Tools and Techniques
April 14, 2016
One of the important choices you’ll have to make when picking your first model ship kit is the type of kit. This can be a little confusing at first, but there’s really just three basic kit types you need to know.
The type of ship model you choose will have a huge impact on the initial work you do on your model.
Let’s dig into these three types…
Obviously, to build a ship model you need to build the hull, or the body of the ship. There are three main ways this is done with model kits. (There are others, but they are not as common, so we’ll ignore those.)
The standard types include solid hull, plank-on-bulkhead (POB) and plank-on-frame (POF). An easy way to introduce these is to say that typically solid hulls are easiest, POB hulls are intermediate, and POF hulls are advanced. However, you’ll find kits of all three types at a variety of skill levels.
The type of hull construction impacts the work you’ll have to do, but once the hull is finished (and planked or painted), you usually can’t tell the difference between the different construction types.
A solid hull kit will use a big piece of wood for the ship’s hull. It is typically one piece, often using basswood. The piece will typically be machine-shaped to the rough shape of the ship’s hull. Your task will be to carve and sand the hull to finalize the shape.
Solid hull kits tend to be smaller models, because wood blocks can only be so big. This means you’ll either be building a model of a smaller ship (like a pilot boat) or you’ll be working at a smaller scale. Often its both.
Finalizing the shape is often done using templates that will be provided with the kit. You cut out these templates, which show the correct shape for different points along the hull. You hold the template up to the ship, note where it doesn’t line up, and start sanding and carving until it matches. You might have 10-20 templates per side.
A solid hull build gets you going pretty quick, and ensures that you’re likely to end up with a fairly straight, even hull because the bulk of the shaping is done for you. Often details like the bulwarks (rails/short walls above the deck, basically), or the ‘step’ in the middle of the deck will be roughed out for you. You’ll have to trim them and do final shaping, but their location is obvious.
Many solid hull ship kits are designed so that you simply paint or copper plate the hull when you’re done shaping. This means you don’t have to get into hull planking. Planking a hull can be an intimidating process for a first-time modeler. Some solid hull kits do require hull planking, so pay attention to that when picking a kit.
My first ship build was a solid hull ship. I intentionally chose this because I considered hull planking and rigging to be the two big ‘unknowns’ with building a ship, and I didn’t want to tackle both in my first build. This also meant that I was done with the hull and working on other fun stuff quickly – just a few days after receiving the kit.
Many first time modelers dive right into a POB build. In hindsight, that might have been a good idea. I personally didn’t like sanding and shaping the big hull piece. Now that I’m working on a POB build, I’m finding that I’m enjoying building the structure of the hull much more than with my first build. (This might change once I start planking the hull.)
From what I’ve seen, plank-on-bulkhead (POB) kits make up a good chunk of the kits on the market. You can find entry level POB ships and advanced POB ships. Almost any ship you want to model is probably available as POB kit from somewhere. POB ship builds make the majority of build logs I see in online forums.
With a plank-on-bulkhead kit, you’ll likely receive several large pieces of flat wood that have been laser-cut. You’ll get pieces to form the keel (the center piece that runs the length of the ship) and pieces to form the bulkheads (the cross-pieces that extend out from the keel to the sides of the ship.
The bulkheads are typically labeled using letters. My current build has bulkheads marked A through O. Each one is a slightly different size and shape, depending on its position on the ship and the overall shape of the hull.
You’ll cut the laser-cut pieces out and assemble the keel. Unlike solid hull, where getting a good, straight ship is almost guaranteed, you’ll need to pay really close attention as you build the keel and install the bulkheads. Your keel needs to be perfectly straight. Your bulkheads need to be aligned at perfect 90 degree angles to the keel. If your keel gets warped or your bulkheads are out of position, your entire ship may be mis-shaped.
It takes much longer to build the hull of a POB ship. A lot of time is spent aligning, tuning, glueing and clamping. And once you’re done with the basic structure, you’ve to fair the hull and plank the ship.
Fairing the hull is a process of sanding the various edges of the bulkheads so they form a smooth curve over the ship. Out of the box, bulkheads all have straight 90 degree cuts at their edges. However, the curves of the ship need to be smooth. So you end up going through a process where you smooth things out to create the final shape of the hull.
Hull planking is its own topic. I will be diving into my first hull planking experience in the next few weeks.
I have not built a plank-on-frame (POF) kit, and I don’t plan to anytime soon. So, I can only speculate about the process and challenges.
From what I’ve seen, POF builds tend to be the really advanced kits, aimed at modelers with tons of experience. Many POF builds are scratch builds, where you work from plans only, without a kit, and create all the parts yourself.
If ensuring everything is aligned in POB build is challenging, getting a POF build aligned must be just crazy.
Plank-on-frame seems to mimic the actual way most of the ships were built. I suspect that many POF builds are actually building out the ship exactly as it was really built. You are building the real ship – just way smaller.