Submarine R-26 diorama

Completed in February 2011.
Primarily paper and clay.
1/35th scale.

Hello, for my next diorama attempt, I'm going to do a dockside scene, with a vessel tied up to a pier and men working on it. The ship is question is actually a submarine, the R-26 of the old 1920's US Navy. The R-26 was one of a class of small diesel-electric coastal/harbor defense submarines designed and built at the tail end of WWI. Constructed in Connecticut, the R-26 was commissioned in the fall of 1919, too late for WWI service, and served her entire peacetime career based out of the Panama Canal Zone before being scrapped in 1930 as more advanced submarines came into the Navy.

The diorama will represent a scene late 1919, a typical day in the Canal Zone, as the R-26 is in port, her crew doing routine maintenance on the boat. It will show just the forward 15% or so of the boat, 8 inches or so shown to just behind the bow planes, as my diorama box will be an 8x10 picture frame. As with my last two projects, it will be in 1/35 scale, with a human being 2 inches tall.

Here is a pic of the R-26...

R-26 Build Day One:

Day One! First I need to build the submarine's bow, about the first 30 feet of it. I couldn't find any decent schematics for the R-26 or her class, so I just used the best photos I could find and eyeballed it the old fashioned way. Several photos had a man standing up straight on various parts of the hull, allowing me to compare heights against a standard 6 foot tall man (probably should have dropped that to 5'8" or so, but my 1/35 scale people are all based on 6-footers). The top deck and the bottom base I cut out of 4mm thick foam board from an old sign from work, after first making a paper template. I cut out the hole for the hatch on the top deck, using a quarter as a size reference (a near perfect match).

In between I put a series of foam board bulkheads to give it a box-like strength. I used a lot of glue in this step and had to be careful not to put the bulkheads in areas that I needed to have see-through zones (portholes and the like). The 4mm foam board cuts like butter with an exacto knife, which is very nice.

The sides of the hull I made out of two layers of cardstock, with all the needed ports and holes cut out. The drainage holes I will make with a hole puncher (need to get a smaller one) and the larger cutouts I'll make with an exacto knife. The biggest features of the hull are the two anchor beds, which are inset into the hull a couple of feet or so, and the openings for the bow planes, these I'll cut out with my exacto knife.

As I'm waiting for a chance to go to Fort Wayne and buy a better hole puncher, I will work on the deck for a bit. First up is a rectangle of wooden deck planks, which I will make out of twenty 5mm strips of cardstock, doubled up for additional thickness. A solid ring around the companionway hatch completes the planking.

There's a smaller, square hatch in front of the planking, for loading torpedoes into the torpedo room beneath, which I'll model closed. I made hinges and a handle out of paper, eventually to be painted brassy. Further forward is a seven-foot tall vent pipe, for bringing fresh air into the spaces below. It was only fitted and raised while in port or while running on the surface, and was lashed to the deck when not in use. It's just a rolled piece of paper with notches on one end and some widgets, super simple to make.

Next up is a large cleat, which is an anvil-shaped chunk of metal about the size of a housecat that was used to tie a boat to a pier. After messing up with several different paper and wood designs, I decided to make it out of Sculpey clay, which worked much better. I'm constantly amazed at the utility of this clay for making small, odd shaped objects, it is indeed a great leap forward. And lastly, right at the point of the bow, is a large, swooping, open hawser pipe that seems to have been used primarily for tying off ropes and anchor chains. It's just several thicknesses of cardstock bent to shape. As it hangs down over the sides a bit, I'll have to wait to attach it until I get the hull sides finished.

That's all for today!

R-26 Build Day Two:

Day two! Continuing now on the sub's hull sides. I finally got up to Hobby Lobby this morning and bought a couple of sizes of craft hole punchers, got them on sale for just 2 bucks each. Now I have three different diameters of round hole I can make (yay!). With them I can finally (after several weeks of stalling) finish punching out the different diameter drain holes on the sub sides. A submarine's hull, of course, is riddled with holes to allow the water for ballast to enter and exit, and the nose section has a fair share of them.

The anchor beds are next, made by cutting out a section of the hull, taping on a new section, and figgiling it around until it looks right. Punch out a hole for the hawser and it looks pretty good. I'll do the actual anchors later. Now I can attach the sides of the hull to the frame with Elmer's glue and scotch tape. I put on the bow hawser next, as it hangs down a bit. Thankfully everything mined up fine (mostly) and now I can start thinking about the bow planes.

The bow planes are like wings on an airplane, they help the sub rise and dive in the water. They retract into the hull fairings and I'll model them in, as I'm cramped for room in my 8x10 frame, and as they really should be while docked. After failing to make anything decent out of paper and glue, I ended up making them out of Sculpey clay. A bit of sanding and a lot of superglue and the planes look ok.

Lastly are the railing stanchions, which, per my standard practice, are just trimmed down toothpicks glued into holes in the deck made with a push pin I swiped from the office at work. The railings themselves will be thick black linen string, the closest I can come to the two-inch wire cables that were used in real life. I'll paint them gray in the end, more like the real thing. The portside railings I'll model down and coiled (maybe) to allow gangplank access (I've seen this in numerous photos of docked submarines of this class and era, suggesting that the railings were fairly easy to detach and reattach when needed).

With everything on, I can do some last minute sanding, trimming, tweaking, and with that I think I can paint the sub's bow now. Colors for this era were boring Steel Gray hulls and decks (yawn...), with the only real color differences being on the wooden planks, which were a pale Light Brown. Using a pencil, a Sharpie pen, and a lot of luck, I drew on the depth markings and the big "R-26" for the ship's name, plus some hash marks in the anchor beds (unclear in my photos, maybe some sort of chain guides). I didn't want any of these markings to stand out that much so I didn't paint over them, just used the pencil and the Sharpie and then dry brushed over them with gray paint to blend the black into the hull color (I figure exposure to salt water would fade them quickly).

As for weathering, I took into account the steamy climate of Panama and the fact that these boats usually spent most of their time in port where they were on the surface exposed to the elements and I worked in quite a bit of rusty weathering on the edges and ports. This is just a mixture of black, tan, brown, and white paints, mixed with my fingertip and pulled down with a dry brush. And with that, I'm done for today. Next up I'll work on the hatch and the railings.

R-26 Build Day Three:

Day three! First up today was installing the starboard side railings (the port side will be down to allow gangplanks from the dock). I used heavy linen string, which ended up being a bad choice as it is hard to work with in small segments. In real life the railings were loose metal wire about 3 inches thick, so in the end my string with its sagging looks ok. I painted it gray to match the rest of the boat and called it done (in the future I will use copper wire for things like this...).

Next is the round, thick pressure hatch on the top deck. I built it out of various materials and glued it in place after painting it gray. The inside of the torpedo room is visible now through the open hatch so I have to detail it a bit. Well, at least paint it. After some research I discovered that sub interiors were painted white in this era (better to see in the dim light), so this is what I did with (the "inside" of the hatch was gray as it would be exposed to view when opened). My plan is to have a human standing in this hatch, so I'm not going to try and detail the interior spaces past painting them.

And with that, I'm done (for now) with the submarine itself. Now time to build the pier that the boat is docked beside. I'm not looking for anything complicated, just a simple wooden planked pier held up on wooden pylons. It will be about (real life) six feet off the water, making it (in my scale) just a tad below the level of the sub's deckline. Looking at my 8x10 diorama frame, the pier will run along one long side, about 8 inches long and about two inches wide and standing about 2 inches out of the water (the pylons an extra inch). Below is a photo of some random dock, this is what I'm looking for...

Building materials will be all wood, with the planks out of craft stick and the pylons out of dowel rods. Support beams and such will be out of assorted scrap wood I have lying around in boxes (much of it left over from the HMS Canopus build last summer). All the new stuff I bought today with a Wal-mart gift card my sister-in-law got me for Christmas, so I don't feel bad about spending the ten dollars on modeling supplies... After drawing out the plan on paper, my first step is to build the walkway of the pier. Simple process, really, just tedious and a lot of Elmer's glue. I purposely tried to make some random gaps in the planks, plus roughed up the outside ends and such to give it a weathered look. Of course, a lot of the weathering will come via paint. Note that the finished diorama will only show a part of the dock, as it's much wider than what I can fit into the scene in my scale. So there will be the "outside" edge that I'll make a false wall for.

The pylons are dowel rods, five of them, each around 3 inches tall. I roughed them up and made the ends worn before gluing them into the notches in the walkway. It looks good. Had to cut out the back wall to get everything lined up, but that went ok, just needs painted underneath.

And that's all for today!

R-26 Build Day Four:

Day four! Back to working on the jetty today. First need to paint the dock a weathered brownish color with lots of stains and scuffs. Will use a variety of dry brushed colors to blend in the right tone once it's in frame. Piers like this usually had some sort of bumpers to keep ships/subs from rubbing up against the pylons in the tide. In this case, it's just a log tethered to the dock with ropes around it, a cheap and simple way of keeping metal off wood. I'll make it out of a dowel rod, but obviously can't do anything with it until I make the water. While I'm using dowel rods, I also want a couple of old pylon posts poking up out of the water, maybe from an old pier that was torn down or just fell down and was replaced. More weathered dowel rods painted brown.

Time to put this all together now, at that stage. Got my 8x10 picture frame, my latex caulk, and all my pieces. Got some free time when the house is empty (caulk stinks bad), and am good to go. Painted the glass of the frame a nice murky bluish greenish grayish color first, hope that shows through nicely. Laid down a layer of caulk for the water, smoothed it out, this is a sheltered harbor, not the open sea, so just the barest of ripples. Placed the dock, the sub, the pylons and the bumper, and set it aside to dry. This will take a couple of days to set firmly.

R-26 Build Day Five:

Day five! The caulk has dried and I see that my experiments with greenish paint to represent the seaweed/algae of this coastal harbor failed pretty miserably. Had to tone down the too-bright green color with some over- coats of dark blue, which helped, but I still may tone it down some more. Thinking that I may have to "build down" the sides of the diorama frame to give it more of the illusion of depth. The current picture frame is just a quarter-inch thick, which tricks the eye into thinking the sub and the dock are "sitting on top of" the water as opposed to "floating/stuck in" the water. I'll think more about this later. Also did some detail work today, including adding a tether rope to the log bumper floating between the sub and the dock (realize now that I should have made it a half log), added the laid-down railing wires to the portside deck, and whipped up a gangplank from the dock (might have to come up with some tie-down ropes for this).

All for today, Suzie and Kaden are waking up ;).

R-26 Build Day Six:

Day six! Time to do the ropes that tie the sub to the dock. Going to use a shoelace, as it's a perfect match for the heavy braided ropes I see in period photos. It loops from one pylon on the dock to the tie-off thingie on the bow and back to another pylon. In retrospect, I needed a smaller shoelace, but too late now. Need something more on the dock, so I made a big general goods box out of paper and a couple of navy blue sea bags out of clay and string, just props for the scene.

Time to think about people now. The sub's bow is pretty small, so I don't think I can cram more than 2 guys on there without it looking weird. Another 2 on the dock and that should populate this diorama well (hopefully not over-populate it...). After some thought, I'm going to start with Seaman Roberts, who will be painting the side of the boat. Actually, he'll be painting over the black "R26" with white, as was actually done in 1919 in accordance with a new US Navy policy on ship color schemes (amazing what you can learn on the internet...). After some searching I found some photos of painting planks hung off the sides of subs for this purpose, which was easy enough to make. Took a moment and went back and repainted the mooring lines (the shoelace) more of a "rope" color, as it was bugging me. Still should replace it with something smaller, but that's to-scale per my photos. This is why I set deadlines for these projects, I tend to go back over details endlessly and if I don't set a deadline I'll never, ever get it done...

Anyway, period clothes for the US Navy submarine service on the Panama Canal Zone station in 1919 took two forms. First were the official dress uniforms, which were boring white shirts and white pants, with brown belts and brown shoes. Undershirts were a pale white and caps, when worn, were also white and scarves, when worn, were navy blue. Not very colorful, but accurate. These uniforms were only worn when in on shore leave or when some Admiral was lurking about. Here are some typical 1919 submariners in their dress whites...

Of course, while out at sea, on a cramped submarine far from port, dress codes were vastly different. Dress whites gave way to blue jeans and cut -off t-shirts, or overalls and bare chests. Sub crews were notoriously close knit bunches and the line between officers and enlisted men was blurred unlike in the surface navy. Here are some men at sea, dressed to work and not to show off...

Officers had to keep up appearances, obviously, so while in port they had to stick to the dress whites with all the piping and trim that comes with the ranks. Here are some officers...

My diorama takes place in port, but it's also a work day, so to speak, so I'm going to dress my figures in a mix of dress whites and workaday denim. Seaman Roberts will have his gray denim jeans and white t-shirt and his white navy cap, and be holding a paint brush. As before, I'll be using Sculpey clay over copper wire skeletons, hopefully with more attention to detail than in previous builds. Differently than before, I'm making the torso and arms first, baking it, then doing the legs and head separately and baking the whole thing together again. This makes it easier to keep from messing up limbs and parts trying to make it all at once. Goofed on the arm placement and the angle of the legs, so I had to extend the painting platform a quarter inch out to make him fit, but he does now. Also painted the numbers a bit and added a paint can, now he looks like he's on the job!

It's hard not to notice just how small this submarine is, now that there's a human figure next to it for comparison. These old subs were indeed quite small, only 500 tons and 175 feet long. Match that against a typical WWII American submarine which was around 2,500 tons and 315 feet long. Even that pales against a modern nuclear-powered US Navy submarine, which is 8,000 tons and nearly 400 feet long. So, the R-26 is sized accurately in this diorama, it was just pretty puny in real life.

Anyway, that's all for today.

R-26 Build Day Seven:

Day seven! On to Seaman Hutchins now, who will be standing on the bow, looking at the dock (at something to be made later). He's a bit more lax than Roberts, and his white t-shirt is off and tucked into the back pocket of his gray jeans. He's also not wearing his hat, which I'll hang on a railing stanchion nearby. He'll be holding a potable water jug in one hand and be leaning against the vent pipe. This is my first attempt at a semi-nude figure, so don't expect anything perfect.

I had considered placing another figure near the open hatch, but after blocking it out with a skeleton, the deck just looked too crowded. I also nixed placing another figure on the dock, as it threw off the symmetry of the diorama in an odd and unexpected way. So, instead I decided to substitute any more humans for two albatross seabirds. I figure the Canal Zone is rift with shore birds, always poking around the harbor looking for scraps, brave enough to wander right up to men and machines. I made two albatrosses with modeling clay, using some photos on the internet as references, one sitting and another about to take flight. Placed them on the dock, in such a way as to suggest that Seaman Hutchins is watching them, perhaps even yelling out for them to scram as they are poking around the seabags (seabirds are "rats with wings", ask any sailor...).

A few touch-up re-paints on the sailors, a couple of trims and scrapes on the hull, and a few more tweaks to the water, and with that, I am declaring this diorama officially done! Yay! All in all a rewarding expenditure of a week's free time and about twenty bucks. Thanks for reading, I'll get it packed up and mailed off to my parents this week.

Here are the final pictures of the R-26 diorama...

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