Sunday, July 1, 2007

Tim’s Shipyard

In anticipation of playing some Savage Worlds: Pirates of the Spanish Main I’ve been building some wee ships for, obviously, some ship on ship action in the age of sail. Now, I have some issues with the Savage treatment of naval combat in the age of sail – COMPLETELY IGNORING WIND!? – but that’ll be a topic for another post (wherein will be included Tim’s house rules for Fast, Furious and FUN Naval combat in the age of sail WITH WIND!!!)….. This article is about making wee ships…

Now any sensible person would probably just go out and buy a couple packs of the Pirates of the Spanish Main CSG and assemble and play with the cardboard ships. Poof instant navy…. Well no one ever accused me of doing anything sensible. No sir, I decided to save myself $20 and spend a couple whole days making my own damn ships out of scrap bits of MDF, recycled cardstock and toothpicks…

Step One: It’s Good To Have A Plan

(Remember: click on the pictures for a bigger version)

I drew a great deal many plans like this. Lost some. Threw some out. This was the last one I drew the morning I actually started cutting wood (if you want to call MDF “wood”). I even varied from the plan once I started actually putting them together – and that’s okay – but still it’s good to have a general idea of what you’re trying to do.

So the basic plan was to have five very generic looking sailing ships (corresponding with the five basic ship categories in Savage Worlds: Pirates of the Spanish Main ) which have between one and five masts. I was going for a late 16th/early 17th century look… now I know next to nothing about ships and stuff so please don’t go posting comments telling me that these don’t look historically accurate because I just don’t care that much… Anyway, these generic ships would be made from strips of 1/8” MDF that would be carved to shape and layered up as required, shaped a bit more and then stuck to a base (also made of 1/8” MDF).

I wanted to have fairly standard base sizes but obviously they couldn’t be on the same size as the single-mast sloop would look lost on a base big enough for the five-mast man-o-war. I think I went with three. One for the one, two, and three mast ships, and separate ones for the four and five – though they, I think, are the same width – the five master’s base just being a wee bit longer.

Step Two: Cut Strips of MDF

A table saw is a wonderful thing. I cut a pile of strips for the varying widths of ships and bases.

Step Three: Cut Bits to Length

More handy toolz: the compound mitre-saw (I don’t have these JUST for hobby projects…!).

Step Four: Mark Out Ships and Start Carving!

Like such. I didn’t want to try and take a picture of myself trying to carve them as that, for sure, would have ended in removed fingers… I just use an Olfa L-2 snap off blade type knife for this (and most hobby hand cutting…)

Step Five: Assemble Wee Bits

Layer them up and do some more shaping as required then stick them on a base. The gluing is all done with Flash glue as I was feeling impatient I could just have easily used carpenter’s glue – as I usually do for most projects involving MDF. Flash glue is a cyanoacrylate – like “superglue” but waaaay cheaper.

Glue and shape up the ship BEFORE sticking to base – as it makes the shaping of the ship way easier.

Step Six: Drill Holes and Fit Masts

For the mast I used a combination of round toothpicks for the … uh… upright bits(?) of the masts and flats for the ..uh… horizontal bits that the sails actually hang from… (yeah, dig that technical terminology… that’s how little I actually know about the age of sail… and chips in general – I know enough to realize that there probably is a specific technical term for all these things… but I have no idea what they are… maybe some of you more knowledgeable types can set me straight by posting a comment below…).

Step Seven: Make with the Masts

I just glued the (slightly shaped – so as not to be too tapered) flat toothpick crosspieces to the round toothpick with carpenters glue, for at least some of them, others might have been done with flash glue.

I also painted the bases just to get a clearer idea of what they’d look like in the end. I also played a quick game with Jeff Peterson just to see how the system (with a few of my own tweaks) worked out.

Now originally I wanted the masts to be removable, like the Pirates CSG ships, to mark the damage taken by the ship. After the game with Jeff the toothpicks were all coming apart… they needed to be sturdier…

Then I got this brilliant idea that I’d wrap them with very fine wire… this didn’t work so well as it made putting the sails on difficult. In the end I decided to go with the original plan and hope that once the sails were attached, every thing was painted and covered with a spray finish that that might hold everything together.

Step Eight: Fit the sails

The sails were made out of cardstock. They were cut to shape and then wrapped around a pencil to give it a billowed look and then glued, top and bottom, to the masts with Flash glue. At this point it became painfully obvious that these would be very flimsy and there was no way they could survive being yanked in and out of the ships… so I decided to glue them in permanently and hope that if they were handled carefully enough, by their bases… they might survive more than one or two engagements…!?

Step Nine: Paint!

Actually I kept the masts and sails out until after they were painted. It was easier that way. Hosed them all down with spray finish and presto I have a navy!

Coming Soon: First Engagement - Savage Sunday

Questions, comments or corrections of naval terminology… please post them below!


  1. The uprights are masts, the crosspieces are yards.

  2. Wow! that was fast...!? thanks Alexio!

  3. Awesome stuff Tim- I like how they are simple yet totally effective and look good to boot!


  4. They really are nice little ships, quite good-looking but relatively easy as well. I'm impressed.

  5. They look pretty sharp. Maybe you can do some ship action at a game con sometime...

    BTW, I have a boardgame that uses an auction to determine the direction of the wind. The context for the game allows it to make sense.

  6. I love the ships. I think I will make an attempt at some for my 1812 Great Lakes battles.

  7. Tim,

    I like your ships a lot. They look very good to me. Thank you for the tutorial.

    -- Jeff of Saxe-Bearstein

  8. great tutorial, I am using these instructions to build some spanish armada age galleons.

  9. Cool!

    When you get them done how about post some pics somewhere and let me know where, I'd really like to see them!

  10. my galleons are still in the productions stage the hulls are done and the first coat of brown paint on them. Its slow going but when done I may try to use the same idea to build larger ships for 15mm figures.

  11. put the small ship project on hold to build the 15mm ships the results can be seen at:

  12. Ideal gaming pieces.
    Actual ships in 1/1200 are incredibly fiddly to build and paint (and often very expensive) - more like display models than gaming pieces.

    I raise my rum (with lime juice naturally) to all the scratchbuilders.

    1. Thank you, Stephen!

      Expensive and fiddly - precisely why I made my own! (Because I am cheap and impatient!?)