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Model Ships - Tips for Beginners

Updated on January 10, 2018
One of my model ships.
One of my model ships. | Source

Model Ship Building - A Beginner's Guide

My husband and I both love model ships. He really enjoys model ship building, while I usually prefer looking at and admiring his creations. He’s interested in all kinds of models, along with other creative hobbies, and he’s received several model ship kits as gifts over the years. He has the patience, the skill, and the eye for detail necessary for turning out a beautiful model ship. I, on the other hand, lack the required amount of patience for really involved model ship building. I can, however, appreciate and display attractive model ships.

Some ship models are simple.
Some ship models are simple. | Source

Ship Models

I’ve owned several ship models, and a few are still on display in my home. Some were purchased already assembled, and others were made by hubby. My favorites are wooden model ships, and of these, my model of Spirit of Baltimore is my fave. It rests on the mantel in my living room. I also have a couple of small ship models that are in frames with other ship-inspired items.

Ship models vary greatly in quality, with the more detailed ones usually being more expensive. Wood is usually more costly than plastic, too, but some people prefer metal ships. My Spirit of Baltimore is made of wood, and the sails are made of real canvas. The details on this model ship include a ships’s wheel, an anchor, life preservers, cabins with brass portholes, and lots of rigging.

Wooden model ships come in all sizes.
Wooden model ships come in all sizes. | Source

Wooden Model Ships

I think most people prefer wooden model ships to those made of other materials. After all, most of the actual ships modeled were constructed of wood. Wood is durable, and it gives the model a more authentic appearance and “feel.”

Wooden model ships that are scaled replicas can be pretty amazing, and some of them are very large. The tiny attention to detail can be impressive, too. Some ship models even include things like cabin beds, brass fittings, and hand-carved figureheads. Even tiny portholes might be fitted with a clear panel that resembles glass.

Historic Model Ships

If you’re into history, you’ll probably appreciate historic model ships, especially the ones that are built to scale. If, like me, you have an active imagination, it’s pretty easy to envision the vessels tossing on the high seas. In my mind, I can take a voyage with Blackbeard or on the Titanic without ever getting seasick or endangering my life.

You can find historic model ships from just about any era. These include pirate ships, Roman war ships, sailing yachts, battleships from World War II, Viking ships, shrimp boats, aircraft carriers, Noah’s Ark, and more. Some of the most popular historic model ships are Queen Anne’s Revenge, PT-109, U.S.S.Arizona, U.S.S. Constitution, Titanic, U.S.S. Enterprise, Star of India, H.M.S. Beagle, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II.

Ship Model Kits

Have you ever thought about purchasing ship model kits and creating your own masterpiece? According to hubby, they’re a lot of fun to work on, and he finds model ship building to be very relaxing. It also gives him an outlet for his creative side. Once you’re done, you’ll have something of which you can be proud.

Ship model kits vary in size, price, and difficulty. Believe it or not, you can find kits for kids as young as five years old. With some parental help and guidance, even young children might be able to assemble a ship, if the kits are simple enough.

Before choosing among all the ship model kits available, you need to sort of have in mind what you want. Do you want to spend weeks on a ship, or do you want to finish it in a hurry? Are you interested in specific historic model ships, or generic ships from certain time periods? Knowing the answers beforehand will help with your selection. Keep this in mind, too: Generally speaking, the more detailed and difficult the kit is to assemble, the more attractive the finished product will be.

Small model ships can be part of a larger nautical display.
Small model ships can be part of a larger nautical display. | Source

Wooden Model Ship Kits

Wooden model ship kits might come with hundreds of parts and pieces, and with some, you actually build the ship from the ground up. You have to lay the planking, plate the hull, and take care of every detail yourself. Kits like this might cost close to $1,000, but many are scaled replicas that might be museum quality. As you can imagine, these aren’t kids’ toys.

At the other end of the spectrum are wooden model ship kits designed just for kids. These are simplistic in nature and might contain no more than five or six pieces. These would be cute for displaying in a child’s room, but they’re a far cry from museum-quality model ships.

I’d venture to guess that the wooden model ship kits somewhere in the middle of the two extremes I mentioned are the most popular. Most of these have a premade hull, so you won’t have to do a lot of tedious shaping. As far as the rest of the details and fittings are concerned, they vary from kit to kit.

Wooden Model Ship Kits

Plastic Model Ships

Although plastic model ships aren’t our favorites, there are some attractive examples available. Generally speaking, plastic model ships are easier to assemble. The hull is usually completely formed by a mold, so no planking is required. All the parts come attached to a “tree,” so they’ll have to be broken away. After that, it’s more a matter of fitting the pieces together and gluing or cementing them in place.

Hubby says one of the hardest aspects involved with completing plastic ship model kits is applying the paint. It’s harder to get a good finish on plastic because it’s not porous like wood is. To achieve a nice finish, he does quite a bit of sanding and cleaning. Remember to sand very lightly – too much can obliterate small details. After sanding, plastic model ships need to be cleaned with soap and water before paint is applied. Some molds require a releasing agent, and this needs to be removed so that the paint will adhere. The type of paint you use is important, too. Some paints might damage the plastic, so it’s a good idea to paint a small piece of the tree as a test.

Some plastic model ships are surprisingly detailed.
Some plastic model ships are surprisingly detailed. | Source
Building model ships requires a lot of patience.
Building model ships requires a lot of patience. | Source
Become very familiar with the diagrams and instructions.
Become very familiar with the diagrams and instructions. | Source

Building Model Ships

Building model ships can be a great hobby, but it’s difficult to attempt a detailed model on your first try. Instead, it’s easier to begin with a simpler kit, and once you gain some experience, you can move on to more challenging projects.

Model ship building is often designated by skill levels. For example, a Level 1kit is for beginners and can usually be accomplished by children twelve years old and up. Minimal cutting is usually required, but the timbers might have to be fitted. Level 2 kits require a little experience, and you’ll probably have to work with some simple tools. The levels continue through Level 6, with more and more experience, skill, and precision required.

Whether you’re working with plastic or wooden model ship kits, you’ll probably need some basic tools that don’t come with the kits. By “basic,” I mean a sharp utility knife, tweezers, toothpicks, small paint brushes, and scissors or special cutting shears. Wood pieces will usually have to be slightly sanded, but you can’t go overboard with the sanding. If you remove too much wood, the pieces won’t fit together properly. Most plastic ship model kits tell you to separate the pieces from each other and to then trim away any access with scissors or shears. Hubby adds the extra step of sanding the plastic pieces lightly, which makes the fixative work better.

Once you begin on a new kit, lay all the pieces out on a table or other flat surface. Read the instructions carefully, and then read them again. Make sure you can identify and recognize all the different parts and that you comprehend the model ship building “lingo.” Become familiar with the terms used so that you’ll have no questions about the building directions. It’s also important to use the type of glue or cement that’s suggested by the kit’s manufacturer.

With complicated ship model kits, there are probably going to be times when you become frustrated. When this happens, take a break from the project. When you’re agitated, you’re much more likely to make careless mistakes.

I’ve always used model ships in my décor, even before I married a man who enjoys building model ships. The vessels go well with my beach, lighthouse, and ocean themed rooms, which include my living room and master bedroom. By the way, hubby is a real pro at making RC airplane models and model cars, but I don’t use them in my decorating scheme. He also makes RC boats, and so does his best pal. I’m not really into planes and cars, although I have been impressed by some of hubby’s creations. Still, for me, they can’t compare to my affinity for model ships!

© 2012 Holle Abee


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    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      2 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for reading!

    • Deborah Minter profile image

      Deborah Minter 

      2 years ago from U.S, California

      Good tips!

    • wolfpack62001 profile image


      8 years ago from Chaparrral, NM

      As a fellow model builder all I can say is Awesome.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      8 years ago from Planet Earth

      These are works of art! I've seen beautiful model ships before, but I have never attempted one. It looks like it would be interesting, relaxing and fulfilling to build one of these. Voted up and up!

    • Laurinzo Scott profile image

      LJ Scott 

      8 years ago from Phoenix, Az.

      Take it from a former sailor... this is an incredible hub. Makes shipbuilding seem fun and a great hobby. Makes me long for the water again.


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