Mike at SBS
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Today marks the last day in New Zealand's four-week Level 4 lockdown, which means it was 4 weeks ago when I started a new project: Ironclads. It all started when my daughter pulled a big "picture" book off the self for me to read to her. After insisting it was definitely the one she wanted to read, we sat down and started reading about the American Civil War River campaigns.
She and I were especially drawn to this illustration about the Battle of Memphis in June 1862. After staring at the picture for over an hour (she was very engaged with it), I started looking at the little riverboats with my modelling eye and by then I was past the point of no return. That night I cleared the hobby bench and started the project!
I knew I wanted to experiment with something small, but challenging to help work out the bugs and make sure this wasn't just a fleeting interest. So I started with the famous duel at Hampton Roads between the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor. With just two ironclads, I would be able to figure out what's involved in making them. I also settled on 1/600 as a new scale. I had originally thought about making them in 1/1500 to match my Dreadnoughts, but that makes models like the Monitor, super tiny. So I went with 1/600 so that some of the details could come through, while still sticking to my abstracted art style.
So I began with CSS Virginia. The object of this project was to get a handle on sloped armor and how that will look when its finished. I learned a few things about the angled armor, such as the need for a tool to help make sure that the angle stays true during the sanding process. After a few nights of hobby time, it was assembled. then it was on to her opponent, USS Monitor.
Reflecting its bewildering 90-day historical build time, the Monitor was easy, maybe about 90 minutes coincidentally. The things I was experimenting with here were the turret and the metallic finish on the wood surface. I wanted a true circle for the turret, so used a straw to make the turret sides, capped by a balsa circle. I was mostly happy with it, but I need to continue the experiment because the transition between the balsa and the straw was a bit messy. Still, it was serviceable.
The metallic surface was a bit more tricky. I coated the wooden models with PVA to help fill in the woodgrain gaps, which worked mostly in combination with the primer and paint. However, for large metallic surfaces in the future, I'll look into using some spackle or CA glue instead.
Another thing I wanted to experiment with was making flags. In the distant past, I used tissue paper, but that was difficult to decorate without the colors bleeding. At this scale, paper isn't an option because it is too hard to shape. A while a go I used some aluminum foil to make some flags for another project and they ended up looking very good but were too fragile and ended up ripping.
I ended up going with a small square of aluminum from the top seal of a food container, in this case sour cream. This material is heavier than foil sheets and some are even textured, which came in handy in the next project. This worked out well and helped tie off these two ironclads.
I then wanted to push myself a little further and make the 1/600 square rigged steam frigate USS Minnesota.
Historically, after the Virginia had sunk both the USS Cumberland and Congress, the ironclad spooked the Minnesota which ran aground and got stuck trying to escape. With to the tide going out, the Virginia had to retire to its port for safety, then returned the next day to finish off the Minnesota, which was still stuck. However, as Virginia approached, USS Monitor slid into view and engaged the Confederate vessel for over 3 hours. Eventually, the Virginia retired without sinking the Minnesota. I had always assumed that during the three hours of fighting, that it was a duel between the Virginia and the Monitor, but what I discovered along the way was that the Minnesota was a very active participant in the battle, despite being stuck. When the Virginia realized that she couldn't damage Monitor, she tried to go after the Minnesota instead, but when she got close, the steam frigate's 10in, 9in, and 8in Dahlgren guns opened fire at point-blank range, causing moderate damage to the ironclad but certainly ringng the crew's bells pretty hard inside the iron casemate! So she was again forced away into battle with Monitor.
So all that to say, that I wanted to make the Minnesota as well. Ironically, the Minnesota was the sister-ship of the Merrimac, which would go on to be captured and converted into the Virginia. So at 1/600, the Minnesota was about the same size as the Virginia. The things I wanted to try out with this model were the masts and sails, the rigging, and the guns on the deck.
There were two things I wanted to try regarding the ship's weapons. The first thing I wanted to try was a way to get nice square open gun ports. Rather than cut all these out individually, I opted for a different solution. I build the hull up to the bottom of the gunports and then glued some square sticks abeam in an on-off pattern along the hull where the cannon were meant to be.
Then I glued the top flush deck above the sticks and then sanded the whole thing into shape.
The second thing I wanted to test regarding the weapons were the cannon themselves. The broadside cannon were little pieces of plasticard rods on top of a plasticard square. However, my favorite bit were the 10" pivot guns, one mounted in each end of the ship. For these I used a bit of bread-tie plastic cut into a square with the tip of a tooth pick to achieve the distinctive shape of the large smoothboore Dahlgren guns. I use a lot of bread-tie plastic in my models, as its easy to cut, shape, and score, and given the amount of bread my kids go through, I'll never be in short supply!
I used the same trick as the flags for the sails, but this time I used a textured aluminum material instead.
I wanted to portray the ship with furled sails, so I rolled up the aluminum and then glued them under the spars.
Then I pushed a crease into the sail with my thumbnail to add the impression of some tie ups.
For the rigging, I used nylon thread. I had previously used cotton, but it freys too much and looks messy. The nylon stuff looks clean and is easy enough to work with. However, I didn't do the ratlines on the side, as I'm still trying to figure out an easy/economical way to do them that matches the level of abstraction I've got for the rest of the ship.
The result of the Minnesota experiment is generally good. The rigging took the longest of any one part of the process, but that's to be expected. The sails were a lot easier than I was expecting, so that was a success. I'm generally quite happy with gunports, however they are rather too big for scale, but that can be fixed using smaller sticks of wood. I'm also happy with the top deck's guns and 10in Dahlgren pivot guns.
Overall, there is some room for improvements, however the big takeaway for me is that I'm going to be conservative with how many square-rig ships I do. Maybe 3 more and, eventually, the USS New Ironsides.
Altogether the experiment of the three ships proved satisfactory enough for me to try what I really wanted to do, which is the Battle of Memphis, with its 5 Union ironclad riverboats and 4 steamboat rams, and the 8 Confederate Cottonclads.
So that's what I've been up to. I'll have some articles that take a closer look at some of the stuff I've posted above, but for now, that's been my lock-down hobby project!
Oh, and also, making an adaptation of Dreadnought so that I can play with my new figures. But more on that later!