Fair American

Planking the Hull

November 26, 2018

Day 206.

Three months after adding the black strake and wales, I finally got around to planking the hull.

I had been putting hull planking off for quite some time.  Hull planking is kind of a ‘make or break’ moment for the build.  If it turns out badly, the model won’t look right.  The hull of the Model Shipways Fair American is more difficult to plank than my previous Bluenose build because there are tight curves at the bow and stern.  I was intimidated, and didn’t want to start until I understood the process better.

On the Bluenose, I was able to just glue the planks down without much planning or preparation.  (That’s one of the things that makes the Bluenose a good build to start with.). However, the Fair American requires more attention to detail.

The hull is radically wider in some parts and narrower in others, so planks will need to be tapered.  The sharp curves at the bow and stern will require heat-bending the wood.  And, it is very likely that the planking will require drop planks or stealers.

Given all this added complexity, and my hope to keep the hull natural (not painted), I spent a few months ‘kicking the tires’.  I was hesitant to simply jump in.

Finally I found myself motivated after attending the Nautical Research Guild‘s annual conference in October.  I saw a number of great models, sat in on some great presentations, and got some sound advice from experienced modelers.

I just needed to dive in and start planking.

I studied up on a few resources.  The kit comes with a booklet that explains the planking process, Planking the Built Up Ship Model by Jim Roberts.  I read through that a few times.  I also picked up a copy of Don Dressel’s Planking Techniques for Model Ship Builders based on a suggestion from someone at the Nautical Research Guild.  Finally, I also downloaded the planking tutorials and articles from Model Ship World.

Based on all this, I decided the general approach would be:

For each line of planking, the planks would be tapered so that they are narrower at the bow than at the stern.  I also decided to use shorter planks that are at least “close” to scale length.

Planking Material

The Model Shipways Fair American kit contains wood strips for planking.  It includes basswood strips for planks and a set of thin walnut strips to use as a second layer of planking.

Several months ago, my puppy ate all that material.

That led me down a path of replacing much of the kit’s wood, including all the planking.  Instead of using basswood with a walnut second layer, I’m using boxwood for the lower hull planking.

I purchased the boxwood from Syren Ship Model Company.  The wood comes in 4″ wide boards in a thickness of your choosing.  The Model Shipways kit provides basswood for planking that is 1/16″ thick and 3/16″ wide.  I decided to match the width, so I purchased the boxwood sheets that were 3/16″ thick.

I used a Byrnes table saw with a slitting blade to cut the boxwood into strips.  My strips were a little thicker than 1/16″ since I knew I would be doing a lot of sanding on the finished hull.

Lining Off the Hull

The first step was to line off the hull.  This is where you figure out the length of the hull at each bulkhead and use that to divide the hull into even bands for planking.

Because each bulkhead is a different size, you have to determine the length at each bulkhead separately.  And since the bulkheads are curved, you can’t simply measure them with a ruler.

I did this by applying a piece of masking tape along the edge of each bulkhead.  Since the tape is flexible and sticky, it easily conformed to the curve of each bulkhead.  I marked where the tape hit the keel and wales.  The tape was then removed and placed flat on the workbench.  I used a pair of dividers to divide the length of the bulkhead (the space between the two marks) into four, then marked those divisions.  Finally, I placed the tape back on the bulkhead and transferred the markings to bulkhead.

This gave me approximate markings on each bulkhead that divide the hull into four bands.

To help me visualize this, and ensure it was correct, I pinned some thin wood strips along the hull following these markings.  I did end up making some adjustments.

(Note: the photo below shows the bands, but was taken after the first couple of planks were installed.  So, the top band looks narrower than it actually is.)


The hull is lined off into four bands, divided by temporary wood strips.

Garboard Strake and First Band

I started planking with the “top” band.  This band runs along the keel.  It is actually the bottom of the ship, but since the hull is turned upside down for planking, it is the “top” for my purposes.

The first line of planks, or “strake” is the garboard strake.  This strake runs right along the keel, and is typically wider than the others.  I forgot to take the extra width into account, so mine ended up being the same size as the other planks.

To plank this band, I held a full-length strip of wood against the hull hand marked the location of each bulkhead.  Then I measured the width of the band at each bulkhead and divided by 5 (the number of planks I’m using in each band) to get the width of a single plank at each location.

The widths were marked on my wood strip, and the strip was sanded down so it was correctly tapered.

After test fitting the plank on the hull, I marked the locations where I would cut the plank to the scale lengths.  I’m not as particular about this as more experienced modelers.  I’m not worried about getting the exactly-correct period plank length.  I just want something that looks good to an untrained eye.  So, I decided to use planks that were about 5 inches long.

Additionally, I decided to alternate where the joints between planks line up.  You don’t want all the planks to start and stop on the same bulkhead.  The books listed above have some great information on this.  I did my best to apply those rules.

With everything ready to go, I started planking.


The garboard strake and the first normal strake are installed.

The garboard strake was added first, then the strake below it.

With each strake, the process was repeated.  Individual planks were cut from the long tapered strip.

With the fourth strake, I found that the hull was starting to curve and the wood didn’t want to bend easily.  Starting with this strake, planks were soaked in water for a few minutes to make them pliable, then clamped onto the hull to dry.  After drying in place, they maintained their curve.

It is important to let the plank fully dry before gluing it in place.  Wood expands when wet, so if you glue it in before it dries, it can shrink and pop loose as it dries.


Planking is continued working away from the keel.  Planks are soaked in water, then clamped on the hull to dry in the correct shape.

Before long I had the entire first band planked.

The results look a little rough, but I’ll be sanding everything later.  Everyone’s planking looks rough before sanding.


The first band of planking is completed.

Planking from the Wales Up

The planking continued at the wales and worked up.  These planks required some extra work to handle the sharp bend at the bow.


Planking continues from the wales, working up.

The planks in this band also run up the stern to the transom.  This area was pretty tricky.

I realized that I couldn’t finish those planks without planking the counter, so I briefly switched gears and added planking to the counter, between the sternpost and transom.

The planks had to be bent to wrap around this curve.  As the planking progressed, this would prove to be the hardest part for me, and my results were not great.


The counter at the stern had to be planked so the hull planking could be fitted.

Planking followed this process up the hull, one strake at a time.


Planking continues.

Adding Drop Planks

As the gap between bands got narrower, I found that I was running out of space at the bow.  Planks were getting very narrow.  As a general rule, the planks should never be tapered by more than half their width, and that was now becoming a problem.

The solution to this is to use drop planks.

Drop planks take two planks that would otherwise end up too narrow and merge them into one.

In the photo below you can see two drop planks.  One is “in progress”, and only has the merged plank.  The other, just a couple planks below it, shows the completed drop plank.

I ended up using two drop planks on each side.


A drop strake.  Note how two planks terminate early and are replaced by one.  

The final set of drop planks were the last planks installed on the hull.  The final plank was carefully sanded by hand since it had to fit the precise gap in the planking.


The final two planks are all that remain.

Planking Completed

Even though it is rough, once all the planks are in, the ship takes on a whole new look.  It actually looks more like a ship now.


The completed hull planking.

As mentioned earlier, the stern gave me a lot of trouble.  I had a hard time bending the planks to match the curves.  Despite my best effort, this area ended up being a mess.

Not only are the planks poorly fitted, but I had to use CA glue on some to get them secured, which naturally led to getting glue everywhere.


The planking at the stern is an absolute mess.

A Change of Plans

My original hope had been to leave the hull planking natural (unpainted).  I saw this on a build log on Model Ship World, and I thought it looked great.  However, to leave your planking natural, your planking job needs to be pretty good.  Without paint, you can’t use wood filler, and without wood filler, you can’t easily fix imperfections.

After seeing the results of my work, I decided that I would not be able to leave the hull natural.  I need to paint the hull so that I can clean things up.

Technically, for this model, painting the hull is correct anyway.  This model is based on a model in the Rogers Ship Model Collection at the United States Naval Academy.  That original model has a painted hull.

So I’m going to paint the hull.

That means I can easily make everything look perfect with some wood filler and sanding, just like I did on my Bluenose.

The hull obviously needs a lot of sanding to even out the planks, but first I added wood filler.  A lot of wood filler.  Filler was pushed into all the joints and seams.  I put the filler on before doing any sanding because otherwise I’d be doing a full sanding twice, and I might sand my planking too thin.


Since I’m now going to paint the hull, wood filler is added before sanding.

The wood filler needs time to cure, then there will be a LOT of sanding.