansion.

• • •

Less than a mile from the three-bay garage where Fiske creates his replica sailing ships, Valrico hobbyist Chuck Bingham shows off a miniature fictional town and railroad.

Lake Neccudah, located somewhere in Colorado, is celebrating its centennial with a carnival and Civil War re-enactment.

There's also a lot of other activity surrounding the centennial including a pool party at the mayor's house and picnics and fishing on Lake Neccudah, all depicted in miniature in a room set aside in the Bingham home especially for the model railroad display.

"We actually designed the house around it," said Bingham's wife, Dena, who indulges her husband's hobby by helping him pick out accessories for his fictitious town.

"It's fun," she said. "I love to go to the train shows and go shopping. We have a good time."

Although everything is done in miniature, Bingham, 59, takes painstaking care to make sure all is as realistic as possible.

He gave the buildings a stucco finish and painted them to create an aged, natural appearance. He handcrafted the trees from pieces of rope and floral wire. The grass? Dyed sawdust from Home Depot that abuts walls glued together from individual pieces of asphalt tile.

As Bingham added to the town, he began creating a mythical story about it with characters that he'd write down and e-mail to friends.

"Friends would ask me about certain scenes, and I started inventing townspeople like the mayor who was notorious for having skinny-dipping parties," said Bingham, a property manager. "That's why he has a high wall around his swimming pool. It's kind of my Lake Wobegon. I enjoy writing the story and inventing all the characters as much as building the layout."

With Bingham's imagination, the town keeps growing and growing.

The railroad traverses Bingham Brewery, Bingham Lumber, Pioneer Packing Co., the Golden Valley Canning Co. and the town cemetery. It winds past mountains where skiers are oblivious to a family of bears about to break into a trailer and through downtown where a wedding is in progress. Nearby, firefighters rescue a woman from a house fire.

Bingham hand paints every piece of the town. He uses a jeweler's visor to paint the tiniest pieces. A seven-sixteenths-inch figure, for instance, represents a 6-foot man in Bingham's tiny town.

"I bristle when someone calls this a toy train," said Bingham, who began his model railroad town 12 years ago. "It's a miniature. I take pride in making things look as realistic as possible."

Even when he has to paint a piece over and over again until he perfects it, Bingham said he finds the exercise relaxing rather than frustrating.

"It's therapeutic," he said. "For so many years, I was in commission sales, and I would come home stressed out. I'd start working on my railroad, and all the cares would go away. My focus would replace the stress."

Bingham, who has spent $12,000 to create his miniature, said he can't begin to estimate how many hours have gone into the project.

"But every minute was worth it," he said. "People might say it's anal. That's okay. For me, there's a great deal of pride in doing something well."

D'Ann White can be reached at

Valrico hobbyists create small worlds 07/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 5:09pm]
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