Denville Model Ship Builder’s Latest Creation Now in Norway

Photos courtesy of Doug McKenzie


By Steve Sears


Denville’s Doug McKenzie loves the Brigantine Leon.


“It’s beautiful,” McKenzie says. “It’s one of the most beautiful sailing ships that’s ever been on the water.”


The Brigantine Leon was designed and built by Colin Archer in Norway in 1880, and its life ended in 1915 when it took on water and sank. It rests now at the bottom of the sea.


After two years of meticulous study and craftsmanship, McKenzie recently completed a model of the ship, which was scheduled to arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in France on December 6. It will be permanently on display at the Tollerodden Foundation building in Larvik, Norway.


The initial idea for the model, and McKenzie’s fondness for the Leon, date back to 1960. McKenzie, then 12, took two years to construct his first boat model, his ultimate goal of the Leon always on his mind. He also, from 2007 to 2009, built an actual square-rigged model of the Leon, one that he could actually sail. The ship itself, which he called “Little Leon”, was a total of 22’ long and five feet wide. “I built her in two and a half years,” he says. After sailing it occasionally, he on a whim sold his boat to a young couple in Kansas. “And when I did that, there was nobody – except maybe my wife – who said, ‘I get it.’ What everybody said was, ‘How could you do that? How could you spend two and a half years on something and then just basically give it away?”


His purpose, his love really, was in the building (and eventual sailing of) it. When that pleasure was gone, it was someone else’s to enjoy. 


His Leon model would undergo a like voyage.


When embarking on his model project after his 2017 retirement, McKenzie reached for two books on his bookshelf to companion him. “Harold Underhill, ‘Ship Modeler Extraordinaire’, my moniker for him,” he says of the author. Plank-On-Frame Models and Scale Masting and Rigging (volume one – Hull; and volume two – Masting and Rigging) were the titles. “My folks gave them to me as a Christmas present in 1969. That was only 11 years after the first edition.”

Underhill’s offerings, unfortunately, did not aid him in the full with his project. McKenzie sought to do something different: use for his model the same construction methods that were used on the actual ship. “A lot of it (in the book) is based on common practice. But each one of these ships is a little unique, and I had very little unique information. I should also mention that there’s probably hundreds of models of Leon built, and the reason is because of that (Underhill’s) book. So, all of these models have the same problem that I ran into, which is they only know what’s in the book – and that’s not really Leon. That’s common practice.”


“So that was the motivation: I wanted to go beyond common practice.”


Seeking to find more information, especially about the Leon builder, McKenzie went investigating, writing three emails to different organizations in Larvik. “I got an email back that said, ‘I have no information for you, but there’s a gentleman that I’m sending your email to, because he may.”

McKenzie was connected to Jeppe Jul Nielsen, whose prime interest was in Colin Archer, the Leon creator 141 years ago. Nielsen had written much about Archer and his famed ship, and McKenzie had found his gold mine. “He said he would help, and he’s the one who actually identified all the documents that we now have access to.” 


The project then took off, and bore the lasting fruit that McKenzie wanted.


As McKenzie – his hard work again completed to satisfaction – sent his model overseas, the comments flowed again. “With this model, the same thing,” McKenzie says. ‘The comments that I get are, ‘You’ll enjoy Leon for many years.’ Well, that’s not actually true, because she’s going away. And people say, ‘How can you do that?’ The answer is that it’s the project that I value, not the product. The hard work. It’s by far the most complex model I’ve ever built. In the case of the model Leon, my pleasure was in building it the way the ship was built.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.