South Charlotte

Shipbuilder really likes to 'hit the bottle'

Jim Goodwin has been hitting the bottle hard for 11 years and has gained a reputation.

"What can I say; I just love it," said Goodwin, 56. "Who knew you could make a living 'hitting the bottle?'"

"Hitting the bottle," as Goodwin calls it, refers to the time he spends creating ships in a bottle. He originally began by building large-scale model ships before he was turned on to mini-ship construction, a pastime that eventually turned into a profession.

Goodwin, who lives near South Park, read two books on ships in a bottle and became fascinated with the process.

"I enjoyed the engineering aspect and how detailed it all was," he said. "Then I discovered that there was a market for it."

A geologist for 20 years, Goodwin was always interested in history, but Atlantic maritime history in particular caught his attention when he began researching U.S. naval history. He said the rich maritime history of the Carolinas provided many potential projects.

One of his most requested creations is the Queen's Anne's Revenge, the notorious Blackbeard's pirate ship.

"People are interested in history, especially since the discovery of the Queen Anne's Revenge," said Goodwin. "That's really when the current fascination with pirates began and I started getting a lot of orders (for ships in a bottle)."

In 11 years, Goodwin has made 1,387 ship-in-bottle dioramas. While he creates them for museums, including the Maritime Museum in Beaufort, and for shows and festivals, he also sells them. Prices range from $35 for a single lighthouse in a bottle to $600 for the more elaborate creations like the H.L. Hunley Confederate submarine replica.

His most famous ship is the Mercury, featured in the 2009 DreamWorks film "The Lovely Bones."

"It was a pretty neat experience," said Goodwin. "As a craftsman of this unique art, it was a great honor to have my work displayed. I even got a letter from (Rep.) Sue Myrick saying congratulations."

Goodwin said he's sold a lot of ships to descendants of those who served on the ships, especially the Snap Dragon, a privateer clipper that did legal pirating during the War of 1812.

"People like wartime ships," said Goodwin. "That particular ship had three cruises and captured over $4.2 million in 1812 currency, which would be billions of dollars today."

The process for creating ships in a bottle can last anywhere from five to 40 hours, depending on the piece. Goodwin uses installation tools he made from knitting needles. He even uses a surgical tool called alligator forceps. He uses bottles he's collected from various pubs and restaurants and from trips to the recycling center.

"Much to my wife's dismay, I often will bin dive," said Goodwin, "but she's gotten over it."

Goodwin begins each diorama by measuring the diameter of the mouth and inside of the bottle, which he calls the "limiting factors." Once he's found a bottle large enough for the ship to fit inside, he will look at a photo of the ship to determine its exact detail.

"I can just look at a picture and see what the ship needs to look like," Goodwin said. "I create everything by eyeing it."

He then takes a small block of wood and begins to carve out the model. Most of the wood Goodwin uses is new, but while building the Carroll A. Deering - a five-masted schooner built in 1919 that ran aground on Diamond Shoals in 1921 - he was able to find wood from the original ship.

"It was very tough wood to work with, because it's 200-year-old southern pine," said Goodwin. "This 200-year-old wood did a number on my saw and it's a good saw. But (the pine) was as resinous and fresh as when the tree was cut down and had marvelous integrity."

Goodwin then hand paints the ship and attaches accessories such as cannons and sails using industrial-strength glue. The masts and sails are attached to pull strings and then folded flat. Once the ship is in the bottle, he pulls the strings to lift the masts upright.

"Sometimes it can really become work," he said. "But I really enjoy it."

Goodwin was teaching at UNC Charlotte in 2006 when he realized he was making more money selling his ships than he was teaching. He decided to build ships in a bottle full time.

He says he misses the school because he enjoyed being around young minds but mostly misses the high volume of bottles he was able to get on campus. "That was the best part," said Goodwin.

Goodwin offered to teach his sons, Julian, 18 and Stern, 22, how to build ships-in-a-bottle, but said they never showed much interest.

"I taught them woodworking, so they can handle a table saw," said Goodwin. "But if it's not electronic, they aren't very interested."

Next year, Goodwin will teach at the Woodwright School in Pittsboro, teaching a workshop twice a week on building ships in a bottle. His work also will be featured at the South County Regional Library in Ballantyne in February.

"I am preserving the art and history of this craft," said Goodwin. "Nationwide there are probably 150-200 people in the country doing this as a hobby, but I am one of the few demonstrating and teaching the craft.

"It's not only a piece of art but a piece of history."