Choosing the model ship you want to build is a fun, interesting and exciting exercise. You have to consider the history of the ship, the shape, the level of detailing you want, the type of vessel and the skill level required to fashion the model. You need to understand the differences between different ship model kit manufacturers such as the level of instruction provided, quality of fittings, and accuracy of the model.
So now you have selected the ship model you want to build and you have decided on the manufacture of the kit. Great! Let’s talk about some other decisions you need to make prior to building.
Where will you model be displayed?
There are multiple manufactures of the same model ship. Typically the kits will be available in different scales. Each of the scales has its advantages and disadvantages. Consider where in your home you are going to display the finished model. Some scales are good for representing sensible size without involving too much intricate work. Other considerations include the skill of the builder, the level of detail you want and the space in which you have to work.
How is your model ship to be displayed?
Is the model to be in harbor, sailing at sea or in battle with other ships? It’s important to determine this so you will be able to decide on the sails and gun placements. As an example, if the ship is in battle not all sails would have been in use so your model should have some of the sails furled. Also the display of the guns is important. Most guns barrels are displayed outside of the gun ports which would indicate a battle is brewing. Models usually have all the guns outside the ports but in real action, some of the guns would have been just fired or in the process of being reloaded. Some of the breeching would be loose and some under tension. If the ship is sailing at sea, all of the gun port lids would be closed and the breeching would be under tension.
Can you obtain research material on the ship you want to build?
Let’s face it, commercial ship model kits are subject to the demands and limitations of mass manufacturing processes. That’s not to say that the plans and fittings are not reasonable replicas of the ship. However much detail and accuracy are sacrificed in the production process. It’s necessary therefore to obtain material on the ship that provides you with historical accuracy. Some of the resources for this research material are books, nautical archives, artist renderings, and specific historical marine institutions. Along with information on the ship itself you should also research marine technology of the era.
What is the era of the ship you are modeling and what country did it come from?
This is very important because as time went on, different techniques were used to build the ship. You want to make sure that your model uses the correct fittings for the era in which it sailed. As an example, the hulls of ships were sheathed with elm or fir planks from the late 16th Century to the middle 18th Century after which copper sheets were used. The exception is Spain and Portugal which sheathed the hull in thin lead from the early 16th Century.
What Skills do you Posses?
The basic skills of a ship modeler are working with wood, metal, carving and finishing. Most people are quite comfortable with working in one of these mediums. You do not need to be an absolute expert –practice makes perfect in the end – but you should have a pretty good idea of these techniques. Theory is a fine thing, and can be useful now and then, but it is no substitute for practice. You may consider commercially available parts available at Hobby Stores like Cast Your Anchor if you are not quite comfortable with your skill level in a certain area.
Is your ship model to be coloured or are you going to leave the natural wood finish?
All ships had finishes applied to protect them from the harsh environment of the seas. Of course the choice is yours on how you want to finish your model. Should you decide to put a finish on it, you should try to keep to the finishes available at the time the ship existed. For example, below the waterline the hull was often painted with wood-coal tar, which coloured it a dark brown or almost black. After the 16th Century, sulpher was added to the tar which left the hull with a yellowish-grey tinge to it. If sulpher was not used, a white lead paint was and this left the hull a dirty white colour.