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Day SailerIf you've never built a wooden ship model before, I suggest you start with a relatively simple kit, such as a Level 2 kit from Midwest if you can find one. It appears that Midwest has discontinued making their ship model kits but I understand they are often available on Ebay. If you're a young modeler (pre-teen) you might want to start with a Level 1 kit, but for teens and adults, I think the Level 1 kits are a bit too simple. Midwest kits offer several advantages. The instructions are very thorough and assume you have no prior knowledge. The kits are relatively inexpensive and require few tools to complete. They build up quickly, so you can get your first model built in a reasonable amount of time. The Sakonnet Day Sailer, for example, should only take 3 weeks or so. The Muscongus Bay Lobster Smack just a bit longer. You'll learn quite a few new skills along the way and the end result should be a very nice little model that you can be proud of.
Don't discount the short time to completion for your first model. Many of us are used to instant gratification. Committing to 6 months to a year, or even much longer (large ships can take thousands of hours to complete!), to build a single model is really difficult for most of us until the hobby gets in the blood. Once you get the first model built, you'll likely be ready to tackle a more complex project next time, but it is critically important to get the first one built. A relatively short build time makes it much more likely that you'll finish the kit. Let me just say this again because I think it's so important. I can't tell you how many models I started and never completed. Building and finishing a simple model was a key for me to successfully completing bigger projects. If you try to start with a large, 3-masted, 100-gun, 18th-century man-o'-war, your chances of success are so slim as to be almost non-existent. I was persistent enough to stick with the hobby over the years, despite my lack of success, Most people try once and throw their hands up in despair, never to try again.
There's another aspect to consider with the first model - acquiring the needed skills. If you hope someday to build truly fine models rather than something just hacked together, you need to learn a host of new skills, including working with very small pieces of wood and metal, painting, soldering, carving, planking, etc. Your first attempts at these new skills are likely to produce less than perfect results. But your proficiency will increase over time if you apply yourself to learning and improving. Bottom line is, you're not likely to produce a museum-quality model with your first (or possibly even your 10th) model. Each model should get successively better but you're going to make a lot of mistakes on the first few models. Why waste these mistakes on the finest-quality and most expensive kits? My first major kit after the Muscongus Bay Lobster Smack was Bluejacket's Smuggler — a very fine kit indeed. To be honest, I did OK with that kit, but I now wish I'd had a few other kits under my belt before I did that one. I know I could do a much better job on it now but I doubt I'll ever want to build it again.
If you just have to build a bigger/more complex boat than any of the Midwest kits, then I have a few recommendations:
1: Bluejacket's Yankee Hero is a nice, solid hull kit that is quite complete (even includes the necessary tools, paints, etc.) and builds into a good looking model. There is a 2-part series on building this kit in the July/August, 2002 and Sept./Oct., 2002 issues of Ships in Scale Magazine. Bluejacket also sells some small kits that are similar to the Midwest kits. Their Grand Banks Dory, for example, is a fine starter kit.
2: Model Shipways newly released solid-hull kits of Sultana and Phantom look very good although I haven't seen the kits in person. Building a solid-hull kit means you won't have to deal with the complexity of planking for your first model and Model Shipway's kits tend to have very good instructions. Phantom is a fairly small scale (1/8") which makes it a bit more difficult, but it has fairly easy rigging. Sultana is at a larger scale (3/16") so construction might be a bit easier but the rigging is considerably more complex than Phantom. Both kits are reasonably priced and Model Expo offers a free, downloadable practicum for each kit.
I have recently heard from two novice modelers that they had some difficulites with the kit-supplied instructions for Phantom. Each felt the instructions weren't thorough enough for a beginner. The good news is, a modeler named Chuck Passaro has created a practicum for each of these models and Model Expo has made them available on their site for downloading. I recently downloaded both and I have to say they are very well written and should be a great help to the beginning modeler. Kudos to both Model Expo and Mr. Passaro for these. I hope we'll see more of them in the future.
There is another new kit from Model Expo called the 18th Century 26 ft. Longboat. This kit was designed by Chuck Passaro and has excellent instructions. You can download the instructions from ME's website to see if it looks doable for you. One good thing about that kit is that Chuck gives really good instructions on planking the hull. This is a skill you'll need to learn and learning it on a small boat is a great way to do it. Model Expo has also come out with a kit of the Bounty Launch. This appears to be well-researched and looks easy to build. Again, instructions (but no practicum) are available online.
3: Another very nice kit is Model Shipway's Pinky Schooner, Glad Tidings. This looks very promising. As of June 1, 2016, I started building this kit myself. Instructions (but no practicum) are available online so you can get a good idea of what you're getting into before you buy the kit. It is rated as an intermediate kit, so you may well need guidance from an experienced modeler but the plans and included instructions are very well done. If you think you want to stick with the hobby and are willing to put in a good bit of effort, this would be an excellent choice.
4: With some reservations, I used to recommend AL's Bluenose II. It's a bit on the expensive side (about $125) and not a kit a beginner should tackle alone, but since I have my series of articles on building it and am willing to provide email support, most new builders should be able to get it built and have it look fairly decent. There are also a lot of YouTube videos on building this kit. It won't be an accurate model by any stretch of the imagination, but it is not a bad one to make your beginner mistakes on.It took me about 4 months to build mine but I had a lot of time on my hands then. You may find it takes you a bit longer, which rather goes against my suggestion of choosing a quick-to-build kit. You'll also need to buy at least one reference book and some additional materials, so that will add to the cost. In other words, don't make this your first choice unless maybe somebody gave you the kit as a gift or you've already bought it.
I also used to recommend The Lumberyard's Lively. A fellow modeler, who had just completed a Midwest kit, chose Lively for his second model. He started having difficulties right away, so I thought I'd help him. Although I bought the kit just at the time it came out in 2001, I'd never built it. When I started looking closely at the plans, I realized that there are a number of serious problems with them. As well, kit supplied materials often don't match materials specified in the plans. This kit is quite expensive ($210), due in part to the hardwoods provided for materials. Since most novice modelers will wind up painting over the wood anyway, the use of hardwoods probably isn't justified in a beginners kit, considering how much it adds to the cost. This kit can make a nice model and, since it was designed with beginners in mind, it's relatively easy. But if you plan to build it and have little previous wooden ship modeling experience, you may need to find an experienced builder who at least owns the kit and, better yet, has built it, to help you work through the problems. I would NOT recommend that you tackle this one on your own, even if you have completed a Midwest kit first. I wish there were more really good beginner kits out there but there just aren't.
One last tip - there is no international standard for rating the difficulty level of kits. What one manufacturer considers "entry level" may well be an "intermediate" kit to another. Even within a manufacturer's line, it may be difficult to understand why one kit is rated as entry level and another as intermediate when they appear very similar. As an example consider a Midwest Level 2 kit such as the lobster smack and compare it to Model Shipways' Armed Virginia Sloop. Both are rated as entry level but there are vast differences between the two. One thing you can be pretty sure of though - if a kit is rated as "advanced" it's definitely not for beginners!
I know that a lot of modelers start with some of the cheaper European kits and seem to get them built after a fashion. What they don't learn, however, is proper planking, how to determine if what they are building is accurate and if everything is to scale, and many of the other skills needed to build ships in miniature rather than artistic representations of ships. Of course, some builders want nothing more than a boat with some upright pointy things (masts) and lots of pretty, bright brass bits to stick on the mantle. If, on the other hand you aspire to true ship modeling, then I hope you'll consider my suggestions. In any case, I'm always happy to provide additional advice or help via email.
You might also want to take a look at my Tools page to see my recommendations for tools you'll need to get started.
And, one last suggestion - consider joining the Model Ship World forum. It's a great, free resource and you'll see build logs for most of the popular kits on the market.
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Last Updated: July 16, 2018