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How to build first rate ship models from kits


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By Al Bisasky

PART IV: Building Your Model

Challenge Overcoming 101:

Reading any how-to book or article on building wood model ships is one thing, but the actual doing is quite another. If the model that you purchased has complete and easily understandable directions and drawings, then construction should be straightforward. If not, you will need to decipher the terms and figure out the techniques of how to assemble what amounts to a box full of sticks into something resembling a model of a ship. This is where your most important tool comes into use: your brain.

Wood model shipbuilding should be fun, relaxing and challenging. Yet, oft times for the beginner it seems more like sheer work instead of a labor of love. I won’t even try to convince you that every facet of assembly will be a pleasure. Some things will be difficult for you, as a beginner, to overcome in order to see your kit through to completion. If you look at a problem that will inevitably arise in the construction and become frustrated or angry, you’re have defeated yourself. On the other hand, if you look at a tricky task as a challenge to be overcome, you will be successful and get no small amount of self satisfaction and enjoyment out of it. As my Uncle Seamus used to tell me, “Being a model shipwright takes a few good tools, some good materials, a good attitude and a good bottle of Irish whiskey to get a good attitude.” Forgetting the last item on Uncle Seamus’ list, I truly believe that it takes only 5% skill and 95% attitude to build a wood model ship. We can express this in a mathematical equation:

A lot of Patience + A Good Attitude = Success

Ask yourself: who and what are you building this thing for? The “who” is only you and the “what” is for you to relax and have fun. Put everything else out of your mind.

Blunders, Boo-Boos, and Other Fun Stuff:

Rule #1. You will make mistakes, but most all mistakes are correctable.

Rule #2. First learn Rule #1.

Wood is very forgiving as a modeling material. You can cut a new piece, shape it to fit, and start over with a new hull plank, mast spar, deckhouse, whatever. If a problem arises, think it through and then work it through, don’t sit there and cry about it. Remember what my Uncle Seamus used to say, “Real model shipwrights don’t cry, they take a shot or two of whiskey and start over.”

Real Life Experiences:

I currently have under construction two models: the WILLIE L. BENNETT (Model Shipways) and the HMS BEAGLE (Mamoli). Or as I refer to them, “The Fun One” and “The Dog”. The WLB has been mostly a pleasure to build. The materials and plans are first rate, although I think that the REALLY BIG plan sheet is just too busy on the hull work side, but fine on the rigging side. My biggest complaint is with the instructions. Now I know that this will raise the hackles of many a hobbyist, but frankly, it’s my money, my time, and I have the right to express my opinion. I think that Ben Lankford has spent too much time and effort on trying to tell you how to build a real skipjack instead of a model of one. The instruction booklet has left me hanging a number of times and the drawings and wording in the book don’t necessarily match the prints.

The WLB takes a lot of fabricating (scratch building). I realized and accepted this fact when I opened the box at the hobby shop. My modeling talents are up to the challenge and I’m having fun with this kit. A few things have been a bit “fiddly”, as Keith Julier would say, and I’ve had to redo a few things (some more than once). Unfortunately, “The Little Stick Counter Guys” at Model Shipways, as with the Little Stick Counter Guys of every other wood model ship manufacturer, forgot to toss in a few little sticks. There are two ways to build the WLB: the prototypical way that has all this nice below decks detail that no one will see and the way that everyone else on planet earth is going to do it; the easy way. I decided to fully plank the deck and then lay on the cabins, hatches, winch, etc. Whoops! Not enough 1/16” x 3/32” wood strips. So, now I have to order more to fill the holes. Frank Mastini, in his book Ship Modeling Simplified, warns you that this is the case with just about every model ship kit and to be ready to procure some additional wood.

One last criticism of the WLB. Lankford’s instruction state that you cannot install the plank sheers as one continuous piece of wood, but that you will have to do it by cutting and shaping several pieces. That’s because a wood plank with a rectangular cross section does not want to bend in its horizontal plane. I installed each of my plank sheers as one continuous piece. I succeeded by simply thinking through the problem, giving the planks a good soaking in hot water and vinegar, and using those neat paper binding clips, the kind that hold big bunches of paper, and bent away! The point that I’m trying to make is that there are always different ways of doing things. All it takes is a little eyeballing and thought and the willingness to experiment.

All I can say about the HMS BEAGLE is that if Mamoli had built the real one, we would not have Darwin’s Theory. I haven’t christened this kit “The Dog” because of the name

Beagle. The instructions are all but non existent and the few that they do give you are in Greek, Farsi, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Italian and precious little English as I know the language. The scale prints and plans are good, but the illustrations are misleading. Had it not been for Mastini’s book that contains the nautical terms translated from Italian to English, I’d have been up the proverbial brown water creek with paddle not included. This is supposed to be an “entry to intermediate” level kit. My advice is to leave this one for when you’ve done a few better kits and you want a bigger challenge. There was more slop in the bulkhead and false keel routing than a pig trough. Every bulkhead had to be reshaped to fit the plan patterns, shimmed, sanded, cut, folded, spindled and mutilated in order to get them to fit true. The splinters from the routing machine were horrible. Basswood blocks had to be added between each bulkhead and pieces added to the stern and bow and shaped to keep the planking consistent. While I expected to have to do this, I never thought that it would take so many braces and fillers. I feel a little like I had to make a plank-on-bulkhead kit into a solid hull kit before I could even start planking.

As far as materials are concerned, the limewood (basswood) strips for the hull planking were just plain downright poor. They were rough cut, fuzzy, splintery and cracked if you even looked at them the wrong way. About 50% of the hull planks were just totally unusable. The ones that I could make use of took very careful rubbing down with a 220 grit sanding pad and even at that, splintering was still a problem. When soaking the planks to bend them, the swelling of the wood was the worst that I’ve seen. It was only after I spend a large chunk of change to replace about three-quarters of the planks with a better quality wood that I was able to continue.

Missing parts was another problem. Fortunately, having purchased the kit from Model Expo (mainly because it was on sale for 40% off and I thought that it would be a good deal); they very kindly replaced the parts missed by Mamoli’s Little Parts Counter Guys. I can see a kit missing a part or two or having a broken piece or two, but my inventory of missing parts to Model Expo looked like a grocery list for a family of five. The only plus that I can find with the materials of this kit are some of the pre-cut walnut wood parts and strips and some of the castings.

The bottom line here is this: I don’t recommend this kit nor will I be building any more kits from Mamoli, bargain or no. While these are really small challenges to me as an experienced modeler, albeit relatively inexperienced with wood ship models, it is things like this that will only succeed in frustrating the beginner and probably cause him or her to throw in the towel on ship modeling.

Let me reiterate the suggestion that I made in Part I. Get a copy of Frank Mastini’s book Ship Modeling Simplified AND Keith Julier’s Period Ship Model Kit Builder’s Manual. While a little different in their approaches on techniques, both offer sound knowledge as to how to do just about anything that you will need to do to build your first (or second, or third, ad infinitum) wood ship model. There are other fine books available that will help you, I’m sure. These are the two that I have personally found to be the best for me. But take note, some of the how-to-build-ship-model books out there worthless.

Some Final Words:

I don’t devote every free hour that I have to ship modeling. I have other interests and I seem to go in spurts. I may not sit down at my workbench for days or weeks at a time. If I feel like it, I do it. If not, I don’t. If I have one of those evenings when nothing that I lay my hands on goes right, I leave it alone for awhile. If I feel myself getting tired or frustrated, I stop myself.

Sometimes, I just sit and look over the plans and instructions without lifting a tool. I plan my game. I look at the whole ship as a collection of assemblies and don’t necessarily build according to the sequence in the instructions. For example, with the WLB, I may stop working on the hull for a few hours and work on the push boat or build one of the deck structures or hatches. If I’m not satisfied with a particular piece of work that I’ve done, I build it over. I also work on two models at a time: a little on one, a little on the other. I do this because sitting there hour after hour doing the same repetitive thing like planking a hull or deck can become boring.

This may sound strange to many modelers, but once I have completed a ship, I usually give it to someone. My pleasure is in the building. I’m building the WLB for my brother-in-law. He and my sister-in-law recently retired to Florida. Lou is an avid fisherman and rather than giving him a rod or reel or something else that he already has a bazillion of, I’ll give him something that has meaning and that he will remember me by. We have fished the Chesapeake Bay together and to me nothing nautical represents our home state, Maryland, more so than the skipjack. So, when it’s done, the WLB will become the PATRICIA LOUIS. I’ll have had fun building it and he will think of us Northern most Southerner relatives and be able to dredge for really small oysters.

This is the end of the series. If I have in some small way been of some small help to anyone beginning in the hobby of wood model shipbuilding, then my small work here is done.

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