Bluenose Canadian Schooner

Making Sails for Model Ships

December 3, 2017

On my Model Shipways Bluenose build, I debated whether or not to make the sails.  Many (most?) ship models do not include full sails.  The Model Shipways kit was designed with sails, and includes the sail cloth as part of the kit.  The inclusion of sails was actually one of the factors that led me to select this kit for my second build.

With the booms and gaffs rigged and installed, I would basically be finished with the build if I omit the sails.  The remaining rigging is all attached to sails, so I’d leave it off if I didn’t include sails.  However, the sails really do add something to the model, especially for a schooner like this.

So, I decided to make sails.  I’ve never made sails before, so this will be a learning experience.  Here’s how I ended up doing it…

Choosing How Sails are Displayed

An important decision to make before you start is how you’ll be displaying sails.  There are three different ways you can go:

(I made those last two names up).

Furled sails are sails that are lowered.  Many modelers choose to do furled sails on their ships.  The advantage is that the sails don’t cover everything up and make a model look like a bunch of cloth.  When doing furled sails, you typically don’t make the full sail, instead making smaller version.  The sail is put in place, but is bunched up and tied to the appropriate boom or gaff.

Realistic sails try to show the sails rigged and set as they would be while the ship is actually at sea.  Ships adjusted their sails depending on the situation.  In most cases, some sails would be raised while others would be lowered.  Some sails might be set off to one side.  Realistic sails would try to show the ship in some kind of ‘real’ sailing state.

Making sails simply ‘for display’ is what I’m doing.  I’m making all the sails, and installing them all in their raised state.  I’m not going to set any sails off to the sides – everything is just going to be installed straight and even.  You’d probably never see a ship at sea actually set like this, but I think it works well for a model.

When to Make Sails

From what I can tell, the general practice is to make the sails before rigging and installing the booms and gaffs.  Several of the sails need to be laced onto the booms and gaffs, and that is nearly impossible to do directly on the ship.

The standard process seems to be:

  1. Build the booms and gaffs.
  2. Make the sails based on the plans.
  3. Attach sails to the booms and gaffs as appropriate.
  4. Install and rig the booms and gaffs.
  5. Add the additional rigging for each sail.

I’m not confident that all my booms and gaffs are 100% accurately sized, and I suspect that the dimensions of my sails might need to be adjusted to fit my particular ship.  So, I intentionally put off making sails until I had installed all the booms and gaffs.

Once I had everything installed on the ship, I could make templates for the sails that take into account both the plans and the size/shape of my actual build.

Of course, this means that I had a bunch of rigging for the booms and gaffs that would need to be un-done so the booms and gaffs could be removed.  That was fine with me, because I had avoided the use of glue when securing the rigging.  Everything was either tied off (easy to un-tie), or attached with a hook or shackle (easy to remove).

So, my process is:

  1. Build the booms and gaffs.
  2. Install and rig the booms and gaffs.
  3. Make the sails based on the actual layout of my ship.
  4. De-rig the booms and gaffs, and remove them from the ship.
  5. Attach sails to the booms and gaffs as appropriate.
  6. Re-install the booms and gaffs, and their rigging.
  7. Add the additional rigging for each sail.

For me, this approach (while more work) has several advantages:

Paper Templates

Making the actual sails starts with making paper templates.  Some of the sails were too big to use normal paper, so I picked up a roll of white craft paper.

For each sail, I took a piece of paper and laid it over the plans.  I marked the corners of the sail, then used a ruler to draw lines between the marks, giving me the outline of the sail.  Some sails have curves that I had to hand-draw.

Once the shape was laid out on the paper, I cut the paper to shape.


A paper template for the jib sail.

Next I positioned the paper template on the actual ship in the correct spot.  I took note of anything that didn’t fit just right, and adjusted the template as necessary.  Some sails needed to be made slightly smaller, while some had to be made slightly larger.

To help me visualize the sail, I also marked where the hems on the edges will go, along with any other key elements of the sail.  For the edge hems, I’ll be folding the fabric over and sewing it.  I’ll be shooting for a 1/16″ hem, so I used that size for the markings on the template.

The actual sails on the ship were made from strips of cloth, not one big piece.  To simulate this, I’ll just be sewing lines onto the cloth.  For some of the sails, I went ahead and marked these lines on the template since they need to be oriented correctly according to the plans.

The main and fore sails also have reef bands, which run horizontally along the lower portion of the sail.  These were marked as well.

Preparing the Sail Cloth

Once I was satisfied with the template, I got out the sail cloth.  Model Shipways includes sail cloth with the kit.  This cloth is a medium weight cotton cloth in an off-white color.  The kit includes enough to make all the sails, assuming you get everything right on the first try.  I knew that wasn’t going to work, so I ordered two more packages of sail cloth from them.  It was relatively inexpensive – about $7 for each package of cloth.

Sails on a ship were rarely bright white.  I’ve seen that many modelers will dye their sail cloth to get a desired shade.  There are many tricks for this, like dipping the material in coffee.  I felt that the off-white color of the Model Shipways cloth was fine, so I didn’t dye my cloth.

If you’re wanting to use other sail cloth, look for something lightweight.  Almost all fabric is going to be too thick and out of scale, so just do the best you can.  I actually used some fabric from a local hobby store for a few ‘test runs’, and learned a few things.  Look for fabric with a tight knit, so the fabric doesn’t start to come apart as you cut it.  Also look for something without too much stretch, as stretchy fabric can distort the shape of the sails as you sew them.

Ideally, you want to wash, dry, and iron the sail cloth before you start.  Most fabric will shrink a little during this process, so you want this out of the way before you start cutting things to size.  Doing this will also release any wrinkles in the fabric.  (I was too excited to get started, and didn’t do this.)

Once you’ve got your fabric ready and your template sized, you’re ready to cut some fabric.

I used a fabric marker to do all the markings on the fabric.  I picked this up at a local hobby store in the sewing section for a couple dollars.  This marker uses special ink that disappears as it evaporates.  This means I can draw all over the fabric, and within a few hours the ink is gone.  I found this to give much better results than using a pencil and trying to erase markings.


The paper template is used to mark up the fabric being used for the sail.

A note on marking fabric…since I’m going to be folding over the edges of the sail to create hems, one side of the sail is going to look better than the other.  Often, you pick a ‘display side’ of the ship, and put ugly stuff (like the worse sail side) so it isn’t visible from the display side.  I found that with the way I was marking, folding, and sewing the cloth, I wanted the markings on the display side.  Making sure I marked the display side ensured that I as I worked I ended up with all the ugly stuff on the back.

First the outline of the sail is marked on the fabric.  Be sure to leave extra space on all sides outside of the sail.

A second outline is made 1/16″ outside of the first outline.  This is the hem that I want to end up with on the finished sail.

A third outline is made 1/2″ outside of the second outline.  This one doesn’t have to be perfect…this is just a guide for cutting the fabric.

You can also mark the reef lines and strips at this point if desired.  I typically didn’t mark the strips, since I was able to position those accurately using my sewing machine.


The fabric is trimmed, leaving excess material around the edges.

Once everything is marked, I cut the fabric along the outer-most outline.  I used a rotary cutter (like a pizza cutter), which gave much better results than scissors.


To make sails you have to do a lot of sewing.  I have no experience sewing.  Doing all this by hand with a needle and thread was not practical, so I bought a cheap little ‘hobby’ sewing machine.  That machine was junk, and broke within the first 20 minutes.  Since I’m hoping to keep this hobby going for a few decades, I decided to go ahead and invest in a real sewing machine.

At my local hobby store, the staff helped me select a good quality machine.  I got it for under $200.  The advantages of a real machine include:

It took me a few hours to get the hang of using the machine, but my skill level increased quickly.  While I certainly couldn’t sew a shirt or a pair of pants, by the second or third sail I was flying along like a pro.


Since you’ll be sewing, you’ll need thread.  There are three main considerations with the thread.

First is the color.  This is a matter of personal preference.  I’ve seen some models where the stitching on the sails was very high-contrast (dark brown thread on white cloth).  I’ve also seen some where the thread was the same color as the cloth.  I felt like the stitching shouldn’t stand out too much, and I wanted to rely on the texture of the thread to define the lines rather than the color.  So, I went with a ‘natural’ color thread that ended up being really close to the color of the cloth.

The second consideration is the thread material.  A hobby store will likely have hundreds of different kinds of thread.  There are synthetic materials and natural materials.  I went with a cotton thread.  Why?  No really good reason except that all my rigging lines are cotton and the sail cloth is cotton, so it seemed like a good idea.

The final consideration is quantity.  I have no idea how to predict the amount of thread that will be needed (there may be some ‘trick’ to it that the pros know).  Initially I bought one spool of the thread.  That only made two sails.  When I went back to by more, they were out of that exact thread, so I had to order more online.  That caused a week delay in making sails.  Obviously you wan the thread to be the same on all the sails, so buy a lot of  the same thread up front.  Thread is cheap, and it is better to have some leftover than to run out.

Sewing the Edges

On to sewing.

The first step is to sew the hems on the edges.  I start with the longest edge first, then do the opposite edge, continuing on until all edges are sewn.  The cloth is folded over at the first outline (the line that defines the actual edge of the sail) and pinned into place.  The 1/16″ line that indicates the edge of the hem should be inside the sail.  Since the cloth was cut 1/2″ past that line (on that third outline), there is some extra material here that makes pinning easier.  I’ll cut that off later.


The edges are folded over to create a hem and pinned in place.


The hem is sewn on the edge.

The cloth then goes into the machine and gets stitched up.  I used the machine’s reverse feature to double-stitch the first couple stitches to secure the thread, then just ran a straight stitch down the edge, staying between the edge of the sail and the 1/16″ hem marking.  I used a small stitch length so things weren’t too out of scale.


My machine lets me set the position of the needle, allowing me to get really close to the edge.

Once the stitch was complete, the extra thread was clipped off.  I used a pair of sharp scissors to carefully cut off the extra cloth along the 1/16″ hem line.


A completed edge hem, about 1/16″ wide.

This was repeated for each edge.


Two edges meet in a corner.

Adding ‘Strips’

To simulate the strips of material, some modelers simply draw lines on the cloth.  I decided to run a stitch for each strip instead.  It is more work, but it goes pretty fast


The ‘strips’ of sail sail cloth are simulated with stitches.  Each sail has a unique strip layout shown on the plans.

The width of the strips is indicated on the plans, as well as the layout of the strips.  It turned out that the width of the strips matched with space between the needle on my sewing machine and the edge of the ‘foot’.  So I didn’t need to mark the strips on the fabric – I just positioned the fabric under the foot and ran the material through the machine.

Reef Bands and Points

The large lower sails (main sail and fore sail) have reef bands.  These are horizontal bands across the sails.  My sewing machine has a setting that creates a stitch that looks like a ladder (or railroad tracks?).  I adjusted the stitch length and width to get the desired size, then ran this stitch across the sail to create the reef bands.

I ran this right over the strip lines.  This is easier than doing the reef bands first and trying to start/stop the strip lines at the bands, and you can’t really tell the difference.


Reef bands were sewn in using a different stitch pattern on my machine.

At each point where a strip line crosses the reef band, there is a short rope that goes through the sail.  These ropes were used to secure the sail when it was lowered and bundled up.  I cut a bunch of 1″ long pieces of 0.008″ tan rigging line and punched them through at the appropriate spots.  I used a small bit of fabric glue on each side to keep these ropes flat against the sail instead of sticking out.

Corner Attachment Points

The sails typically have rigging lines attached to the corners of the sails.  This means you need something in each corner to attach a rigging line to.  From my research, it looks like most sails had a rope that ran around the outside edge of the sail, and that rope would form an eye at the sail corners to create the attachment points.

I decided not to add this rope.  I wasn’t confident I could make it look good, and I thought the tan line would stand out too much.

So, I simply sewed brass rings (made from wire) into each corner.  This was done manually with a needle and thread.


Anchor points in the corners were made from brass wire and sewn in.

Finishing Up

Once everything is sewn and I’m happy with the results, there are a few final steps.

I do a final pass to trim anything that looks bad (edges of hems, loose threads, etc.).

After all my disappearing fabric markings have evaporated and disappeared, I iron the sail to flatten it out and remove any remaining wrinkles.

Finally, I use some fabric glue along any exposed fabric edges (like the hems) to keep them from fraying.  I also use a little fabric glue on the ends of stitches to ensure they don’t come loose.

Then the sail is ready to install!


A few completed sails on the ship.