Work to Scale: Tiny Tugs


Growing up in Tofino, Ron Burchett used to drive the shipyard workers crazy asking questions about the boats they worked on. To keep him busy, they’d give him blocks of wood and tell him to carve his own.

“Then they realized I had some sort of talent,” he says, “but they weren’t sure what the hell to do with me.”

Burchett, 60, is one of the world’s premier makers of industrial models of tugboats. He builds them out of fibreglass, aluminum and stainless steel for naval architects who want to test their designs before the ship is built. The models are three to 12 metres long, take 200 to 1,000 hours to build and even include working drive systems.

The work is a strange mix of global business and local industry. He might test models in Newfoundland for a California-based company building a boat bound for Singapore, but the models themselves are built by himself and a loose collection of Vancouver Island specialists.

A few parts come from the U.K. and Australia, but labour is strictly local. Burchett uses a Chemainus-based kayak builder for the fibreglass work and a group of retired machinists for most of the parts.