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Mercury Ship in a Bottle

by Daniel Siemens

The ship design was by William Pace a pirate reinactor who goes by the pirate name William Brand.  A friend of his commissioned the build.  This article appears on the website of "The Pirate Surgeon's Journal." 


Mission and William and the Mercury in a Bottle - One of the wonderful things about the web is how it connects people. I would probably have never gotten into pirate re-enacting if it weren't for the people I met at the Pyracy Pub forums. Likewise, I would never have met the capta- er, quarter master of the Mercury crew William Pace aka Brand aka Red Wake had it not been for the same. And I would never have met Daniel Siemens, who scratch builds ships in bottles.

There is probably no better reenactment leader than one who gives their crew guidance without being an autocrat, who encourages the crew members to do the best they can without pigeon-holing them and who inspires those around him to work towards improving their impression without imposing onerous rules upon them. William Pace is all of that and I wanted to show my appreciation to him.

I sometimes give stuffed bears dressed in the garb which those people wear at pirate events to people who have helped me refine my surgeon's impression in one way or another. I thought about giving one to William, but I wanted something different and tailor-made for him. He was one of the first people who invited me to be a part of a pirate crew, one of the first few people who welcomed me at my first event (Fort Zachary Taylor in 2007) and the one who first noticed that (as he put it) "Just when everything on the forum has settled down, you come back in an stir things up." In short, he is just the sort of leader I like. But I am gushing.


Mercury Decks and Cutaway - Mercury Cutaway Draught Showing Decks and Organization Daniel Siemens showed up on the Pyracy Pub in February of 2013, posting images of his sailing ships in a bottle. Color me intrigued. The whole idea of building a ship in a bottle is sort of an engineering feat requiring patience, fine motor skills and neat tricks. This appealed to me. Looking at Daniel's models, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect gift for William, our Mercury crew leader (if not our captain.) So I asked Daniel if he could build our crew's ship the Mercury in a bottle in early 2012.

The Mercury is a thing of beauty to William. He created a full set of blue prints (called 'draughts' in the period lingo) which he printed out of fine parchment and sold for a very reasonable price to anyone interested. He has lovingly refined its design several times over the years. Daniel got copies of the draughts and used them to practice his art for me.

Building the Mercury Hull

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The Body of the Mercury on the Draught - Daniel began the body of the ship with a block of wood. Since he is the artist, I'm going to let him explain most of the technical details. (Thanks ever so much for Daniel for taking the time to write down how this ship was built.)

"I carved the hull out of a solid piece of bass wood. My method is to use an optical measuring instrument for near precise measurements. (Also known as eye-balling it.) With ships this small, it's hard to get exact measurements. My general rule is if it looks right it probably is. I held up each piece of the ship to the plans to get a pretty good idea on size."

After the body of the ship was sanded, the wood details were added. Daniel: "I planked the ship using nail polish and wood stain. I first stained the ship to get that nice gold wood color and then went over it with the nail polish. After a couple coats of polish I cut the lines for the planking with a razor blade and stained the ship again. The stain seeps into the cuts and stains the wood under the nail polish. The nail polish keeps the rest of the wood from staining. This creates sharp thin lines for the planking."

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The next step was the addition of sealer to the bottom of the ship. Daniel explains, "I painted the bottom white to represent the sealant used in the 18th century ships. It was a mixture of whale oil rosin and brimstone."


Coating the Bottom with Whale Oil Rosin & Brimstone - "This keeps the wood from rotting after long exposure to water. This will be under the sea but I like including it. I figured the Mercury crew may not be able to afford the copper plating so I went with the cheaper boiled whale fat and tar."

Daniel asked me if the Mercury would have had copper plating. Knowing William's detailed drawings, I said I thought William would have mentioned copper plating on the draughts if the Mercury had had it. Daniel replied that he had "made an educated guess and went with the white. The copper wasn't used very heavily until the 1800's so I assumed this was the more likely."

This was an interesting lesson for me; I was familiar with caulking the joints of ships with oak and hemp, but not with coating with whale oil rosin and brimstone. I am forever learning new things.


The Windows in the Back & Side - Daniel asked me about the color scheme of the ship; I didn't know. The only person who would know was William, but we had to be circumspect about asking him or he might suspect something. So Daniel put a general question about a color scheme on the Pyracy Pub which was never answered. Having no useful input, he decided to put a darker stain on the channels.

The next step involved adding the channels, windows and gun ports, which were cut out of the hull. Daniel: "The channels are made from bass wood cut to shape and stained. I find it's easier to cut them a bit thick and sand them down once they are glued on. The smaller the piece, the harder it is to handle. I had to get real creative with the windows. My goal was to add as much detail as I could and I knew I couldn't paint them that small. I let my printer do the job for me. I printed another copy of the plans, cut out the window and glued it into place." In this way Daniel created individual windows and even put the name on the back of the ship.

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Daniel is something of a perfectionist. As he told me, "I have an obsession for detail that probably needs clinical attention but for now I'm having too much fun."


Lady Mercury, The Ship's Figurehead - He went on to detail, "I had to do some research to figure out the figure head. I think Lady Mercury is important to this ship and had to be included. She is the patron of seafarers and thieves and also known for her speed. The ship being named Mercury is very fitting." Me, being ship's surgeon, I had always thought we had named after the cure of the pox. This is also very fitting, but that's another story...

Daniel continues, "She holds the Caduceus in her left hand a symbol of being a guide to the dead. The ships we encounter will need her."

"I did a good bit of research to find a way to include the figure head and found a French ship in bottle builder with an incredible technique for making little men on ships. He used wire to make the shape and then painted over liberally letting the paint fill in the gaps.


The Windows Re-done - Daniel then glued the bow to the deck of the ship and tied down to the keel in the same way that it was done on real ships.

He noted, "This is important because the secret to ship in bottle building is the rigging. The bow has to be solid and hold the weight of the masts."

He also painted the ship because he wanted the details of the ship to pop.

"I put a lot of detail in so I want to find ways to make sure it's noticed. Contrast is a great way to do that. I painted the channels black to contrast those against the hull. The idea for the red port holes comes from a common paint scheme for the USS Syren. I liked the subtle accent of red which brought out the ports."

In addition, he added "the deck furniture", including the tiller and a couple cannons. He decided to add color to the windows in the back, replacing his first version. "I then touched it up once it was glued on. It's hard to see but the stern chasers are included just below the transom [board in the back of the ship with the windows in it]."

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The Mercury With a Row of Cannons and Hatches, Side View - Of course a couple of cannons isn't nearly enough; the Mercury is a pirate ship, after all. As Daniel reported right after installing the cannons you see in the surrounding images, "I didn't really realize how formidable this ship looked until I got a row of the cannons in. For being a small sloop she's got some power." No doubt this is just as William designed her.

Regarding cannon construction, Daniel noted that "The barrels are made of bamboo skewers passed through a draw plate until they reach the right size. This keeps the size consistent.


The Mercury with Cannons Top View - glued in with a couple small blocks on either side to represent the gun carriages.' He also explained, "I just about lost my mind doing them." It makes you appreciate how painstaking this work really is.

"The cannons are where I use another trick of ship in bottle building and let the eye fill in the detail. At first glance they look like cannons on carriages. This is because the mind recognizes what it's supposed to be and fills in the detail. Only by looking closer do you realize they are two blocks glued next to a barrel."


The Mercury with Cannons and Hatches, Starboard Side View - hatches were made in the same way as the windows. I cut out that section of the plans, stained it, and glued it down. The stairs are made of folded paper also stained and glued down."

With the cannons done, he added more hatches and the capstan with bars. "I thought about not including the bars but they were on the plans and I though they added a nice touch. The bars are made of wire glued onto the capstan and painted. I also painted gold around the windows. The paint was kind of thick and came out looking like window sills."


The Mercury Railings, Starboard Side View - "I went on to the railings on the stern. I used matchstick wood as it is easy to carve into thin strips. I capped it off with thread. The ends stick out and are actually davits [arms mounted on the deck for raising and lowering things from the water] on the plans that would hold the Gullah Launch or the boat being towed behind it in this model's case.

"When I asked about the color scheme for the Mercury William mentioned red. I realized I didn't have enough red on this ship and decided to paint the railings red." With that, the majority of the hull construction was complete.

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Building the Mercury Masts, Sails and Spars


The Mercury Draught Showing the Sail Plan - Most of the work on the body of the ship was now complete, although Daniel had not yet put the deck stanchions [posts on outer edge of the deck] on. So he added them, painting them red to match the other details on the ship.

Each stanchion was shown with a deck gun on top of it in the original plans. (These give the Mercury added fire-power and make her look more threatening to her targets.) However, Daniel decided not to add them, explaining that "I added them to a ship once and they went highly unnoticed. Also I had trouble with them falling off and I didn't want to deal with the trouble trying to keep twelve swivel guns in place while the ship was going through a bottle neck."

It was now time to give the ship the ability to sail, even if it was only in its tiny, bottle-sized environment. First Daniel installed the two masts. "I stepped them [raised them] as they are in the plans and added the platforms. This was done in a similar way to a lot of small details on this ship by cutting them out the plans and staining them. The masts are made from bamboo skewers. Bamboo is the best when it comes to spars and masts since it stays strong even while incredibly thin."

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The Gaff Boom Sail or Spanker on the Mercury - came the sails and their rigging (ropes for you land lubbers, or lines for you sailors). As Daniel explained it, "There is a lot that went into the rigging." He was clearly understanding the thing. He told me he used fly-tying thread since it is strong and doesn't stretch very much.

The first sail was ready to be raised on the Mercury. You would think it would be at the front. (Well, you would if you were me and you hadn't already seen that picture at left.) You would be wrong. (So would I.) Daniel: "I started with the gaff and boom sail in the stern, often called the spanker."

"In most Ships in a Bottle (SIB) a hole is drilled through the spars [wooden vertical pieces extending from the mast to hold sails] to allow the rigging to pass through."

"At this scale drilling a hole would be difficult and compromise the strength of the spars. Instead I used a method called thread blocks. A piece of string is tied around a needle and the knot glued. After the glue dries the thread is taken off the needle. It creates a very small thread loop that can be tied into place on any mast or spar. The line runs smoothly through the loop and can be loosened and tightened as needed." If you hadn't thought Daniel's attention to detail was painstaking before, you have surely revised that opinion by now.


The Aft Mast Sails and Rigging from the Side - "I used a lot of thread blocks on the rigging to hold up the gaff boom. The spars are tied to the masts and the lines glued in place so they can move back and forth on the line but not up and down the mast. I did drill a few holes in the wider parts of the mast to keep certain spars in place. Mostly wherever I felt the mast could handle the hole."

"I used thread blocks in the bow as well for the forward rigging to run out of the bottle. This is used to pull the masts into place later. On the back stays I drilled very small holes in the chain plates [plates on the Aft Mast Sails from the Front


Mercury Aft Mast Sails, Front - deck of a ship used to hold the masts up]. The back stays are actually one continuous line on a single mast. They run from one chainplate through the mast to the other chainplate and back. This allows a lot of control for equally tightening the back stays. With one line all of the back stay lines can be tightened by pulling the line and moving the mast back and forth. The back stays on a SIB are important in controlling the rake or angle of the mast as compared to the deck."

"You'll notice the aft mast leans a little more towards the rear of the ship. This was the case on the plans and was replicated by controlling the tightness of the back stays. Once the back stays were set and glued down I added the ratlines [rope tied between shrouds to form ladders] by gluing thread to the back stays."


The Aft Mast Mercury Flag Detail - to go over with these photos is the flag. The plans called for a pennant. Pennants hold more significance to military ships. The longer the pennant the longer the longer the ship has sailed. That could be adapted to a pirate ship but I ultimately decided that if this were the ship of the Mercury crew it should bear the flag of the Mercury crew."

"I put the flag in Photoshop and copied it so that when printed I could fold it in half. When putting a flag on ship it's important to consider the wind direction. It's more natural that the flag follow the wind direction."

You may wonder at all Daniel's concern for getting the rigging set up just so. Daniel explained that there was a very particular reason for this. "The rigging is the secret to getting the ship in the bottle. Just like a real ship the back stays hold the mast back while the fore stays pull it forward. Unlike a real ship, the ship in a bottle's mast doesn't go all the way to the keel [bottom of the ship]. It sits in a shallow hole on the deck. When the fore stays are loosened it allows the masts to fold back and lay flush with the hull."


The Mercury Fore Mast Sails Angled View - With the aft mast sails complete, Daniel proceeded to add the sails and rigging to the fore mast. While getting ready to do this, he noticed a problem with the sails that were already installed. I'll let him explain.

"I wasn't originally going to add the rigging that controls the spars or running rigging. [Running rigging is used to pull the sails allowing control of the direction of a ship while it is sailing.] Running rigging is a lot more work and if not done well can detract from the ship. Since the eye fills in what's not there, a lot of SIB builders leave the running rigging off. I decided to include it following a slight mistake."

"I glued on the spanker with a port tack - meaning the wind was blowing towards the port side. My main sails naturally fell towards the starboard side. If I left off the running rigging I would end up with the sails that followed two different wind directions. In order to correct this I put on the running rigging to brace the spars on a port tack. I ran the running rigging out the sides of the ship and the out the bottle. This made it possible to tighten it while the ship was in the bottle." 

"The sails are made of paper. I curled them by pulling them between my thumb and a pen. This creates the wind filled look of the sails."

With that, the Mercury was complete! But there were two other small details to complete


Building the Gullah Launch and Jollywatt Dart

The last thing required to complete the building of the Mercury was the building of the two smaller boats used to service the ship. The Gullah is a launch, which is the largest boat a ship would have on board. It would be used to transport people and set the anchors of the ship. The smaller boat is the Jollywatt, a dart. I had specifically asked Daniel to have the Gullah trailing behind the ship because I liked the way that looked. The dart was to be sitting on the deck of the ship as it was shown on the draughts or prints that William had made.


"I built the smaller boat using a match stick. The details for this method can be found on my blog. The bigger of the two is being towed behind and is actually out of paper. For this I cut out a wood version of the boat. Rather then carve out the inside, which would be difficult considering its' size, I coated the wood plug in nail polish and wax. I then glued paper planking, stained with a wood stain over the plug and pulled it off once it had dried. I then glued in additional pieces of paper to create the seats."

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This completed the building of the ship and her boats. Now it had to go into the bottle.


Putting the Mercury Into the Bottle

This is the part of the model that really fascinated me - how to get the ship into the bottle? But that explanation had to wait; Daniel had to create the water inside that would hold the ship.

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Daniel Prepares to Paint Whitecaps on the Plasticine Sea - While he didn't take photos of doing this, Daniel does outline the method for making an SIB sea on his blog in an article called On High Seas.

He starts with plasticine clay, trimming and molding it so that it will fit in the bottle. Then he folds it and slides it inside. Daniel notes that he prefers to place the sea on top of the seam the bottle so the view of the ship is not obstructed. He uses a coat hanger with a bend in it to unroll the clay and prod the flattened clay into wave-like texture.

He paints whitecaps on the waves for added realism. There is far more to creating a believable clay sea than I have explained, but I suggest you read Daniel's blog to learn more.

With the waves in place, it was time to put the Mercury in the bottle. I had asked him earlier if he used tricks like bottles that came in two parts. His response:

The Mercury in a Bottle Neck (Hah!) - "Cutting the bottle is considered cheating and not a true ship in bottle. There are several techniques to get them in the most common is the hinge method which allows the mast to fold back. I like to make my ships as real as possible so I leave off the hinges. With no hinges people that don't know the technique are left guessing and assume the entire ship is built piece by piece in the bottle which is incredibly difficult, if not impossible."

Fortunately for us, Daniel explains how this is done; I will let him continue the narrative from here.


Close-Up Image of the Mercury in the Neck of the Bottle - "Here you can see the big secret of how the ship gets in the bottle. Every true ship in bottle goes through the bottle neck. In this case the masts are folded down against the hull. Sails are curled around the hull so they don't crinkle. The Mercury took a bit of work since she just barley fit through. Once in the stay lines are pulled tight and the masts pushed into place."

"A drop of glue is put on the stay lines running out the bow. Once they dry the lines running out the bottle are cut off. At this point I epoxied the ship to the bottle. Epoxy ensures it isn't going anywhere."

"The stay lines are set and the running lines are running out of the bottle. I will use these to position the spars and then they are glued down and cut off as well. "


The Mercury in Her New Home - After the ship was put into position and the masts raised, the running lines were set and cut off. Daniel didn't explain how the ship was positioned, but I am going to guess he used his trusty hooked coat hanger wire and a lot (and I mean a lot) of patience. He also put the Gullah in there at some point. (Probably before the Mercury, given her position.) When he sent me the last batch of photos of the Mercury in her bottle, Daniel sent the following comment.

"Well I have to admit I'm jealous. This ship is by far my best work. The bottle it's in has the best clarity I've seen in a bottle."

"It's a tradition of mine to call the entering of the ship into the bottle her maiden voyage. Old sailor superstition has it that the maiden voyage is a reflection of the life of the ship. If that's the case the Mercury's got a good long life in front of her. She shook off the snags and problems and came together with ease. She's been a pleasure to work on. I'm more than happy that she's going to a good home."

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The last step was to add a Turk's Head knot to the bottle neck which Daniel explained was a ship in the bottle building tradition. It also gives me an excuse to post a few more photos of this lovely piece of art.

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Giving the Mercury in the Bottle to William

At the Fort Taylor Pyrate Invasion, I tracked William down and assembled the crew so I could give it to him. He was delighted, commenting that it was "so weird to see it in three dimensions." After the crew admired it for a while, told me he had to take it around camp and show it off. When he returned, he carefully tucked it into a burlap bag so that it wouldn't be in the hot, direct sunlight of Key West. He told us that he wished he had had a fireplace at his house to he could set it on the mantle when he got home, but that we would find a place of honor for it.

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