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Category 4: Long-form, Average Joe
Shipbuilding was alive and well in Toronto and later, Port Hope, Ont., under the gifted hands and eyes of Alfred (Fred) Huffman. Combining a machinist's precision, an artist's flair and the patience of Job, Huffman was doubtless Canada's premier builder of model ships.
These were not assembled from plastic kits bought at a toy or hobby shop, but scaled down works of art, handcrafted from scratch, painstakingly researched and constructed, and accurate, with a near-fanatical devotion, down to the last plank and rung. He could shrink a 60-foot off-shore cruiser to a 30-inch model and keep every detail intact.
“In effect,” Huffman would point out, “you're building a ship.”
The results were museum-quality replicas that adorn corporate offices, yacht clubs, museums and shipbuilding companies. Most of the 100 or so models Huffman built over the last 32 years, though, were commissions from private collectors.
His career took off in 1981, when Royal Canadian Yacht Club member Frederick Eaton, of department store fame, ordered a Huffman model of his sailboat. Impressed with the result, fellow club member Gordon Fisher, the late chairman of Southam Inc., commissioned two replicas of his 30-foot Nonsuch sailboat. And when veteran television anchorman Harvey Kirk retired from CTV News in 1984, the network presented him with a Huffman model of Kirk's pride and joy, his 40-foot yacht, Fair Passage.
But the most challenging orders came from financier Conrad Black.
An avid military historian, Black wanted a scale model of the Second World War battleship USS Iowa. Since the plans for the ship were locked in the bowels of the Pentagon, Huffman turned to a contact who provided him with drawings of the Iowa's sister ship, the USS New Jersey. Huffman then researched the differences and incorporated his findings into the work.
At three feet long, the Iowa was 1/300th the original size. It took 41/2 months to complete and cost $30,000. It also showcased, as perhaps no other Huffman model, his attention to detail: The railing around the main deck of the battleship was only an eighth of an inch high, yet clearly visible were four hair-like strands of cable that made up the fencing.
Other major projects were replicas of the battleship Bismark and the passenger liner Rex, the latter also a Black order, which took more than a year to complete.
“He certainly was one of the top people in the field,” said Michael Wall, director of the American Marine Model Gallery in Gloucester, Mass., which bought eight of Huffman's ships over the years. “He was very diligent and detail oriented.”
Among just a handful of professional model builders in Canada, Huffman summed up his lost craft in one simple dictum: “The more the detail, the more fun. Each model is an accumulation of detail.”
A full beard and gold rimmed glasses helped create his owlish visage. “When he speaks his voice is gentle and filled with patience – the type of patience necessary in a man who works with the smallest bits and pieces to create major works of art,” related a 1986 profile in Sailing Canada magazine.
Huffman, who died in Port Hope on May 12 of bone cancer at the age of 70, built models of sailboats, steamers, battleships, patrol and cargo vessels, yachts and sailboats. For the Canadian Coast Guard, he built a 40-inch long, $12,000 replica of the $50-million icebreaker, Des Groseilliers.
“You're creating a kind of three-dimensional illustration for posterity,” he explained. “Given ideal conditions, the model will probably outlive the prototype.”
But he often laboured under the nagging image of the model maker as the lonely, cardigan-clad man who builds ships inside glass bottles. Asked whether he made any of those, Huffman's son, Christian, replied, “I have to say that this would be the one question that would infuriate my father. No, he did not. A ship in a bottle was folk art to him. It was this ignorance that would hurt my father and belittled his craft.
“The time and attention he poured over these models, including the simplest of sailboats, was profound and sometimes emotionally draining. When my father delivered a model, he always felt he was handing over his child.”
Fred Huffman was born in Toronto on Dec. 2, 1939, to Marjory Wright and Alfred Hayter, a Newfoundlander who died when Fred was 3. His mother remarried Eugene Huffman, and the clan moved to the senior Huffman's hometown, Windsor.
Fred was a youngster when he made and flew his own model airplanes, and got involved in rocketry. “He made his own gunpowder in his parents' basement,” said his wife, Joan, with a chuckle. “He accidentally set fire to a field during one of his experiments with rockets.”
He dropped out of high school to apprentice as a tool and die maker at an engineering firm. Among the company's customers was AMT Corp., a plastic model company that made kits for everything from stock cars to complex sailing ships. Impressed with the young man's talents, AMT lured him to its research and development office in Troy, Mich.
A U.S. draft notice in 1963 precipitated his return to Canada. Seeing little market for model making, he turned to graphic arts. He was a book designer at McGraw Hill and later, art director at Oxford University Press. A year-long sabbatical in Grenada in 1972 sweetened his love of sailboats.
He moved to Port Hope in 1975 and three years later, returned full-time to his first love, model building, augmenting his income by making architectural models. His first commissions were replica war planes for a Toronto restaurant.
For any model, he spurned pre-fabricated kits, instead studying blueprints, original plans, photos and other references. “That can be the most difficult aspect of the project,” he explained. “The model is only as good as the documentation.” If he could, he would go to see a boat to look it over and photograph it from every angle.
He would begin by creating a set of drawings, never working above a scale of a half-inch to the foot. The models started out as planks of basswood, a soft wood ideal for shaping the hull (the grain on some other woods was out of scale). Next, he used the bread-and-butter method to sandwich the pieces together, creating a layered effect. The hull was always left hollow to reduce warping, and depending on the period of the replica, painted with a matte finish or lacquered to a high gloss.
The same attention was lavished on the deck and finishings, for which he employed fibreglass, acrylics, styrenes and boatloads of Krazy Glue. Any interiors visible through open hatches or companionways were fully detailed, down to the tiny lifeboats and portholes.
Using a delicate jeweller's lathe, he handcrafted every brass winch, cleat and davit. For more modern electronic parts, such as radar masts and screens, he would draw a flattened image reproduced in beryllium copper, made with a photo-etching method he'd learned in his graphic arts days, then bend it into shape.
He became a pack rat, hoarding bits and pieces of what others would consider junk. Pin heads were used as bolts; heavy-gauge, brass piano wire substituted for railings; hypodermic syringes doubled for stainless steel tubing on decks and superstructures. Wee loops of waxed linen string reproduced rigging.
He fashioned everything but sails, believing a full rigging of canvas made the model look like a toy. If a client insisted, Huffman would neatly fold sails under a miniature sail cover.
He would spend 10 weeks on a powerboat and 12 weeks, often more, on an icebreaker, battleship or large commercial vessel. Self-critical, he was always aware of things he could improve. “Past a certain point,” he noted, “you're no longer building for the client – you're building for other professional model makers. You know they're not going to excuse any shortcuts.
“I want my work to impress the purists as well as the clients.”
He also acquired the discipline to walk away from a project if it didn't measure up. “If you don't, you're likely to throw it across the room,” he once told the Financial Post.
Ten of his models are still on display at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto. “In recent years we used him to refurbish and repair the many models we have that get damaged or just old,” noted club archivist Diane Blake. “He told me that it was becoming difficult to find the small pieces that he used.”
Also becoming difficult was his ability to see. In later years, his deteriorating sight meant a slower pace, and about three years ago, he had cataract surgery.
His son has an especially fond memory of Career Day at his junior high school. His father's scheduled 20-minute talk “turned into two hours of riveting information about models and the impact on art, engineering architecture, science and popular culture. The accountant waiting to speak was told to come back the next day.”
As for real boats, Huffman enjoyed sailing and racing in them, but he never owned one.Alfred Edward (Fred) Huffman leaves his wife Joan Sirr, son Christian, sister Linda, and recently discovered relations in the Hayter family.