The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Philip T. Mattson


Winner, Joe Martin Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for 2002

Museum quality ship model builder

Phil Mattson puts the finishing touches on his model of the Pacific Star tramp steamer in his home shop in La Jolla, California. (Click on above photo for larger picture.) Following the article about Mr. Mattson are photos of some of his projects.

$500.00 Special Recognition Award for Lifelong Achievement Awarded to Philip Mattson—April 18, 2002

Phil Matson is one of those rare individuals who has taken craftsmanship and living to the next level. He is a true artist and humanitarian. Few people on this earth have impressed me more on either count. My desire to make others aware of Phil’s magnificent work is the reason I decided to give Phil a special recognition award.

The transformation from craftsman to artist is a difficult one because the craftsman must first master the skills of a tradesman. This step cannot be bypassed as it can by many so-called artist of today. Artists have the luxury of being able to work with the media of their choice; however, the subject a modeler has chosen to build dictates the media they must work in. This in turn usually requires that more than one skilled trade must be mastered to produce that perfect model.

Consider a sculpture of a pleasing shape that the public finds amusing. It could be a row of old Cadillac cars painted white and half buried in the ground or a curtain across a canyon. The builder of this sculpture is immediately considered an artist and may go on to find fame and fortune because his or her work is simply different. If this artist had to get to this level by first being a superb craftsman who could produce work with a craftsmanship close to or equal to that of the great classical artists before their work could be considered art it would be a different story.

Exactly when Phil crossed the line between craftsman and artist is difficult to determine. Though somewhat overshadowed by the list of his overall accomplishments, his attention to detail—even on parts that will never be seen in the finished model—is something that strikes people looking at his work. I remember perfectly crafted canons set in place on his present project of the British warship Alfred. Most of the 74 canons were down in the bowels of the ship and only the tip of the barrels could be seen on his completed model, but they were there and perfect in every detail. Phil would consider it “cheating” to take a shortcut.

His “ship builder in a bottle” theme of an old man building a ship in a bottle is a perfect example of craftsmanship taken to the level of art. I found the result similar to a Norman Rockwell painting, but consider the engineering and planning that had to go into creating this masterpiece. The quality of his work speaks for itself.

In recognition for his attention to detail, the outstanding craftsmanship of each and every part of his models and his mastery of so many varied techniques, The Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship is presenting a special award for lifelong achievement in the field of modeling to Phil Mattson. From his first award from the Philadelphia Museum at age 13 to this award 69 years later, Phil Mattson’s life has been devoted to a quest for excellence in craftsmanship. In recognizing Phil’s achievements, we hope it will encourage others to accept nothing less than the best they can do in modeling and all endeavors they attempt in their lives, for craftsmanship is not only a skill that is learned with practice, it is an attitude that carries through to all aspects of your life.

—Joe Martin

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About Phil Mattson

When Phil was young, a handyman who worked for the family gave his dad a ship in a bottle as a gift. That model sat on his dad’s desk where it was to be looked at but not touched. Phil was so intrigued with the model that at age 10 he decided to build one himself. The handyman  showed him the basics and he was off on his own from there. Times were tough during the Great Depression, and they had lost their family home to the bank and were living with relatives. Materials and tools for hobby projects were not easy to come by, but his family supported him in his efforts in any way they could. His first model was made from whatever materials were at hand, and was fairly crude by expert modelmaking standards, but it stood the test of time and still survives today as part of Phil’s collection. 

Phil Mattson's first attempts at building ship models started with this ship in a bottle at age 10. (Click on images for larger versions.) A quarter is used in the photos to give a size scale.

At age 13, he built a large and very detailed model that won second prize in a ship model competition in the Spirit of Youth Exposition at the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. He was sick the day of the presentation and had to stay home, but his mother took the model to the museum in a taxi for him. Phil is still proud of that first award but has lost track of the ship model.

At age 13 Phil built a ship model that was displayed in the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. The museum's curator and a friend of his are shown with the model as he was home sick the day the photo was taken. The small inset shows Phil at age 13. (Click on photo for larger image.)

Phil's life and career outside model making

In 1943, Phil was drafted into the Army as a private. Because of his training in mechanical engineering and machine design at Stevens Institute in New Jersey, he was assigned to the Manhattan Project in New York. This was the top secret project to design the first atomic bomb. He became a Master Sergeant and specialist in seals and pumps and ended up working for several contractors making specialized equipment during the course of the project.

After the war in 1946 Phil left the army and studied physics at George Washington University while working for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, MD. This led to an assignment working on the first subsonic guided missiles until about 1950. From then until 1958 he worked for Vitro Corporation on ordinance projects including torpedo guidance systems. From 1958 until his retirement in 1978 he worked for General Atomic in San Diego in the design and construction of nuclear power plants. He became the supervisor for the high level "hot cell" where the highly radioactive material is worked on with remote slave hands. A lot of special jigs and fixtures had to be designed to get this sensitive equipment to work safely and efficiently.

When Phil entered the service and married his wife Helen in 1943, his spare time was in short supply and his modeling projects were put on hold for many years until his kids entered college. They have three children: Claudia is a high school science teacher, Greg is a medical doctor and Rebecca is a career planner at Humboldt State College. By the mid 1960’s Phil again had the time and went back into modeling, although he did take about 12 years off between 1972 and 1984 to build a 40’ motor-sailboat in his back yard. (Though he and his wife had plans for long-distance sailing adventures, the reality of seasickness took the fun out of open ocean sailing for them and they sold the boat a few years after its completion.) Throughout his life he was always interested in boats and sailing and, in addition to his detailed models he has built many pond sailers—both free sailing variety and radio controlled. He also enjoys wood carving.

Practice makes perfect...even for experts

As a matter of interest, Phil was asked why two of the tiny models he built were the same ship but in different scales. The first Norwegian trawler is about 2” long while the second is about an inch long. Phil says that after a long spell of working on his house or on full size projects it takes him a while to get back his modeling skills. He first built the smallest model he could. Then, when his skills were honed, he built one half that size. Then he knew he was ready to go back to work on the scale ship model he was building at the time. Fine scale modeling, like any skill that requires dexterity, must be practiced in order to stay sharp. Even craftsmen of Phil’s skill level must sometimes work up to (or down to) some projects with a little practice beforehand.

Phil Mattson at work on the USS Bennington in his shop. (Click photo for larger image.)

Phil has written several articles on ship modeling for Model Ship Builder magazine and the Nautical Research Guild. He is an active member of the San Diego Ship Modeler’s Guild and attends their monthly meetings. His current project is a model of the 74-gun British ship-of-the-line HMS Alfred.

Special Craftsmanship Award

In April, 2002, Phil Mattson was given a special recognition award for his lifelong achievement in modeling by the Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship. A check for $500 accompanied the award. From his first award from the Philadelphia Museum in 1933 to this award in 2002, Phil Mattson's modeling career spans 69 years of excellence and shows no signs of slowing down at age 82.

We regret to announce that Phil Mattson passed away in March, 2013.

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Here are some of Phil's projects:

(Click photo for larger image.)

Tiny ships and ships in bottles

This is more than just a ship in a bottle, this pinch bottle contains an entire story. Shown is the ship builder at work constructing an even smaller ship in a bottle. The figure is carved in several pieces which are inserted into the bottle and assembled as is the table and other items too big to fit through the neck. The entire scene includes 52 separate pieces.
This close-up shows the builder and his tools plus a small book entitled "My Method" by Phil Mattson. The white-haired modeler is pulling the string to raise the rigging on the tiny ship in his bottle. He is surrounded by the tools of his trade. This piece demonstrates the combination of art and craftsmanship that is achieved only at the highest levels of expertise.
On this tiny table are displayed several very small ship models, the smallest being inside a bottle. A quarter shows size scale. The four photos below are details of each of these projects.
As if building a ship in a bottle weren't enough of a challenge, imagine making one this small! The scene inside the bottle is about the width of a quarter dollar.
This small Norwegian fishing trawler has plenty of detail despite its small size. Models of extremely small size are often built to hone a modeler's skill and dexterity.
This slightly larger ship displays plenty of detail in the rigging.
This is a model of the same fishing trawler as is shown two photos above, but at twice the scale.
This tall, thin bottle features a ship with a house and windmill on the headland in the background. The ship is the Yankee, made famous by Captain Johnson and his wife who trained college students to sail in their travels around the world. Topping the bottle is a cork with a hand carved figure of a ship's captain. The tall bottle presents assembly and rigging problems different from those encountered when using the more traditional horizontal bottle.
The starboard view of the Yankee shows the bow rigging and a buoy off the headland marking some dangerous rocks.
On the headland is a windmill and lighthouse. This view better shows the detail in the rigging on the ship. A tiny dory is towed on a line behind the ship.
A detail of the hand-carved cork shows plenty of character in the pipe smoking, white haired captain.
This larger model of the HMS Victory incorporates a fancy stand into the display. Around the base are semaphore flags that announce Admiral Nelson's famous message to the fleet: "England expects that every man will do his duty." A canon is at the front of the display and an anchor is connected to a ring near the neck. The cork displays the royal coat of arms. The bottle is modeled after the shape of a Dewar's scotch bottle but was custom blown by a friend of Phil's to achieve better optical purity than a standard bottle.
The HMS Victory is seen under full sail passing the Eddystone lighthouse on the point at Portsmouth, England. Whitecaps sparkle on the windblown blue water. On this ship Admiral Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at the battle of Trafalgar. He was shot by a sniper and died on the ship during the battle, but his smaller fleet won an important victory for England.
Captured inside this 12" long bottle is a busy harbor scene in the town of Bergen, Norway about a hundred years ago. Six ships are shown either tied up at the dock or under sail. It was inspired by a photo in National Geographic magazine. Buildings line the backdrop and a lighthouse is on the point near the neck of the bottle. The scene shows both steam and sail powered ships during the transition period between these two methods of propulsion. Ships are facing in different directions inside the bottle, which adds an additional level of difficulty for the builder. Different methods for raising the rigging must be used depending on the ship's orientation to the neck of the bottle.
When looking at the detailed scene, note the waves coming off the paddles of the side-wheeler and the smoke coming from the chimneys of the buildings. Think of the preparation and forethought that must go into a project like this.
The four photos to the left were taken in June, 2005 by Lance Cpl. James Hoke from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Public Affairs. He writes for the station's newspaper, The FlightJacket, and the Marine Corps website. He was doing an article on the San Diego Maritime Museum where he took a few photos of Phil Mattson at work. These photos show Phil rigging a very small ship model.

Phil has some of his models on display in the Maritime Museum including the Bennington (detailed below). He works in the model shop there just about every week. If you visit the museum, perhaps you will meet him there.

Museum display models

Pacific Star

The Pacific Star is a general cargo tramp steamer typical of those widely used in the early 1900's. This 1/8"-1' model represents an original that was 262' long, had a 43' beam and 28' draft. Power was steam, fuel was coal and speed was 10 knots.
Top view of the Pacific Star.
Amidships detail shows the boarding ladder in the down position. Details of the bridge, lifeboat, boarding ladder and stack can also be seen.
To achieve the look of a riveted steel hull, Phil made a jig to press rivet patterns into many sheets of thin copper. The sheets are glued on in an overlapping pattern covering the entire hull. When painted, the hull realistically resembles a steel boilerplate hull with thousands of rivets.
Many parts like the anchor winch in the bow are machined from multiple pieces of metal to accurately represent the function of the original deck gear. The steam driven winch can also be manually operated by use of the wooden rocker arm beam to the rear.
Phil has developed a very clever technique to make hollow copper ventilation "funnels". First he carves a wooden model from which a mold is taken. A low melting point metal called "Cerro-Bend" is poured into the mold. The solid metal funnel is then attached to electrodes and placed in a copper plating tank until plating of sufficient thickness is achieved. The Cerro-Bend is then melted out leaving a hollow copper funnel which is trimmed to shape and painted.


The Sintra was berthed in San Diego harbor where Phil photographed the details for his 3/16"-1' model. The original boat is a steel hull wishbone ketch built in 1959. It had a length overall of 94', a beam of 20' and a draft of 11'-5". It carried 5000 square feet of sail and had a 450 HP diesel powerplant. Phil built the model in 1989-90.
The starboard side view of the hull points out the ship's graceful lines. The black and blue color scheme is dramatic too. There were no drawings available of the original ship. The model was built strictly from photos.
The forward deck details include an anchor winch machined from brass parts.
Mast base and deckhouse details.
Winches and fittings abound on the masts and deck.
The aft mast base and steering cockpit details can be seen in this photo.

USS Bennington

The USS Bennington was part of the "Great White Fleet" in the Philippines in the 1890's which was in place to display American strength in the region. The captain of the Bennington placed the American flag on Guam for the first time. The ship later had the dubious distinction of being involved in the worst peacetime Naval accident in US history at the time. On July 21, 1905 the boiler of this gunship exploded when it was getting ready to get under way in San Diego harbor killing 65 men. The original ship was 244' long, had a beam of 36' and a draft of 14'. It was powered by two 1500 HP steam engines, had a range of 4200 Nautical Miles and could reach speeds up to 17.5 knots. The model is shown here on its display base. The model was built for the San Diego Maritime Museum where it is presently on display. (Photo: Mike Barth)
Phil built this model between 1990 and 1992. This photo shows some of the canvas covered bridge details amidships. Some of the armored deck guns can also be seen. (Photo: Mike Barth)
Lifeboats can be seen in this photo. (Photo: Mike Barth)
A closer view of the forward part of the ship
A closer view of the aft part of the ship
A detail of the Captain's steam powered launch. The miniature steam engine was machined from many brass parts.
The larger deck guns consist of many machined brass components. Racks, gears and other mechanisms are duplicated in great detail. Note the worm gear elevation mechanism and round rack gear rotating mechanism. These were made from drawings from the naval gun factory obtained by the museum.
Here we see a side detail of one of the guns and the boarding ladder in the down position.
This photo of the bow shows some of the photo-etched decorative detail

John Ericsson

The John Ericsson was a whaleback Great Lakes freighter designed by Captain A. McDougall and built in Superior, Wisconsin in 1896. It was named after a friend of Captain McDougall's who was the inventor of the first screw propeller. It was designed to carry freight on the rough waters of the Great Lakes. Its hull looks somewhat like a submarine and was designed so that the decks would be awash in rough seas.
The John Ericsson was 396' long with a 48' beam and a draft of 21'. It displaced 3200 tons. The model is 24.75" long. It was a good freight hauler but not popular with all skippers because it was difficult to handle in the wind when empty as it tended to "weathervane".
Details of the rear superstructure and lifeboats can be seen along with the brass propeller.
The bow detail includes a canvas covered flying bridge and brass winches on the deck.

HMS Alfred

Phil is shown with his latest project, the 74-gun British ship-of-the-line the HMS Alfred. It is build from plans by Harold M. Hahn. The original was launched October 22, 1778. The model is planked only down to the waterline so you can see the internal structure of the ship as well. Planks are held on with several thousand "tree nails" or tiny round dowels of wood exactly like the original.
Here Phil points out some of the deck detail including the lifeboats. The boats are removable so that detail of the anchor winch can be seen below the deck.
If you ever wonder why they call it a "head", the original potties were at the very front of the ship and were simply holes that dumped waste straight down into the water. There are four open seats and an enclosed "officers" head. Note also that Phil cast the figurehead in bronze.

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New Submissions Welcomed

If you have additional information on a project or builder shown on this site that your would like to contribute, please e-mail We also welcome new contributions. Please see our page at for a submission form and guidelines for submitting descriptive copy and photos for a new project.

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