Whilst ships have been carrying people, cargo and weapons of war across the seven seas for thousands of years, the craft of ship modelling is actually just as old as the craft of shipbuilding itself.
As a gigantic, three-dimensional object that would have been the most technologically advanced mechanisms at the time, it’s only natural that the world’s earliest men and women would need some physical frame of reference to work towards when constructing their ships. Indeed, models have been found by archaeologists that date back all the way to Ancient Egypt.
It’s thought that these models were not only built as reference ship models but as toys, art and even as burial offerings. This was true also in Ancient Greece, where Greek warships were popularly built as scale models.
These models were typically built from clay and it wasn’t until archaeologists discovered many of these models that they were able to understand how the Greek ships actually would have looked and functioned.
The middle ages
It wasn’t until the middle ages that the kind of intricate and detailed model ships we know and love today were first created. The earliest surviving models tend to be galleys and galleons from around the 12th century and were thought to have been used in churches as blessings for their real-life counterparts. This is a practice that remained common until the 19th century in many Catholic countries.
Prior to the 18th century, it was customary for most ships to be built without any official plans being drawn up. Many shipbuilders simply used the scale models to show off to customers how the ship would look and work.
Even throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, “Admiralty” models were used so that prospective buyers could get a physical impression of the vessel and so construction errors were kept to a minimum.
The modern era
Thanks to the British navy’s supremacy in the 19th and 20th centuries, model ships became both popular children’s toys and popular models for hobbyists and collectors.
As the 20th century moved on, the hobby grew in popularity across the globe and for the first time, thanks to the rise in popularity of plastic precast sets, affordable models were released that buyers could assemble themselves at home.
Wood – Whilst the first models were built from wood, it’s a material that is still commonly used to this day. There is fine artistry in wooden model ship construction and there are many methods that have been used over the years.
Most commonly, several pieces of wood will be placed on top of one another and bonded with glue, reducing the amount of carving required. Sometimes, however, the hull of the ship will be carved from a single block of wood. This is an incredibly delicate job that requires a very steady hand indeed.
Metal – Due to the extra expense of the material and its tougher, less malleable nature, metal is rarely used in model ship construction other than to add details to wooden or plastic ships. However, steel, tin, and aluminium brass have all been used in hull construction in the past.
Plastic – After the Second World War, plastic injection-moulding became the more popular method for model production due to the lower costs and faster speed of production. These were primarily shipped (pardon the pun) as separate pieces bonded with plastic cement for glue. After the war, there was a great surge of interest in model ships, warships, in particular, and as such, many companies got in on the action throughout the 20th century.
Paper – These models are less durable and are created strictly for casual hobbyists, though the detail can often be impressive.
To this day, detailed ship models continue to be built by hand and by more modern 3D printing methods for a variety of reasons – to replicate and celebrate great ships of the past and the present and to create prototype builds for the ships of tomorrow.
Whatever the reason, however, it’s a craft that has blossomed over thousands of years and is continuing to evolve. But at its heart, the same passion and artistry that was utilised by those Ancient Egyptians all those years ago is still very much alive and well within the modern model building community.