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Scratch building a model ship is not as difficult as it appears. You’ve probably built several models from kits,
so you already possess many of the skills required for scratch building. The only additional skills required are
interpreting the lines on the plans, selecting the materials to use in the building process, and developing the method
of construction.
Over-and-above the manual skills required to build a model from scratch are three more factors: time, patience,
and ingenuity. It takes much more time to build from scratch than it does to build a kit, so you must be prepared to
devote at least 500 hours to a scratch-built project, probably much more. Patience is an absolute necessity, for you
will find yourself spending much time developing new skills, and it is quite possible that you build items that you
are not satisfied with and decide to scrap them and do them over again. Ingenuity is a definite plus, because you
will constantly be called on to use new, sometimes outlandish, materials or methods. Thus, an open and creative
mind will be your greatest asset.
In building a kit, there are no plans to interpret, no materials to buy; the manufacturer gives you assembly
diagrams that show you how to fit the supplied pieces together. The method of construction is also supplied by the
manufacturer in the form of written and pictorial instructions. You simply follow all the step-by-step directions to
finish with the end product.
In scratch building, on the other hand, you are in total control of the entire project. You make the decisions as to
what wood or other material to use for a certain part on the ship. You control what you will build next and how
you will build it. You are the master and commander of every aspect of the building process, from laying the keel
to building a case.
Scratch building a model ship to completion is an extremely rewarding experience. It is the ultimate armchair
adventure -- a great love affair, if you will. It may take you a year or more to accomplish it, but you built it --
everything on it -- yourself!
Choosing the Plans
If you’ve never attempted to build a ship from scratch, it is best to start with a simpler model -- a sloop, for
example. If you attempt a more difficult ship on your first try, it may be beyond your skills and lead to eventual
frustration. However, if you choose one within your own abilities, you will be more than happy with the results. If
you feel you’ve built a few rather difficult kits and are ready to start a more difficult scratch build, then by all
means, do so. It’s entirely up to you. Just make sure you have assessed your strengths and weaknesses before
attempting your first scratch project.
There are many sources of model ship plans. In choosing a set of plans for your scratch build, make sure they
contain, as a minimum, three required views: a body plan, a sheer plan, and a half breadth plan. Without these, it
is not possible to build an accurate model. The use of these plans will be discussed in detail in Chapter 2.
Another consideration in choosing plans is the scale, which is the ratio of the size of the model to the size of the
real ship. This is mainly a practical consideration. Will you have the space required to display a large-scale
model? Will you have the space to build it? A typical ship-of-the-line was nearly 300 feet long in real life, which
would make the finished model 37” on a scale of 1/8” = 1’. The same model in a scale of ¼” = 1’ would be nearly
75” long. Any plans you do purchase can be enlarged or decreased in size, especially if you own a scanner or have
access to a printing shop.
The scale of the model also determines how much detail will be included in the final model. The larger the
scale is, the greater the detail that can be included.
Selecting the Materials
In order to build a model from scratch, you will need a wide variety of materials. The list seems daunting, but if
you’ve already built kits, you probably have used many of the materials listed. The materials discussed below will
represent the basic requirements for the beginning scratch builder.
Wood: Many modelers use many different kinds of wood in building a single model. For the beginner it is best
to rely on the easiest kinds of wood to use and then expand later. Thus, this narrative will address first-time scratch
Basswood : By far, basswood is the most versatile wood for model builders. It is light, almost white, in
color. It is very fine-grained, making it easy to saw, sand, drill, carve, stain, and paint. It also bends easily, which
makes it ideal for planking curved bows on ships. It can be turned on a lathe as long as it’s an eighth of an inch
round or larger. After a sanding sealer is applied, it can be sanded to a smooth finish that eliminates the fuzziness
associated with unsealed basswood. It can be made to simulate many other kinds of wood by the application of
stains. Its only drawback is its softness, so as long as you don’t implant your fingernails in it, you’ve got the ideal
modeling wood.
Apple wood: This is a versatile hard wood, brownish in color. It can be used for making small parts and
very small carvings. Paper-thin pieces can be sliced off on a band saw. It is especially useful in making parts that
will have a great deal of stress, such as mast caps, because it does not split or break easily.
Glue: There are dozens of different glues on the market, but there are two kinds that are indispensable to the
scratch builder. The first is white glue, such as Elmer’s, which is ideal for basswood, a highly porous wood. For
other types of wood it would probably be better to use epoxy. The second is cyanoacrylic glue, commonly called
CA or super-glue, which provides an indestructible bond in a matter of seconds. It can glue any type of material to
anything else.
Metal: The scratch builder will use copper and/or brass metals for various fittings, such as chain plates. Fine
black metal wire will be used for making eyes and stropping blocks. Sometimes, you will find yourself using
paper clips or staples or pieces of house wiring, or even the insulation around it.
Plastic wood: This is used as a wood filler. It can also be applied in layers to form a figurehead that can be
Rigging thread: Linen is the best, but it’s also the most expensive. Polyester/cotton thread is quite useful,
especially if you use a rope-making machine to make your own rigging lines.
Tape: There are several varieties of tape on the market, including self-adhesive, double-sided, and specialty
tapes. It’s used for painting waterlines or any straight-line area. Sometimes, you might use it as a clamp. The uses
of various tapes are only limited by your imagination.
Paper and cardboard: The scratch builder will find himself using paper and cardboard in myriads of places,
including window frames, anchor stock rings, paneling, edgings, etc. Bristol board, index cards, the backs of note
tablets, typewriter paper, even cigarette paper -- all have potential uses for the scratch builder.
Toothpicks: These vital items are useful for applying glue in small spaces. They can be used as dowels and
staircase pillars. They can be chucked in a drill and turned into belaying pins. Again, let your imagination run
Other material: There is no end to what might be used on a scratch built model. Tiny beads might be just the
right thing for parrals. The heads of pins might be just the right size for rivets. Round-head pins might make
cannonballs. Dried spices, such as thyme, could be used for leafy decorations. The cellophane from a pack of
cigarettes makes an acceptable small window. As you can see, the scratch builder sees everything around him in a
new light.
Developing a Method of Construction
The scratch builder has no step-by-step instructions to follow. Therefore, he must develop his own.
The first decision the scratch builder must make is what type of hull should be constructed. There are several
styles of hull construction worthy of consideration, including half-hull models, waterlines models, and whole hull
models. This narrative will address only the whole hull models, of which there are three types:
Solid: This type of hull is carved from a solid piece of wood or from built-up laminations. It’s usually started
by cutting out the basic shape on a band saw, and is then finished with chisels and spokeshaves. A series of
templates are made and used to check the shape of the hull at various points while the carving is in progress.
Plank-on-bulkhead: This type of hull is most familiar to kit builders. It consists of a length of wood that
represents the backbone of the ship. It usually runs from stem to stern, with the bottom edge representing the keel
and the top edge representing the upper decks. It is notched at regular intervals so that it can receive
correspondingly notched bulkheads. After the bulkheads have been installed, bow and stern blocks are glued in
place so that planking can be accommodated. Then the planking is installed directly onto the bulkhead edges.
The plank-on-bulkhead hull, when completely planked, looks exactly like the real ship in every way. Only the
unseen interior is not built like the real ship.
It should be pointed out that many kit manufacturers do sell plans alone, so the scratch builder can buy those
plans and instructions without buying the kit itself.
Plank-on-frame: This method of hull construction should be the ultimate goal for all scratch builders. It
consists of laying a keel, building individual frames, and planking the hull -- all exactly like the original ship.
Some modelers even go as far as installing the various rooms on the lower decks, along with appropriate furniture
and other fittings.
The plank-on-frame hull IS like the real ship. It is the most difficult method of building a model, and it is also
the most time-consuming, but it is also the most personally rewarding. Although it requires more skills than the
other methods, this should not discourage the scratch builder from attempting such a project. Additional skills can
be developed quite easily; all that’s requires are time, patience, and ingenuity.
Once the scratch builder has decided on what type of hull to construct, he must them study the plans intensely.
Thoroughly understand the plans, and write down a set of your own instructions.
Even after the hull is built, think through the next steps and procedures. Plan ahead. Think through every step
of the project, one at a time. Make sure that you don’t get yourself in a position where a certain item cannot be
installed because you’ve boxed yourself in a corner and can’t get at that location.
You will ask yourself a thousand questions: Should I use planking right on top of the deck beams, or should I
first install thin-sheeted plywood as a base? If I use thin-sheeted plywood, have I allowed for its thickness? Should
I paint the interior bulwarks before starting the planking? What should I use between the planking to suggest
caulking? Should I stain the deck planking or leave it natural? Should I install treenails or merely suggest them?
The decision to all these questions are yours, and whatever you decide, keep thinking ahead to the next step.
Now that you have acquired a set of plans that you like, it’s time to learn to interpret them. The plans used
above for purposes of illustration are of the so-called “corsair” brig known as Hassan Bashaw, a vessel that was
presented to the Dey of Algiers. 1 Regardless of what type of vessel the scratch builder has selected, it is important
that the plans contain the three views shown above, which includes the body plan, the sheer plan, and the half
breadth plan. All three are necessary in order to build a three-dimensional model with any kind of precision. Each
view shows the ship in a different perspective.
1 The History of the American Sailing Navy by Howard I. Chapelle, p. 139.
The Three Plans
Body Plan: The body plan, sometimes called section plan, is divided in half and shows two separate views of
the ship. The left-hand side of the plan represents the view from the stern of the ship looking forward. The right-
hand side of the plan is just the opposite, from the bow looking toward the stern. Note that the lines on the plans
are comprised of four types: waterlines, section lines, buttock lines, and diagonal lines, which will be explained
Sheer Plan: The sheer plan, sometimes called the elevation plan, is a view of the ship from its side. It, too,
contains waterlines, section lines, buttock lines, and diagonal lines. It also contains many other pieces of
information, including the location of gun ports, wales, masts, chainplates, and deadeyes.
Half Breadth Plan: The half breadth plan, sometimes called simply the plan view, is a view of only half the
ship looking from the top down. Only one half is necessary because the other half will be a mirror image of the
former. Like the other two plans, the half breadth plan also contains waterlines, section lines, buttock lines, and
diagonal lines.
The Four Main Kinds of Lines
Illustration © Rich Brayshaw
Waterlines: The waterlines are horizontal lines that pass through the hull at each area shown. It’s as if you
have placed a ship model in water at successively lower and lower lines. On many plans these lines are numbered
from the keel upward starting with 1, with every plan showing the same number for each corresponding waterline.
As you can visualize, the waterline near the midsection of the hull will be wider and slightly longer than the
waterline below it.
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