Great Lakes Ship Models

Text Keith M. Steffke
Photo of Keith M. Steffke
Text The Old Ship Builder

Steel sidewheel passenger Frank E. Kirby 1/8 Scale Model of Frank E. Kirby

Keith M. Steffke has been making museum quality models of historic Great Lakes vessels from scratch, for nearly thirty years. He specializes in preserving and interpreting the history of the shipbuilding industry as it developed on the Great Lakes. The technological transition of building wooden ships, iron, and finally steel are documented in his family archival collection, known as the Steffke Memorial Maritime Collection, and in the scale models of ships he constructs for institutions, collectors, artists, fellow marine historians and enthusiasts alike.

Steel sidewheel passenger Frank E. Kirby Str. Frank E. Kirby - 1890 Sidewheeler

Light ship vessel number 98 stationed at Buffalo Light Vessel No.98 - 1915 "BUFFALO"

Known to many as "the old shipbuilder", Steffke has built a reputation for researching, documenting, and constructing distinctive models of early and obscure vessels produced by the shipbuilding industry that once flourished in southeastern Michigan. Models are made in many standardized scales and of a wide variety of materials. A frequently requested model size is the larger "Builder's Scale", where 1/4" on the model equals 1' on the real vessel. Tug Boats, Rowing Barges & Shells, Light Vessels (commonly known as Lightships) and other vessels usually under 100 feet in length make dramatic models in this size.

Light ship vessel number 98 stationed at Buffalo 1/4 Scale Model of the "Buffalo" Lightship

Model of the wood passenger propeller Chicora 1/8 Scale Half Hull Model of Chicora

The most commonly requested models are the 1/8" = 1' scale, referred to as the "American Museum Scale". While half the size of the Builder Scale, a great deal of detail can still be included without producing a model too large for personal display. The 1/8" scale is best suited for vessels that did not exceed 375 feet in overall length. Passenger ships of the "Golden Age of Steam" like the "Tashmoo", the "North & South American", Bob-lo Boats "Columbia" & "Ste. Clair" and Tenders of the U.S. Lighthouse Service look very impressive in this scale. A 375 foot ship, produces a model of nearly 47" long. However, for the largest Great Lakes ore freighters, the 1/16" = 1' scale makes a model such as the "Edmund Fitzgerald" about 45" inches long. This is large enough to show significant detail, but not so overwhelming in size that it cannot be displayed on a mantel or office desk. This is also a great scale for diorama's, industrial machinery, and other non-traditional models.

The Chicora on her maiden voyage. Str. Chicora - 1892 Wooden Passenger Propeller

Freighter William P. Snyder Str. William P. Snyder - 1906 Steel Ore Freighter

Only the best materials are used. For early, rare or little known vessels where no builder's plans exist, a great deal of time is spent researching all that is known about the ship. Steffke then produces a custom, conjectural drawing based on the known length, beam and depth of hull combined with his vast knowledge of the era's shipbuilding technology & practices of the time period. Many models have been produced based on her basic dimensions, a very poor photograph, a written newspaper description, and or U.S. Government Documents. Fortunately with the vessels of the post-1870's era, very accurate models can be produced using the builder's original drawings and multiple contemporary photographs or prints and engravings. The model itself is made of a wide variety of specialty materials. Micro-plywood's are used for strength and flexibility, domestic and tropical hardwood for the cabins and hull, be it a solid hull, or one of "plank-on-frame" construction. Custom made brass, Britannia metal and even pewter or gold & silver plated fittings are made to exacting specifications. Laser-cut parts ensure uniformity and custom-made deck fixtures, fashioned from original prototypes ensure a truly accurate and beautiful replica that is more a work of art than just another "boat model". Each model is custom made to order and there is usually a backlog of work in the miniature shipyard housed in Steffke's workshop. Steffke's habit is to make his models in pairs, one for the commissioning client and another for future sale or display. Some of the better known and famous vessels may be available for immediate sale. Please contact him with your specific requests. We hope you will take the time to browse the Gallery Pages to learn about the ships and the models that have been made over the last 30 years and how you can order your custom built copy of your favorite Great Lakes steamship!

Model of the freighter William P. Snyder 1/16 Scale model of William P. Snyder

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