Ship Modeling for Beginners

Written by: John Maguire

Model ship building is an interesting and challenging hobby enjoyed by many. Combining elements of history, technology, and craftsmanship, model ship building offers a unique finished product that the builder can showcase with pride. What exactly is a model ship? It is a scaled-down replica of a historically significant ship. Notable ships popular among hobbyists include the USS Constitution, the Titanic, as well as historical warships, yachts, whalers, and sailboats. Model ships typically range in size and detail. Model kits may be available for popular ships and are good options for those interested in trying their hand at model ship building. Simple kits may be found at major retailers across the country. Alternatively, seasoned hobbyists may choose more intricate kits or more complex ships. No matter one's skill level, model ship building can be a rewarding hobby for someone with a passion for the sea.

The History of Ship Modeling

Model ships have been found throughout different parts of the world and during different points in history. Ancient boats and model ships have been found in Phoenicia, Greece, and Egypt and offer historians a glimpse into the socio-economics of sailing and technology of the time. Sadly, due to their fragile and intricate nature, model ships found during archeological digs and exploration are often damaged. We do know from artifacts that model ships of the ancient world were a reflection of the value placed on the ships they represent. Ancient ships were marvelously complex and the technology they featured was revolutionary.

Choosing a Model & Getting Started

Choosing which model ship to recreate can set the tone for the entire build. It is important to have the right materials, hardware, and adhesives. Here are some of the general materials needed when building most model ships:

  • Compass
  • Ruler
  • Calculator
  • Hand-drill
  • Fretsaw with table and clamp
  • Sanding materials
  • Needle files
  • Wood rasps
  • Small hammer
  • Exacto knives
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Magnifying glass with a stand
  • Clamps and vices
  • Glue
  • Paint, lacquer, stain, and finishes

With all of these specialized materials, it is important to have the right space to work in. A well-organized materials storage cart can help hobbyist without a dedicated workspace easy access and clean up as needed. When possible, many hobbyists like to use a spare room that allows them to leave and pick their projects back up as they wish without disturbing those they share their home with.

Ship building plan will be needed regardless of the model you choose to tackle. Free plans for simple projects may be available online and shared by fellow hobbyists. Store-bought kits often include plans to go alongside the materials included. The more complex the chip, the more complicated the building plans. The costs of materials and plans can range anywhere between $100-$500+.

Inventory and Instructions

Before starting a model ship building project, it is important to carefully review the plans and instructions. Likewise, it is important to account for all of the necessary building materials prior to starting, that way you aren't left in a lurch with your project. Store all of your materials in clear plastic ziplock bags; that way they are not easily lost and you don't need to riffle for materials as they are needed. Typically, ship building instructions are broken into section: constructing the basic hull, planking, deck planking, and the construction of the external structure, including the mast, bowsprit and jibs, mast, and rigging. It is important that the instructions are followed carefully to ensure that the ship is properly constructed and results in a quality build.

Building the Body

After opening your kit, reviewing the building instructions, and inventorying your building materials, you can start working on the project. Again, follow your model's specific instructions closely. Builders will likely begin by building the frame of the model ship, first fitting and then gluing the specified parts together, making sure that they are flat and level. The planks for the frame will be laid next, sanding, as needed, to make sure that the planks are flat against the bulkhead. Once the planks are set they can be affixed. Planks will be added and to build the hull of the ship. Wood filler may be used to fill gaps in the build and following your model building instructions, decorative planks may be added. Following the adhering of the planks, the hull should be sanded smooth. When the hull is sanded, the deck can be added to the model, completing the body of the build.

Painting, Details, and Display

After the adhesive has dried, the model can be painted, stained, and finished. Many builders choose to paint or seal the deck and hull of their model ship in order to impart a finished, true-to-life look. This is especially true with notable or famous build. Details including figureheads, a wheel, cannon, rigging, and quarterdeck are popular additions that give the boat unique character. To display the completed model ship, many hobbyists choose to purchase a model boat display from a craft or hobby store.