His silver Labrador dozing at his feet, Allen Daffern, 70, deftly repaired the rigging of the HMS Leopard in his workspace, preparing the second of two ships for their final voyage to the Kalispell Vet Center.
Daffern began his lifelong hobby of creating museum-quality model ships at the age of 16.
Since then, all but two of his pieces have found a place on display at his home or in the homes of family and friends.
His perfect scale models of Royal Navy ships, the HMS Victory and the HMS Leopard, had been on display in a museum in Norfolk, Virginia, for the last six years until they made the trip home four months ago.
A career Marine, Daffern retired in 1992 after 26 years of active military service and since then has devoted more time to his hobby, which, he said, helps divert his focus from memories of combat.
In addition to model shipbuilding, he’s maintained connections with fellow veterans through the Kalispell Vet Center, where he attends regular group meetings.
Around the time Daffern was scheduled to undergo surgery, he received news that the museum where his ships were displayed was to undergo renovations and his pieces would need to be stored or sent home.
Opting to have the ships returned, Daffern told his veterans group, which met in his hospital room after his surgery, that he had nowhere left to display them in his home.
The other members of his group left the meeting and began developing a plan of their own.
“Then they came back and told me, ‘This is what you’re going to do with those ships,’” Daffern said. “And I said, ‘oh, really?’”
Daffern agreed to have his ships permanently displayed at the vet center upon their return and contacted a friend in Washington to have custom, museum-quality cases made for the occasion. Wanting to contribute to the endeavor, his friend chose to donate his time and the cases to the center.
“I didn’t know this thing was going to turn into such a big deal,” he said. “I just thought, oh boy, I’ve got a place to put the ships.”
Daffern builds his ships to a standard of detailed perfection.
Books on every part and process of building the different models comprise a single-subject library above his desk.
“When I make ships, I make them mostly from scratch,” Daffern said. “I research everything I can about whatever part that I’m working on.”
Each element Daffern crafts by hand, including the individual planks, the masts, the lifeboats and the ornate figureheads at the bow.
He hand-paints the smallest windows and embosses the individual copper plates that cover the finished hulls like scales on a fish.
“If I had eight hours a day to work on, let’s say, one of the bigger ones, I’m going to say it would take probably seven months at least,” Daffern said.
Of course, he said, you’d still have to factor in bathroom breaks.
“I’m told I have the patience of Job,” he said. “We’re all passionate about something and this is where mine is.”
From the laying of the keel, to the raising of the ribs, to building upward deck by deck, Daffern assembles each of his ships based on the same process and steps used to create the ships after which they are modeled.
Daffern said his ships should be sea-worthy, but none have ever set sail.
“After all that time, effort, expertise, you want to go stick it in the lake?” he asked.
During the months each model takes to complete, Daffern said, he also learns much of the history wrapped up in the ships he replicates, including the crews’ superstitions, the inner workings of the gun decks and battles won and lost.
During their glory days, the Victory and Leopard prowled the seas, accompanying a grand naval fleet into battle.
The two opposing sides would face off, shooting at one another until one side ran out of ships, Daffern said.
The guns on the Victory fired 18-, 24- and 32-pound cannon balls, requiring between eight and 12 men to operate each gun.
“A 24-pound ball coming at you at Warp 7 through wood can cause a lot of damage,” Daffern said.
Far from the threat of battle, at least 10 other models stand among other antiques and treasures that decorate Daffern’s home.
Uninterested in profiting from his hobby, Daffern said many of the ships he’s made over the years he’s given away to friends and family.
“If I sold it then it would be gone,” he said. “That’s not me. I build them because I like it, I enjoy it.”
The Victory and Leopard made their final voyage to the vet center on Friday, escorted by an caravan of friends and veterans who carried the ships and their cases from Daffern’s house to their new permanent home.
Daffern hopes the ships will inspire and encourage veterans to discover new hobbies or seek help through the various resources and groups offered at the center.
For more information about the Kalispell Vet Center call 406-257-7308; for assistance after hours, weekends and holidays call 877-927-8387.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.