Kevin Riordan: His vessels are a little nutty, a lot inspired

Joseph Ancona builds ships whose hulls are made from the shells of pecans and other nuts. "I build everything," he says. "Everything except the jars." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Joseph Ancona builds ships whose hulls are made from the shells of pecans and other nuts. "I build everything," he says. "Everything except the jars." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 30, 2013

Joe Ancona built his first ship 60 years ago, after a memorable Thanksgiving dinner in South Philly.

"I was about 13 or 14, breaking walnuts, and they were breaking into perfect halves," the Gloucester Township resident recalls. "I got this [idea] they'd make perfect ships. So I gave it a try. And I've been doing it ever since."

A fleet of exquisite little vessels whose hulls Ancona makes from the shells of walnuts, pecans, or pistachios merrily sails - in glass condiment jars - on the shelves of what he calls the "boat room."

Many of his painstaking creations are miniature replicas of historical vessels, such as the Mayflower, or tall ships, such as the USS Constitution and Sweden's Kalmar Nyckel.

Others - like his "Spanish Almonda" - are more whimsical, but no less impressive, in their diminutive details.

"I put my heart and soul into it," says Ancona, 74, whose workbench is as immaculate as the rest of the boat room.

His raw materials (shells, paper, thread) are stored in little boxes; pliers, scissors, and drill bits are arranged in drawers; band saws and other woodworking equipment is in the garage.

And those intricate masts? They're crafted from the sturdy wooden shafts of traditional cotton swabs.

The sails are composed of copier paper; the "water" in the bottles is hand-molded from drywall compound into wavy textures, then painted ocean blue. Ancona's got a technique for the minuscule webs of rigging, too - but it's a secret.

"I build everything," he says. "Everything except the jars."

"He's very particular," his wife, Pat, adds. "Very precise."

The couple met seven years ago at a grief support group. He offered to fix a leak in her kitchen sink, and she promised to make him dinner.

"I hit the jackpot," says Pat, 75. "I like to decorate and cook, and he can fix anything. If I say I'd like something, he makes it."

Ancona spent his career as an engineer's assistant at GE, retiring from the company's Malvern facility in the late 1990s. He had built his ships on and off for years, but retirement offers more time to focus on his craft.

"I've built more than 100," he says. "I give most of them away, as gifts."

Recipients of his largesse include those big food companies that still distribute products in glass jars. Ancona shows me letters of appreciation from Smucker's; he also recently sent a gift boat to Goya - in one of the firm's caper containers.

He's particularly pleased that two institutions have accepted his donated models as well; the Nyckel's home port, in Wilmington, and the Houston Maritime Museum.

Others have declined, citing the volume of similar contributions by other craftspeople - although Ancona's oeuvre is distinctive.

"Joseph's work is indeed unusual. . . . His talent is rare," says David Lavoie, of Methuen, Mass., membership chairman of the Ships-in-Bottles Association of America. The 150-member organization will mark what it is calling "National Ships in Bottles Day" on Friday.

Of nearly 4,000 people worldwide who build ships in bottles, "there are perhaps only 100 or so who build miniatures," Lavoie says.

"I like the challenge, to make it as authentic as possible," Ancona, who closely examines walnuts from the supermarket for their potential. "I wonder, 'What kind of a ship can I make out of this?' "

He handcrafts other objects, including wine holders and boxed, metallic chess sets. But his little ships are surefire crowd-pleasers, for grown-ups and kids alike.

"My reward in giving them away," he says, "is seeing the expression on people's faces."

Ancona insists I take a petite square-rigger in a pickle jar back to the newsroom.

The "USS Riordan" now sails proudly atop the sea of debris that is my cubicle. And when I look at it, I can't help but smile.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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