Fife Rail

Day 251.

The fife rail is a structure that goes around a mast on a ship and holds various belaying pins where rigging lines are tied off.  While the Bluenose is a two-masted ship, it only has a fife rail on the main mast.

The fife rail the last remaining piece to finish the quarter deck.

The basic anatomy of the fife rail is shown below. (Please excuse the crappy, not-to-scale graphic).  The rail is typically rounded, matching the curve of the mast.  It is set on top of two stanchions (legs), that are often fairly fancy (think carved table legs).  The other end of the rail is supported by two posts and ‘knees’.  A bar spanning the two posts adds some structure and also holds the boom crutch (not shown) in place.

fife-rail

The Model Shipways Bluenose kit includes laser cut pieces for most of the fife rail.  This includes the rail itself, the bar, and the knees.  The kit provides cast metal pieces for the two stanchions, since those have a fancy shape.  The two posts are made from standard strip wood.

Right away, I have a problem.  I didn’t receive two cast metal stanchions in my kit.  I only received on.  I’ve known this day was coming.  Eight months ago, when I first opened the box and inventoried my kit, I discovered I was missing this one piece.  I decided not to request a replacement, and instead try to make my own when the time comes.

So, I cut out all the laser-cut pieces and sanded them down.  I made replacement stanchions from wood using my lathe (I’ll explain that in a bit).  I glued everything together and applied some primer.

Then I scrapped it all and started over.

The fife rail I made with the provided parts didn’t turn out well. The bar and rail are provided as 3/64″ thick pieces, which are pretty thin.  I wasn’t able to keep them very rigid during the assembly process, and my fife rail ended up a little warped.  It certainly would have worked if I had been more careful, and taken more time to glue each piece.  I think I rushed a bit.  Whatever the cause, my fife rail ended up feeling flimsy, and wasn’t straight and even.

Since I had made my own stanchions anyway, the only additional kit-provided parts I was going to have to replace on the second attempt were the laser cut pieces.  I wasn’t terribly worried about these since my Proxxon scroll saw can typically knock those out pretty quick.

I started by transferring the shapes of the posts and knees to some 3/32″ thick basswood sheets.  I’m going to use 3/32″ material for everything.  This is the same as the kit’s materials for the posts and knees, but it is roughly twice as thick as the kit’s material for the rail and bar.

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The shapes of the posts and knees were drawn onto 3/32″ thick basswood.

I’ve also decided to make each post and knee pair out of one solid piece, rather cutting the posts and knees separately and gluing them together.  Since my main problem with the original fife rail was a lack of rigidity, this removes a pair of glue joints.

Next I transferred the shape of the rail.  This was a little tricker, since I needed to get the curve right.  This was also cut from 3/32″ thick basswood.

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The rail was drawn onto 3/32″ basswood using the plans as a guide.

The pieces were cut out on the scroll saw and sanded even.

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Rail and post/knee pieces after being cut on the scroll saw.

The next piece to tackle was the bar that spans the two posts.  While this was a laser-cut piece in the kit, there really isn’t anything too special about it.  It is basically a piece of strip wood with some holes cut in it.

I dug through my piles of wood until I found a piece of 3/32″ thick material that was about the right width.  I cut it to length, then marked the center points of the two holes required for the posts.

To make the holes, I used a 3/32″ drill bit in my drill press.  I drilled the two holes, then used a small needle file to square them off.  This changed the shape of the holes from round to square.  I kept filing and testing until the posts fit snugly into the two holes.

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The bar between the posts was made from strip wood.  Holes for the posts were drilled, then squared off with a needle file.

An additional hole (not shown above) was made for the boom crutch.  The boom crutch is a Y shaped piece (provided by the kit) that supports the boom from the fore mast.  The ‘stem’ of the crutch goes into a slot in this bar.  I cut the slot using a #11 knife blade, and cleaned up the slot with small needle file.

Now it is time to make the stanchions.

This was actually my second run at making these, as I had also made them for the first attempt at the fife rail.  If I hadn’t been missing the stanchions in my kit, I wouldn’t have had to make these at all – the metal pieces would have been fine.

I cut a short length of 3/32″ square basswood and stuck it in my lathe.  I have a Proxxon DB 250 lathe that I bought several months ago and didn’t use now.  This is a small lathe, designed mostly for model making.  It lacks all the fancy stuff you might need to do metal work and such, but it is more than enough for my purposes.  I’ve read that shaping wood on a lathe is called ‘turning’.  I guess that’s because the wood ‘turns’.  I get it.

I decided to ‘turn’ both stanchions at once.   They are very small (about 1″ tall), so doing them separately would waste a lot of wood since I need about 4-6″ of material to work with in the lathe.

I started by simply rounding off the wood.  I’m starting with a square strip, but I need something shaped more like a dowel rod.  Why not start with a dowel rod?  The dowel rods I found at my local shop weren’t made of basswood – they are made from something harder.  A harder material will also be harder to shape and work with.

I used a flat needle file to round off the strip.

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A lathe was used to make the stanchions.  The first step was just to round off some wood.

Once it was rounded off, I used the one existing metal stanchion I had to mark the length of the stanchion.  I also shaded in the parts where the stanchion tapered in.  These markings will still appear darker even when the lathe is running, helping me to get my needle file properly placed.

To make the curves and tapered shape of the stanchions, I switched to a small needle file with a rounded edge on one side (the other was flat).  I used the rounded side with varying amounts of pressure to file away material and create the desired shape.

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A simple shape was given to each stanchion on the lathe.

The results are not perfect.  But at this size, I think this will work fine.  Once both pieces were shaped, they were cut loose from the strip and cleaned up with some light sanding.

I drilled some small holes in both ends of each stanchion.  These will hold some small pieces of brass rod to help anchor things.  For now, I only glued brass rod into the top of each stanchion.  I left the rod a little long.

I located the spots on the rail where the stanchions should go, and marked their center points.  I drilled holes here to match the rods I glued into the stanchions.  This will help to increase stability since the rods will be glued into both the stanchions and the rail.

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After being cut to size, brass rods were glued in so the stanchions can be attached to the rail.

All that was left was assembly.

The stanchions were glued in first using CA glue and allowed to dry.  Next the rail was glued to the top knees/posts, again with CA glue.  The bar across the posts was already pretty secure since the holes I made were snug, so I just added few drops of CA glue to the bottom of the bar to cement it in place.

Once everything was dry, it was given a thorough sanding,  A little bit of wood filler was applied to some joints.  The tops of the posts were sanded to have a slight angle at the top.

Oops.  One other piece…there is another ‘bar’ between the posts, at the very bottom (flush with the bottom of the posts).  This is a simple piece of strip wood, but with a small hole to accept the very tip of the boom crutch’s stem.  This was made and glued in at the last minute.

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The assembled fife rail, including the boom crutch provided by the kit.

Next I glued additional pieces of brass rod into the bottoms of the stanchions and posts to create four ‘pins’.  Three of these were kept short (maybe about 1/3″ inch), while one was kept longer (about 2″).  The longer pin will be used as a handle to hold the piece during painting, and will be trimmed to match the others later.

Finally, the entire assembly was primered and airbrushed white.  The completed piece was then placed (temporarily) on the ship.

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The completed fife rail assembly on the ship.
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The fife rail won’t be glued down until I’m ready to install the masts.

I haven’t mounted it permanently yet.  Since the fife rail goes around the mast, I want to wait until I install the mast to add glue this piece down.  The fife rail does have to go in before the mast.  However, even though it might look straight, the mast goes in a slight angle.  It will take some work to get the base of the mast shaped properly to create the right angle, and I think that will be easier to do without the fife rail in the way.  Plus, I’d hate to glue this down, then realize that because of the mast’s angle, it hits the fife rail.

So, for now it is temporary.  Down the road, I’ll fit the mast then remove it, then glue down the fife rail, then glue in the mast.

This completes the quarter deck’s fittings.  Now it is on to the fore deck, which doesn’t have much left before I start in on the machinery.