Monday 24 May 2021

ACW Ship Models: The Reason(s) Why

 Things have certainly moved on since I sat down to build the U.S.S. Roanoke some eight months ago!

Now that I am staring down the barrel of a completed building programme I figured that it would be a good opportunity to explain the whys and wherefores of how I got to where I have gotten to. It is not a ‘how to’ kind of post - more like ‘whys and wherefores’ one!

Straight Lines and Hulls

When I first built a selection of models for the ACW some eight years ago I used primarily Balsa wood for the hulls. These were all carefully shaped by hand - taking quite some time I might add - but all had one thing in common. The main length of the hull sides was always straight. The reason for this was simply because all of my casemates are built with straight sides as they are easier to fashion using my usual method. My casemates are built using a solid central block of the appropriate size with the casemate faces angled and glued against it. As I use wooden craft sticks for the casemate faces curves are not really practical so straight sides to the hull it is.

Straight sides, casemates and paddle boxes. The three hulls in the foreground became a pair of City Class gunboats and the C.S.S. Missouri. You can see where the bows needed reshaping to get that distinctive stubby look. Note the bag of 5mm card squares - a ship modelling godsend!

The biggest single change this time around is that instead of Balsa wood my models are now largely made from MDF, professionally cut to shape and size. This has ensured a degree of uniformity but at the cost of flexibility. I opted for a generic ‘ship’ hull shape with a modestly curved stern and pointed bow for the simple reason it would give me more deck space. It means that all of my ship models have a largely the same hull shape but in varying lengths and one of two widths - 1 1/4” or 1”. I have modified a few hulls based on the existing template simply because it is easy to do so and there was little point ordering a professionally cut version for those that I needed. For instance the City class gunboats, along with the U.S.S. Essex are quite ‘stubby’ looking on the bow so I rounded them down by 1/4”. The C.S.S. Virginia, Louisiana and Georgia also feature modified hulls.

Casemates, Gunports and Hatch Covers

As mentioned my casemates are for the most part rectangular with the notable exceptions of the pair of octagonal types, the C.S.S. Virginia and the U.S.S. Essex - each of which have curved casemate ends (two for the Virginia and one for the Essex).  Overall this is largely at odds with a number of historical designs as the casemate typically followed the curve of the hull sides. Luckily both of these ships (Virginia and Essex) are more or less straight sided. The curved casemate ends for these two ships were carefully fashioned from Balsa wood and I am really pleased with  how they came out. I have taken liberties with the pilot houses on all the casemate ironclads as many of these should be sloped or even circular/octagonal and sloped (City class gunboats I am talking about you!). Many of these are slated for replacement in due course with something that will be closer to the correct size if not shape.

Gun ports I have take a a real liberty with but it has made life a whole easier! Regardless of the actual shape of the gun port I have opted for a blanket approach of using 5mm square 1mm thick grey card. I have tried to position these as accurately as I can but to be honest there has been an element of artistic licence with a few! Some of my earlier models had 6mm square gun ports but the effort of changing these for the new standard would be a pain to tackle so they are staying put. Using these squares is both simple to apply and functional looking and also helps to break up the surface of the casemate. 

Hatch covers serve to add some detail to the decks and as with the gun ports I have taken a few liberties as to where they are placed and what colour I have painted them.

Ship Sizes

The models are not scale specific by any stretch of the imagination and were originally built with the mistaken idea that the hexes on a Hammerin’ Iron gaming mat (available from Peter Pig) were 5.5” across the flat sides whereas they are actually 4.5”! My largest hull size is 5” by 1 1/4” so opting to use a grid with 3” squares and a ship taking up two of them makes perfect sense - so that is what I am doing. As the collection has grown I have made an effort to differentiate ships sizes where I can but there is no real level of consistency in this. For the record the smallest ships I have built - the C.S.S. Manassas and the C.S.S. Little Rebel are 3 1/4” long.

The hull of a US frigate - note the pivot mounted artillery and the forest of masts behind!

Colour Schemes

Once again I have taken liberties but in my defence a quick trawl through the net will show a whole variety of colour schemes - even for the same ship! I have used matt greys for armour with the Confederates being a lighter shade than the Union. It works well and given both the stylised nature of the models and the simple and clean look I was going for - no rust or other assorted stains are present - it is fine. Some of the Union ‘old navy’ ships were sporting a rather natty almost Napoleonic paint scheme which was mainly why I opted for hull layer with gunport notches cut out - it made life a whole easier!

Deck Mounted Artillery

This is a tricky one as a number of ships featured deck mounted artillery of various calibres and quantities.  Modelling too many of these would not be practical and so the rule of thumb I am working to is that if a ship only has deck artillery then a notional representation should be made. My 90 Day gunboats have the full outfit of guns and I plan to do the same for some near equivalents. Some of the river paddle steamers should be retro fitted with a gun or two at some point but for now they will be gun less, at least the models will be even if the ship card says something else! 

The deck guns for the larger ships will be more stylised than than those for the smaller ships which will be mounting the gun carriages I have from Warbases.  The reason for this is a that although small the gun carriages themselves are relatively large compared to the model. I have a far simpler method I shall use which looks rather effective and will have its debut when the current batch of five models are completed.

Mast and Bowsprit. Again, copious amounts of superglue and cunningly filed surfaces help to make a surprisingly durable representation

Masts and Spars

I very quickly learned that sailing ship rigs could be changed quite dramatically from a full blown ocean going fitting down to bare poles - the bottom section of the masts. The sailing rig was typically reduced for operations up river when steam would be use exclusively for propulsion. I took the conscious decision to avoid fitting any sails to those ships that have a full set of masts on the grounds that these would typically be used for long distance cruising to save on coal and so are securely stowed away in the interim. Something I thought about although have little information to back it up is that deployed sails and the associated rigging must have made a wonderful fire risk.

The masts I have assembled look the part although again, some liberties have been taken to ease construction. I shall not be bothering with any rigging although ironically these models are well suited to it! As mentioned previously there is much in the way of ‘smoke and mirrors’ in respect of how I make masts - they are quite straightforward and superglue is definitely your friend! I will organise some rectangular fighting tops at some point as the current round version was but one type in use. There are many simple dodges one can use - filing glue contact surfaces slightly flush for a better grip and making use of the area offered by fighting tops to increase the area for sticking - and the end result is surprisingly robust once assembled, painted and varnished.

The next step will be to add sails but luckily for this period I have not needed to....

Paddle Steamers

The thirteen river paddle steamers I have built all have one thing in common. Essentially they are all the same basic design but with variation built in in terms of the paint job, fixtures and fittings. By varying the shape and size of the central superstructure - a Jenga block - and by moving parts around one is able to get a large variety of designs. Typically they will have one or two funnels that will be either mounted forward or mid ships, the paddle boxes will be fitted either centrally or towards the stern and the location of the pilot house can also be moved. The number of gun ports and hatches can also be varied to taste. My paddle steamers look the part but are very generic, simple and stylised looking. The paddle boxes on the river vessels were typically closed in for protection (and to reduce noise, one reason why stern wheelers were not as popular to use) so were very easy to fashion. Those paddle boxes that featured the ‘sun ray’ effect on their outer casing I am currently getting Warbases to cut for me as I have a number of ships to build that will need these.


With this project my original intention was to build some dozen or so generic looking ACW warships of a larger size than the previous versions. The project quickly grew into something altogether rather more ambitious as extra ships were added and some more historically specific types were built. Throughout it all I wanted to ensure that the overall look remained constant and so simple levels of detail and a clean, old school style paint job was very much the order of the day. I think I have largely succeeded in this and in conjunction with the rules I have developed it will mean that I shall have a naval collection that will give me a lot of fun going forwards.

The biggest single thing I have learned from the whole experience is the absolute value of proper prior preparation (I am sure you know the rest of this 7 pd expression!). Using Warbases to professionally cut the pieces I required for the models has saved an immeasurable amount of time and ensured that they are able to be built simply and efficiently. For sure I have made a few design errors along the way but even with the pieces are not right I will still find a use for them so nothing will be wasted.

It has also served to give me the confidence to tackle more ambitious building projects in the future with H.M.S. Superb and the pair of Turkish river monitors being a pointer to other periods. The five ACW models currently under construction are also placing a marker but for for slightly different and as yet undisclosed reasons.

Above all else though, the whole project has been enormously satisfying to undertake!


Archduke Piccolo said...

Hi David -
I can imagine! Great looking navies.

David Crook said...

Hello there Archduke,

Thank you old chap!

I have a number of other ship building ideas to play around with - in directions I would never have envisaged and I guess it is this project I have to thank!

In many ways it has taken me back to my earliest wargaming days when it used to be tanks and aircraft I scratch built. What pocket money I had was used solely to purchase Airfix figures.

All the best,


Robert (Bob) Cordery said...


A great review of the progress of you shipbuilding project, with lots of hints and ideas for others to copy and use.

All the best,


David Crook said...

Hello there Bob,

Many thanks old chap - much appreciated! I wanted to post something like this for a while - mainly to pass on ‘why I did what I did when I did it’ - and hope that inspires other gamers to have a go at building their own ships.

Now that the man cave has been reopened (the new loft hatch mechanism and door are now working as they should) work can resume of the famous five in respect to the masts etc. These are already built and sealed and merely need painting so all should be ready in a day or so.

Though I say so myself, they look pretty good! More importantly they have given me a whole load of new ideas!

Watch this space....

All the best,


Steve J. said...

I can't believe that this started some 8 months ago, as the time has flown by and I've followed this whole process with interest. The end results are brilliant and the sort of thing I love to see scratch built. So keep up the good work and look forward to seeing what else comes down the slip ways from your workshop!

David Crook said...

Hello there Steve J,

Thank you old chap - it is all the positive comments from the blogosphere that have really helped me along with this and ensured that I stayed the course!

I have five ships currently being painted - the hulls are done and the masts are halfway there - and hope to have these finished and posted tomorrow so watch this space.

These are really lovely looking in my opinion and I hope that everyone enjoys them!

All the best,