How to Make a Wooden Ship

Wood ship models are fascinating, providing us with a glimpse into the age of sail, when tall ships sailed the oceans, carrying merchants and explorers to distant lands. Not all those ships made it back, as they were very dependent on the weather and didn’t have the navigational aids, communications and weather satellites we have available to us today. It was the wit and knowledge of the captain and pilot, along with the hard work of the crew, pitted against the ocean and the wind.

I had my first experience with wood ship models as a young boy visiting Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Mystic is a recreated age of sail port, which functions as a living history museum. They have one of the finest collections of wood ship models in existence, as well as restored and rebuilt tall ships floating in the harbor.

Building those models is painstakingly detailed work; but the results are worth it. Kits are available, varying in size and the level of detail provided. It is also possible to build wood ship models without a kit, developing one’s own plan and pattern; but for a first time builder, it is best to start with a kit.

Some Basics About Building Ship Models

Ship model kits are usually made of balsa wood, perhaps with some of the interior components being made of balsa plywood. Balsa is a favorite for modeling because it is easy to work with. It is not necessary to use a knife to cut most balsa wood components, as a sharp hobby knife will work. Even then, when cutting across the grain, take the time to cut through slowly, scoring the wood several times, until cut through. A straight edge should usually be used to ensure a straight line.

In addition to the hobby knife, a number of different small tools will be needed, such as needle nose pliers, needle files, a pin vice and planking screws (a specialty clamp for boat building). Sandpaper and sanding blocks will be needed, as just about every part will need to be hand-sanded before assembly.

The work area is important and should be set aside for building the ship. Many of the components are extremely small and easily lost. A good clean work area will make it easier to find them. Placing a large tray, like those used in pet crates, on the workbench may help in keeping from losing small parts, as the lip at the edge of the tray will hopefully catch them.

The wood components are usually held together with cyanoacrylate glue, mostly because it dries quickly making it easier to move on to the next assembly step. If we use PVA woodworking glue to assemble the boat, each piece would have to be clamped and allowed to dry, before moving on.

Building the Ship’s Hull

Every wooden ship model starts out with building the hull. This is assembled over a framework that consists of a keel and a series of bulkheads. The keel runs the length of the ship and the bottom of it will protrude out of the ship at the bow and stern, as well as going up to the level of the deck. Bulkheads will interlock with this at a 90 degree angle, providing the shape to the hull, as well as something to attach the planking and decking to.

The keel and bulkheads will be die cut or laser cut from either balsa wood or balsa plywood. The parts should be removed carefully from the wood to avoid any risk of breaking them. There are often small protrusions on the parts, which are critical to the assembly of the model.

There may also be smaller parts cut out of those same sheets of balsa, which are not bulkheads but are intended for use later on in the assembly. Be sure not to throw away those sheets until the model is fully assembled, so as to avoid inadvertently discarding a critical part.

The Structure

The bulkhead set will be numbered and must be installed in the right order to give the hull the right shape. In pretty much all cases, the middle ones will be the largest, with the bulkheads getting gradually smaller as they move towards the bow and stern. Insert them into the keel, ensuring that they bottom out fully.

Proper alignment of the bulkheads is critical. While they should fit fairly snug, ensuring that they are properly aligned. There may be a little bit of movement in them, but shouldn’t be. Visually align each bulkhead with its neighbors, while installing them, ensuring that the tops are level and that the outer contour forms a smooth curve. The importance of placement and alignment of the bulkheads cannot be overstated, as everything else will depend on them. Once they are properly aligned, glue them all in place.

There may be some other structural elements that need to be installed at this time, such as pieces to step the mast on and supports for the forecastle and bridge. Be sure not to miss those before going on to planking the hull.

Check the job of assembling the framework by laying one of the hull planks on the bulkheads, pushing it into place to conform with the curvature of the hull. Check to ensure that the plank touches all of the bulkheads. If it does not, sand the edges of the bulkhead so that it will. Repeat this process for the other side of the hull as well as the top of the bulkheads where the decking will be installed.

Planking the Hull

With the structure assembled, it is time to start planking the hull. The kit will have come with a pile of balsa wood strips for the planking and another for the decking. Typically the planking is wider than the decking. There should be enough pieces for all of the planks to run the full length of the ship, without having to splice them. A few notes to keep in mind about planking:

  • Plank both sides of the ship at the same time, keeping the level of the sides even. This will help ensure that the model doesn’t warp from all of the planking being on one side. 
  • Pieces must fit snugly together. If there are places where that is impossible, cut a small piece from a scrap of planking to fill the area. It is not uncommon for there to be a couple of wedge shaped areas like this on each side of the ship. 
  • Some pieces may need to bend more severely than others. In those cases, it might be necessary to use a plank bender to crimp the inside of the plank and allow it to follow the hull’s curve. 
  • Another way to make the planks more flexible is to soak them in water, before installing them. 
  • Planking screw may also be used to hold individual planks in place for the few minutes required while the glue is drying. These screw into the edges of the bulkheads and act as hold-downs for the planks. 
  • Some models require that some of the planks are tapered. This will be delineated in the instructions. 
  • Some models also require multiple layers of planks in some parts of the hull. Watch out for those. 

Planking normally starts from the top of the hull, working downwards. Nevertheless, check the instructions to ensure that is correct for the model being built. Although it seems easier to work from the stern of the boat forward, that causes a problem with trimming and fitting the plank at the bow. It is better to fit the bow end of the plank and allow the stern end to hang off the back of the boat. It can be trimmed later.

Be sure to attach the planks to each bulkhead. On larger models, this is done with nails, as well as gluing them; but most models only use glue. It is also possible that the hull will be plated over with copper plates; but if that is the case, it is done after the hull is finished.

The stern of the craft is usually the last part to be planked, after the ends of the planks have been cut off. Once the hull is planked and all the gaps have been filled, the hull can be hand sanded to make it smooth. It is necessary to sand off all the high spots, even if those are nothing more than the ridge between adjacent planks, to avoid over-sanding. Remember the material is thin. Add filler if needed to raise up low spots or to fill any gaps that exist between the planks. The entire hull should feel smooth, without any bumps or uneven areas.

Adding the deck

With the hull planked and sanded, the next step in the process is planking the deck. This is similar to planking the hull, except that the pieces don’t have to be bent as much. One constraint that can be challenging to deal with is that the sides of the hull often go higher than the deck, making the work area seem cramped, especially when installing the planks closest to the edges.

decking the ship usually starts from the centerline, working from there outwards. Other than that, it is much like planking the outside of the hull, although done with narrower strips of wood. Care must be taken when cutting the ends of the individual pieces, as there isn’t the opportunity to allow the ends to hang off the model and to trim them later. It may be necessary to use wood filler in spots, especially towards the edge of the deck.

With the deck installed, sand it smooth, just like the hull. Extra care should be taken around the edge of the deck, as it is easy to miss those parts, not getting them as smooth. The entire deck should feel smooth, like one piece of wood, when sanding is finished.

Finish the Hull

At this point, the hull is ready for finishing. It would be helpful to look at pictures of the original ship, assuming that the model is of a historic ship, to see the coloration. While we do not have all the accoutrements on the model at this time, basic sealing and painting of the hull should be completed before continuing. The parts which will be attached after this point should be painted before being installed on the ship.

If the deck is to be left natural, it’s a good idea to cover it with a couple of coats of matte polyurethane varnish to help protect it.

Adding the Fun Stuff

The ship model is far from finished at this point; it is literally just a hull. But in reality, it wouldn’t be floated at the shipyard at this point, because there would be no way of tying the ship to the pier to continue working on it. There are no stanchions, no anchor and no rigging.

The ship model should come with a large assortment of other parts, some of which might be cast metal parts. While some of these are associated with the rigging of the ship, the rest are the base and parts that are attached either to the hull or to the deck. The number and detail of these parts will depend largely upon how big the ship’s model is. Larger models allow for more detail; but also drive up the price of the kit.

If there is no secure way of holding the ship’s hull while working on it, it might be advisable to assemble the base and finish it, so that the ship can be mounted to it.

The instructions should provide detailed location for all of the various parts, which will include the ship’s wheel, the longboat, railings, hatches, the figurehead, and possibly cannon and crew members. Many of these parts will need to be sanded and painted, before attaching them to the model. Tweezers or some very fine needle nose pliers will be extremely useful for holding and placing these parts on the ship.

If the ship has metal parts, they will probably be pfinished. Even so, check them carefully, as they may have burrs, molding lines or sharp edges that need to be cleaned up, before they are attached to the ship. Most of these imperfections can be removed by scraping over them with the edge of a knife held at 90 degrees to the part’s surface.

Rigging the Ship

Sailing ships were and still are largely defined by their rigging and sails. Those in the know can look at any sailing ship or boat and tell you whether it is a ketch or a sloop. Every line, every spar and every block has a purpose in helping that ship capture the wind and turn it into kinetic energy.

Rigging is the most challenging part of building a wooden ship model. The kit should come with a detailed drawing, showing how the rigging is to be laid out. Take the time to be sure you understand the drawing in its entirety before trying to rig the ship. Tweezers and small hooks are useful for dealing with the small lines, blocks, deadeyes, pins and eyes. In shipbuilding, the lines used are broken down into two main categories:

  • Standing or fixed rigging – these are the ropes which support the masts and bowsprit. It also includes the rat lines the sailors used to climb up into the rigging. Typically standing rigging is black, because back in the age of sail these ropes were coated with tar to help prevent them from rotting. 
  • Running rigging – is used to raise and lower sails, as well as change their direction relative to the hull. This is where dealing with all the blocks and tackle comes in. These ropes are left naturally colored, as any tar would make them stick in blocks. 

The first step in all this is to make and step the masts. How many masts the ship has and how tall they are in relation to each other is part of how the ship’s rigging is identified. Most masts are actually made of two to three pieces, lashed together. A crow’s nest or other work platform may be located at the point where the mast sections are lashed together.

On the ships that these models are copies of, the masts had to be made in multiple sections, as they were essentially tree trunks. It was not possible to find tree trunks that were long enough to make the tall masts, so multiple logs would be attached together. Since they are tree trunks, they taper towards the top, so it will be necessary to sand the dowel rods used for the masts, tapering them as well.

While the masts on a ship are held in place by the standing rigging, they are glued in place on a ship model. In most cases the masts should stand exactly vertically in both directions. If there are multiple masts, they should align, so that if someone looks at the ship from one end, all they will see is the closest mast. The others will be hidden behind it, other than the very tip of the mainmast.

Before continuing on to attach the lines, attach all the eye pins and cleats that are mounted to the various parts of the masts and ship. Some of these will have to be glued to the mast, some attached to the railings around the mast and some to the bulwarks around the edges of the deck. Before attaching them, be sure to holes in those parts which need them, as it is much easier to drill those holes on the workbench, then when mounted to the ship. In most cases, blocks are tied to these accoutrements with a short piece of line, rather than being attached directly.

With the masts in place, the standing rigging is attached. This is actually rather straightforward, as the lines all go from one point to another, being tied off at both ends. It is important that all lines be taut, as the standing rigging on a ship is never slack. In order to accomplish that, glue the thread used for the rigging to the contact point, before tying a knot there. In order to avoid tangling the lines, it is easiest to work from the center of the ship outwards.

Most ship models come with pre-made ratlines. If they have to be made for the ship, then start by running all the vertical lines and tying them off at both ends. The crossing lines are tedious, but actually rather simple. Each row is one piece of thread, tied around each of the vertical lines with a clove hitch. A small amount of slope is acceptable and historically accurate here. glue each knot when the ratlines are finished and cut off the excess thread at the ends.

The running rigging is the part that will take the most time, especially if the intent is to make it realistic. On a full-sized ship, they use rather hefty rope for this, running through large wooden blocks (nautical name for pulleys). A real ship can have as many as 1,400 blocks, every one of which the sailors had to know and know its purpose. How many will actually be on a model ship will depend on the ship’s size and level of detail.

Lines will pass through a combination of blocks and deadeyes. A single line might actually consist of multiple pieces, as the main part of the line may tie off at a deadeye and then another piece of line be used to create the “shrouds” that run between a pair of deadeyes. The purpose of this on a sailing ship is to give the sailors a way to tighten those lines. It is important when there are a series of shrouds together, that they run in a straight line. In addition, the shrouds need to follow the angle that the running lines are attached to the ship at, as they are a continuation of those lines. This means that they will rarely be attached vertically; but rather be at an angle.

Some lines will be terminated at belaying pins. These are places to tie off lines that the sailors are likely to be adjusting frequently. They can be thought of as a typical cleat, like that found on a dock, except that they are mounted vertically. Lines coming down from the masts are tied off to these cleats in a figure-8 pattern, allowing friction to hold them in place.

model ship, wooden
Wooden model ship, PINKE

Making a Ship in a Bottle

There is a fascination with a ship in a bottle. Typically, these are much simpler sailing ships than what I just described how to build, mostly because they are smaller. The hull is carved out of a piece of wood, rather than planked. standing and running rigging is installed with the masts up, making sure that they won’t interfere with laying the ship down. The backstays are especially important, as they will keep the masts from swinging too far forward when the masts are raised.

The real key to making a ship in a bottle is to make it outside the bottle, making sure that the hull is small enough to fit through the bottle’s neck. The masts are hinged at the deck line, and threads, mimicking forestays (the standing rigging that goes from the masts to the bowsprit to keep the mast from falling backwards from pressure) are attached to all of the masts, leaving them long enough to go out of the bottle and be tied off to something to hold them in an organized way, so that it is clear which thread goes with which mast.

A potting compound is put into the bottle, making the water. Then the masts are folded down, towards the stern of the ship and it is slipped into the bottle, setting it into the potting compound. With the ship in place and glued down, the masts can be raised, one at a time, by pulling the threads attached to the masts. Then a long, narrow stick is used to apply a drop of glue to the mast hinges, locking them in place. The threads are glued to the bowsprit and cut off, completing the illusion that they are the forestays for the ship’s rigging.

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