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A Man in Miniature

Our Town downtown

July 23, 2007

The accidental making of a model shipwright

Dan Pariser has no end of options, but he’ll probably end up bringing the HMS Bounty to the South Street Seaport Museum’s 15th annual New York Ship & Boat Model Festival on August 4th and 5th.
Displayed in a glass case in the bedroom, Bounty holds the place of honor in Pariser’s apartment – and in his heart. “I have a fascination with Bounty,” he admits. “I remember building a plastic model of Bounty with my father. And the story – do you know it? – it’s tragic, and ironic.”
We sit and gaze at the wooden replica, accurate down to the varying thickness of the rigging lines, as Pariser tells the strange and terrible saga of Captain Bligh. After Bligh was set to sea by mutinous sailors in “that little boat” – Pariser points to the miniaturized 28-foot launch lashed to Bounty’s deck – he performed one of history’s great sailing feats by navigating the vessel 3000 miles to Australia, only to be court marshaled for losing control of his ship.
Pariser knows exactly how the flock of tourists will react to the model.
“They’ll say, ‘Is that a pirate ship?’
And I’ll say, ‘Nooooo, it’s the Bounty.’
And they’ll say, ‘Boy, you must have to have a lot of patience!’
And I’ll tell them, ‘I use nothing but instant glue and fast-drying paint. What I have is perseverance. It doesn’t take very long to build any one part, but there are thousands of parts.’”
Whatever it is that makes a great model ship builder, Pariser’s got it.
It started as your typical lawyer’s hobby. Twenty years ago, Pariser was a successful trial attorney with his own law firm in New Jersey. He played tournament racquetball on the side. And on the side of that, he did some woodworking.
Then Pariser tore the muscles in one knee, and racquetball was out. So was using the woodworking machines, which required him to stand. Still, Pariser had to do something wholesome: “Lawyers need a hobby that’s so engrossing it keeps you away from thoughts of trial,” he says.
He fished out a wood model ship kit that someone had given him and put it together. It was fun. He bought some more kits, and then got annoyed with the kits because he realized they were inaccurate. “I’d rather make my own mistakes than fix someone else’s,” as he put it. So he started doing “scratch builds” – drawing his own plans and making everything by hand, down to miniature nails and rivets.
It’s not every day that a person finds an occupation that draws on every one of their talents and speaks to all their inclinations.
Not only was Pariser already an experienced woodworker, but he had grown up playing flute, so he had the manual dexterity to do things like lace together toy-sized planks, pin a broken mast one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter, or replace horsehair rigging with museum-quality linen.
The conservation instinct ran in his blood, along with perhaps a little obsessive compulsiveness. Pariser had grown up in a pre-revolutionary home in western New Jersey, which his mother had fanatically refurbished, turning it into one of the best private restorations in the country. She even hooked her own period-appropriate rugs for each room. Like her son, she wasn’t a fan of out-of-the-box patterns. She’d design her own patterns, practice the more technical aspects on small squares (two of which are hanging in frames in Pariser’s bedroom) and then create her wall-to-wall masterpieces.
And Pariser’s background in law had inured him to the monotony of slogging through fine print. When he started drawing his own plans for models, he bought all the back issues of two magazines devoted to historically accurate shipbuilding and read each issue cover to cover. He’s gone to England to do research and has corresponded with museums and libraries in Rotterdam, Oslo, and Stockholm.
Pariser quickly made a name for himself in the shipbuilding fraternity, but for decades it remained an enthusiastic hobby. “Then one day I looked around. Our overhead was very low. The step-kids had graduated from grad school and I was very, very tired of being a lawyer. In 2004, I retired, and started a career as a model ship builder and restorer. That’s what I do.”
Pariser is now secretary of the Shipcraft Guild and the South Street Seaport Museum’s ship model conservator. His office is a converted walk-in closet in his Brooklyn Heights apartment. “It’s so small, I have to go outside to change my mind,” he quips. Everything has its place: thirteen cans of wood stain, fifteen pairs of tweezers and pincers, a band saw, a miniature table saw, two drill presses, sanders, linen lines, metal grinders, the hand-powered machine Pariser invented that makes miniature rope, and the magnifying goggles that hang on a nail behind Pariser’s head.
When Pariser is wearing those goggles, the tiny ships expand to fill his entire field of vision, which explains how he’s able to fashion plank pins that, at ten thousandths of an inch, are nearly microscopic. “I tell people, I don’t work in miniature,” he says, leaning forward confidentially. “I miniaturize myself, and I work in full size.”