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.

Design

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.

Prototyping

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.

 

What’s Next for Corvette?

The Corvette Trilogy is now complete with the publication of Pirate’s Lair. The next trilogy in this Starship Series, that’s what I’m calling it for lack of a better descriptor, is called the Destroyer Trilogy. Our hero, Captain Armon Vance is now on a Tin Can and on a new set of missions. I hope to start writing the first book, Declo Demons this fall. Look for it in the first half of 2019.

The series will take a dark and different turn with this middle trilogy as Vance searches for his former First Officer – Trin Lestor. Declo Demons will be a loose retelling of the literary classic, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Sort of like how Appocolapse Now retold the story in Vietnam, Declo Demons will retell the story on a distant planet.

  

Middle books of a trilogy are usually darker and this middle trilogy will be edgier and darker, right from the get-go. It takes place five years after the first trilogy and its set mostly on the jungle world of Declo where the dominant technology is diesel and the hunt for oil drives humans and aliens deeper into the darkest jungle. I’m super excited to write this book as I’ve already outlined it and the story is really going to be a fun read.

Above is a dirigible/boat that has inspired a craft in the story. Below are some aliens and humans that have also inspired the story.

    

It’s going to be a wild ride and I can’t wait to share it with you next year!

 

 

Seiko Prospex PADI

As regular followers of my Twitter account have no-doubt noticed, I tend to take pictures of my watches when I write or edit during my lunchtime sprints. Somehow the #WatchAndWords hashtag has never really caught on. Usually, I’m sporting my Hamilton Khaki Mechanical. But lately, I’ve been wearing a new Seiko diver.

I probably would not have gotten this watch had it not been offered to me for free through an employee gift program, but now that it’s in my rotation, I’m enjoying it. It sits on my wrist very comfortably and it looks good on either the included bracelet or any number of colorful NATO bands. Would I actually purchase one then? Yes, but not the PADI Pepsi. I’d probably go for the black dial version.

The one thing I have learned from wearing a diver for a month now is that I do appreciate the look more now. In the future, I could see getting a more upscale diver such at Tudor’s Black Bay 65 or heaven forbid, a Rolex Submariner.

I’m still not crazy about the arrow minute hand. The blue radiant dial is pretty in direct sunlight.

The watch wears colorful NATO’s really well, especially this patriotic tri-color one.

I also have a nicer bracelet but I found it to be too heavy and chunky for my tastes. Perhaps I can use it on another watch down the line. Getting a bracelet on this watch is not easy. I know watch geeks all faun over the SKX 007 Seiko diver, but if you don’t mind spending a bit more, I can heartily recommend this one instead. It has more features and still sports the classic Seiko diver features.

Ye Old Stellar Map

Twenty years ago I drew a map in MS Paint. It was based on the shape of a barred galaxy and it showed the Alliance planets and the Votainion Empire planets of what would become known as my Star Saga series of novels. Although at that time, I had yet to write even one novel, much less a series of them. But as the years progressed and my writing output increased, I always came back to this map to keep everything clear, at least in my mind.

If you’ve read any of the Star Saga novels or the novellas some of these places will be familiar to you. In looking at the map I have noticed the glaring absence of a very significant planet in the series – Ocherva. It should be located in the Outer Rim worlds near Negram and Alifax. I guess I need to update the old map. If I knew any talented artists who could render this map over a galaxy using cool fonts and other map making tools, I would commision a better version. But until then, I keep using this bit-mapped image from my youth as a guide to my future writings.

Above is a patched version of the map that now includes Ocherva.

Airborne Again

Those of you familiar with my novels or with me personally, know that I’m a big fan of aviation. From a young age, I’ve always liked airplanes and flying. When I was a teenager, I joined the Civil Air Patrol and got to ride in small planes as a cadet. When I got to High School, my dad bought a Cessna 150 and I learned to fly in it. I never did complete my license, but I racked up lots of time in that old trainer.

Skip forward thirty years and now I have kids in CAP and I’m an adult member. This past weekend I finally got to train as a Mission Scanner for CAP. It was my first time back on a small plane in three decades. For at least one sortie, I even got to fly search grids in the Cessna 182 assigned to my CAP Squadron. It was a fun day of classroom work and actual flying.

I spend many hours a month attending CAP meetings, training and activities. For someone like me who writes about imaginary starfighter pilots, being able to fly with an actual civilian auxiliary of the USAF, is invaluable writer fuel. I never got to fly in the Air Force, but in CAP I can be part of an aircrew and help my fellow citizens by finding downed aircraft, missing persons or helping to assist the AF with air intercept missions.

If you’ve always wanted to do something like that, look up the nearest CAP squadron near you and attend their meetings. It’s a great organization for aviation-minded students and adults.

 

Weekly Summary

Still plugging away on the Corvette 2 novella. I’ve picked up a book about destroyers from WWII to read for research. Tin Can Titans by John Wukovits. Can’t wait to get into it. I’m always reading non-fiction books about the military for inspiration.

I picked up this sleeve for the new System76 laptop I use to write with. For under ten bucks, it’s a pretty nice little case. I like the handle on the end so you can pull it out of your backpack.

Here’s a picture of my home writing nook. The other night I managed to sneak in some writing time at home, which is pretty rare. As you can see, the new laptop handles the monitor just fine.

I wanted to show you all the work my youngest son is doing in Blender. It’s a Votainion warship that he’s building in pieces for reasons… Anyway, he’s going to be using his 3D versions of my ships for some short story ebook covers coming later this year. He’s excited to help because I told him he could have any profits I made from selling them.

I have some more things I’d like to show you, but I’m saving them for a future post. One of them is the cover for my next novella, K’nat Trap. It’s being done by my brother and he’s got a pretty sharp one this time.

But here’s something I can share with you now. The upcoming cover art for a Gem State anthology of SFF writers from Idaho. This is the latest version but it’s not quite finished yet. The anthology will be a free download and is a sampler of all the insane talent we have here in Idaho.

That’s all for this week. Summer has started and the kids are out of school as of this afternoon.

 

Corvette

When you hear the word Corvette, do you think of the slick sports car from Chevrolet? Most people do. In fact when I let that name slip as the title of my WIP on Twitter, I got RT’d by a Corvette car enthusiast group. But I wasn’t writing about a car, or looking for a lost candy apple red hot rod. What? You’re not a fan of Corvette Summer? Really? I loved that film. “Hey, kid. Ever pump Gaaaaaasss?”

No, I was writing about a small, military warship, otherwise known as a corvette. My Corvette was about a tiny, military starship and it was set thirty years before the events in my Star Saga. My corvette was the smallest and the oldest rated ship in the Federation. It was also run by the oldest serving captain of the fleet. Something about the Old Man of Space running the oldest starship seemed fitting.

Naval corvettes were the smallest rated warships in most wooden ship navies. In fact in a few navies the rank Corvette Captain was the first rating of Captain. Here’s a picture of a French tall mast and steam hybrid corvette called the Duplex.

But my story was not inspired by wooden ships. It was inspired by the small, converted transports used to safeguard trans Atlantic convoys during WWII. Specifically, the Flower Class corvettes that were made famous by Nicholas Monsarrat. My original source material was his seminal novel, The Cruel Sea.

The story followed the crew of the British corvette during the war and was based on Monsarrat’s own military career aboard corvettes. If you ever get a chance to read the novel, you won’t regret it. The movie isn’t bad either. Below is a color photo of a Canadian Flower Class corvette, the HMCS Regina.

What appealed to me the most about corvettes was their diminutive size. A true boat, instead of a large, ship. The crew often was less than fifty and it seemed from reading Monsarrat’s tales that everyone, both enlisted and officer grew to know and rely on each other in a way not possible on larger combat ships. It was you, your mates and the ship against the elements and the enemy. That immediacy intrigued me and I knew that I could transplant that to a Military SF story. Below is a modern example of a corvette class warship, a Swedish Visby class stealth ship.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I also build models of the ships in my novels and put them on the covers. So naturally I decided to build a corvette that would be featured on this novel’s cover. It also helps when writing a story to have some idea what your ship looks like. Many times I just sketched out a drawing of it and left it at that. But this time I knew I had to build a model of this diminutive ship. You can read about it’s construction here. Below is a photo of the completed model in 1/350 scale.

It was a classic, pre-war Federation design with three sections each separated by metal beams. The ship was originally driven by a nuclear drive but later in its service life was converted to tunnel drive which is the way my starships travel through the vast reaches of space. Because this was the oldest hull in the fleet, I made sure it looked the part with lots of weathering and exposed areas and extra plating covering the decks. All of those things became the character of the SS Weippe.

The name of the corvette was taken from town here in my home state of Idaho. It’s a Nez Perce Indian name that means “very old place”. Kind of appropriate for the oldest ship in the fleet, no? I also borrowed two things from Monsaratt’s novel, the name of the captain and the number of his boat. I used the fictional Lieutenant Commander Ericson to be the name of my corvette’s shuttle craft. I used the registration number of his fictional corvette, the HMS Compass Rose 049. You can see the Weippe’s number on her stern in the picture above, 049.

One last image of the Weippe and a destroyer class vessel for size comparison. The Weippe was incomplete and both resided on my workbench some time last year.

I hope you found this post interesting, especially if you are a writer. It’s important to have your stories based on real events or historical things as I find it gives them a resonance that most other science fiction stories simply don’t have. There are many genre specific elements to my novel’s plot and characters so it was important for me to ensure there was a realistic foundation to my story. It’s also the introduction to my universe and so I needed it to be representative of what was to come, should the reader want to go further.

 

 

Adventures in Modeling – Bard Parker #6

Ever since I started watching Paul Budzik’s videos on YouTube I’ve coveted the Bard Parker #6 scalpel handle. It’s the one dentists use and he recommends it for modeling. I went out and purchased the 25A Swan Morton blades he uses and they came in the mail pretty quickly. But I was not able to get the illusive BP #6 handle. I ordered a cheapo handle so that I could at least use the blades. I didn’t really care for the scalpel over my regular X-Acto blades for most of my cutting tasks. It was awkward in my hand and too small. Much of my cutting needs were better suited to the shape of the X-Acto blades.

The Bark Parker handle is larger and much better made than the cheapo handle. So I’m looking forward to using it on my bench. Here are some images of the two scalpels together. I’ll do a follow up post after I use the new handle for a while.

20160726_071830

20160726_071811

Follow

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

Join other followers: