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Bottled Ship Builder

Going for Gold Build - Bessie


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The European Association of Ships in Bottles has been asked by the Royal Yacht Association to support the British Olympic Sailing Team at this year’s Olympiad by providing some SIBs with team members’ signatures on the sails, for use in the auction at the ‘Sail for Gold Ball’ in July – no pressure then.



I’m the archivist for EASIB, so I’m going to do my best to support this.


I said I’d do a build log, so here goes.


Timescales are tight so finding a subject to SIB was the task. I’m not particularly keen on anything modern, so I settled on a small West Country Trading Ketch, the Bessie of Barnstaple, Devon, built in Pembroke in 1900 and lost in the Mediterranean about 1947.  These vessels were the equivalent of the modern HGV lorries, but before the advent of large, hard surfaced roads. There were hundreds of them, moving all kinds of cargo around the coast.


I saw the following advantages:


·         A scale of about 1/200 – the bits are not too small

·         Plain hull shape

·         Reasonably simple deck layout

o   Wheelhouse

o   Cabin

o   Cargo hatch

o   Dolly winch

o   Fore companionway hatch

o   Windlass

·         Two masts, Main and Mizzen

·         Two booms, Main and Mizzen

·         Two gaffs, Main and Mizzen

·         Only 4 sails, Main Mizzen and 2 staysails – mainsail large enough for a signature

·         Reasonably simple rigging



·         Too wide for a one piece hull and the neck of the bottle , so it’s a split hull – I’ve never used this method before.

I decided to do two, one a test piece and the other the ‘real’ one, then I realised once I had all the tools and materials in one place for that particular build stage, it was as quick to do a ‘spare’ as well.




I decided to do two, one a test piece and the other the ‘real’ one, then I realised once I had all the tools and materials in one place for that particular build stage, it was as quick to do a ‘spare’ as well.


So, I’ve made 3 hull blanks.




Hull shaped and deck recess cut out 




Deck laid; it was a working vessel so I think a bit of unevenness in the caulking is acceptable





I'll update as I get more done.


Incidentally, I printed out the mainsail (4 copies in case of accident) and sent them off for signature. Havn't had them back yet. I following DSiemens build with interest.



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To explain the deck recess,


The hull blank was made from Ramin, a Far Eastern hardwood available in 2.2 m lengths in DIY stores at a reasonable price.  It’s a pale cream colour, cuts and sands well and holds an edge. I used 4 pieces of square section with a 1mm strip cut on a small table saw between them for the centre line, keel, etc, all pinned with cocktail sticks. I think these are beech; they are definitely hard and I use them for the masts as well.


I shaped the hull by taking the excess off using my Proxxon Mill/Drill unit (a present from me to me when the Euro was about 1.60 against the pound – I bought it from a German company - worked out at almost half the UK price) using a small router bit.


Then used a combination of a round and square fine micro plane rasps -(http://www.axminster.co.uk/microplane-small-round-rasp-with-handle-951200?gclid=CPft-vqtmswCFbEy0wodSiINNA).


These quickly remove wood (fingernails, skin and flesh as well) with little effort, and leave a smooth finish that requires only a little sanding.





Photo of Microplanes



I then marked out the bulwarks. I have a Proxxon router adapter, but the plate was too big for the curvature and for seeing the work, so I made an adapter plate out of some clear plastic so that I had a depth stop and used a smaller Proxxon drill to plunge route out the excess.




Photo of router





Hull with most waste removed


I finished off by using a combination of small carving chisels inherited from my dad, scalpel blades held in dowel as a handle and sanding as required in conjunction with a depth gauge. I also used the half finished Cap Rail as a template for the deck recess




I then shaped the Hull with the microplanes, small files and sanders.


Then applied the bulwark stanchions (styrene strip) and painted white with just a hint of grey in it.


For the deck planking, I cut strips 1mm wide from some light coloured veneer using a strip cutter I made a few years ago from a piece of aluminium right angle, nuts and bolts, and a single sided razor blade. Thickness of cut is set by using a drill bit as a gauge and a bit of trial and error. The only downside is that you need a straight edge on the veneer to start with and the cut strip is what the cutter is pressed against, but a bit of care and two or three light passes works ok.




Photo of strip cutter


Next was to use a black marker on one edge of the strips, cut them into 25mm lengths, blacken one end, and then lay them out temporarily on a flat surface using a glue stick; the type used for paper. I’ve found that this holds, but not permanently. The surface was sanded, this ensures a constant thickness, but also removes a lot of any ‘bleed’ from the marker pen, making the caulking look thinner. They were then stained a light oak colour, which is all I had. This is the practice model; Bessie had a teak deck according to the book ‘Whistling for a Wind’ (no drawings or photos – I was disappointed, but it’s a good read anyway) so I may get some teak stain and see how it looks. I then laid the deck in a 5 butt shift.


It was a working vessel so I think a bit of unevenness in the caulking is acceptable. 


Then I added the Caprail




All for now


Best to all



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  • 1 month later...

Hi All,


Been working on the deck fittings. From fore to aft; windlass, forward companionway, mast placeholder, dolly winch engine cover, dolly winch, tarp covered cargo hatch, mast placeholder, fuel tank, cabin, wheelhouse. I still have a bit of fine painting to do. 










These macro phots sure show up the oopsies.


On another point, I've been having major issues with glue, (CA, PVA, even balsa) sticking to the cocktail sticks I have been making the masts from. They are the beech variety. Does anyone know if these are treated in any way? It may just be the make, but its not something I've encountered before.


Best to all



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Hi Alan,

She is looking good and you're right things have to be square to the earth at this scale as even minor defects show up with the camera. However beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I think she looks just fine. Good detail all around and your cargo hatch is battened down correctly, good to see this level of detail.

Regarding the cocktail sticks if they are made in China they are likely sprayed with some sort of chemical preservative. Short of trying to sand them down I would junk them and get ones that are made in North America or... do what John Fox III does and laminate three pieces of veneer together and turn your own.

I love your little tool for cutting strips ... Well done Mate!

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  • 3 months later...

It’s been a while since I updated the build. I didn’t manage to get the SIBs bottled in time for the Ball Auction, an unexpected life event left me with no time for hobbies for a while. However, the organisers were happy to auction them on the basis of a photograph and I’d bottle them up and deliver them later.

My sincere thanks to the organisers and the winners who bid for them for their patience

I have now finished them, and they will be delivered in a few days. The extra time also let be add the ships boats, and dress the necks with a small lighthouse inside and Turk’s Head outside.

The Photos below switch between either of the two final SIBS or the test piece, depending on the stage I was at when I remembered to photograph it. I’ll also add a bit more detail on the build.

I used half round section styrene strip for the Wales, and painted them a dirty white, as was the hull below the waterline. The hull above the water line was painted black, keeping some of the minor overpaint onto the white  as black marks, scuffs, etc to try and get a ‘working ship look’.


The Windlass and the Dolly Winch were made from a combination of pieces of different diameter styrene tubes and rods. The ‘V’ shapes in the capstans were achieved by a bit of careful filing with some small files. The Dolly Winch was engine driven, and the Engine Cowl was made from a piece of basswood, and painted black.

The Forward Companionway Hatch was carved from a piece of square wooden rod.

The Cargo Hold Hatch was built by cutting a piece of basswood to near size, covering in thin sheet styrene to allow the Batons and Brackets (made from styrene) to be joined using liquid styrene glue. I made the Brackets from 1mm slices of ‘L’ section styrene, and the Baton from ½mm square section styrene.  The ‘L’ slices were temporarily held on the tacky side of a Post-It, and the Baton glued in place. When dry, the bottoms of the ‘L’ sections were cut flush with the Baton.


The Cargo Hatch Tarpaulin was made from a piece of paper kitchen towel stuck down with PVA glue coloured with a bit of acrylic paint. I was aiming for a faded olive green coloured Tarpaulin – I have to work on my colour mixing skills a bit more! I thought; ‘just mix green and black’, but after not achieving the correct shade, and consulting with artist daughter, apparently its mix orange and blue??!!  However, this worked, and a nice shade of olive green obtained, although I deliberately made slightly different shades to get a weathered look.

Once the PVA had dried, the bottom edge of the ‘Tarp’ was cut straight, and the Baton and Brackets glued on with the topside of the Baton level with the cut bottom edge of the ‘Tarp’. The Build method worked OK, although in future I’d undercoat using black before putting the ‘Tarp’ on. It took a lot of coats of paint before the white of the styrene stopped glowing through the paper towel.

The Wheelhouse assembly was built by cutting and shaping a piece of basswood to near size, covering in thin sheet styrene to allow the doors and hatches (made from styrene) to be joined using liquid styrene glue. The Windows were formed in the Wheelhouse front by cutting out square holes in a piece of thin styrene sheet which was then painted brown, and the basswood was painted pale blue to (hopefully) look like glass. The painted styrene ‘front’ was then glued in position with the pale blue showing through the holes; similarly for the doors on the sides. The Skylight was printed on paper and stuck down on a piece of shaped and painted basswood which was then in turn stuck down. The Companionway Hatch and the Beading were formed from styrene. The Navigation Lights are pieces of electrical equipment wire insulation.



The Bowsprit and Masts were made from cocktail sticks, I think the wood is beech, it’s certainly not bamboo. The bowsprit was attached with a spot of PVA and some black thread to represent gammoning. After establishing deck height on the masts I squared off their bottoms to enable them to be stepped in a piece of square section brass tubing glued below the decking so that the masts had a positive lock to prevent swivelling as the rigging was tautened. 

The Mast Bands were made from slices of styrene tube drilled out to the correct diameter and painted black, and the Boom Goose Necks were made from thin pieces of wire. The Gaff Yoke was carved from beech barbeque skewers, but I had a devil of a job getting the glue to stick these pieces to the Gaff. In a couple of cases I ended up using epoxy. I’m still trying to find out if the cocktail sticks are impregnated with preserver or something.

The Mast Hoops were made from thin slices of styrene tube painted brown, although I did try John Fox III’s method of making brown paper tubes and cutting them into slices (shown elsewhere on the forum) because this is a very good representation of a varnished wooden hoop, but I found that they delaminated easily when attached to the sail with a bit of thread. Perhaps the brown paper I was using was not up to the task, or the CA was not holding, or just my technique. I’ll try it again in the future though.

I used 80gm coloured craft paper for the Sails to give a buff coloured blotchy background for a weathered effect, the Sails’ outlines and the panel stitching were printed onto the paper. After the signatures were added, the Sails were cut out and the edges were reinforced and pierced. The Sails were then bent on to the Boom, Gaff and Mast Hoops, with the thread being reinforced by diluted PVA after knotting. The Staysails were bent onto a piece of thin brass rod just a little thicker than the thread used for the Standing Rigging, again the knots and the loops of thread being stiffened with diluted PVA. After the PVA set, the brass rod was removed, and the Stays themselves were then fed through the loops that this had formed



I used black thread for the Standing Rigging and brown thread for the Running rigging. The Blocks at the mastheads are of the ‘thread loop’ variety, with running rigging fed through the loop. The Bob Stay was a short piece of thick black thread.

The Ships Boat was made following John Fox III’s method of carving a mould, then moulding a hull blank using laminations of PVA soaked cigarette paper, and then using styrene rod for the ribs, and styrene sheet for the seats, coaming, etc. I’m going to wax the mould next time - it was a bit of fun getting the hull blanks off of it.


The Sea was made from different colours of plasticene, shaped to show the waves and wind from the port quarter (hopefully), not much else to say about it, except that the dye in the modern incarnation of plasticene certainly stains things, including fingers. It actually took a little time to clean up the hull of the first SIB after rigging was complete to remove little smears of plasticene from its sides. I used a piece of tissue paper over the sea before putting anything in the bottle for the second SIB, and removed it after the rigging was complete, then attached the upper hull to the lower hull.















Edited by exwafoo
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Bottling the SIB turned out to be struggle. The first attempt ended up in the original bunch of ‘Bs’, and had to come out again. I had put the hull in first and there were just too many bits of line through the neck with the result that the masts became entangled during insertion.

After considerable thought (and repairs) I drilled two holes approximately the same distance apart as the mast steps on the SIB in a piece of square wooden rod, and put this in first, ‘Bluetacked’ to the side of the bottle, on the side of the bottle away from me. You can just see this piece of wood behind the SIB in the photo below.  Also, you can just about see the pieces of square section brass tube used to step the masts in.


I designed and made a tool for holding and manipulating the masts and once the mast was stepped tool this actually proved to be invaluable for work holding in general. The photo below shows it in use on the practice SIB.


The Mast Holder was made from brass tube, with a half section of tube soldered at right angles to this.

The ‘hook’ was a piece of brass rod bent as shown in red, the spring held it against the mast well.


The Mizzen Mast went in first and was temporarily stepped in the aft hole in the rod, then the Main Mast in the forward hole. This had the advantage of the lines all ‘flowing’ in one direction, i.e, out of the bottle.

The Port side of the hull went in next, and the Mizzen Mast was stepped, and the rigging drawn tautish, then the Main Mast was stepped and its rigging drawn tautish, the temporary mast stowage was then removed, and then the Stbd side of the hull went in and was joined to the Port side.

The Wheel House then had to be attached next as the neck was too narrow to mount it on the hull outside of the bottle. I use small lengths of 0.5 mm styrene rod with appropriate location holes in the deck, as a construction aid, so a spot of PVA and slotting it in is relatively straight forward – it does not have to be aligned afterwards - and then left for the PVA to dry.

Then the glue let me down again. PVA did not want to grab the rigging when tautening it, after a couple of attempts I just binned the whole bottle. I’d had enough of the stuff. It was a large DIY store chain own brand PVA . I bought some more, paid the extra for a named brand, and lo! – the rigging grabbed (lesson learned) and bottling proceeded – slowly -  so that one pair of shrouds was rigged before I did the next pair. The SIB is a tight fit in the bottle so access was limited for cutting off the excess thread. I used bits of razor blade Milliputted (if that’s a word) to aluminium wire that is used for wiring bonsai trees. It’s nice and bendable, but has a bit of strength as well.

The tool I made for holding the masts proved to be invaluable for holding the ship in place while tightening the rigging and trimming off the ends, as long tweezers either just kept slipping off of the hull or getting in the way. I’ve tried bits of rubber and heat shrink tubing on the tweezers without much success with grip. It’s something for me to think about for future SIBs – a secure method of holding it while working in the bottle.

The Ships Boat was then inserted and glued to the Cargo Hatch using the new PVA.

I made a simple Stand for the Bottle cut from a plank found in Mum-in-Laws shed and reputed to be oak. It wasn’t, as it turned out after cleaning it up before cutting to shape, but I found it to be a reasonably close grained light coloured wood and which took an oak stain well. I attached some stick-on felt pads to the bottom corners to prevent scratching of a future shelf and it’s done.

I dressed the bottle with the traditional Lighthouse in the neck and Turk’s Head knot around the cork and neck, and I stuck a UK pre-decimal half penny coin on the front of the cork, showing the sailing ship motif on its obverse to cover the bottle’s original content’s name (and I think it looks good).


An information label on the back of the bottle completes it.








The 'Fleet'


Thanks for reading


Edited by exwafoo
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