Just Passing Through
You take this miniature ship, pull the string, and it blooms
By Kim Underwood - Winston-Salem Journal Reporter
The woman had it all figured out: Tom Netsel got his ships inside those glass bottles by sawing off the
base, inserting the ships and fusing the bottom back on.
Never mind that the temperatures required to fuse glass would vaporize the ships' paper sails, Netsel
said. She wouldn't hear otherwise.
For everyone else, here's his secret: He makes the ships (outside the bottle) with tiny hinges fixing the
masts to the deck. After the ship is done, he collapses it. After inserting it into the bottle, he pulls a
thread that brings the masts upright, glues the tip of the thread to the bowsprit (the spar extending
from the front of a sailing vessel) and cuts or burns off the excess thread.
Voila! A ship in a bottle.
Part of what Netsel likes about making ships-in-a-bottle is that it doesn't require a big investment in
space, materials or tools.
He made what he jokingly refers to as his ''expensive forged tweezers'' by cutting a section from a
wire coat hanger and wrapping masking tape around the ends.
He makes masts made out of ''imported bamboo skewers from Harris Teeter,'' a local grocery store
chain, rigging out of ordinary black cotton thread and sails out of typing paper soaked in coffee to
give it the look of weathered canvas. (The dregs from his morning cup of coffee work just fine.)
Supplies last for ages. Pointing out the 19-cent price imprinted on the top of a jar of model paint he's
still using, he said he must have bought that in the '70s. His most serious cash outlay is for the new
bottle of clear fingernail polish he has to spring for every couple of years. (It protects the hulls while
giving them a shine and also comes in handy as an informal glue.)
Netsel also likes the challenge of working out the problems that arise as he executes his designs. He
will try this and try that.
''If it works, great,'' he said. ''If not, I'll have my shipwreck-in-a-bottle.''
Ship-in-a-bottle making is not as tedious as some people might imagine.
''It's like anything,'' he said. ''If you like doing it, it's not a chore. . . . I enjoy little painstaking things.''
Another thing Netsel enjoys about the hobby is that, because you design your own ships, you can
decide just how meticulously detailed you want it to be. He knows of some people -- he keeps up
with other enthusiasts through the Ships-in-Bottles Association of America newsletter and various
Websites -- who go so far as to put teensy-weensy cannons on the decks of their ships.
As for himself, he's more of a ''middle-of-the-road'' guy. He once put a lifeboat on the back of one of
his ships. But he doesn't want to put in so much detail it's not fun.
Some people design their ships to specific scales. He's more relaxed about the process. He may
work from fairly detailed specifications for a ship. Or he may work from nothing more than a picture
in a magazine.
He measures the opening of the bottle he plans to use -- most are in the neighborhood of
three-quarters of an inch -- and figures it out from there.
''You make the hull of the ship about half the size of the neck opening,'' he said. ''That leaves you half
for the sails to fit through.''
Sometimes he finds a bottle he likes and decides what ship to build for it -- ''I had one very long
bottle a while back, so I put two ships in it.'' Other times he knows what ship he wants to make and
looks for the bottle that would show it off to best advantage.
Many of the bottles started out holding wine or liquor.
''That's the fun part,'' he said. ''You get to empty the liquor bottles.''
(He has his eye on a three-sided, dimpled bottle that a premium brand of whiskey comes in, but so
far he's been unwilling to go to the expense of buying it.)
Once, Netsel made a ship small enough to fit inside one of those miniature liquor bottles used on
airplanes. But that's the last one. Making something that small was too much trouble to be as
enjoyable as he would have liked.
Netsel, a financial-news editor and analyst for Macro World Research Corp. in Winston-Salem, has
been making ships-in-a-bottle for about 25 years.
(For a while, he told inquisitive people he made them outside the bottle, set them atop the neck and
pounded them with a hammer until they popped down inside. ''That got old.'')
Making ships-in-a-bottle isn't Netsel's only distinctive hobby. He also plays the bagpipes. Both
interests were sparked by stories he covered as a newspaper photographer.
After photographing a story about a Canadian bagpiper, he started taking lessons. The story came to
the attention of Charles Kuralt and, one day when Netsel was having a lesson in the bagpiper's
kitchen, Kuralt came by to do a story for his show.
These days, when Netsel is learning a new song, he takes care to practice somewhere different from
the last time -- say out in the woods or on the grounds of a school -- so the same people aren't
always subjected to the misery of having to listen to someone practice on the bagpipes.
When Netsel and a reporter went out to do a story on a disc jockey who made ships-in-a-bottle as a
hobby that was the first time he had ever laid eyes on one.
''I said, 'Gee, that's interesting,' '' Netsel said. ''Like a lot of people I thought they built them inside the
Intrigued, he went back and got some pointers from the man on how to do it himself. He read some
books and has picked up the rest as he goes along.
Netsel figures that between 500 and 600 people, mostly men, pursue the hobby in the United States.
He has talked with other enthusiasts on the phone, but, other than the man who taught him and the
people he has taught, he hasn't met any other shipbuilders in person.
Over the years, he has made perhaps 50 ships-in-a-bottle. Once they're done, he doesn't put them
out on display.
''Not if my wife has anything to do about it,'' he said. ''I get one or two at a time.''
He rotates ships -- keeping one on his dresser, another one or two on a bookcase. He stores the
He does give them away sometimes: This past holiday season -- at the suggestion of his wife, Sarah
-- he made ships-in-an-ornament.
(And, yes, he did slip the ships down into the opening where the hanger is inserted into the glass ball.)
But he doesn't usually sell his creations.
''The amount of time involved can be excruciating if you put a dollar price on it,'' he said.