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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Collector: Model fleet - To keep retirement boredom at bay, Bill Widrig resurrected a hobby from childhood

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

When Bill Widrig retired from the U.S. Forest Service in Montana in 2002 and moved to Spokane, he needed a hobby.

“I got bored,” he said. “Especially, in the wintertime.”

As he and his wife, Sharon Widrig, browsed the shelves of a local hobby shop, he spotted a model ship kit.

“I built model airplanes and cars when I was a kid,” Widrig said.

He put the kit down, but when Christmas arrived, he found it under the tree.

“I saw him fondling it, but he didn’t buy it, so I went back and bought it for him for Christmas,” Sharon Widrig said.

Bill Widrig found shipbuilding more engrossing than the cars and planes he’d built as a kid.

“Ships are more intricate,” he said.

After he completed his first plastic model, he moved on to wooden ships from Spain.

The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria perch on shelves Widrig built to display his fleet. Their sails look aged and weathered because he soaked them in tea.

All of his ships are replicas of historic vessels, and part of the allure for the shipbuilder is learning about their history.

The Cutty Sark, for example, was built in Scotland in 1869 and was one of the last tea clippers made – also one of the fastest.

Widrig’s favorite models are the most complex and took him the longest to construct. He pointed out the narrow strips of wood that make up the hull of the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides.

“I had to steam the wood to get it to bend around the prow,” he said. “The rigging was complicated because the directions only showed one side!”

The three-masted wooden-hulled heavy frigate of the U.S. Navy is the world’s oldest commissioned naval warship still afloat.

His second favorite is a Mississippi riverboat complete with paddlewheel, herringbone pattern deck, red trim and an American flag.

Intricate details like positioning the cannons on the 32-gun French frigate Hermione La Fayette can take hours of concentration.

“Each model takes me about two to three months to build,” Widrig said. “About three years ago, I got an essential tremor in my hand, so now it takes me longer.”

More contemporary ships are also included in his collection. The USS Carl Vinson , an aircraft carrier, recently returned from a four-month deployment in the Western Pacific.

Other models like the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri mark pivotal moments in World War II. The Arizona rests at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, and the deck of the Missouri is where Japan surrendered. Visitors can tour the Missouri at Pearl Harbor.

Bill’s collection includes about 20 models, but he no longer has his replica of the USS Yorktown. The ship was the 10th aircraft carrier to serve in the U.S. Navy and served in WWII and also Vietnam.

“A friend’s sister came over and saw it,” Widrig said. “She said her dad used to work on the Yorktown, so I gave it to her.”

In addition to plastic and wooden models, he’s built a ship made of metal pieces and one made of clear plastic.

“They just fit together,” he said, shrugging.

He much prefers the painstaking process of creating 200-plus piece models. For him, the enjoyment of his collection comes from building each addition.

“I like creating something, putting everything together and having something to show for it.”

His wife, who launched his fleet, smiled.

“I call it Bill’s regatta,” Sharon Widrig said.