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South Jersey

Model maker painstakingly reconstructs ship

CLARK PERKS/Courier-Post
Gary Kingzett works on a model of the first USS New Jersey at his home in Closter, Bergen County.

Divers risk lives to visit wreck
Full-page graphic (PDF format)
Video: Bombing and sinking of the ship - RealVideo | QuickTime

Friday, September 5, 2003

Courier-Post Staff

The large man with the salt-and-pepper mustache was once a boy who read a book and fell in love.

The large man with the big hands was then a teenager who hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he pursued his love.

Now, the large man with the resemblance to Gepetto is an adult, and he is living that love.

The man is Gary Kingzett. His love is model ship building. And he is in the midst of a 3,000-hour project to reconstruct, virtually from scratch and to near perfection, the original USS New Jersey BB-16, which was sunk 80 years ago today.

The deadline to complete the model is May 2005, in time for the International Ship Model Competition at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.

After three years of work, Kingzett has 18 months left.

"I may make it," he says, pausing with a sigh. "It's scary. I have so much to do." Wanderlust

Born during World War II in Duluth, Minn., Kingzett, 61, spent Sundays on the shores of Lake Superior and watched the boats come in to port.

"They were so big and stately and graceful," he says from his home in Bergen County. "I kind of got the wanderlust from that."

Then somebody bought young Gary a 1941 book titled Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling about an Indian boy who carves a tiny canoe out of wood and travels from Lake Superior to the ocean.

"If the little Indian kid could make a model that could go to the sea, I figured I could, too," Kingzett remembers thinking.

With the help of his father, Kingzett built little boats from wood.

As a teenager, after dropping out of the University of Wisconsin, Kingzett stuck out his thumb and went west. He landed in San Francisco, where there was no more road left to hitchhike, and a toy store caught his eye.

"Just like a kid, I had my nose against the glass," he says.

The owner of the store ran a handicraft school for kids, and Kingzett was hired.

One day Kingzett called the Cliff House, a historical site in San Francisco, after its model ship museum burnt down. Kingzett was hired to rebuild the model ships.

"Talk about pure dumb luck," he says in a Midwestern accent not yet tempered by 26 years in North Jersey.

In San Francisco, Kingzett honed his skills. But a life of work - he owns a water treatment business - and basketball - he's 6-foot 4-inches - took him away from model ships for much of his adulthood.

Until seven years ago, when he got hurt playing ball.

"I couldn't play, and I needed something to do, so I got a model and started working on it," he says.

He bought a kit of the battleship Oregon - because his wife, Mary, is from Oregon.

"I discovered the kit wasn't accurate, so I started searching around and trying to make it more accurate," he says. "And really, that was a goal in itself."

Kingzett traveled to naval museums in Washington state, San Francisco, Oregon and New York to find out how the real ship was built.

After 1,500 hours, Kingzett had the best possible representation of the ship. And the industry agreed. In 1997, he won a national competition with the International Plastic Modelers Society.

"They got me hooked," he says. "You can actually do this and win things and have people pat you on your back?"

The Oregon now sits in Kingzett's living room. It is complete.

Down the hallway and through a door, in a converted two-door garage, the next challenge awaits.

The workshop is orderly, but not neat. There are tools and machines, a small television, a chair here, a stool there.

In his environment - in the air-conditioned, insulated garage - the Gepetto in Kingzett comes out.

"It's porous," he says of the wood in the ship. "As you work with it, you are feeling the life." Details, details

Everything - save for rope and anchor chains - must be built and cannot come from a kit, according to the competition rules.

The bolts here are smaller than one-sixteenth of an inch, and the plastic is from a supply warehouse for display companies.

There are narrow, 15-inch long pieces of plywood. In the same pattern used on the real ship, 1,100 pieces of plywood will be individually attached to the plastic base of the ship to make the deck.

What's more, they will be affixed with those fingers - the kind of fingers that are attached to a hand that swallows other hands in handshakes.

"People are fascinated that these banana fingers can do this small stuff," he says.

"It's a sickness," he concedes. "Bigger and bigger people making smaller and smaller things. It's crazy."

Building the real ship took 200,000 man-hours.

"I'm trying to do that all myself," he says. "I expect to do everything they did."

Like an architect, he has plans - from the National Archives - scattered on a table.

The detail is extraordinary.

The gun deck is meticulously painted inside, even though it will ultimately be covered by the superstructure. The 12 three-inch guns, a few of which fit on one tip of Kingzett's fingernails, were handcrafted and painted and ultimately will stick out the sides of the ship.

There are skylights on the deck. There are three smokestacks carved from PVC pipe by a lathe. There is stainless steel running up the sides of the smokestacks forming dozens of steps to represent ladders. There are ventilators made from perforated brass screens used by chemical companies. Satisfying work

Kingzett builds after work, after dinner, after watching a little TV. He works on the weekends.

Could this painstaking work actually be relaxing?

"Yes," he begins, before pausing and correcting his statement.

Not relaxing, but "satisfying," he says.

Call it the Zen of model ship building.

"I used to think I'd like to build something as lasting as the Pyramids," he says.

"You can't do that. So now I think if I do a pretty good job with my kids, with my grandkids and be remembered when I'm gone, what else can you ask for?"

Reach Matt Katz at (856) 486-2456 or

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