Sailing Through History With Model Ships

June 9, 2006 - September 24, 2006

Over two dozen beautifully crafted model ships, meticulously constructed to scale, make up this exhibit. Models represent various periods in history ranging from the Bronze Age stitched Ferriby boat to industrial age steamships. Drawings, paintings and nautical objects complement and illuminate the models, as do many historical notes about the ships and the voyagers who sailed on them.

Young visitors to this exhibit were able to practice tying knots, try on pirate gear, try their hand at the wheel and satisfy their curiosity about life on the sea.

Why build models?

At first, modeling served religious purposes. Even today, people can find votive ships in churches along the seacoast in many locations.

Early ship builders knew little about drafting or mathematics. Instead of drawing plans, shipwrights used models to show their prospective customers how the full-size ship would appear. Then the models became the shipwright's plans.

Sailors with time on their hands or who had been taken prisoner during wars between France and England carved models of the ships they had served on - from nostalgia, to while away the time, and to sell so they could buy food and clothing.

Large steamship companies commissioned advertising models in the early 20th century. Cadets learned seamanship and engineering from cutaway and working models.

How many other reasons can you think of for building ship models?

Why do people build ship models today?

The craft reflects our fascination with ships and seafaring, and is a challenging and rewarding hobby.

Each builder has personal reasons for selecting a particular ship to construct. Often the person may have had some personal connection with that particular ship. He may have served on the ship while in service or she may have sailed such a boat.

For kit builders, availability and cost drive choices. Workshop space limits model size. The builder also needs to consider the amount of time required - hundreds or thousands of hours - to complete the model.

As you view these models, you can learn about maritime history as you admire the skill that went into them.

Model and Original:How big are they?

Ship models are built to scale: they are smaller, accurate versions of real ships. We usually refer to this as a fraction or a proportion. Thus, 1/4" = 1' means that a fourth of an inch on the model is equal to one foot on the real ship. Similarly, 1:48 means that one inch on the model equals 48 inches on the real ship. These are two ways of saying the same thing.

Standard American models generally use the 1/4" = 1' (1:48) scale for sailing ship models, and 1/8" or 1/16" to a foot (1:96 or 1:192) for larger ships, such as battleships.

There is another system, known as "fits the box." This means the manufacturer has scaled the model to make different types of ships fit into the same size box and sell for the same price. For instance, such a model may have a scale of 1:1375, which can't be compared with anything else.

Early ship representations

The earliest known models are of Bronze Age ships. Made of clay, they are crude representations of canoe-like boats possibly made from hollowed-out tree trunks.

Archaeologists found accurate scale ship models in Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 2000 B.C. Egyptians believed that the dead could travel on land but needed "spirit ships" to cross the Nile.

Adventurous Phoenicians and Greeks left many sculptures, vases, paintings and clay models of their vessels.

Second century Romans were all-powerful in Southern and Western Europe. They filled the Mediterranean with their cargo ships and guardian war ships. Vases, paintings, mosaics and relief carvings - but no models - survive to show how the ships were built and rigged.

Northern Europeans have excavated from peat bogs entire vessels dating from 400BC to 1000AD. Viking longships, with colored shields attached to each side, are well known. The Bayeux Tapestry shows ships built in the 11th and 12th centuries.

In the 13th and 14th centuries many cities had charter seals. Sea-coast towns' seals frequently showed ship images. These are helpful to historians but can be misleading -- the seals were round and the ship image had to fit the shape !

Toys, plans and kits

German manufacturers led the way in toy ship models beginning in the late 19th century. Some were accurate, others impressionistic.

In the early 20th century British toys were based on realistic designs. In the mid 1920s, ship model kits appeared in the U.S. Cast lead and wooden anchors, deadeyes, and rigging blocks became available. Magazines carried advertisements for these items, and American home craftsmen began to respond.

The big boost in modeling came early in the 1930s when Popular Science magazine published a series of articles and plans of famous ships by E. Armitage McCann. This was the beginning of ship modeling as a popular hobby.

Kits - plastic or wood?

At the end of World War II, plastic model ship kits appeared. Their production involves hundreds of hours of time by skilled craftsmen.

Often working from original blueprints, they hand-build a master model from wood, plaster, plastic and other materials. This model can be extremely detailed, down to the last rivet.

From this model, engineers make plaster and epoxy molds. A pantograph machine then cuts duplicates of the molds and patterns, in a smaller scale, in steel. The result is a die of each part.

Then injection molding machines inject plastic into the dies. The temperature can reach 500º Centigrade at a pressure of 1000 pounds per square inch during this process! One of these machines can turn out complete kits of the Mayflower at the rate of three per minute.

Model-builders who like to work in a time-honored way wouldn't think of putting together a plastic kit. Too much of the preliminary work has already been done, and too little is left to the skill and initiative of the model-builder.

Kits with wood components call for tools such as a craftsman's knife, a razor saw, a marking pencil and straight edge; a set of files, a sanding block and sandpaper, and a suitable glue.

In most cases, kits come complete with ready-made fittings such as cannon, davits, and anchors.

When a sailing ship was in harbor for any length of time the sailors stowed away its sails and running gear. Many model ships are shown this way. Making sails look realistic is a hard job for a model-maker.

Prestige models

In the first half of the 20th century, before air travel became common, there was fierce competition between steamship lines of the world.

Every company had accurate scale models made of all its vessels, to be displayed in board rooms and shipping offices.

The most well-known of these show the liners that competed for the Blue Riband, the award made for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. English, French, German and American ships have all won that prize.

Models as design tools

Ship models made for official purposes give an authentic record of how naval architecture developed. The first models of this kind appeared early in the 17th century.

In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell, then ruler of England, ordered five new ships of war. However, he had difficulty understanding maritime drawings. He requested small scale models.

Teams of artisans crafted models of many 18th and 19th century warships before or during the ships' construction. These are often referred to as Admiralty or dockyard models.

The underwater hull was left as a frame. The part above the waterline was fully finished, but the decks were left unplanked. All of this allowed the viewer to see construction details.

The models were built with or without guns, just as hull models, or as fully-rigged ships. They are considered to be some of the finest examples in model shipbuilding.

Sailors trained with models of ships, although not always successfully. At Portsmouth dockworks in 1742 six young men complained to the Navy Board:

"The model of the "Victory" is so small, her rigging so slight, that we cannot learn anything for it, neither do we know anything of rigging or the storage of anchors or cables, we are quite ignorant of everything that belongeth to sails '

They petitioned for, and received, the use of an old yacht.

The Model Ships

What kind of ship is that?

Elements of a ship

Sailors' models

Sailing journeys consisted of short spells of intense activity but long stretches of boredom. In their free time sailors developed many decorative skills, such as scrimshaw (inscribed bone or teeth), tattooing, exotic knots and ship model making.

Many sailors exchanged ship models for liquor on shore. Hung up in dockside taverns, the models were usually neglected and finally disintegrated.

Some models became votive offerings in churches, perhaps in thanks for a safe return. The most famous of these is a 15th century merchant ship which hung in a church in Matero, Spain. It is now in Rotterdam's Maritime Museum.

In some churches, small silver models of ships hold incense on altars. Images of saints, especially those of St. Elmo, often carry a ship's hull in their arms.

Sailors still make model ships at sea in their spare time, often as a good-by gift to a respected shipmate or officer leaving the ship or retiring.


Books and Publications

Web references

Credits and Acknowledgements

MOAH acknowledges and thanks the following for their participation and support of this exhibit:

Victor Buhrke
Jerome Blair
Beth Bunnenberg
Jim Campbell
Dick Clark
Gwenyth Claughton
Laurie Cvengros
Jean K. Eckert
Keith & Denise Gillen
Nancy Huber
Bob Katzive
Isabel Kennedy
Ivan Klitgaard
John O. Kopf
Keith Kvenvolden
Jack Lindley
Tom MacFadyen
Marvin Marshall
Theodora Nelson
Art Nothoff
Roy Ozaki
Kim Pack
Harold H. Patton
Edward von der Porten
Beryl Self
Bill Wehrend
Wes Weber
Captain K. B. Wheeler
John Wilkins
South Bay Model Shipwrights
MOAH Exhibits Committee

2006 Museum sponsors:   Moore Family Foundation     Frank Livermore Trust

Back To Top
This page last updated: October 26, 2007
Original content: Copyright © 2000 - 2007 Museum of American Heritage
Trademarks are the property of their owners

View Site in Mobile | Classic
Share by: