HMS Canopus (1896)


Completed in May 2010.
Primarily wood.
1/125th scale.

The first boat I have decided to built is the HMS Canopus, a British Royal Navy "pre-dreadnought" ironclad battleship from the Turn of the Century (19th, that is). The Canopus and her five sisterships served in the opening stages of World War I, but were already obsolete by then and the survivors were scrapped soon afterwards. As to why I chose this particular ship, I don't know, I sorta picked it at random because it looked cool :).

If this wasn't already challenging enough for me (as I have nada artistic skill and virtually no free time these days), I've not had any luck finding any detailed plans for this ship online. I do have about 20 assorted photographs, but most all are from a "side angle" and none of them are in color. So I will have to fudge and wing my way through it, using magic fairy dust and mirrors. My goal is to have the finished model look enough like the actual Canopus that you could recognize it as such. If, you know, you were up on your obscure English warships and stuff.

This model is roughly 1/125th scale (a non-standard scale, I've come to find out). This means that the real-life 430 foot long warship will end up being a 36 inch long wooden model. It will be made entirely of wood and wood products (hopefully) and should be fun :).


A butt-on view of the HMS Canopus in all her Victorian glory.

Canopus Build Day One:

As Admiralty Shipyards possesses nothing even remotely close to a band saw, I have had to subcontract out the hull to my dad from far out west. He's always been good with wood, and has a fully-stocked tool shed, so he was willing to help.

As I wait for the hull to come in the mail, I started doing some work on a few of the hull parts. After making some fairly detailed, if essentially scribbled-on-the-back-of-a-napkin, line plans about where all the portholes, anchor hawsers, and ladders would be situated on the hull, I gathered up some materials. I don't have a lot of money, so I'm pretty much just collecting stuff lying around the house or in the trash or at work (in keeping with my stated "prison art" theme, dontchaknow).

My main cutting tools are a dull Exacto knife and my ragged fingernails. I have no real saw other than a little pipe cutter with a bent blade, and certainly don't have any power tools other than a weak cordless drill. I do have lots of sandpaper ;).

As for raw materials, I have the craft department at Wal-mart and what stuff I have around the house already. For the superstructure and such, I'm planning on using basswood and balsa, though all I have now is a bag of basswood chunks. I also have some wooden blocks from a kid's old playset and some popsicle sticks that I will cut into strips. Again, I am not about to (or am able to) spend a lot on this project, so this is guerilla art at its finest ;).


Paper and pencils are cheap, too bad the deckhands can't write...

Canopus Build Day Two:

So the hull form came in the mail today (thanks, dad!) and it looks frickin' awesome! Much, much bigger than I anticipated, however, but I can work with that. I'm already wondering where I will display this monster once I'm finished with it, it's almost too big for my apartment. It's almost three feet long, which is a lot bigger when you have it in front of you, trust me. Maybe I'll give it to my parents :).


The shipyard owner's son helpfully provides a measure of scale.

Step one is to work on detailing the hull. A good ship model is in the details, and with these old boats the primary hull detail is the portholes. After thinking about it for a while, I determined that the best way to represent portholes would be to drill shallow holes with my 5/16th inch drill bit (the biggest I have) and detail them out later. Sadly, my experience with that was lacking and the pine split around the edges of many of the holes, forcing me to space them out further apart than I would have liked. Originally I was (over optimistically) going for 144 total portholes, but had to cut that down to 40 in the end due to technical issues. Some wood filler and some clean-up work with the Exacto knife and they are good for now. I have plans to make them look better later... I also marked locations for ladders, though I'm not sure how I'll make those work yet. Somewhat depressed at how much damage the drill bit caused, I've only had the hull for fifteen minutes and I've already wrecked it :(.


Note my high-quality "straight" lines on the hull, that's A+ work!

Next step is to cut out the "anchor washes" on the foredeck. These are where the anchors are secured while the ship is underway, being sloping decks that the anchors just slide off of when needed. using my Exacto knife, I went to work. Ever try to carve hard pine at an angle against the grain with a dull Exacto knife? Don't. Still, they sort looked ok in the end, even if one is slopped more than the other. And, yes, the starboard side has space for two anchors while the port side only have room for one. This is how the ship was designed real-life, though I don't know why.


The woodgrain is pretty, but ultimately will be painted/covered up.

Having butchered the bow enough, I next started working on the "casemate", the central cut-out third which will end up being a gun deck right below the main deck. I used basswood planks to make "walls", cutting out rectangular gun ports, two per side (basswood cuts great if you are careful). I then glued some wooden blocks to the insides of the walls to help them stand up straight (had to break down and buy some new glue, the bottle I had was from 1998 and was crusty).


Elmer's is the best glue out there for wood, and it's dirt cheap.

Also glued a big block of scrap wood in the center of the casemate to help hold up the main deck (which I've still not totally figured out how to build). Now I just need to make the "secondary battery" guns for the casemate deck somehow. There are eight 6" naval cannons on this deck, four in the center poking out through windows and one on each corner set out from the hull a bit to allow them to fire either straight ahead or straight behind. Need some round dowels for these, but that will have to wait for now until I get to work again. Meanwhile, Ben was enjoying himself with my boat and his blocks...


Hmmm...maybe I should hire him.

While I was resting my arms (dull knife, again), I did some busy work. Drew black circles where I want the two main turrets (one fore, one aft) and tried to build little platforms in the anchor washes for the cranes that winched the anchors up (I think, maybe they were just to deploy them, or maybe to set them in the washes once they are out of the water, can't find any place to explain them). The platforms turned out horrible, as basswood splinters too easily when making small pieces. I may have to replace them later, maybe balsa is easier (it isn't). Also did some touch-up putty filling and sanding in spots where I cut too deep, which I found myself doing a lot, mostly because Ben kept trying to grab stuff :). Amazingly, I haven't cut a finger off yet (knock on wood...).


Top-view of the progress so far, not bad for two days.

Canopus Build Day Three:

Found some cardboard tubes last night at work, shelf label rolls, maybe these will work for the turrets. I've been stressing how I was going to cut inch-and-a-half thick wooden dowel rods with my Exacto knife, so I'm glad to find something round, the right shape, and much easier to cut. Too bad they ended up looking like crap (though my hatchet job of cutting them might not have helped). Maybe they will work if I can cover them with something smooth when it comes time to paint, maybe cardstock. For later. Also later will be the gun barrels, haven't figured them out yet. In a perfect world (one where I have money) they would be brass, but they will probably be wood here.


I need a Dremel motor tool, seriously.

Meanwhile I started working on the decking. These old battleships had wooden planks laid down on the main decks, usually teak wood a worn tan color and well weathered, and I'm convinced that the realism of my model will be greatly increased if I can somehow simulate these decks. Luckily I have a bunch of popsicle sticks that I cut down to 6mm strips (actually pretty easy to do). I cut them into equal sections with garden clippers because that's all I had (man, I am cheap!). As this left some "bend marks", I ran each over a chunk of sandpaper to clean up the ends.


Slipshod construction materials, sad.

I started with the outside edges of the decks (margins), laying sections to make up the border (which I assume in real-life would be some sort of gutter system to keep the rainwater off the deck). I also need these edges if I'm to put up handrails and boat cranes and the like later. A pretty simple task in the end, just glued them end-to-end around the edges and sanded them smooth. Then started laying planks down edge to edge. Once I got in a rhythm it was pretty easy. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised how well the decks looked once planked, and even got some positive feedback from the kids on them.


The deck is looking pretty good, even if the joints are a bit rough now.

Canopus Build Day Four:

Today some more work on the eight lower deck guns, which are still pretty rough. I was thinking of metal or plastic barrels originally, but I've come to realize that I want an all-wood model so I used skinny dowel rods cut down with my garden pruners, with about three inches sticking out. Glued them in after drilling out guide holes and crossed my fingers.


The broadside guns.

While the center guns (poking through the windows) look ok, the four corner wing turrets continue to bug me. I'm still 100% totally dissatisfied with their design with the cardboard tubes, but I can't think of any other way to get hollow rounded shapes without power tools. Of course, once I get all the detailing done, and get then whole thing painted, you probably won't even notice how shoddy they are now. I put some blank white label stickers on them next, so I have a flat surface to paint later, but that might not work out in the end (it didn't). These 6" secondary quick-firing deck guns, by the way, were typical of battleships of the era, and were really quite powerful and deadly against lightly-armored targets.


Crap, that looks bad.

Canopus Build Day Five:

Alright, as the baby napped, I laid out my main deck covering (that will go over the center section after I get the guns done). I found some really thin sheets of plywood at Hobby Lobby recently and I cut and trimmed and taped them to fit the "roof", so to speak, of the gun deck. To my happy surprise, the plywood sheet was thin enough to be cut with a regular pair of scissors, which saved me a lot of time and effort. I then glued a million planks down on the top surface to give it more strength and to make it look right. I'm hoping that this will be strong as it will eventually be supporting the entire weight of the superstructure. To help, I already had some bracing blocks down underneath, so I'm not worried too much about it sagging.


The different color planks actually look nice.

Back on the gun deck, I have continued EXTREME frustration with the wing turrets. Came very close to setting entire model on fire and calling it a day. To clean up their look a bit, I tried to replicate a "sloped" back to the turrets with a variety of materials from paper to plastic to plywood. All attempts uniformly sucked, but I settled on plywood pieces glued at an angle to the casemate wall. Then tried to make roofs for the wing turrets with plywood sheets trimmed with a pair of Fiskers scissors (don't tell my mom!), but I couldn't get these and the overall deck lined up properly and after two hours spent cussing and spitting, I still don't have it looking right (it never will). Eventually, I just said the heck with it and glued down the main deck. I'll come back and detail everything later, but I'm just not in the mood to mess with it right now.


That is NOT quality work.

Ok, calmer now, a cup of coffee and some playtime with the kids and I'm really to go again. Did some detail work on the deck, finishing touches on the barrels, and generally trimmed and sanded the overall model. I goofed badly with the anchor hawsers and anchor washes again, jagging them up with reckless abandon, but live and learn (if I ever do this again, I'll do it better). I also tried to finish up the portholes, which I was never satisfied with the look and size of. Ended up using little paper reinforcement stickers to cover up the jagged hole edges, hopefully the painting will smooth that out. I realize now that my problem was that I needed a smaller diameter drill bit, or a more powerful drill that would keep the edges from splitting so much.


Overall looking good!

Canopus Build Day Six:

Ok, before I paint I want to put some more details on the hull. First up are six ladders, which would allow the crew to board the ship from small boats alongside and to reach parts of the hull that might need servicing. After some experimentation with all kinds of materials and styles, I settled on toothpicks cut to size and glued down. I'm realizing more and more that my original measurements were off a bit when I started planning things out, so I've had to fudge a fair amount with little things like ladders and portholes, but no one should notice ;). I've also realized that this model, my first attempt remember, is just going to be a "technology demonstrator" and not a finished product. I'm hoping that the lessons I learn here will make for better, more accurate models in the future.


Fuzzy photo, sorry.

Next I put some effort into the "torpedo nets", which were used back in that bygone era to protect ships from torpedo attacks while in port. They were effective for a while in WWI, but eventually they couldn't keep p with the pace of torpedo development and were taken off by later in the war. Here is what they look like...


Note the lack of bow and stern coverage.

Obviously, I can't model them extended, so I'm going to try and just have them folded up against the side of the hull (in real life they were on swinging pins). I used strips of balsa for the "walkways" and more toothpicks for the actual boom arms, an altogether unsatisfactory look. Maybe I'll find some way to have rolled-up nets on the walkways, maybe some thin wire mesh or something. Later for that (or not).


The ladders look worse up close.

Next sub-project is the "sternwalk" or "poop deck", a covered gallery that wraps around the stern. This is where the officers would sit around and drink tea (Victorian times, don't forget). I scratch-built it out of leftover plywood and scrap wood chunks, but once the awning is on it should look ok. Here is the only clear photo I can find of the actual ship's sternwalk, from her building in England...


Amazing how they built these things back in the day.

And here is my tortured version of it, sans awning (which will be of painted plywood sheet). Should also think about those little anchors under the stern, but I'm getting burned out on this model (sad but true).


It really needs more work.

Lastly today I just added some doo-dads and widgets along the hull to make it stand out more. So far I've been able to keep all my work contained to a small corner of our storage unit on the patio, but as I get more and more involved with it, I'm finding myself needing more room to spread out. The problem is little hands that like to grab stuff and eat it, so I'm having to do most of my work out in the blazing sun or in the middle of the night at the kitchen table. I still don't have a clue what I'm going to do with this beast when I'm done :).


The crampedness of the shipyard's facility is evident here.

Canopus Build Day Seven:

Alright, time to think about the superstructure now. The next deck up is essentially a covered gundeck with conning towers on either end, roughly the same height and width as the casemate cut-out, which makes it easy to align everything. Unfortunately, the "floor" of the deck doesn't match up well with the rest of the main deck planking (my bad), so it will sit up a few millimeters. I made deck walls out of basswood planks and made the four upper wing turrets just like those on the casemate level below them. More balsa and wood glue for the conning tower walls, plus a couple of square blocks to help support the structures later. Didn't turn out too bad.


Symmetry is important here.

I then put roofs on the gun decks and the conning towers and put in cut-outs and ceiling supports to give the illusion of openness. The open area in the center will eventually be filled with funnels and lifeboats and other stuff, but for now it's open. I'm finding that balsa is excellent for straight pieces, but splinters far too easily for rounded corners. I suspect that my next model will use more plastic, but for now I'm set on making this one all wood.


The beam planks were a result of bad planning.

The six side guns on this deck are "12 pounders" in Royal Navy-speak, half the size of the six-inchers on the lower deck so I had to use a smaller size dowel rod. The guns are just half-inch wooden blocks drilled with holes and glued down on scrap wood bases. Looking back, I wish I had come up with something that at least looked like a cannon from behind :). If I ever do this again, I'll make better guns. I'm cutting way too many corners in this build, and I'm not happy with it, but time is running short.


Look away! Look away!

Also added some little details, such as gun port doors and conning tower hatches and even put some 3 inch wooden circles on either end of the main deck to be my main turret bases. Still not sure how to fabricate the main turrets, as they are complicated shapes.


Circles are nice.

The main deck level of the conning towers need some solid railings, easy to replicate with thin strips of plywood cut with scissors, but harder to glue at the proper angles without cussing. I also laid down planks to simulate wooden decks on the observation bridge, just like on the main deck.


Actually pretty proud of this bit.

Next I added the armored cupolas, which are where the officers would command the ship during battle (they should have observation slots but the blocks are too thick to cut). The bow cupola is the single most heavily armored spot on most British battleships (the Victorians knew how to protect their officers!). Also added some 12-pounder open-mount cannons, scratched up with bits of wood and dowels (they should look better once painted, or not). Two sets of everything had to be built as both ends are set up basically the same (though primary command would be in the bow cupola).


Cannons need work.

Some details were added to the interior spaces next, including four ramps/ladders for the crew to access the gun deck roofs made with scrap wood and cut-down toothpicks (very ugly, but effective). Also added a base for the two smokestacks and some support spars from beam to beam. Getting pretty crowded in there :).


The ladders need handrails.

Canopus Build Day Eight:

Nice outside today and had the place to myself, so I had some time to build. Constructed "flying bridges" for either end to sit on the conning tower roofs, planking and edging them like the lower decks. This is where the officers would command when not in combat, with a bigger wheelhouse at the bow than at the stern. Made some toothpick struts, which took forever! Still need some sort of railing and later some searchlights and such (or not).


As Robot Monster showed, bubble machines are cool.

Next I built some three-piece lifeboat davits and placed them amidships and at the stern. Will eventually try and make block-and-tackles for them (hopefully, or not). Not at all sure how I'm going to build the lifeboats themselves, though, but maybe with carved balsa blocks (maybe). I've resigned myself to making a model that looks best from ten feet away. In the dark. But, all "art" has an optimum viewing range, right?


The davits should be round.


I need a bigger patio table.

Canopus Build Day Nine:

Built the two masts today, using dowel rods and lots of glue. Added two crossbeams to each next, the upper one shorter than the lower. Also made little round platforms about halfway up where lookouts would stand, also added some guns to them, built to the same pattern as the observation deck guns. The lookout crowsnests are made from cut-down cardboard tubes on a notched plywood disk, simple but effective.


Woof, that's bad.

Put the funnels in place, using glued-together cardboard tubes wrapped in white label stickers to smooth them out (bad idea in the end). They are both too big for scale and sit too close together, but I didn't leave enough room in the center section so this will have to do. They look alright, I guess, from a distance. I'm beginning to hate this model with the white hot passion of a thousand burning suns...


The real funnels aren't even round.

Canopus Build Day Ten:

Since I'm just down to the main gun turrets and some other detail work on the rigging, I decided now was finally the time to start painting. I spent a few hours online looking up paint schemes for these ships and found a few period art pieces that were helpful. The best of them shows the Canopus in her Victorian-era livery (approved by the Queen herself!). This was a black hull with red waterlines, white superstructure and buff funnels and masts, with natural wood decks. This was before the dull gray WWI scheme was applied across the Royal Navy, which was stupendously boring :).


She seems in a hurry.

So, first step, masking tape along the waterline and two coats of flat black on the hull, leaving the gun ports and barrels for a later coat of gray or steel. Paint went on easy, no trouble, even if I did have to use several sizes of brushes to get into the nooks and crannies. I used simple acrylic craft paint from Wal-mart, for just a couple bucks each for little plastic bottles. The pronounced wood grains still show through, even with the black, but that's the price for using wood.


The shipyard owner's wife was not pleased I ruined one of her towels.

Between coats, I took some time and constructed the main gun turrets out of one-inch wooden blocks and plywood sheet (they look supremely crappy). The barrels are just dowel rods. Also carved six lifeboats out of basswood chunks and added some spars to them to finish off the look. The basswood carved quickly, even if I messed up a couple with my ham-fisted style.


The stern, showing X turret and the aft davits with lifeboats.

Canopus Build Day Eleven:

Yes! She's done! Thank God! I finished painting everything today, often using three coats and more often going back and fixing sloppy errors, but succeeding in only getting a little bit of paint on my t-shirt. The hull is black with a red waterline with a rough white line between (need to find and better way to make skinny lines, masking tape doesn't work). The superstructure and turrets are white and the funnels and masts are brown. Here are the final pictures...













And that's the end! All in all not too bad for a first effort. I've learned many, many lessons about shipbuilding, mostly from costly and frustrating mistakes. My next building project will surely benefit from this experience.

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