Choosing a Model Ship Kit

The toughest choice you’ll make after deciding to dive into model ship building the choice of your first model ship kit.

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of kits out there.  There are a ton of kit manufacturers, both in the U.S. and abroad.  There’s different skill levels, different hull types, and different scales.

Choose a kit that’s beyond your abilities and you might end up frustrated, tossing a half-built ship into the closet.  Choose something too simple or something doesn’t really interest you, and you’ll end up bored – with a half built ship in the closet.

kit-phantom
My first ship kit…the Model Shipways Phantom.

I chose the Phantom as my first ship kit.  Let’s look at the things I considered (and things I should have considered) when I picked my first kit…

Considerations

There’s a number of things you might consider when picking your first kit.  We’ll go into each of these below:

  • Hull type
  • Scale
  • Difficulty level
  • Instructions and practicums
  • Availability of build logs
  • Manufacturer
  • Cost
  • Interest

Hull Type

There are three main types of model ship hulls.  The type of hull determines the type of work you’ll be doing during the early stages of your model building.  Solid hull removes a lot of complexity (and removes a lot of room for error), but limits the kinds of ships you might build.  Plank-on-bulkhead (POB) ship models are really common, and opens up a lot of options, but requires a bit more work.  Plank-on-frame (POF) models start to get pretty hardcore.

hulls2

I went with solid hull.  I made that choice because I was worried about two parts of the process that are unique to model ship building – planking a hull and rigging the masts.  You can’t really build many of the models without doing some rigging, so I picked a solid hull kit that didn’t require planking.

It turned out that I didn’t really care for carving and shaping the hull, so starting with a POB kit might have been a better idea.

I’d recommend sticking to either solid hull or POB kits for your first build.  Just understand the choice you’re making and the type of work it will require.

Scale

The scale of the model you choose will also have a big impact.  Scale is the relationship between the size of the model and the size of the actual ship.  There are tons of resources online that go into scale, including all the math and different ways to represent scale.  There are different ‘standard’ scales for different types of models (trains, figures, etc.).  In the model ship world, scales vary wildly from kit to kit, but they are typically expressed in the same way.

You’ll usually see a kit’s scale expressed as a ratio.  It will be listed as 1:48, 1:64, 1:92 and so on.  Basically, it is ‘one-to-something’.  It is that ‘something’ that we care about.  The larger that second number is, the smaller the scale.  Models that are 1:96 would be considered smaller scale, while models that are 1:48 would be considered larger scale.

It is worth noting that you can have a fairly small scale model that is still quite large.  For example, the Model Shipways Constitution kit is 1:72 (not a particularly large scale), but it is still four feet long – because it is a big ship.  Compare that to the Model Shipways Armed Virginia Sloop at 1:48 scale, which is under three feet.  Even though it is ‘larger scale’, it is still a smaller model, because the ship was physically smaller.

Scale determines the size of the pieces you’ll be working with and the level of detail you’ll encounter.

My first ship was 1:96 scale.  I found this scale to be a little tough to work with.  Eyebolts, belaying pins, and blocks were tiny.  At this scale, the iron bands on masts are often represented with tape, because using an actual metal strip would end being too thick.  On a larger scale model, these little pieces get bigger and you’ll be able to show more intricate details on the model.

At 1:96 scale, one foot on the real ship is equal to 1/8″ on the model.  On small scale models like this, you’ll often run into things that can’t be properly modeled because they are just too small.  You’ll use things like construction paper instead of thin wood for some parts.  You’ll also have parts that are larger than they should be, like eyebolts.  Some parts would be too small to work with if they were modeled in correct scale.  Trying to get rigging line through an eyebolt is tricky enough – then make the eyebolt smaller.

My second ship is 1:64 scale.  I’m finding this scale much easier to work with. At 1:64 scale, one foot on the real ship is equal to 3/16″ on the model.  Compared to 1:96, which works out to 2/16″, this is 50% larger.  At this scale, blocks, deadeyes, etc. will be a little bigger and easier to work with.  Some things, like eyebolts may be the same size because they were actually too big on a smaller scale mode.

Sometimes the decision on scale will be made for you.  If you’re really attracted to a particular ship, it may only be available in single scale with the hull type you want.  Kit manufacturers rarely offer the same ship at different sizes.

Difficulty Level

Many kit manufacturers will list a difficulty level for each kit.  Two important notes: take these with a grain of salt, and don’t bother trying to compare how different companies rate their kits.

There is no ‘standard’ for difficulty ratings.  Some kit manufacturers will rate with numbers (1-5, for example), while others rate based on beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

These ratings are also subjective, based on the manufacturer’s or kit designer’s point of view.  For one person with little or no modeling experience, ‘intermediate’ might mean ‘impossible’.  For another first time ship builder, ‘intermediate’ might be easy, based on their own skill set.

You’ll need to look at the ship and try to identify things that might make the build easier or harder.  Consider:

  • Hull type (solid hull, POB, POF).
  • Number of masts (more masts means more complicated rigging).
  • Painted hull vs. leaving the hull natural (if the hull is painted after you plank it, your planking doesn’t have to be perfect).
  • Guns?  If the ship has gun ports, those can be a lot of work (so I’ve read), and there are going to be a lot of details with building the cannons.
  • Square rigging?  If the ship has square rigging (with beams that extend out from the mast towards the sides of the ship), rigging will be more complicated.

Many manufacturers will make their instruction manuals or parts lists available as free PDF downloads.  If those are available, take a look at them.  Does the kit have a lot of parts?  Are things pre-made or laser cut, or do you have to fashion everything yourself?

Instructions and Practicums

Wooden ship kits are very different from plastic models.  You’re not inserting Tab A into Slot B.  You get a box of wood and materials, and have to make most of the parts yourself.  If you’re just starting out, you’d love to have instructions that walk you through every step and explain what everything is and how to do actually do the work.  You’re probably out of luck.

Kit instructions vary wildly, even within a manufacturer’s product line.  Often the kits are designed by someone under contract, and the plans and instructions are prepared by them.  The manufacturer packages those together with a set of materials and sells it to you.  So, the ‘quality’ of the instructions often depends on who wrote them.

Some instructions will walk you through most of the major steps.  Others will trivialize complicated steps.  For example, in my current it, there is a step that says “Taper the stem according to the plans.”  That’s it.  For an experienced modeler, no problem.  For someone new to ship building…what’s the stem?  Which plans?  Where is the taper indicated?  How should I taper (sand, carve or file)?  What should it look like when its done?

You need to think about the level of instruction you need to be successful.  Read through the kit’s instructions if they are available online, and try to determine if they give you enough information to feel comfortable.  Everyone is different.

Worth noting that some foreign kits may have instructions in another language.  Another reason to look for a PDF of the instructions before you order your kit.

For some ships, you can find a practicum.  This is basically a course or guide that walks you through building the ship.  These are often created by third parties.  Like instructions, they vary in their detail and quality.  For a first time ship builder, they can be incredibly helpful.

One of the reasons I chose the Phantom as my first build was because there is an excellent practicum available for that kit.  It is written by Chuck Passaro.  If you start getting involved in the online ship modeling community, you’ll quickly see that he’s got some serious credibility.  I ended up using his practicum for the entire build – almost never looking at the instructions.

Some practicums may available free (like Chuck Passaro’s Phantom practicum – you just download it from the Model Shipways site).  Others must be purchased.  For my Bluenose build, I purchased a practicum from Lauck Street Shipyard.

Build Logs

It is also worth looking around to see if there are build logs from other modelers that you can refer to.  I recommend checking Model Ship World.  Try typing in the name of the ship and the scale in the search bar and check the results.  For example, you might enter Phantom 1:96).  Build logs on this forum are labeled with the ship name, manufacturer, and scale, so a search like this will match all threads for that ship at that scale.

Build logs are a great resource.  You’ll be able to see photos of the build process and descriptions of the work that was done.  You can see where others had problems and came up with creative solutions.  You can see how long it took them by looking at the dates on their posts.

Manufacturer

There are a ton of different manufacturers of ship kits.  Some tend to focus on certain types of models (Model Shipways, for example, focuses on ships from North America).

I only have experience with Model Shipways kits, so I can’t really talk intelligently about other manufacturers.  Opinions on manufacturers varies wildly, so I can’t really even give you a general impression about what others think about different manufacturers.  Take any kit –  somebody loves it, and somebody hates it.

So let’s talk about Model Shipways.  I find their selection to be good.  I’ve never had a problem with the parts or plans.  The materials they provide seem fine to me (basswood, white cast metal fittings, etc).  Instructions vary between kits.  My first kit from them was actually an airplane, and the instructions were amazing and detailed.  My current ship it, the Bluenose, is considerably less detailed.

Online, I see chatter about how some modelers find certain parts to be a little low quality.  In particular, some builders replace all the rigging line with something from another vendor.  Planking is often upgraded with higher quality wood.

Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Model Shipways kit to a first time modeler.

Some of the most popular Model Shipways kits (according to the build logs on the Model Ship World forum) that you might consider include:

  • 18th Century Longboat – An intermediate model that can be a great introduction to plank-on-frame construction.  Designed and documented by Chuck Passaro, who writes fantastic instructions and practicums.
  • Bluenose – An intermediate kit that uses plank-on-bulkhead construction.  Relatively easy hull planking, and no need to mess with gun ports.
  • Phantom – An entry level kit, using solid-hull construction.  A great introduction to ship building, especially if you’re concerned about hull planking (the hull requires no planking).

If you’d like to try something different, you might check out Artesania Lantina – The second most built manufacturer on MSW.  They have a number of beginner and intermediate kits, most of which are reasonably priced.

Some other popular manufacturers include Caldercraft, Corel, and Billing Boats.  However, these kits seem to be a little higher priced and don’t offer as many entry level options.

Cost

The price of kits can vary depending on the ship, the scale, the manufacturer, and the quality of the kit.  Generally, the more you pay, the better the kit.  With higher priced kits you’ll often get better materials and more detailed parts.

I paid about $45 for my first kit, the Phantom.  It is normally about $90, but Model Expo (Model Shipways) frequently has sales.

I paid $90 for my Bluenose kit, which normally goes for $220.  Again, it was on sale.  If you’re considering a Model Shipways kit and are not already on their mailing list, go to their site and sign up.  You’ll get emails about discounts that can save you a lot.

Kits can get pricy.  Big ships with tons of detail can easily cost $500 or more, sometimes into the thousands.

I’d recommend trying to keep the cost of your first kit down.  This doesn’t mean buy a cheap/poor kit – just don’t go buy a fancy kit as your first build.  There is always the possibility that you’ll abandon the build, or make a mistake that you can’t recover from.  Limit your investment on this first kit.

That being said, I personally wouldn’t buy from sources like eBay unless I’m buying from a manufacturer’s own eBay store.  Buying a previously-owned kit has risks.  It may be an older version of the kit (with might lack improvements made later).  It could be missing parts.  It could even be partially built.

With a previously owned kit, you get whatever you get.  You probably can’t contact the manufacturer and get replacements for missing parts.

If you’re going to spend months or years building a ship, spend the extra 10-20% and buy the kit direct to ensure you get the real, full thing.

Interest

Finally, consider you interested you are in the different ships.  You’ll spend a long time building a model ship, and you need to like the ship you’re building.  Pick something that catches your eye.  Just be careful that don’t fall in love with something that is way beyond your skill level.