Up in the second floor workshop of a nondescript old house on Market Street, Mike Mirman is working intently, peering through a magnifying glass at a tiny piece of bronze no bigger than his thumbnail. Eventually, it will become part of the rigging on a model of one of the greatest sailing ships ever built. For now though, it and many other pieces — about 3,000 by the time all is said and done — await Mr. Mirman’s careful hand. Today, he’s working with a dental drill, grinding down imperfections and casting marks, getting ready to polish the piece.
“I’ve got to let my hands adjust,” said Mr. Mirman, who just came back from a trip out to the dry and much warmer west. “They’re used to being in Arizona.”
Mr. Mirman, 75, a retired engineer and miniature metalsmith, is deep into an ambitious project that could top anything he’s ever done before: Creating, and having cast, every bronze fitting for a 1/6 scale model of Reliance, perhaps the grandest sailing yacht ever built by the “Wizard of Bristol,” Capt. Nathaniel Herreshoff. Mr. Mirman, who has made miniature working steam engines, fireable guns no larger than a quarter and his fair share of boat models over the years, is the lone bronze worker for the project, which is being carried out by the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol. Like the other experts working on the 33-foot model yacht, he’s working for free, and for the honor of playing a part in honoring one of sailing’s biggest legends.
“It’s an incredible boat,” he said. “Just to be involved, when I heard about it I told them I wanted to do it.”
Reliance, 201 feet long and 199 feet from waterline to the top of the mast, is thought to be the largest gaff-rigged cutter ever built and is widely considered one of Capt. Herreshoff’s greatest achievements. The graceful yacht, which carried 16,000 square feet of sail and more than two thirds of a mile of rigging, was the 1903 America’s Cup defender and had a crew of 70 before being scrapped in 1913. Years ago, a 1/6 scale model of the hull was built — at 33 feet, it’s bigger than many pleasure boats — but was put into storage at the museum before it could be fitted out. Herreshoff officials decided to take it out last summer and finish it, appointing Sandy Lee, a long-time Herreshoff supporter, to oversee the model project. He said the Reliance could be one of the most complex model builds ever attempted, and the intricacy of the bronzework is high on the list of challenges.
“This can really be a centerpiece of the museum if it is done right,” he said last summer. “You can’t just stick a painted dowel in and call it a deck fitting. There must be a huge amount of fidelity of detail.”
Apart from Mr. Mirman’s bronze work, craftsmen and women of all kinds are taking part in the project, from rigging experts to sail makers to woodworkers and varnish experts. There’s an incredible amount to do, and it will likely take several years, at least, to complete the project. Part of what drives Mr. Lee, he said, is the importance of the work itself. Done right, he said, the model should be much more than a pretty piece:
“Reliance tells the story of extraordinary innovation,” he said. “The ‘how-they-did-its’ are every bit as important as what looks good.”
The child of a prominent Providence family, Mr. Mirman has loved model making and machinery since he was a kid. He remembers that his grandfather, a Providence mill owner, would often let him play around with the machinery at his textile mills, and he quickly discovered his talent for engineering and machinery. After serving in the military, he went to MIT and ended up working as an engineer and with his family’s businesses. Through it all, he built models, each tinier than the last. It kept him busy, and his house is now crowded with lathes, tiny band saws, routers, clockwork mechanisms and hundreds of tiny metal miracles, many of which he made himself.
To do his work, Mr. Mirman refers to reduced copies of original drawings of Reliance
‘s fittings, from 140 separate blocks to scores of cleats, staples and other bronze parts. He creates many of the objects in wax, then makes molds and brings them to Harrison Castings in Johnston, where they are cast in bronze, When he gets the pieces back, he smooths, sands and finishes them, turning them over slowly to the museum. He works as much as he can on the project — a few hours a day, anyway — and believes he has another two years of work to keep him busy.
“This isn’t something you can do in a few months,” he said. “We’re talking 3,000 pieces here.”
A funny part about the work is the high shine he puts on the bronze pieces before handing them over to the museum. According to the Herreshoff’s website for the project, Mr. Mirman goes above and beyond what workers in Capt. Herreshoff’s day might have done:
“Mike takes the bronze castings and grinds them to finished size and then buffs them to brilliance. We joke about this, since contemporary pictures and our museum’s collection of castings show that (Herreshoff) was more concerned about functionality than polished brilliance!”
“It was after all a racing yacht not a pleasure boat. But we’re not sure that our viewers want to take off their sunglasses.”