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Editor's Note: Many of John Youngerman's 1:1200th scale scratchbuilds (linked below) grace the pages of Scale. In response to many requests, John has put together this article describing his construction techniques learned over 37 years of building. The article is divided into the sections listed (and linked) at right.


Reference Materials
Hull Construction
Deckhouses & Bridges
Masts and Tripods
Turrets, Gunhouses etc
Deck Details

Obviously, one can use a large variety of materials in scratch building model ships at 1:1200 scale. Friends have earnestly recommended sheet or block plastic, lime wood, sugar pine, resin-filled plastic, and maybe other materials that I have forgotten over the years. Most would tell me that I just plain couldn’t build respectable models using balsa wood as my basic material. Well, based on 37 years of experience, I disagree. I use balsa exclusively and am able to achieve credible results with elementary tools and really a minimum of time. Balsa does, however, have a more noticeable grain than other materials and I will deal with my techniques to minimize the "grain" problem later in this article. The main advantage with balsa is that it is readily available in standard thicknesses of 1/32", 1/16", 3/32", 1/8", 3/16", and ¼". You can occasionally find thicker sheets, but they have extremely limited use in this scale.

For decks and pretty much all horizontal surfaces including roofs, I use artists’ Bristol Board or good quality business card stock. Bristol Board is usually available in one, two, and three-ply thicknesses. Try an artists’ supply house to obtain it. It has a hard, slick finish and is great to draw on. It cuts easily with a #11 Xacto blade or a single edge razor blade. Business cards can also be used and have the advantage that they are relatively thin and are stiffer for their thickness than Bristol Board (BB). I normally use two-ply BB for decks or for roofs of deckhouses. An amazing characteristic of BB or good business cards is that the edges can be sanded! After cutting to shape, I sand the edges smooth to final shape and remove any "lip" by a few swipes of the sandpaper along the flat side of the edge. I use three-ply BB in certain situations where I want strength, but it is really a bit thick for overhanging decks, etc.

John Youngerman's 1:1200 Scale Scratchbuilt Ships
Click to Enlarge

Battlecruiser Lutzow (1915) IJN BB Haruna (1944) HMS Nelson (Feb 45)
HMS Repulse (mid 41) HMS Vanguard (1946) USS Colorado (Dec 44)
USS Mississippi (1944) USS Pennsylvania (1945) USS West Virginia 1943
HMS Prince of Wales USS New York 1944 SMS Ostfrieland 1917
IJN Taiho (1944) IJN Kaiyo (1943) Kuznetsov CVN (1992)
IJN carrier Zuiho 1944 Adm. Scheer (1945) Light Cruiser Lutzow (1944)
IJN Tone (Feb 45) Kirov (1980) Ochakov (1975)
HMS Sheffield (1941) USS Detroit (1945) USS Richmond (1943)
HMS Suffolk 1942 Isachenkov (1975) Udaloy (1981)
USS The Sullivans USS Arleigh Burke DDG 51

I have used plain paper, single-ply BB, or USGS quadrangle map paper for "screens" or occasionally for the sides of deckhouses/bridges, etc. I haven’t used plain paper in decades and wish I had never done so. Either of the other two gives really good results. Single-ply BB is a bit thicker and stiffer than quad paper, but either is satisfactory. I cut long strips to the height of the screens, usually about 0.045", and glue them to the edges of the two-ply BB deck using white glue.

I have used white glue almost exclusively for decades, but recently have started using thick CA-glue where I want to mate plastic to wood or BB. It works great. White glue will also work, but takes longer to dry and the joint is not as sturdy, especially if my fingers get clumsy! I always use white glue for BB to wood, BB to BB or BB to paper, or for masts. It is really quite strong and dries relatively fast, but slowly enough to work things into precise positions before they dry.

Masts can be made of several materials. I normally use brass wire obtained from my local train shop. Detail Associates is the brand I use. I have used all diameters available up through 0.019". Evergreen makes plastic strips, sheet, rods and tubes and other shapes and I find myself using them more and more to save time sanding wood to teeny weeny sizes. Techstar also makes plastic rods and tubes in various small diameters similar to Evergreen. I find that they produce more perfectly circular rod, but have fewer diameters to work with. Plastic rod can also be used for masts that are really thick, such as 3 feet thick on the actual ship. I have also sanded down toothpicks to the proper diameter. Again, toothpicks would only be used for thicker masts. They are really strong and will not bend. It’s just a pain to sand them down. The smallest diameter plastic rod available is 0.010", made only by Grandt Line for railroad enthusiasts. I use it in cetain situations where I don’t want brass. I don’t recommend using it for tripod masts, as it has no strength, but have used it for the crosspieces in lattice masts, gluing it to brass usually. Another material that can be used for masts, but is really difficult to cut, is orthodontist’s wire used for braces. It’s also quite thick for all but the larger masts. But it is really rigid if that’s what is needed. Get from a dental supply house.

Despite the most careful sanding and assembly, one will occasionally find pieces or hulls that show grain or have been carelessly dented or show other marks. I use 3M Acryl Blue Glazing Putty, which comes in a two-pound tube, which will last forever. It is far superior to the usual stuff that plastic modelers use and can be sanded pretty much like balsa. Spread it on lightly just to fill the dents or marks, dry for a half-hour, and sand carefully (I’ll describe sanding tools later). If you are clever, you can thin it with lacquer thinner and spread it easier or use it to make shapes that are really difficult to achieve in solid materials. Vent cowls come to mind here.

Miscellaneous materials include etched brass mesh available from your local train shop in several mesh sizes and usable for radar antennas as well as aluminum micro mesh, made by Scale Scenics, also from your train shop, usable for radar antennas. The aluminum mesh has the advantage that it can be "molded" to many shapes, such as hemispherical radar antennas. Also, lintless sewing thread is really good to represent anchor chain. I’ve never found any chain small enough to use in this scale. Decals in various colors in the form of stripes are very useful and readily available from most hobby shops. Black decal strips cut to proper width and length are used for bridge windows. Be advised that they are a real pain to use when they are so small.

Perhaps as important as materials are the "tools" you use. I put the word in quotes because few of the tools one uses are standard ones. They are mostly adaptations to the needs of this scale and the materials used.

I buy #11 Xacto blades and industrial quality single edge razor blades in boxes of 100 when I can find them, usually through a company called Micro Mark, but they may be available elsewhere. I go through a lot of blades in a year! For sanding, I have a few hardwood sanding sticks which originally came with Strombecker wood airplane kits about 40-50 years ago when I was a kid. I glue the sandpaper to the stick with white glue and peel it off and replace it when it’s used up too much to sand anymore. I rather think Strombecker did some research on the appropriate size of these sticks, as they seem to fit the hand perfectly. They measure 4-1/2" X just over ¾" X just under ¼". I use them to sand hulls and deckhouses and anything made of balsa or plastic to shape.

Concave surfaces such as bow flares are done with various sizes of wood dowels wrapped with 6/0 sandpaper, then with 320 or 400 grit wet or dry sandpaper. Dowels are readily available in such places as Home Depot (which of course is every real guy’s favorite store). I can’t emphasize the importance of sanding sticks/dowels too much. Used delicately and artistically, they can do wonders for the builder in this scale. And the wet or dry paper can readily be used to sand plastic to shape also. From sanding sticks, we pass to tweezers, which are essential. I have found that the long pointed tweezers are the best. Normal tweezers like your wife uses for those stray hairs that keep popping up are O.K., but much less precise. Get the best long pointed tweezers you can.

How do I measure? Techniques will come later, but I have a flat scale made in Australia by "W&G", model no. wg/s 2312, scaled in hundredths and eightieths of an inch. This scale has been a lifesaver and I do not know if it can still be purchased, here or in Australia. Obviously, it is perfect for 1" = 100" scale. The smallest marks are at 0.02", so one can reasonably estimate down to 0.01" or one foot. I recently purchased a flat steel scale made by the L. S. Starrett Co., model no. 0305R, which has tenths and hundredths of an inch on one side. The smallest marks are at 0.01". However, the design is such that it is more difficult to read and use. But here’s the good news. You can use any scale you want if you just divide the model length in inches (i.e., 688’ = 6.88" in 1200 scale) by the plan length taken using that same scale. For instance, if you are using a "60" on an engineering scale, use that scale to measure the length of the ship from your plans and use that engineering scale to measure lengths for your 1:1200 scale model. You can also make it work for 1" = 104’ (1:1250). I just write the proportion or conversion factor on the plans, usually to three places after the decimal point, and then multiply plan dimensions by that decimal value using a cheap calculator. The closer you can measure, the more accurate the model and the fewer "adjustments" you will have to make to make everything fit where tolerances are miniscule (which happens more often than you would think).

At this point, I thought I would mention that I cut brass for the masts and guns with an Xacto knife on a 0.040" thick piece of plastic for rigidity. Glass is even better, but you will dull your knife after one cut. Use the heel of the blade if possible to save the point. This gives a perfectly square end to the brass. I cut plastic rod/tube with a razor blade or razor saw, scoring first as needed. For reaming out plastic tubing and some other uses, I use needle point files. For drilling, I use the extremely small drill bits available from Micro Mark or other suppliers in a pin vise. When gluing plastic parts together, I recommend using MEK (methyl ethyl ketone), a liquid cement, also available from paint stores or Home Depot, applied with a draftsman’s ruling pen or an old paint brush. An alternate would be CA-glue, but the joint will not be as strong.

Obviously, one needs accurate plans to a reasonable size as a basis for making an accurate model. There are numerous sources of such plans including books, magazines, periodicals, plan producers, etc. Get as many as you can and compare them with each other and with available photos to determine which plan set is most accurate. Because plans and photos may tend to be scattered in many different places and, especially if they are in periodicals, can be hard to locate, I started, many years ago, a card file index of references to particular ships or classes of ships. I have a metal 3X5 card file full of cards listing where to find plans, profiles, photos, and articles about various ships. It’s great if you have a specialty book that provides all the information you will ever want—and more –about a particular ship, but sometimes one finds material scattered in many places. I also have a two-drawer file cabinet with manila file folders for loose materials such as plans or photos. My tabs are by country and ship type, such as USA-battleships and battlecruisers. I find this very helpful, especially as I download and print tons of material off the various websites—WARSHIP in particular has provided me with invaluable material for modeling in 1:1200 scale. The drawer file gives me a place to keep this material organized and filed and readily reachable.

Hulls are invariably constructed of plank balsa, most often of thinner planks glued together with white glue and placed under a heavy weight to dry without warping. The decks are usually covered with business card stock, but sometimes are left alone. Insert shaped "wedges" of balsa at the bow—and occasionally at the stern—to build in the longitudinal sheer of the deck. To do this, use a razor blade or razor saw to cut a slit in the bow (or stern) deep enough to accommodate the balsa wedge. Fill any holes with putty after you have sanded to shape. Shaping the hull is a matter of cutting to rough shape with a razor blade and then using one’s "Mark I eyeball" and artistic sense to finish sanding to correct shape. I would recommend the Mark I against trying to make an accurate two-sided drawing of a hull on BB or card stock. Sometimes it is necessary, though, especially for World War One era battleships. Use the dowels wrapped with 6/0 sandpaper to produce the bow flare. If in doubt as to the diameter of dowel to use, use one size larger than you think it should be. You can always finish with a smaller diameter. With balsa, this job doesn’t take forever as it would with plastic or hardwood. At this point, with the hull sanded to shape, cut out any armor plate from two or three ply BB and glue to the hull sides. Likewise, add any bulges at this point. Bulges are made from balsa sheet, cut to correct outline shape and sanded to round them to very close to exact shape. After the glue is dry, you can finish sanding the bulges. Bulges are usually very fragile and tricky and can generate some interesting swear words. At this point, I usually add the deck from card stock or BB and trim and sand to shape. I then paint the hull with several coats of Testors Dullcote or Glosscote lacquer and lightly sand. To find any graininess or open pores in the wood, prime with a gray enamel. Then use the putty to seal the pores and lightly sand to smooth the hull. This is an iterative process and one has to redo as needed until satisfied.

However, at this point, I want to make an important point. I make these models so that they will look good and well finished to the naked eye. If one were to use a magnifying glass, they would really look crude, including slight imperfections in the hull and deckhouses or turrets that are not noticed by the naked eye. Final painting takes care of much of this, but I have accepted the philosophy that I would rather make ten slightly imperfect models than make one totally perfect one. I suspect that all models, to any scale, are in differing degrees imperfect representations of the original and the demands of this small scale are such that small imperfections have to be overlooked.

After getting the hull in good shape, start with the main deck structures. Draw them to correct shape on either two ply BB or card stock. It seems that most navies construct decks with a height of about 8-1/2 feet. This is very closely represented by 1/16" sheet with two ply BB glued on for the roof or the deck on top. For instance, a bridge structure may start with the lowest deck in a roughly rectangular shape with the front corners cut off or rounded. Draw the correct shape on BB, cut it out, and glue to 1/16" sheet. The BB forms the roof of this deck (not the floor—do it enough times and you will see why). The next deck, which usually has wings or otherwise sticks out, is drawn on BB and cut and sanded to final shape. Add the deckhouse cut and sanded from 1/16" balsa sheet. Then cut the screens out of one ply BB or quad paper and glue them to the edges of the deck as appropriate. Here, I want to comment about scale. The average "screen" on warships was/is usually less than six inches thick, which in this scale means less than 0.005". The screens on commercially produced models are almost always at least 0.01" – 0.02" thick or thicker for production/molding reasons. I feel that this gives an "overscale" look to that part of the model. If you think about it, unless a feature is at least 0.01" and maybe 0.02" in its smallest dimension, it is not practical to try to reproduce it as one couldn’t see it anyway. Everything in this small scale is "representational" anyway, and one has to compromise constantly. Another reason to use thinner stock for screens is that it is easier to bend to follow the deck edge outline.

Bridges and other multi-level structures are built up layer after layer using this technique. Where the bridge is a massive block, as on certain battleships, I make the block out of balsa, adding bridge wings, etc., by gluing them on to the block. Vanguard, Bismarck, Scharnhorst, and Warspite are examples of ships with massive block superstructures.

Gun tubs are usually made from circular bases cut from two-ply BB with screens glued on. In cases where it is not practical to use a base, I would use card stock for the screens, rolling them to circular shape with a paint brush handle pressed against my finger and gluing the screens directly to the hull/deck. An alternative that I occasionally use is cutting sections from a plastic straw—if you can find one with the correct diameter—or cutting sections from plastic tubing after reaming it to reduce the apparent thickness for scale purposes. I use a #11 Xacto blade to ream ends of plastic tubing. You have to be careful cutting it when you have done this as its strength has been reduced.

Masts are usually constructed of brass wire (see Materials). Glue various sizes together as needed using white glue. The joints will be surprisingly strong. Spars are also brass wire, glued on with white glue. Starfish are cut to shape either from two-ply BB or plastic sheet, with the triangular "arms" glued on underneath. Leave a hole or holes at the point(s) where the mast(s) goes through. Poke or drill a hole in the deck for the mast and glue with either or both CA glue and white glue. CA glue has the advantage that it sets up fast and gives one some strength immediately. However, white glue also works fine as you may have to adjust the mast so it looks right. The masts on most if not all commercially produced models are made over thick due to production/molding problems. Using brass wire will force one to estimate the thickness of the mast and spars and will aid in producing more of a "scale" look. If a mast is really thick with a severe taper, fabricate it from a sanded down toothpick. The masts on the Des Moines class CAs are an example that comes to mind. Plastic rod is an alternative for very thick masts or for the tripods that were part of many bridge structures and which supported director structures. However, 0.020" – 0.025" plastic rod has little strength against bending and has to be used carefully. Once it is glued into the tripod shape, it is quite strong.

Lattice masts are "representational" unless one is a whiz at photoetching (PE). Maybe someday…. Also, one should keep in mind that lattice structures are quite light but strong; thus, the individual pieces are best constructed from small size wire such as 0.008" or 0.010" at most. If you think about it, most warships had a weight problem and building masts out of three or four-foot thick tubes would mean placing a huge weight very high up. Generally, they didn’t do it! Masts had to be big enough to support lookouts or director houses or radar and radio wires. Keep them trim looking in this scale.

For many years, radar antenna were constructed from card stock or two ply BB or, sometimes, thin plastic sheet. However, with the advent of brass PE screening or aluminum mesh micro-screening, I now use that, if appropriate, for radar screens. To form a hemispherical surface, cut to circular shape, place it on your finger, and form around the end of a paint brush. Glue on with either white glue or CA glue. Form other shapes using paint brush handles rolled against your finger. The modern "solid" radar antenna can be made from card stock, etc. Card stock or thin plastic sheet can also be formed into a somewhat hemispherical surface with a paint brush handle and your finger. You can add emitters from plastic stock or plastic rod if you wish to go to that level of detail.

Funnels are always constructed from balsa cut to size and rounded. If simple, funnel caps can be constructed from BB, card stock, and/or plastic sheet. If doing that would be too difficult, I just delicately trim a "ledge" at the height of the cap base and sand the cap to proper shape. I can’t say much except it’s an art! Steampipes are added from 0.01" plastic rod or brass wire. Platforms on a funnel may be simply glued on, but sometimes mean that the funnel has to be cut and the platform glued down and the rest of the funnel added. Searchlights are made from plastic rod in an appropriate diameter, with a base made from BB with a notch cut in it. It’s very simplistic, but these details are so small that anything more elaborate is wasted.

Turrets are made from balsa sanded to the correct thickness and cut to proper width. I just sand the front or rear (whichever is the more difficult) to shape, cut to length, and sand the other end to shape. What’s difficult is making all the turrets alike. For battleships/battlecruisers, the guns are made from toothpicks, sanded to a tapered shape and size using a sanding stick. A powered tool would also work well here, but you would have to be very careful not to snap the barrel or sand too much. Because the results would not be visible in this scale, I do not "step" the barrels. I have tried it and find that it is practically impossible to sand a 3" to 6" step into a barrel, i.e., 0.0025" – 0.005". Leave well enough alone. For smaller gun sizes, I use brass wire. 0.012" is pretty good for 8" guns, 0.010" for 6" guns and 5" guns, 0.008" for 3" or 5" guns, and 0.006" for 40mm guns. Smaller 20mm or Japanese 25mm guns are made from very fine stainless steel wire "liberated" from the space industry and generally unavailable, though worth trying to obtain. One needs to think about the actual diameter of these guns on the original and try not to make them too thick, as they will look "clunky". Barbettes are made from BB or from BB glued to balsa and sanded to shape. If you are lucky, you can use plastic tube stock. However, my experience is that it is never just the right size. I use a circle template to draw the barbette circles on BB and cut out with a #11, sanding to perfect circles. Gunhouses are pretty much similar in construction, but may have additions of BB or plastic sheet. Gunhouses are solid, with the open rear painted dull black.

Warships usually have various rectangular or circular hatches, vents, cowls, reels, winches, and windlasses scattered all over them. Adding them from plastic sheet or rod gives a more realistic look to the model, but trying to reproduce every little excrescence on the decks is tedious and to my mind makes the ship look cluttered. I also add bitts for docking lines from 0.020" plastic rod glued to 0.010 X 0.020 plastic strip and sanded to size. Inevitably, they are a bit oversize except for battleships, but they look nice if used sparingly. Cradles for ships boats are made from BB. Cut a strip of BB the width of the largest cradle, cut a very shallow "V" in the end, slice it off, repeat as needed. Then cut the strip to the next largest width and repeat. Glue on with white glue or CA glue. White glue is better because, by this time, things are getting a bit cluttered and cramped on deck and you will need time to adjust the cradle to its exact position. My general philosophy on deck details is to stop when it looks nice and not try to overdo it.

I usually put about two or three coats of clearcote or dullcote on after I have finished with construction. This fills in any minor endgrain on the deckhouses and generally smooths things out. You can certainly spray it, which I do sometimes. I spray the hull bottom also and sand it smooth (somewhat). This is the point where you have to prime the model or otherwise check it for flaws. I almost always spray the main color on and handpaint the rest, such as wood decks and bridge decks, as well as any camouflage. If a dazzle design, it is a good idea to mask the various colors, at least on the hull. I recommend 3M’s blue masking tape designed for windows. Spray the bottom of the hull also as it looks better. I only spray enamels as I am not comfortable with acrylics in my airbrush. I also have never gotten as good results spraying acrylics. Make your own choice. As a tip, I always thin enamels such as Floquil or Model master with lacquer thinner. Do not return the thinned paint to the bottle, but dispose of it or store it for later use. Enamel thinned with lacquer thinner works incredibly well for spraying, but will cause problems if poured back into the bottle. Don’t try to hand paint with such thinned paint; you will make a mess! Searchlights are represented with silver paint. Covers for ships’ boats are usually white. Funnel caps are black with a dull black "interior". Anchors and anchor chain are usually painted a steel or "pewter" color for contrast and because I think it somewhat represents the color of metal. Unpainted steel decks are steel or gunmetal, never silver. I usually go back over the model several times with a fine brush until I am satisfied with the result and have fixed any "slip ups", which I find happen about 100% of the time. In the areas where there are windows, paint with glosscote and let dry. Add your windows from black decal, cut to the excruciatingly tiny size needed. Finally, spray the model with dullcote to achieve an even finish in terms of reflectance. Colors are really too complicated to get into. In any case, there are several sources of color information in books and websites. Use them. I've experimented with a number of Model Master tan colors in an attempt to simulate wood decks. One of the best colors for wood decks was the old Pactra Deck Tan color in the tiny bottle, no longer available. I now use, after long experimentation, Polly Scale’s Aged Concrete, hand painted on, of course. In this area, it’s what turns you on—or off—in terms of color.

In making models to this scale, ingenuity and experimentation are the key to success, along with a refusal to go bonkers on detail. I think you will, as I seem to, know when enough is enough. Keep in mind that it’s all representational, just like art, and what looks good to you probably IS good! And what you can’t see with your eyes from about 8-12" is not worth spending time on in terms of striving for perfection. Good luck!

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