Fair American

Disaster, and Rethinking Planking

May 14, 2018

Day 9.

A day after getting the keel assembled, disaster struck.  Our 5 month old puppy decided to eat the material for my hull planking.


Our puppy ate my planking.  I don’t think he even feels guilty.

It is totally my fault for leaving it in a spot where he could reach it so I can’t be mad at him.  He’s just a puppy after all.

But this means I need to replace a bunch of wood, which made me think about using some different materials.

Like most kits, the Model Shipways Fair American kit provides a bunch of basswood for all the parts and planking.  Basswood is commonly used because it is WAY better than balsa, but still easy to work with and inexpensive.  However, it is fairly soft, which means it can be difficult to get crisp lines and sharp edges.

In addition to the basswood, the Fair American includes a bunch of walnut strips to use as a second layer of hull planking.  When a second layer of hull planking is used, you still plank the hull with basswood, but then you sand it down, smooth it out, and add a thin second layer with a higher quality material.  Since the hull is ‘shaped’ by the first layer, this second layer of planking typically turns out much better.

My puppy destroyed a good amount of the basswood, and all of the walnut.

I’ve wanted to work with higher quality woods for a while.  Since I got into using a milling machine a couple years ago, I’ve realized that using higher quality woods can give you much better results.  This seems like a good time to try some better woods.

Often when you see a really good looking model on the forum, with precisely cut wood that has crisp edges, it is better quality wood.

Also, I’ve never loved the typical color schemes of the Fair American.  Typically I see models with the lower hull planking painted white or buff, and the upper planking either left darker or painted yellow-ish.

I’d love to not paint the hull planking, and instead leave it natural.  I saw a build log on the Model Ship World forum that did this, and I loved the results.  I decided to go for that look.

To do this, I need to figure out several things:

Even though I’ve still got work to do before I start planking stuff, I need to get this sorted out now.  It can take time to get the wood in (last time I ordered some wood, it took over a month).  If I don’t make a decision about wood now and get it ordered, I could end up stalled out.

So I’ve put work on the bulkheads on hold, and shifted my focus to figuring out my wood situation.

Selecting the Wood

Earlier this year I decided it might be nice to have a selection of higher quality woods on hand.  I thought it might come in handy when I needed to make a small piece that needed to be precisely cut or milled.  So, back in January I ordered several boards from Wood Project Source.  Since I didn’t have a specific use in mind, I just picked several woods and ordered a 5/16″ thick board of each.  They’ve been sitting in the closet for 3 months.


A selection of wood I ordered earlier this year, just to have on hand as samples.

Picking which wood to use requires considering multiple factors.  You have like the color and the grain.  Different woods have different levels of hardness, and may be easier or harder to work with.  For many parts (like hull planks), you need to be able to bend the wood to fit the hull…some woods are better than others at bending.

I did a bunch of research, and ran across an excellent document in the Model Ship World’s Article Database called A Database of Woods used in Model Shipbuilding.  From my research, it seems like lots of people use boxwood for various parts of a ship.

Boxwood has a similar look to basswood, but is much harder.  It is still easy to work with, but it is perfectly smooth after sanding and will retain crisp, sharp edges.  I decided this would make a good wood for lighter areas like the lower hull planking and also for general purpose woodwork on the ship.

For the darker wood on the ship, like the upper hull planking and the deck, I first looked for something with the right color.  I narrowed it down to swiss pear or cherry.  Both of these have a color that I like.  I ended up going with the swiss pear because I liked the grain.  I’ll use this for the upper planking and the decks.  I might still use some cherry for deck furniture and fixtures, since it will look similar to the pear on the decks, but different enough to stand out a little without being distracting.

Cutting Wood Strips

With my wood selected, I needed to figure out how to cut them into strips.  Typically you get wood in the kit (or from a store) that is already cut into precisely sized strips.  When using your own wood, you’ve got to cut them yourself.

I did a bunch of reading, and it doesn’t seem too difficult.  You need a table saw, and you have to be very careful setting everything so you get straight, even cuts at the right thickness.

On the Model Ship World forum, I was directed to a PDF that covers using the Byrnes table saw to cut planks.  This PDF was incredibly helpful, and contains everything you need to know.  It was created by Hobby Mill, who used to be a source for wood but has since gone out of business.  If you want to check out the PDF, take a look at this post on the forum, which links to the PDF.

Since I bought a Byrnes table saw last year (one of the best tool purchases I’ve made), I decided to just dive in.


My Byrnes Model Machines table saw.

I didn’t manage to take any photos of the actual process, but the PDF mentioned above has better photos and instructions that I’d be able to provide.

The planks I cut weren’t perfect, but they were certainly usable.  The few errors I had can be fixed with a new blade and some additional set-up work to ensure the wood is well secured in the saw.

I cut enough boxwood and pear strips to make a sample section of the hull about three bulkheads wide.

I reached out to the forum and got some advice on saw blades.  From their recommendation, I’ve ordered a 3″ 90 tooth 0.03″ kerf slitting blade.  This is a thinner blade than what comes standard with the saw, and will give cleaner cuts.  Also, since it is 0.03″ thick instead of 0.055″ thick, it will waste less wood per cut.  I ordered the blade from Byrnes Model Machines.


Will I Like It?

Assuming I can cut good planks, and assuming I go with pear and boxwood, will I like how it turns out?  It would be really unfortunate if I spent a bunch of money on custom wood, did all the cutting, and ended up not liking how the boat looks.

So, I decided to use the wood I had on hand to build a sample section of the boat.

I started by taking the plans I scanned in and making some templates of bulkheads 7 through 9.  I chose these because they are from the middle of the ship and don’t have much of a curve.  I modified the templates to only be half the width – basically going from the outboard side to the middle of the deck.

I printed out the templates, glued them to some basswood sheets, and cut them out on my scroll saw.  Then I assembled them to form a sample section of the keel and bulkheads.


A section of the hull that will be used for testing the materials and finishes.

Then I figured out all the various planks and boards I’d need to build out this part of the ship.  I used the sample wood on hand to cut each piece on my table saw.

The pieces were all cut and glued on.  I found it much easier to bevel the edges of the planks with this wood, which made this one of my best planking jobs.  Everything was sanded.  Painted parts were primed, then airbrushed.  Then everything, including the natural wood was given a coat of wipe-on poly.

The entire project took about 4 hours.


The sample section with custom cut boxwood and swiss pear planking.


The deck of the sample, with swiss pear for the deck planks.

I’ve been staring at this for a couple days.  I really like it.

I think the natural boxwood and pear planking gives a good amount of contrast between the upper and lower planking.  The quality of the wood made a big difference in the plank shaping.  The deck has a nice shade, but isn’t too red.  The red inboard bulwarks are a little too red, but that’s easy to fix with a better paint choice.

This approach seems like it will give me better looking planking than I’ve been able to achieve with basswood, and will remove the need to paint the entire hull.  The higher quality woods will also let me have cleaner details for many parts, like the edges on the covering board and cap rail.

So I’m going to buy some wood.

Where to Get Wood

Sourcing the wood took a little bit of work.  These kinds of woods can’t be found at your local big-box hardware store.  When I ordered wood earlier this year, I went with Wood Project Source, but their store is currently down for maintenance.  I’ve also heard that Crown Timberyard is a great site to buy wood from, but they were shut down for an extended period, which is why I didn’t order from the earlier this year.

It seems that there are very few providers of wood for the model ship community, and it is a difficult business.

One of the challenges in sourcing the wood is that I’d ideally like to order the boards in certain thicknesses that will speed up cutting and minimize waste.  For example, the hull planking will be 3/16″ x 1/16″ strips.  So, if I can get a board that is already 3/16″ thick, then I just need to slice off 1/16″ strips.  (If I got something thicker, I’d have to thin the wood first, then cut strips.)  Fewer cuts means less chance for error.  Fewer cuts also means less waste, since the saw blade eats some material.

I went looking through the Model Ship World forum and checked out a few options for getting the wood.  I ended up ordering from Syren Model Ship Company and Crown Timberyard.

Crown Timberyard reopened a few months ago, and they have a great selection of wood. I ordered the swiss pear from them.  Crown cuts their wood to order, so there can be a little time between ordering and shipping.

I got the boxwood from Syren Model Ship Company.  I could have ordered this from Crown as well, but I wanted to try out a couple different vendors.  Syren just recently started offering a limited selection of woods in addition to all their various ship fittings.  I’ve been really happy with all my purchases from Syren, so I wanted to give their wood a try.  (I buy all my rigging line and blocks from them.)  Plus, Syren’s wood is already cut and in stock, so it ships fast (I ordered on a Sunday, and had a shipping confirmation by 9am Monday morning).

In addition to ordering wood online, I found a few places locally that specially in premium woods.  I’ve only been to one of them, Wood Craft.  They had a wide selection of exotic woods, but only a few were really applicable to model ship building.  I did pick up a nice little cherry board though.

How Much Wood

These woods are not cheap.  A typical board can run $10 to $20, depending on the material and thickness.   These boards are 3″ to 4″ wide, and how many planks you can cut from them depends on the thickness you need and the thickness of the saw blade.

I used the kit’s parts list to help me determine how many strips I needed for each place where I’ll be using the new wood.  This gave me the sizes and counts for each size strip.

The wood strips in the kit are 24″ long.  The swiss pear boards from Crown are also 24″ long, so that works out.  The boxwood from Syren is 14″ long, so I needed to account for that.  I’ll need to cut two strips of boxwood for each strip in the kit.

I looked at all the strips I need, and determined the thickness of the boards to get.  While there are strips in all kinds of dimensions, many share at least one dimension, so I can cut them from the same board.  For example, the hull planking is going to be made from 3/16″ x 1/16″ boxwood, while the transom planking will be 3/16″ x 1/32″.  Since these are both 3/16″ in one dimension, I can cut both from a 3/16″ board.  This reduces the number of different board sizes I need to get.

To determine how many of each board I needed, I had to take the saw blade’s kerf into account.  The kerf is the amount of wood ‘eaten’ by the blade on each cut.  I’ll be cutting with a 0.03″ kerf blade, so when I cut a 1/16″ strip of boxwood, it is going to consume 0.1025″ of wood.  (1/16″ is 0.0625″, plus the 0.03″ kerf, equals 0.1025″).  This means that a 4″ wide board can make about 39 strips at 1/16″ thick.

I’m also doubling the number of strips I need.  This will give me tons of extra wood in case I make a bad cut or damage a strip.  I’m also ordering an extra board of the most used sizes.

In total, I determined I need the following:

The total cost for all this, including shipping, was $281.25.  That’s a lot, but this is a lot of wood.  If I don’t make too many mistakes, this might be enough for another build down the road.  Even with mistakes, I’ll end up with a nice selection of wood that I can use for various model work going forward.

With the wood and saw blade ordered, now I just wait.  I guess I need to get back to working on the bulkheads.