Do you like the look of model ships, and always wanted to build one but thought that they would be too complicated to make? No need to worry! It is perfectly possible to make a historical model European-style Age of Sail ship with just a few basic arts and craft supplies, some time, patience, and a little guidance. Regardless of whether you're a kid or an adult, the result is something which is really impressive, and makes a great decoration around the house or a fun display. Fun to build and fun to admire, these model ships are great simple arts and craft building projects. The one I built here probably only required 5-6 hours of consistent attention, although if I had skimped on some things - particularly the cannons - this could have been cut down a lot, maybe to 4.
I personally spent many years building them, in all sorts of designs. I started out with aircraft, attempting to build gliders with popsicle stick frames and printer paper on them, but I faced the unfortunate conundrum that popsicle sticks are unfortunately rather heavy, so the resultant gliders didn't fly at all. So instead I got into attempting to build ships - starting out with rafts, and becoming more and more complicated over time, with little innovations and ideas along the way to make them better and improve, stronger or simpler, more refined and elegant. It was a fun project, but like other things, I stopped eventually, after filling up pretty much the whole house with them and giving way too many to count away! But the nice thing about them is that they were so simple to build that it is still easy to remember how to make them, and so I decided to make a guide for how to do the same. In this case, I also decided to fill one of the holes that I had in my inventory - you see, despite really being into France, I never did build a ship with a modern French flag, only that of the ancien régime. This article provides a snapshot of the ship in construction, at different stages, some of the key planning, construction, and finishing elements which combine to make it work.
To show off some of the old vessels I built, I put a link below to a photo album of them.
- Arts and Crafts Popsicle Model Ship Collection
A forest of white sails against emerald green grass, an unlikely place for a fleet. I am quite proud of my personally built model popsicle stick collection and wanted to show it.
What to Think of Before Starting
I find that before starting, it is a wise idea to have a good idea in mind of what you want. Actual naval architects would draw up plans of course, but thankfully since we are on a much smaller scale, we don't have to do so - well, you can if you want. But what one needs a firm idea of is:
- Construction methods. How simple is a vessel like this to build out of popsicle sticks? A popsicle stick is a rigid and strait piece, which is rather large if we are thinking of building our own, medium sized ship. Real ships have curves (I suppose this would be a good joke about the fairer sex as well), and so how does one go about making popsicle sticks emulate a real ship's curved bottom and what compromises will have to be made? Ship architects could steam and curve their timbers to fit specific sizes, and the pieces they were using were much smaller than our own. For our purposes, it probably is best to avoid attempting to copy the curved bottom of a ship, the tumblehome design associated with ships of the line, and the curved front of a vessel. These can be achieved to some extent, and I have made rounded bottoms for some ships, and the tumblehome is even reasonably easy to envision - but they would all involve compromises in some parts, such as the bow, or much more cutting than has to be done with a simple design. Our version of Téméraire won't be fully accurate - but it will be close enough, and simpler to build.
- What size? For our purposes, we aren't working with things such as a 1/40th or a 1/100th or a 1/10th scale model: popsicle sticks are our basic measurement scale, and the ship is proportioned according to that. A Téméraire was 55 meters long and 15 meters wide - a length to bow ratio of around 3.6 to 1. It is difficult on our small scale to match this, but we can achieve something like 4 popsicle sticks long for the main hull and 2 for the bow, and 2 wide, or smaller scales. Above all else, having a good idea of what size scale one wants makes sense. It would make sense to lay out the popsicle stick hull form without gluing it first, to give a sense of the size.
Things you Need Before Starting
- A hot glue gun, with glue sticks. These are best off in smaller sizes, with a switch for alternating between hot and low - since the hot setting helps it warm up quickly, but low prevents it from getting too hot and being difficult to control and burning too much if you touch it by accident.
- Popsicle sticks. These are easy to order in boxes of one thousand online, and come in all sorts of different sizes. I always ordered 4.5 inch long popsicle sticks.
- White paper. For making sails, normal printer paper works well.
- Scissors. These are useful for cutting both paper and popsicle sticks.
- Black sharpies. Great for painting cannon holes, writing the name on, and providing additional decorative details.
- A flat working surface with a power outlet nearby. A hot glue gun needs to have a power socket, and to build the ship it has to be on a flat surface. When I was a kid I mostly worked on the ground: working on the table is my preference nowadays.
Optional Things to Have
- Longer popsicle sticks. I find that the long popsicle sticks used for swirling coffee or tea at places like Starbucks can be very useful for oars on some ships, as well as for specialty purposes were thinner pieces of wood are needed.
- Wooden boards, particularly balsa wood. There are two ways to make the deck of a ship. Either you can layer popsicle sticks on it, or you can cut it out of balsa wood. Both have decent things to recommend them: the popsicle sticks give it a look of a real deck with boards, while the balsa wood is easier, lighter, has a different aesthetic appeal, and might look more natural for some designs. It is also useful for cutting out specialty pieces, like a crows' nest.
- Other colors of sharpie. This is useful for decorative features for some designs. Maybe a Mediterranean vessel might look nice with red lateen sails. Having a red sharpie for this is an easy way to paint the sails.
- Decorative and shiny pieces. Some stores for arts and crafts like Michaels sell lanterns, which can look very nice on the back of a ship. Or putting on jewels on sails, or crosses, can match desired aesthetic appearances.
- Toothpicks. These are useful for some features such as swivel guns, if you want to portray them.
- String. String is nice to portray the rigging on a ship. It is generally not possible to get the sheer amount of rigging which an Age of Sail ship had, but at least some can give a decorative picture.
- Flags. These can normally be printed off of a printer from freely available online flags.
- Round sticks. If you really want the cannons to be three dimensional, them you need some wooden poles, which can be cut and then painted black, to make cannons.
- Garden clippers. If you are making projecting cannons, with round sticks cut and sharpied black, then it is very hard to do this with scissors. Garden scissors are a better pick.
- Aloe Vera. If you aren't used to working with a hot glue, it is probable that you will burn yourself. This won't be too bad, but Aloe Vera is a nice relief.
Before starting, fully, I like to lay out the basic hull form of the ship, using popsicle sticks but without glue. By doing so I have a better feel for the proportions, before I have to commit to actually gluing them.
When I actually start, doing so from the bottom to the top is what makes sense in this particular project - ie. one which isn't using balsa wood. If one is using balsa wood to make the deck, then one is working from the deck down, and one already has the width and size proportioned by this. As I build the bottom hull frame, the sticks are stacked on top of each other. Overlapping the sticks makes the hull bottom both more even, and stronger.
Build the length to the appropriate size, such as 4 popsicle sticks long, then build a popsicle stick across and complete on the other side, making a rectangle. Then on the front, use two popsicle sticks to form a type of "V."
To Bottom or Not to Bottom?
One of the things to think about in the design is whether you should add a bottom on the vessel. At first, I always had one, but nowadays I often neglect this. In the style that I do, one never sees the bottom anyway, so it is easy to do without it, and it saves on time to not put it in. The structure is strong enough to hold steady without a bottom, and so it is a luxury. However, a bottom definitely does make it more sturdy, so it is up to you to decide whether it is worth the time and extra popsicle sticks to put one in:
Building the Sides
Once one gets to the sides, then build upwards, preferably if possible using an alternating lattice of popsicle sticks to reinforce, instead of just putting one on top of each other. You will have to decide how high you build - personally in this case I went for 4 high, since I was attempting to emulate a ship of the line, which has rather high walls.
The Deck and Quarterdeck
One the sides are built, then one has to build the deck. This is easy to do for most of the ship's length, as it should just be one popsicle stick apart, so one can simply layer them down the length of the vessel. The problem arrives when you get to the front, since here this is a need to deal with the narrowing of the frontal nose. I would advise cutting popsicle sticks to do this, with attempting to fit the side of the vessel through cutting it at an angle so at least one of the popsicle's sticks side is jagged with the ship, making it sort of knife like. Don't discard the cut segments either - once you get half way done, you can re-use them to provide the front.
At this point, you can start providing the gunwales, which are the same as putting in the ship's side - just stack a single popsicle stick on the deck along the sides. If you want a quarterdeck or a forward forecastle, then one can put a popsicle stick across the length of the vessel at the appropriate point - since I am imitating the Téméraire, then I put in a quarterdeck.
Making the Masts and Sails
At this point, it is time to add the masts. The model which we use has three main masts, as well as a bowsprit. The bowsprit is easy to to install: the masts are somewhat harder. When building the masts, it is easy to adjust their height later on if you don't think they are tall enough - just add more popsicles! I decided mine were not high enough for the sails that I wanted so added on some additional length. But attaching them firmly below is more challenging - I recommend a combination of backing them up against forecastles or the quarterdeck if possible, and when this isn't possible, to use small popsicle segments to brace them, as well as some wedges around them. Like with the frame of the ship, I would use overlapping popsicle segments for extra strength and to make a flat surface. Once they're up, put on one's desired sail plan - I used three in this case, cut to appropriate sizes, as well as mizzen sails in between the masts.
Decorations and String
I use string to represent rope, and put this between masts, gluing them and using small popsicle fragments to fix them to the masts. Once this is done, I use them to attach cut sails to them, preferably using scraps of previous sails if they are of sufficient size.
The cannons on a ship of the line are either one of the easiest or hardest parts of the ship, depending on just how much energy you want to put into them. In the easier conception, simply paint cannon ports on the side of the vessel with a black sharpie. In the more difficult version, if you have them available, cut cannons from from circular small wooden poles/sticks, and then paint them black and glue them to the side of the ship on the cannon ports. This has an impressive visual appearance, with the rows of cannons coming out of the side of the ship - but it requires a lot of labor, a each of the cannons has to be cut, and it requires a lot of effort to do each one, and some of them will have to be rejected as they will splinter or both sides will be unacceptably jagged or sloped to affix them to the side of the ship. Your fingers will get awfully dirty as well from the sharpie ink as well. But if you go ahead with it, it makes it very bellicose.
At this point, many of the remaining additional decorations which can be added depended upon what resources you have and you can make. A helmsman's wheel is one idea, which can either be made with toothpicks, or a circle. A ship's bell, if you have a small model bell. Maybe lanterns on the rear of the ship if you have them. You could decorate the rear stern of the vessel to emulate officers quarters. Small round circles can provide for crows' nests on top of the masts. But the biggest thing to do is to print out the flags for the ship, of whatever nationality you are building. They give a nice flash of color and appearance.
Admiring your Handiwork
Once you're done with all of this - which might take a lot longer if you aren't experienced with this - then there is a moment to admire your handiwork, which I am sure will look beautiful. Then there is what you can do to display it. Perhaps you could use some blocks to prop up the ship on top of them - this is something where the lack of a bottom on the ship and the flat deck is quite helpful in my opinion, as some blocks can enable it to rest securely by the deck resting on the blocks, so that it is not at all in danger of falling over.
Poembird on December 15, 2020:
Wow..nice model ship..will try it
Ryan Thomas (author) from Eureka, California on December 15, 2020:
Thank you, I much appreciate it!
Ryan Thomas (author) from Eureka, California on December 15, 2020:
Thank you, I much appreciate it!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 15, 2020:
That is an impressive model ship! You do good work!