In 2004, I decided to try and scratch-build a “tramp steamer” or a small cargo ship.
The inspiration came from several sources; Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”(although that wasn’t a steamer), the first Indiana Jones movie, and some B&W movies from the 1930s and 40s, like “Passage to Marseille” with Humphrey Bogart. It featured an old, beat up “three island” tramp steamer, and that’s what I wanted to build.
After a few sketches and cross sections, I took a stab at making a “three island” tramp steamer in 1/350 scale. I quickly realized that I didn’t know enough about ships in general – and ship building in particular – to proceed with a model that would be over a foot long. I decided to make a “trainer” model, with two goals: try out ideas to see what stuck, and learn how to build ships.
I wanted the model to be presentable, as well. The ship, as built, is about 6″ long and would be 175 feet long (about 53 meters) in real life.
The first picture above shows the balsa wood hull made using the “bread and butter” method. This was my first attempt, and it was good enough. I filled in the steps and applied many, many coats of Mr. Surfacer and paint to seal the wood.
Most of the ship is scratch built, with the exception of two masts, the various vents, anchors, searchlights, bollards, lifeboats and davits. The PE is mostly from Gold Medal Models – PE railings, ladders and stairways, crane hooks, life preservers and lifeboat block and tackles.
The rest is homemade PE – doors, wheelhouse window frames, portholes (in natural brass!) propeller and the anchor chains. There’s even a PE wheel and desk inside the wheelhouse.
The wood deck is actually a decal placed on top of a sheet of plastic that was glued onto the top layer of balsa. Ironically, I scanned in some of the balsa used to make the hull, added an overlay of parallel lines and printed it out as a single layer decal on my ALPS 5000 printer. I didn’t undercoat the decal with white ink, so it was translucent. By using different colors under the decal, I was able to change the overall color of the wood. The deck decal is the same as the one used in the darker wood under the lifeboats.
I dropped the model almost as it was finished (it only needed rigging) and caused some major damage. I did a quick repair, which explains the skewed bits in the stern, the general off-kilter appearance and the slightly twisted railings.
I was going to print up some decals with the ship name on it, but decided to just add some slight rust stains and a couple of Preiser 1/350 scale sailors.
It’s called “Marathon”, in part because it was a pretty intense building effort, and in part in honor of the old Bungie game, Marathon. I learned a great deal on this build, more than with most models.
updated February 18 2020