Sunday, 29 January 2012

How to build a model Steam River/Coastal Gunboat and model Steam River/Coastal Passenger Ship from scratch

The method I use to build a small model ship with a low freeboard involves building the hull from laminated layers of Plasticard and the then fixing a suitable superstructure to the hull.

1. Making the hull from laminated layers of Plasticard
The first stage is to cut a piece of Plasticard to the size required.

In this instance I wanted the hull to fit into a Hexon II hex, so it is cut to be 4.0"/10.0cm x 2.0"/5.0cm from 0.080"/2.0mm thick Plasticard.

The next stage is to trim the oblong of Plasticard into the shape of the ship's outline. This outline is marked on the oblong in pencil and then the sections of unwanted Plasticard are carefully cut off.

N.B. I use a Stanley knife/box cutter with a sharp blade to do the cutting, and it is done on a special non-slip rubber modelling mat. A ruler with a non-slip surface is used to cut any straight edges. I strongly recommend that anyone following this method use similar tools at all times when cutting the Plasticard as it will make the whole process much safer and more accurate.

The basic outline is then sanded so that any edges are rounded off.

A second oblong of Plasticard is then cut out. This should be slightly larger than the original oblong as this will make the laminating process easier.

The original ship outline is then glued to the second oblong, and the two are weighted down in order to ensure that the fit is airtight and any surplus glue is squashed out.

N.B. I use liquid cement to glue the two pieces of Plasticard together. This does produce fumes when it is being used and can irritate the nose and throat if the gluing is not done in a well ventilated room. It is absolutely vital that any safety instructions are followed and obeyed.

Because I want the bond between the two pieces of Plasticard to be as strong as possible, I usually leave them under the weights for five to six hours at least (overnight is even better). I then carefully cut around the existing hull shape with my modelling knife, using the edge of the shape to guide my knife. I do not try to cut through the Plasticard at one go (it is far too thick to do that with accuracy), but run the knife slowly around the shape anything up to twenty times, doing a short section at a time. This takes some time to do, but by allowing the weight of the knife to do the work rather than using too much pressure to get the job done quickly, it is possible to do the whole task accurately. This is one of the reasons why I use a Stanley knife/box cutter with a sharp blade to do the cutting and not a modelling scalpel, which has no weight to it and which requires additional hand pressure to make the cut.

Once this is completed I have a thin hull shape that is made from two laminated thicknesses of Plasticard. In this case it is 0.160"/4.0mm thick. Because I want the hull to be somewhat thicker, I repeat the process of cutting out another oblong of Plasticard, gluing the hull shape to it, leaving it under weights for the glue to take affect, and carefully cutting around the shape.

I then end up with a hull shape that is 0.240"/6.0mm thick.

I could continue adding additional layers of Plasticard to make the hull even thicker, but in this case I think that it is thick enough for the model I am making.

The hull shape is then sanded so that any edges are rounded off. I also use a method that is akin to planing to remove excess Plasticard. The blade of the knife is held so that it is almost vertical to the side of the hull shape, and then it is gently scraped along the edge. This takes off a very thin shaving of Plasticard. This method does require practise, and must be done carefully so that the user does not cut oneself, hence the advice to gently rather than vigorously scrape.

2. Making the superstructure
This is by far the easiest part of the modelling process, although care is still required. As the superstructure is made from a series of different-sized boxes, the most important thing (other than using the tools safely!) is to ensure that the corners of the boxes are square when they are assembled.

In this instance the superstructure is made from two 'boxes', one large (the main part of the superstructure) and one small (the ship's bridge. I try to make the boxes in the following manner.

Cut strips of Plasticard (in this instance it is cut from 0.060"/1.5mm Plasticard) that are long enough to form the 'walls' of the box. Drill or cut any openings that are required. In this case a number of portholes were drilled into the Plasticard using a simple hand drill from a very cheap set of screwdrivers.

Glue the corners of one long side and one short side of the box together carefully. I use liquid cement that is brushed on to the join (see safety warning above) and the joint is supported whist the glue dries to ensure that the joint is square. I then repeat the process for the other long and short side. The glue takes seconds to dry, but I let it cure for thirty minutes before gluing the two pieces together to form the 'walls' of the box.

The 'lid' of the box can then be cut and glued in place and gently weighed down whilst the glue cures.

In this instance the 'lid' (which will form the upper deck of the ship) has been cut so that it overlaps the sides of the box so that when it is glued to the deck it gives the appearance of a covered way around the deck.

The same method is used to build the ship's bridge.

The main part of the superstructure is then glued to the deck ...

... and once the glue is dry the bridge is glued to the main part of the superstructure.

All the model now requires is a funnel, and this is cut from a length of Plasticard tubing and glued in place.

The basic ship model is now complete, and it can be embellished with additional bits and pieces to taste before being painted.

3. Embellishments and additions
Because these models are to be used in wargames, any embellishments and additions to the models must be robust enough to stand the sort of handling they will get. Things that can be added without too much difficulty are doors and hatches. These are made from suitably-sized pieces of thin Plasticard (e.g. 0.040"/1.0mm thick Plasticard).

One of the most obvious embellishments that can be added are one or two cowl ventilators. These were often seen on steam ships, and allowed fresh air to be drawn below decks.

Whilst these are not an essential embellishment for a model, they add period 'feel'. I had several suitable cowl ventilators in my 'spares' box and decided to use some of them.

Winches (such as those used for hauling up anchors) can also be added to the foredeck of model ships. Again, whilst these are not essential, they can add a little aesthetic detail which should not impeded the use of the model in a wargame.

4. Building a River/Coastal Gunboat
The method outlined above can be used to build a River/Coastal Gunboat. These were sometimes converted from River/Coastal Steam Passenger Ships, in which case all that would be needed would be to add a gun or two to the model. Some were built from scratch, and these tended to have smaller superstructures that were optimised to give the ship's armament the best arcs-of-fire possible.

The model that I have built represents a specially built River/Coastal Gunboat. It was constructed using the same procedures as outlined above and a scratch-built gun was added to the open deck area. The bridge does not have conventional windows. It has a slit through which the ship would be conned. River/Coastal Gunboats often operated close to shore and their bridges had to be protected from small arms fire.

The breakwater fitted just in front of the gun was made from one of the mudguards from an Airfix German Armoured Car kit. I found it my 'spares' box and thought that it would improve the 'look' of the Gunboat, especially as many of them were fitted with an armoured redoubt or splinter protection around their armament to protect the gun crew.


  1. Excellent..the gunboat build is just what I was looking for

  2. Very well done on these.

    Though not a period I game the resulting ships are very nice and look great on the table!

  3. Hi Bob

    Nice little tutorial.

    I note that you stop short of painting the ship. Are you going to do a follow-up article?

    Would you do anything to prepare the plastic for receiving paint either before or after constriction?

    I do sometimes give the plastic sheet a wipe with white spirit and also a very light sand if the plastic is a bit shiny.

    What do you do?


  4. Hi Bob,

    Very helpful and informative and I shall certainly make use of the techniques. The beauty of this is the fact that the core idea can be telescoped up for larger vessels if needed although I recall you mentioned about using a box type approach for much larger hulls.

    Great to look at and and I am planning ideas as I write!

    All the best,


  5. Paul's Bods,

    Glad to have been of help!

    It is possible to build the same sort of model from other materials, but plastic does have certain advantages … as the next 'How to ...' will probably show.

    All the best,


  6. ADB,

    Thanks for the 'well done'. It is much appreciated.

    The same basic techniques can be used to build ships for other historical periods (e.g. galleys for Ancient battles).

    All the best,


  7. Peter Douglas,

    I am very pleased that you enjoyed reading this particular blog entry ... and that it might have inspired you to make some of your own model ships!

    All the best,


  8. Nice tutorial Bob.
    I dont game in this mscale but it has gave me a few ideas about my Pre-Dreadnought navies

  9. Jim Duncan,

    Give me a chance, mate ... I only finished building the models this morning!

    I will probably wait a few days before I paint them as I have another 'How to...' blog entry planned.

    When I do get around to painting the models I will wash them in warm, soapy water to remove any greasy finger marks. I might give them a wipe over with white spirit, but only if I think that it will remove any greasy marks that I may have missed.

    I will follow this by a coat (or possibly two) of light grey matt enamel paint. This gives a good 'key' for the top coat as well as being neutral enough not to affect the colour of the top coat.

    I find that using enamel rather than acrylic paint gives a better finish to paint on and adheres to the plastic much better.

    All the best,


  10. Ross Mac,

    Praise indeed! I hope that it might inspire you to continue to share your modelling 'secrets' via your blog.

    All the best,


  11. David Crook,

    I am glad that you found this blog entry both useful and inspiring.

    I think that you will find my next 'How to ...' of even more help as I intend to explain the other method I use to build model ships.

    All the best,


  12. Johntheone,

    These techniques can be used in a variety of different scales and historical periods. One of the things I am going to use these techniques to make over the next couple of weeks is some merchant ships in 1:1200th-scale for a forthcoming Fletcher Pratt Naval War Game.

    All the best,


  13. Sorry Bob, wasn't meaning to hurry you up! Everything in due course.

    I wouldn't have thought of using enamel paint these days. I don't think I've used enamel paint for years and years. Acrylics are my paint of choice.

    I will keep tabs on your results and I've just realised that enamel paint has a hint of 'old school' about it.

    Good work!


  14. Excellent work and tutorial!
    For gluing plastic/plasticard together these days I use Testors non-toxic cement for plastic models (there are still precautions listed on the tube). There are probably similar glues available if the Testors brand is not available locally. I've found it works just as well as the old smelly toxic plastic cement.

  15. Jim Duncan,

    I hope to start painting the models in the very near future. As the process of building the next ship model will require several long breaks to allow the glue to 'cure', I hope to begin applying the undercoat by Wednesday.

    I have always used enamel paint for undercoat because I find that it gives a better 'key' for the top coat to adhere to. The only problem is that it takes longer to dry than acrylic paint.

    All the best,


  16. Fitz-Badger,

    Many thanks for your very kind comments ... and the advice about using a non-toxic liquid cement. I will try to find some when I next visit my local model supplier.

    All the bet,


  17. Bob

    You may find a set of ships coming off the slipways, but following a different method picked up off the blogosphere.

    Two questions on funnels
    1. Are the 1:1 scale ones off of HMS Warrior?
    2. Where do you get smaller scale ones to store in your spares box?

    FYI in the past I found that a small nail bent over at the head made a passible ventilator from a distance.


  18. Peter Douglas,

    Am I to take it from your comment that you have another construction method? If so, I would be interested to hear more!

    In answer to your questions:
    1. The 1:1 funnels are from HMS Warrior
    2. Years and years of collecting models and the occasional purchase of unbuilt/built/damaged old kits whenever and wherever I see them.

    Thanks for the tip about making ventilators from bent nails. Simple but effective!

    All the best,



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