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Bill Ballenger – Ship Model Maker
by John M. MacFarlane 2011
W.G. (Bill) Ballenger was educated as an Aeronautical Engineer at the University of Colorado, graduating in 1949. Professionally he worked in the design, construction and manufacture of paper cartons and packaging in the Morris Paper Mills in Chicago Illinois.He was fascinated by the challenges posed in turning a flat piece of cardboard into a container such as the six-bottle carrier that the company invented for the soft drink industry.
This was followed by the purchase, with his brother, of the Central Specialties Co. which manufactured retail display equipment for the Sears Roebuck Co. They produced restaurant equipment, gun trigger locks, hangers, and heavy duty baby strollers. The strollers became a major focus and they supplied theme parks, zoos, shopping centres and attractions all over North America. Bill still sees his handy work in use today.
Starting out in model aircraft and train model making, ships also captured his imagination. In the early 1950s he built a polystyrene kit – the kind that we all built as kids - but he found working with plastic unsatisfying. The model of the Cutty Sark introduced him to rigging and its challenges. He quickly switched to wood models and that carried on to the present - 134 models later.
With no room to store and display the models at home he sold the first six at an antique store. After that he took commissions from clients and museums. Like the proverbial barefoot children of the shoemaker he owns only one himself - the Flying Dutchman dinghy that he raced on Lake Michigan. For most of his career Ballenger scratch-built the models - particularly modern vessels. "You can't buy the fittings," he says regretfully, "they just aren't available. Only fittings for older vessels can be bought commercially." So he builds it all from scratch.
The commissions run from $700 to $10,000 depending on the complexity and time involved. He won't take a commission to build the commonplace - for example he will not build a model of HMS Victory - a model he says has been done by everyone. He likes the unusual, the ugly and interesting vessels - something offbeat captures his imagination. His preferred method is to carve the hull from laminated wooden lifts glued together. He builds the fittings from stock on his Unimat lathe - his old engineering training coming in handy.
He’s 83 now (in 2011) and slowing down a bit. He says he can only work for 4 hours a day as he finds the wood carving more of a physical challenge. But he says when one model is half done he's already thinking of the next one. No more multi-masted vessels though, just smaller scale projects that are more easily managed. If he doesn't have a commission he builds a kit from an English supplier who he says produces an extremely high quality product. He works with Bob Matthews, a plastic craftsman in Victoria to create the stands and cases.
He has models in many of the major Maritime Museums in North America – including the Maritime Museum of British Columbia and the Vancouver Maritime Museum. His largest were the David Dows (a five-masted schooner) which was five feet long. He also built a scale model of the aircraft carrrier USS Wolverine that was scaled to match available plastic aircraft kits for the aircraft on deck. A model so large it had to be moved in a van.
He’s a wonderful friendly old bear of a guy and very approachable. Bill is in the process of selling his house and shop in North Saanich overlooking the marine traffic and ferries moving up through the Gulf Islands. He's going to a smaller house - but one that will have a shop where he can produce more models. He has provided expertise, models and friendship to the marine heritage community for 35 years - and all of us who love to look at fine ship models owe him a debt of gratitude.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2011) Bill Ballenger – Ship Model Maker. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Ballenger_Bill.php
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