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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Joe Sommer, 88, has turned his dining room into a workshop for his model ships. This 1960 Corsaro II will be the 12th ship in his fleet.

Continuing a life of craftsmanship

Grabill Cabinets retiree keeps hands working with ships

The ships, such as this 1960s Chris-Craft model, have intricate detail.
This scale model of a 1794 Montañés ship from the Spanish navy is the centerpiece of Sommer’s collection. It took more than six months to finish and now sits in the front window of his house.

After arriving at Joe Sommer’s house in Fort Wayne, it’s easy to tell that his hobby is building model wooden ships. After all, he has one of them displayed in the largest window that faces the road.

Sommer, who recently turned 88, began building ships nearly 25 years ago. What started out as “something to do at night while I was working during the day” has led to the completion of 11 ships. Three are displayed in large glass cases in a room his late wife, Laurette, called the “ship room.”

Sommer’s history as a woodworker has crafted his hands into ship-building machines. He spent almost half of his life as a woodworker for Grabill Cabinets, where he was the first full-time employee.

He worked his way up and was president for 13 years. When he retired, there were more than 200 full-time employees.

A life working with his hands has translated into other activities such as building all his own furniture and painting a good amount of the artwork hung on his wall.

“I am a little bit of a jack-of-all-trades,” he says.

But Sommer did not ease into ship building.

The first ship, which he built while vacationing in Florida, is spectacular, even if the modest Sommer points out the mistakes he made.

He used nails to roughly fasten the wooden planks rather than the glue, which he now uses.

Sommer’s wooden ships start with a few blueprints and a box of tiny planks of wood.

“Not everyone has the patience to do it … ,” he says. “It leaves a lot to be figured out by the imagination.”

Sommer almost gave up the hobby after his wife died last year and he became depressed. But after one of his four children (he has three sons and one daughter) bought him his 12th model ship, he was hooked again.

“Some people would just sit and rot, but that’s not me,” he says.

He now sets up shop in the dining room, where a chandelier casts light over tools scattered on the table. He used to work in the garage.

“Laurette would not have been using the dining room table like this,” Sommer jokes.

A white, rectangular box is the beginning.

“The ships just start off as a flat box, that’s all it is,” he says.

But when they are finished, the ships are worthy of close inspection. Each tiny plank is placed carefully next to others. Every small knot, which Sommer ties himself, is meticulously crafted.

The gem of Sommer’s fleet is a model of a ship from the Spanish navy; it is the ship in the front window of his house. It took Sommer more than six months to finish and is too large to be encased. Sommer says he will never take on another project like it.

The son who bought him his most recent project saw a completed ship like the one in Sommer’s front window on eBay. It was listed for $16,000. Sommer, however, has no plans to sell any of his fleet. “I guess I will just pass them on to my heirs or something like that,” he says.

Sommer seems to take great pleasure in the fact that the ships remained through his wife’s death and will remain through his death.

“When they are completed,” he says, “unless they are destroyed by fire or catastrophe, they are here forever.”