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Building and Painting Pre-Dreadnought Era Ship Miniatures

I'm particularly fond of the series of ship models from Houston's Ships. These are marked variously as 1:1200 or 1:1000 scale, but as far as I can tell each ship is in a different scale. The Sino-Japanese War ships average out around 1:937 scale, the Spanish-American War ships average around 1:953 scale, and the American Civil War ships average around 1:1062 scale. My solution to this quandary is to not worry about it. They look great when painted and I feel they really enhance the gaming experience.

The Houston's Ships models are now available from Great Endeavours. Their service is great and they're expanding the line with new ships! Yeehaa!




A pile of good books are useful in figuring out how to assemble these ship models, particularly for working out where all the gun positions are supposed to be. Some of these books have color illustrations to help with paint schemes.


Step 1. Check all the parts, try and figure out where they all go, figure out if any parts are missing, and trim any flash.
This is the Japanese gunboat Akagi, which was at the Battle of Yalu in 1894. This model is a good substitute for the Spanish gunboats that were at or near the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 (Marques del Duero, General Lezo, and El Cano) since there aren't any models for those that I know of.


They don't look like much at this stage. This is the Victoria Louise prior to assembly. The illustrations on some of the assembly instructions may look somewhat familiar.




Step 2. Assemble the model. I forgot to take any photos during the assembly phase. So shoot me!
Step 3. Prime the model. I use regular gray, black, or white spray primer from the hardware store. It's cheaper than primer sold specifically for modelling and wargame use, and works just as well or better.
Here are the Colossus and Benbow, assembled and primed. Note all the secondary and tertiary gun barrels sticking out all over the place. Sometimes barrels for these guns are included in the kits, but they tend to be a little clunky, so I just use brass rod from the hobby store cut to size. The brass rod won't bend or break, unlike the gun barrels that come with the kits. I use a pin vise (tiny hand drill) to make the holes to put the gun barrels in. Make sure you drill the holes deep!
Figuring out where all the secondary and tertiary guns are supposed to go is often one of the toughest parts of researching these ships. Some of the guns were retracted behind shutters when not in use, so the gun positions are not always easy to locate in illustrations or on the models.
The mast that came with the Benbow looked a bit funky to me, so I scratchbuilt a new one using brass rod and plastic bits from the spare parts box. As with the gun barrels, using brass rod to make new masts gives them a much higher survivability level than the masts provided with the kits.




Step 4. Paint the decks an appropriately decky color. I used to use oil-based hobby enamels, nowadays I use water-based acrylics from arts and crafts stores. Much cheaper. The quality isn't as good as the hobby enamels, but it's as good as wargaming or modelling acrylics and considerably cheaper.
For the first few years I did this sort of thing I tried to do historically accurate paint schemes. Some of the schemes, particularly the dark gray or black schemes, didn't quite look right on the gaming table, even though they were the "correct" colors. Nowadays I ligthen the colors a bit and that looks much better.
Also, remember these are gaming pieces. Historical paint schemes aside, if both sides are painted exactly the same colors, the players often have a hard time figuring out which ships are which. I try to balance out the historical colors with a "national" scheme, so that for instance all the Chinese ships have the same basic colors even though the exact scheme varies from ship to ship, and the Japanese ships have their own set of basic colors that are visually different enough for players to easily tell which side a ship is on.




Step 5. Paint the hull and superstructure, then paint in the details: stacks, masts, ship's boats, anchors and chains, bow emblems.
The ships in this photo are the Victoria Lousie and the Frauenlob. Note that the gray paint on the hull and superstructure is almost the same shade as the gray primer, still showing on the base.
While we're at it, note the thick wooden bases. This is to preserve the masts and gun barrels. Gamers tend to be hard on models, and these ships are heavy with pointy bits sticking out in all directions. I used to base these ships on thin cardboard, but the models took a beating and I had to repair them after every game. The thick wood forces gamers to handle the bases, not the models, so now I have far fewer repairs to do.
There's a thin layer of magnetic rubber glued to the bottom of each base, so the ships store nicely and securely in steel cabinet drawers.


Lepanto and Duilio at the same stage.


Closeup of the Lepanto.




Step 6. Apply a black wash (a tiny amount of black paint mixed into thinner) to bring out the details. I use black enamel and enamel thinner for this wash, since it won't disturb the underlying acrylic paint.


The black wash had just been applied moments before these photos had been taken. The wash is very shiny until it dries, which can take several hours depending on what you use and how you mix it.




Step 7. A nice dark blue for the base. This is the point where the model starts to look good.




Step 8. To finish off, I use white paint to make a "wake" at the bow, a wash along the entire hull, and a stern trail of bubbles. About 15 minutes after I put the white paint on, I go over it with Dullcote to give it a sort of bubbly finish. After using this technique for years I still can't get it to look realistic, but it does work very well as a visual cue to let gamers easily distinguish stem from stern. (This is very important!)
Unlike a lot of naval gamers, I always put labels on the miniatures displaying the ship's name. Many "old school" gamers prefer to keep the ship's identity hidden, forcing opposing players to use their ship recognition skills. I'm not one of them. I usually use computer-assist rules for naval miniatures, and for those games the one piece of information you really need visible at all times is the ship's name. Some gamers paint or print the ship's name on the bottom of the hull or base, which means players are constantly lifting the miniatures to read the bottom and of course the models never go back down exactly where they were, plus the paint or label can scrape or rub off over time.
These labels can be made using any word processor program that can handle background and foreground colors, and printed on any color inkjet or laserjet printer. I just set the paragraph background color to dark blue and the foreground (text) color to white, print out on ordinary paper, cut the names out with scissors, and glue to the bases using white glue.




The Lepanto and Duilio all finished.


The American cruiser Boston with the round Russian battleships (harbour defense batteries, really) Novgorod and Popov.


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Last updated: June 11, 2016