Scratch Building Starship Models, Part 1

I’ve been meaning to do a post about how I build the models that appear on my novel covers for some time now, so here we go. I can’t fit all these pictures and explanations into a single post, so this time we’ll talk about Designs and Mounting Systems.

I’ll be using the last model I built for the Corvette novella’s, the SS Kootenai for construction examples. You can find a Google Photo Album with tons more reference pictures from this build, here. If this kind of thing really interests you and you want to try your hand at it, there are a couple of places to get more information. First of all, this DVD is where I learned many new techniques and it’s from a former ILM modeler, Fon Davis. Recently, Adam Savage did a One Day Build using similar techniques to what I will show you here. The Fon Davis video is golden, and far more detailed than Adam’s quick video.


It always starts with pencil sketches or doodle drawings where I play with shapes until I have something that interests me. The original Corvette model was an older design and it set the style for the industrial design of future starships in the series. It was basically a three section ship with a head, a body and an engine separated by gridwork beams. Below is the sketch I originally drew of the Weippe.

To show that starship design is evolving, I wanted the much newer Kootenai ship to be sleeker but also share many design cues from the Weippe.

Above is my pencil sketch for the Kootenai. The shapes are similar for the head and the body but the engine is now one long tube instead of a separate section. I have already built models of what these starships look like later in the series so this design is a morph of the old, Weippe style and the next generation of warships. Below is a picture of a later model design, the GCU Griffin. You can see they are now all just boxes in line with a spine that’s a cylinder.

One of the first decisions you have to make is what scale to build your models. This is usually determined by how close you’re going to be getting when photographing them, and by how much space you have to store it afterward. I’ll never build models the size of the Star Destroyers from Star Wars (8 Feet) because I don’t have a warehouse to store them in. So long ago I chose the ship model scale of 1/350 for my large starships. When I do smaller ships, I usually build them to 1/32 or 1/24 scale.

If the model is small enough, I will usually formalize the shape with a paper blueprint. Below you can see the blueprint I created for the Kootenai.

Once again, your model will have its own styling cues but for these models, I use simple block structures with tubes made from PVC pipes. So the main engine cylinder is going to be a one-inch diameter PVC pipe. The burnt orange colored block in the picture above is a material called RenShape. This is what ILM uses as the interior mount point for their models. It’s a polycarbonate block that you can easily drill a hole through and then tap for set screws. Hollywood types use a C-Stand to hold their models up when photographing them and C-stands have 1/2 inch metal rods that can be articulated in just about any direction. Lighting crews usually put heavy lights on them, so your plastic model will never be too heavy for a C-stand to hold up.

Here’s another, later model starship on a C-stand having its picture taken. The knobs are called Gobo Heads and let you position the model while keeping a firm grip on the mounting rod.

Mount Points

Since we seem to be discussing this already, let me explain how I do mounts for my models. This was a huge mystery to me for a number of years. I saw the ILM crews putting models on bluescreen covered mounts with metal rods in pictures. But I didn’t understand how they kept the models from spinning around the rods. It wasn’t until I found former ILM’er Fon Davis’s videos that I discovered the secret.

What they use is an industrial material called RenShape. Now the only place I’ve found this material is online direct from the manufacturer and it’s not cheap! But they do offer a grab box of samples that are perfectly sized for the models I make. I take a block of this RenShape and postion it in the middle of the model or where the center of gravity is. Then I determine how many directions I need to place a mountting rod. Usually it’s left and right side and front and back side. I drill out 1/2 inch holes where the rods from the C-stand will go and then I drill a smaller hole and tap it for a set screw. This set screw is how you keep the model from spinning on the rod and you have to make sure that you can get to it to tighten it and untighten it as needed.

Above is a block of RenShape with the mount holes drilled and the set screw protruding from the top. Below you see the set screw which is smaller than the tap, the tap and the screw that goes inside. The red handled Alan wrench is how you turn the set screw to tighten it. You have to have a long handle on it because usually, it’s deep inside your model.

These items can be purchased at your local home improvement store like Home Depot. The bottom picture is soft, but you can see the set screw meeting up with the rod inside the RenShape. This is a different model, by the way.

Below you can see another benefit of RenShape. You can epoxy plastic directly to it, because it’s part plastic itself!

I didn’t always know how to do this, and so I’ve used all kinds of things for mounts in the past. All of them inferior to the RenShape and rod. If your spaceship model will never be photographed in a studio, it probably doesn’t need this kind of mount. Static display model mounts are covered elsewhere on the internet and you can search them out pretty easily.


One other subject I wanted to touch on before moving on to the building up of the model using styrene is prototyping. Plastic sheets of (Styrene) are expensive, and if you’re not sure how your design will look, or if it has complicated angles or something, you will want to build a prototype in a cheaper medium. For these times, I resort to building a prototype model out of poster board. Yes, the dime store white cardstock that kids make posters from for school projects. It’s cheap and all you need to build with it is Elmer’s white glue, a hobby knife, scissors, and a ruler and pencil.

When I first started building models of my own design, all of them were built from cardboard. Below is a model my friend and I made for a film we made in Junior High School. It’s older than many people reading this blog, and it’s made entirely of cardboard. So is the one under it from the same vintage.

But for prototyping, you just need to rough out the shape, so it doesn’t have to look good. When I built the cover model for K’Nat Trap, I had to do the whole model in cardboard to get the strange angles right. The upside to doing that was that now I had a template in the same scale to build it in styrene.

Next post we’ll get into boxing and framing with sheet styrene.


Corvette 3 Paperback Edition

Corvette 3, Pirate’s Lair is now available in 5×8 paperback, exclusively on Amazon. As of this writing, it has not been linked to the ebook offering page, but I expect that to change next week. When you buy the paperback, you will get the ebook for FREE. So if you like to have two versions of a book for convenience sake, like me, this is the better value.

I’m mulling the possibility of creating a Trilogy Paperback in a larger format, probably Trade Paperback. Let me know if this interests you. It would cost less than if you were to buy all three in paperback. I’m less likely to offer a similar ebook because Amazon already bundles it for me.

I’m done with this series for now. My immediate writing efforts are going towards completing Kill Dash Nine, the next Joshua Jones Mystery novel. Once that’s finished I can come back to Destroyer.


Corvette: Pirate’s Lair

It’s a few months later than I anticipated, but it’s finally here. The exciting final book of the Corvette Trilogy. But don’t worry, Vance and crew will be back again in a new trilogy, early next year. Look for Destroyer: Declo Demons which will be the first book of the middle trilogy for this Starship Series.

In the meantime, enjoy this one and tell all your friends it’s out! The paperback will follow in a month or so.

Corvette: Pirate’s Lair

Commander Vance and his crew are about to launch their new Corvette, the SS Kootenai, with orders to find and kill the ruthless pirate Captain Vynn. There’s just one problem; the only person who knows where his secret lair is located is currently serving a life sentence in Federal prison – Trin Lestor.

Will she help find her former lover so that Vance can kill him? Or will she lead him into a trap in the pirate’s lair known as Kamaia? Join Vance, Boxer, and Rizzo on their most dangerous mission yet as they battle Vynn to the death.

The exciting conclusion to the Corvette Trilogy is a fast-moving, and action-packed ride from start to finish.

First Draft with Plume Creator

Writing my novels on Ubuntu Linux has never been this easy or this well organized. Plume Creator is a writer’s IDE or Integrated Developer Environment. Just substitute Developer with Writer and you have an IWE. It lets you outline, organize and write your scenes and chapters however you like and then allows you to export them to ODT, an open document format that LibreOffice will accept and transform into Word or RTF format so you can more easily send your manuscript to editors and proof readers.

I use Plume for story creation and when I have my first draft nailed down as far as structure goes, I export it to Write and carry on with editing. There is no built in spell check or editing features in Plume Creator as of this version. So you can’t really take your manuscript beyond the first draft. However, getting a solid first draft written is so much easier in Plume than in Write.

When I have a completed, edited, proofed version of the manuscript I then cut and paste each chapter out of Write and into Sigil. But that’s another story for another post.

Plume treats each scene in your novel as a separate file. You then combine scenes to make chapters. If you have ever seen Scrivener, you already have the knowledge to write with Plume. The two applications are very similar. But Plume has a few tools that make writing that first draft easier. And it works on Windows and Linux, two platforms that are second fiddle for Scrivener.

Two useful tools for outlining your first draft in Plume are the Outliner and the Mise en scene.

This is a close shot of the Mise en scene area showing the characters in the scene and the location. Clicking on the “Eye” icon anoints a Point Of View character.

Here’s what it looks like when you pop up the arrow. You can click and drag your characters into the Scene area, same with the locations. This is very cool meta data to have, especially if you are writing an Epic Fantasy, Sci-Fi or a Mystery.

If you click on the “Man” icon you get the Mise en scene editor, where you can add your characters and locations. Here is where you can elaborate on characters and locations. You can even add new categories.  For instance, in my SF books I have lots of starships, so I keep track of which ones are in a scene using the Starships category.

Here’s a wide shot of Plume in action on my Ubuntu laptop. The Notes area is useful for additional meta data, I use Blake Snyder’s shorthand symbols to show conflict and emotional arc.

This is what a filled out Outline looks like in Plume. You can chose to hide any of the columns to make things less crowded. Sometimes I hide the notes in the outline view.

At this point in my WIP, I have over 50K words in Plume and it still loads and plays ball like a champ. I should be finished writing this first draft in another month or two and then I can reuse the Mise en scene cast and locations for my third book which is already set up in the same Plume project. When I write a trilogy, this is just easier for me than creating a new project for each book.




Starforgers Free on Kobo


You read that right. You can now get the first Star Saga ebook, Starforgers for FREE on Kobo. Free as in free beer, and you can pull it down from this website for free, as in free speech. You just won’t get it in epub format. The Free version you download from this site is in plain text. Not sure how long this will last, so you might want to download it sooner than later.

PS  You can also get the text of all my books here on this website. Because that’s the way I roll.

PPS  Anyone know how to tell if you’ve given away any ebooks on Kobo? I don’t see a column for that free downloads. Probably because nobody has taken advantage of this yet. Maybe I should try it on my Kobo app.


Board Update

Finally got all my scenes from The Rising onto the board. Actually, they leaked over to a second board. There are about 90+ scenes total as it stands now. But that is likely to change as I move them around and add and subtract them.

Here’s a view of the board with the acts clearly labeled. Some of the plot points are tentatively placed by using blue tape with black marker. Everything is capable of being changed around.

And here is the same picture with POV lines drawn in so you can see how much page time each character gets.

ActOne_ActTwo_POVNot all the POV lines are shown on this graphic, but you get the idea. I’ll update this as I have more time to fine tune things this weekend. I’ve decided to just press on with this first draft and get it all down first, then start moving scenes around as needed to tweak the plot structure for the second draft.

Nothing is New

When it comes to air-frame designs, nothing you thought was original, is original. Turns out the Germans did it first. In fact just about all the advanced wings designed since the end of WWII were all first conceived by German engineers. Even imaginary ones used in Sci-Fi movies. Oh, yes. You can find many more futuristic German airplane designs at But be forewarned, everything you thought you knew about airplane design, was probably done by the Germans in the 1930’s.



Oblique (or pivoting) winged aircraft were thought to be impossible. They were, until NASA did it.




Same goes for forward swept wings. Don’t tell the Germans it’s impossible, because NASA did it.




Modern swept wing, internal jet engine fighters? Not so modern. Germans designed them. I know about the Me-262, but this design is uncanny when compared to the Fury jet fighter.




Funky wing design used by Spaceship One? Yeah, Germans had that.




Not even George Lucas is immune.  Jedi starfighter? Nope, German’s had one.


KIV-3 Cover Shoot Build Part 1

I stared building a large scale version of the Votainion starfighter used in the Starforgers novels early in the year. This first post was delayed until now as I gathered the necessary images from my digital cameras. The model is being built to be featured on the cover of Starforgers Book 2, The Rising which will be released in the first quarter of 2014.

This is the thumbnail sketch of the book cover. You can see that it features a KIV-3 starfighter breaking apart in a prominent fashion. This required a larger scale model with more details added to the areas where panels had been shot away. I decided to go with a scale that was large enough to provide details and that I could find a pilot for. This is where it is sometimes useful to have kids. I rescued an old Star Wars action figure to be my Votainion pilot.

The KIV-3 is a fairly simple design and up-scaling it from 1/48 to 3″ Action Figure scale, should be easy enough. The only hard part would have been the conical nose and the conical exhaust of the main engine. The canopy would be easier if I had it blown off. Check. It would also be easier if it were battle damaged. Check. The wings would be massive at this scale, so bending one over in more damaged fashion would solve that problem. The lower wing would just be falling down strait, so that doesn’t have to be supported either.

This model would not be a display model, meaning that the parts not seen in the photo, need not be built. It could be a Hollywood set that looks great from one facade only. This cuts down on the usefulness of the model for future photo shoots, but it makes this cover shoot happen faster by cutting down on build time.

I started with the cylindrical fuselage. Building the whole model from plastic allowed me to put it together much like a wooden model airplane. Since parts of the ship would be ripped open and interior details exposed, I need the inside to look like the imagined real starfighter would look. Think about all those Star Wars books with the interior of X-wings detailed. That’s what I had to create.

I used several round bulk heads and strung them together just like a model airplane. I even used wax paper to pin the pieces down as they were glued. This was a first for me in plastic. I’ve built dozens of balsa wood models this way but never a plastic starship.

The bulkheads were scavenged from an abandoned attempt at making engines for another starship model. Never throw anything away. The engine exhaust was made from various plastic lids from orange juice to paint cans.

Here’s a shot of the engine parts being glued together. The inner white piece is the core of a Scotch tape dispenser.

This shot shows all the main pieces setting on top of each other along with a 1/48 scale model of the same ship built from cardboard.

This image shows the cockpit being built up using C-3PO as a stand in for my pilot. The seat is raked back pretty far in this fighter and the pilot almost lays down in it. The headrest is a plastic cap from a VGA plug!

Here is a close up of the details added to the bulkhead right behind the pilot. Not sure how much of this will be seen in the final picture, but the more detail the better.

Well, that’s all for this first installment. Next up we paint some of this detail primer gray and start building the wings.

Weekend Update 21 July 2013

This weekend we’ve not been watching youth baseball. Although I have watched pro ball. Heck, I even watched some Canadian Football League, which only got me itching for American football.

The one thing I have managed to do is write on the WIP. At this time the word count is sitting around 42K. I need to keep writing during my lunch breaks to maintain the glide path I’m on now. Which is roughly 800 to 1000 words a day.

Tuesday I’ll be at Rediscovered Books for the Craig Johnson book signing. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

The temperatures here in Western Idaho have been in the triple digits this week. Which makes going outside unpleasant for me. The upside is that being inside lets me sneak in some more writing and reading.

Above is the final sticker that I needed to remove from my Dell laptop. It was hidden under the metal cover on the bottom and so had eluded my attention for over a year now. It was the Windows license key that came with the computer. Since I never even booted into Windows, I’ll never need it. Speaking of Microsoft, what happened to their stock price last week? Glad I don’t own any.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: