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28mm Pirate Ships and how to make them by Gary Chalk

Thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson, Rafael Sabatini and the celluloid included, at full size, in the article to allow you to build your own fleet
outpourings of Hollywood, the pirates of the eighteenth century enjoy with the minimum of trouble.
an almost unrivalled reputation for romance and deeds of daring-do.
Eye-patches akimbo, they sweep the seas for loot while singing lusty The templates do not, and I must stress this, make up into an exact
sea shanties.... Of course, the truth may have been a little different, but replica of an historical pirate vessel, but provide something that looks
it still provides opportunities for endless small - scale actions with rather like a wide version of a small eighteenth century brigantine.
interesting scenarios. Now, I know that you can use pirates ashore, There are reasons for this.
raiding coastal villages, smuggling, or even attacking Squire
Trelawney and Jim Lad in the old stockade, but pirates really only Firstly, contrary to popular belief, pirates did not, in general, use large
come into their own when striding the deck and battening down the ships. They favoured smaller craft, whose shallow draught permitted
hatches. You can’t be a pirate without a ship, and you can't have a them to go where heavier naval vessels could not follow. Brigantines
pirate ship without a prey. seem to have been the most popular ships used by eighteenth century
pirates, although they also sailed in the
With this in mind, I started to think about smaller sloops and schooners. Brigantines
finding ships, plural, for my band of varied a little in size, but were generally about
desperadoes. Using existing plastic kits, 120 to 130 feet in length and were crewed by
although briefly considered, was never really anything up to a hundred rum - crazed swash-
an option, as I was using Foundry’s 28 mm bucklers.
scale pirates, I couldn't find anything big
enough for them, and plastic kits are generally I have widened the vessels to allow models of
crammed with too much unnecessary detail to ships’ guns to be accommodated on both sides
be of use. The detail makes it difficult to move of the deck and to provide a good - sized
figures and never withstands the frenzy fighting platform for use of the crew.
engendered by a really good game. This meant Miniatures always take up more room than
that I was going to have to build them from their real -life counterparts. I have thought of
scratch, using cheap materials and an easy these ships as “terrain” rather than “models”,
method of construction. I finally settled for like wargame buildings. They should have the
card and balsa-wood, and, as I was going to feel of the prototypes, without necessarily
make more than one ship, I drew up templates having all their details and be strong enough to
Gary Chalk (Foundry’s voice on the phone en France)
for all the hull parts. These have been contemplates world domination in card
withstand constant handling.
1 2 3

4 5 6

7 8
Fig 1. “Don’t ‘ee get too near that swivel gun Nathaniel!” The swivel Fig 5. This little side window on the Dutch ship has been made from
guns are 15mm cannon barrels (although you could use very small an offcut of 4mm balsa sheet and odd bits of balsa strip. These
25mm) with a hole drilled through them. A dress-making pin is windows seem to have been different in every ship illustration I’ve
pushed through the hole into the end of a piece of square section balsa. looked at, so don't worry about trying to copy it exactly.
Once cut to length ,this is glued to the ship’s rail in the desired
position. Fig 6. A small piece of balsa block has been glued to the inside of the
stern with a hole drilled in the top to accept the flagstaff. If you don’t
Fig 2. A shot of the bow which may help with positioning the bow glue the flagstaff into position, you can have a number of different
ornament and the angle of the bowsprit. The figurehead is made from flags and, by swapping them over, change the identity of the ship. You
the upper half of a 15mm figure dry-brushed in gold. could use the cut out and stick on flags that appear elsewhere in this
and last issue of WI.
Fig 3. The detailing of the quarterdeck
front and the companionways is done Fig 7. A view of the pirate’s stern.
using balsa strip. The companion After the stern windows piece has been
ways have been “stylised” as ladders to glued to the stern, a strip of thin card
save deck space and for ease of can be used, as here, to cover the joint.
construction. The gold balls on the The windows themselves were edged
balustrade were originally a pair of in balsa strip and the detail of the panes
small plastic beads. painted in.

Fig 4. The fighting tops are each big Fig 8. A general view of the pirate’s
enough to hold a suitably villainous deck. The hatch covers are rectangles
marksman! I have edged the top with a of mounting card. Kept in low relief
strip of thin card that provides a slight like this, they don’t get in the way too
lip to prevent figures falling off as you much when you try to move figures.
move the ship. Sails have been omitted You can also see the effect of a deck
from the lower yards to allow free that has been made from balsa sheet,
movement of figures during a boarding scored to resemble planking with a
action. p e n c i l a n d r u l e r .
Scribe the quarterdeck, the foredeck, the prow, and the centre of the
“Shiver me timbers”- Or how to scribe maindeck to resemble planking if desired.
the planks Using scrap balsa sheet, cut out six spacers to support the various
The easiest way to turn balsa sheet into planked decking, is to
scribe it with a pencil and ruler. Make sure that balsa deck pieces. You will need five pieces 7.5 cms x 2 cms and one
your pencil is sharp and start by doing the piece 7.5 cms x 3 cms.
centre line along the deck. Pressing
firmly, but not too hard, scribe a Referring to diagram 1, glue the decks to the base, inserting the
pencil line along the grain of the spacers, as shown, to support the decks at the correct heights. Work
wood. Repeat this across the width of from the base upwards aligning the fronts of the base and the
the deck, keeping the ruler parallel to maindeck so that the back of the maindeck overhangs the back of the
the centre line. Once the deck has been glued base by 1 cm. When the quarterdeck is glued in position, it should
in place, undercoat it a khaki colour. Make overhang the back of the maindeck by 1 cm. Stick the prow into
sure that the khaki colour goes down into all position in front of the forecastle. Pin the joints temporarily to stop
the crevices. Then paint the planks cream to them moving while the glue dries.
represent scrubbed wood, leaving the
recessed lines in the darker colour. Glue the stem into place so that it locks into the little notch in the prow.

Laying in the Stores Glue the stern into place aligning the bottom of the piece with the
bottom back edge of the maindeck. When the glue has dried, glue the
To get your figures afloat, you will need the stern widows piece directly on top, aligning all the edges.
following materials Bend the stern filler round a pencil or biro until it matches the curve
4mm thick balsa sheet for making the base and decks. It has directly below the stern windows, then glue it into position.
to be 4mm or you will suffer a cumulative height error as the decks
stack up. You can now glue the forecastle front and the forecastle back and the
Thin card. About twice the thickness of a cereal packet, this quarterdeck front into position. They should glue directly on the
is used to make the ship’s sides and thus has to be thin enough to curve outside faces of the deck spacers which are already in place.
Mounting card or card of a similar thickness. You will not
need a great deal of this as it is only used for the stern; You may find
that you can get cheap offcuts from a picture framer.
Before you get stuck in...
Balsa strip. Sizes between about 3 and 6mms are useful.
Before covering a piece of the ship in
This is used for ships’ rails, steps and making window frames.
glue and trying to ram it into place, put
Piano or florist’s wire. One piece to hold up the foresail.
it into position to see if it fits.
Dowel for the masts. I used 8mm diameter for the lower
Remember that however hard you have
masts, 6mm for the topmasts and 4mm for the yards. These sizes are
tried to be accurate, a perfect fit is going to be
not critical, but looked right in use. Hardwood dowel is stronger than
unlikely every time. Just check first and if the
balsa and is no more difficult to use.
piece needs sanding a little, or a millimetre of
Glue. I recommend a contact adhesive such as UHU for the
card cutting off, then it’s better to know
card and balsa wood and quick-setting Araldite for yards and masts.
before you’re right up Frenchman’s Creek.
Dressmaking pins, Bluetack, Rubber bands - these are
useful for holding things in place while glue dries.

Gently curve the hull sides between your fingers and glue one into
How to build a ship position, with its bottom aligned with the base to ensure a clean join at
Photocopy the two pages of templates. Cut them out using a craft knife the waterline. When the glue has dried, do the same with the other
or scalpel, using a ruler for the straight lines. side.

Lay the templates on the relevant card or balsa wood. It will say on the Glue one of the prow decorations into place. The top curved bar
template sheet which material to use for each part. It also tells you how should cover most of the side of the prow piece. For exact positioning
many you will need of each part. x 1 means you will need one part, x 2 look at the photographs. When the glue has set, position and glue the
means you will need to cut out two. Holding the templates firmly in other to match. Apart from detailing, the hull is now complete.
place, you can pin them to the balsa sheet and tape them to card, draw
round them as carefully as possible. I found that a fine felt -tip pen was
best for this. Hoist the Masts
Drill holes in the decks for the masts. Do this gently as it is very easy
Some cutting remarks to chew away the soft balsa wood. Remember that the hole for the
When cutting out the pieces, use a scalpel or craftknife with a new bowsprit should be angled so that when it is in position it nearly rests
blade. You should be able to cut through 4mm balsa sheet in one
pass, but thick card will take several goes. It is much safer and
produces a better result to cut something lightly lots of times, than
to press like a maniac and attempt to do it all in one go; Always
cut on a piece of old card, or a cutting mat. It
makes your blades last longer, you get a cleaner
cut, and your tabletop remains undamaged.
Finally, unless you want to end up like Captain
Hook, always cut away from the fingers
holding the piece in place.
If you find some of the curves you
have cut are a bit bumpy and
irregular, just rub the offending area lightly
with a bit of fine sandpaper. This works just
as well with card as with balsa.
on the top of the stem. Do not drill through the bottom of the hull as the
end of the mast should rest on and be glued to the base. Drill two holes
in each top to accept the masts where they overlap in the middle. These
holes should be towards the back of the tops, to allow plenty of room
for figures. Have a look at the photograph of the top if this seems a bit

Cut the masts and yards from dowel. Shave and sand the ends of the
yards and tops of the topmasts to sharp points. Using a piece of
sandpaper wrapped round a pencil, rub a shallow rounded depression
in the centre of each yard to ensure a good joint with the mast. The
various mast sizes are listed below:

Mast Sizes
Foremast: Bottom-19cms. Top: 14 cms.
Mainmast: Bottom- 22cms. Top: 17 cms. Glue the lower masts and bowsprit in position in the holes in the deck
Bowsprit: 21cms. and allow to set. Glue the topmasts to the lower masts, slipping the
Foremast upper yard: 9cms. tops into position where the masts overlap. Have a good look at the
Foremast lower yard: 13 cms. photos before you do this. If the top does not hold the topmast
Mainmast upper yard: 11 cms. sufficiently firmly, you can hold the two pieces together with rubber
Foremast lower yard:13cms. bands until the glue dries. The overlap on the mainmast is 6 cms, and
the overlap on the foremast is 5 cms.


Score and Paint the top

fold before flaps on the sails
glueing over the same colour
wire as the yards.
forestay Curl them round
a scrap of dowel
before gluing
FOREMAST them in place


The sails can be

coloured with
ink or thinned
acrylic paint


Le Grande takes the ship






To position the yards, it is best to drill and pin the joints for strength. They were glued directly to the ship’s base to provide low-relief
Using a fine drill, make a hole in the little depression in the centre of detail, which still allows figures to stand in the boat without
each yard. Araldite a small piece of wire about 5 mms long into each interference.
hole, with the ends projecting. Now drill a hole in each of the masts to
accept these wire pins. On the lower fore and main masts, the yards
will be positioned just below the overlap, so drill the holes 1cm below
this point. Drill another hole 6.5 cms below the topmost point of the
mainmast and another 4 cms below the topmost point of the foremast.

Araldite the yards into position, using the pins to locate the exact
positions. Hold the yards in place with Bluetack while the glue sets. If
you want to add sails to your model, you will need to position a wire
between the bowsprit and the fore topmast to hold up the foresail. To
do this drill a small hole in the bowsprit, 5cms from the tip. drill
another 8.5 cms down from the topmost point of the upper foremast.
Remember to angle the holes to accept the straight wire which should
then be glued into place with Araldite.

The sails themselves should not be glued into position until the ship
has been painted.

Your collection of balsa and card pieces is now a ship.

Congratulations! If you have had enough, you can paint the whole
thing dark brown and go away and enjoy a well-deserved game. If you This is a partially completed ship, showing the side with the bow
want to add more detail, go ahead, using the models in the photographs ornament in place and before any detailing has been added. As the
or reference books as a guide. Remember to keep it simple and sturdy. model is a little compressed, I have allowed for only two gunports a
I would recommend lining the outside of the ship’s rail with a strip of
thin card about 2 or 3 cms wide. This strengthens the sides and gives
the impression of a normal thickness hull.
Touching up the “Gingerbread”
All that remains is to paint your ships. I used both enamel and acrylic
To make a ship’s boat, glue the ship’s boat stern to its base. Glue the paints on mine. Black paint was run into crevices and around any
stem into the slot at the front of the base. When the glue has set, curve raised areas to make them stand out even more. The stern and any
the side with your fingers and glue them into place. I added some areas which would ultimately have gold scrolling were also painted
thwarts to mine using strips of card, but this isn’t strictly necessary. black. You can refer to the photographs for other colours, or any of the
readily available books on historic ships. A particularly useful book
is one of The Seafarers series published by Time - Life Books . Its
title is “The Pirates” by Douglas Botting, and, if you can’t get hold of a
copy, it is well-worth trying to find one through your local library.

I understand that Foundry are planning to produce

an enormous range of Napoleonic sailors
and marines. As a lifelong fan of the
Hornblower and Jack Aubrey
novels I am beginning to be troubled
by waking dreams that feature a
cardboard Trafalgar. Virtually any
type of sailing
ship could be
produced using
this method. Give
me enough
cardboard and I
could rule the
A view of the brigantine’s interior. I have pushed a mast section into
position and you can see how its foot rests on the base of the ship.
Before fixing on the stern, you may find it advisable to sand the back
edge of the quarterdeck to an angle to produce a good fit.
x 1 thin card x 1 thin card
SHIPS’S BOAT x 1 balsa wood
OUT x 1 thin card
x 1 mounting card
x 1 balsa wood


x 2 thin card QUATERDECK FRONT
x 1 thin card

x 1 mounting card
x 2 thin card
x 2 balsa wood OUT THE STERN
“Don’t ‘ee forget to cut out REMOVED
them gunports”
x 2 thin card
Blackbeard returns to his Library to consult
“Teach’s Tomb of Cutthroat Craft”

x 1 balsa wood

MAST “All Deck and Base pieces should MAST MAST

be cut from 4mm balsa sheet”


x 1 balsa wood

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