Starting the Hobby

Think Slower

Here’s a thing about boat modelling. If a boat or ship model is going to look right on the water, it’s not going to be going very fast. It will look most like the real thing if the wave pattern the model makes in the water is a smaller version of the wave pattern that the full size creates.

Now that wave pattern is mainly related to the mathematical square root of the speed. So if the real thing is a B.C. ferry with a cruising speed of 20 knots, and your model is to a scale of 1:100, then your ferry on the pond will look its best at 2 knots. That’s because the square root of 100 (the scale) is 10, and 20 knots divided by 10 is two knots. Two knots is only 2.3 miles an hour, (3.7 km an hour), a gentle walking speed. That’s for a model that’s going to be almost 6 feet, (1.8 metres) long and weighing 11 kilos or more.

But you want something fast, and something that will fit in the trunk of your or your dad’s car. That might be a kit model PT boat, 1:48 scale, or about 20 inches long (500 mm.). PT 109 (Kennedy’s) would do 41 knots flat out. So your fast scale speed would be 5.9 knots (10.8 km/hr). About half the speed of a good marathon runner. At that the bow wave will be over the height of the deck and it’ll take you about 26 seconds to get from one end of Harrison Pond to the other. (Assuming you don’t hit the ferry!)

Now, our modern electric motors can pack far more power into a model boat than it needs to run at scale speeds. So there are lots of model speedboats on the market, very cheap, ready to run, and capable of speeds that would represent hundreds of miles per hour in a real boat. And of course, any young person buying a model to try a new hobby will naturally want the very fastest. But radio controlling a model needs a very special kind of thinking. When the model is going straight away from you, it’s easy, push the rudder stick right and the boat will go to the right. But if the model is coming toward you, push the rudder stick on the radio right and the boat will go to your left. When the model is a longish way away from you, moving fast in among other models, figuring out which way to steer gets difficult. If you come and watch us on a Sunday morning, you’ll likely see several bumps or near misses even among our slower boats who mostly have experienced people at the controls. We all get it wrong a couple of times in a session.

So if you are new to the hobby, and you want to have your boat in the water with others, try to pick or build one that is slowish, but still offers you a lot of fun. If you have or if you want a very fast boat, please don’t plan to run it when the pond is crowded with other, slower, boats.

What does it cost?

Clyde Puffer Nellie

This is my first model boat, it’s about 15 inches long, a simple scale model of a traditional workboat from Scotland. The hull was hollowed and shaped from a leftover piece of a 4 by 4 cedar post and the rest of the wooden parts were all from scrap pieces in the workshop. I made the rudder from a common nail and a bit of sheet brass, the motor was stripped from an old toy, so the bits I had to buy were:-

  • The radio. A bottom of the line 4 channel radio transmitter and receiver. $49.
  • A propeller and prop shaft. $7.
  • A motor speed controller. $10.
  • Two servos, one for the rudder and one for forward/reverse. $8.
  • A battery holder, and two small slide switches, mail order. $6.

Total about $80. I still take it down to the pond every couple of months and challenge myself steering around leaves, or harassing seagulls, or even getting in and out of our floating dock. Running cost? 8 AA batteries gets me about 6 hours on the water.

I guess I put in around 25 or 30 hours of work to build it. That was about ten years ago and it is just behind me on top of the bookshelf as I write this, with many hours running left in it.

An old used boat from another club member typically sells complete for between $100 and $300, depends on how much work it needs.

A model boat kit will be somewhere in the area of $100 up to $700, but you will need to buy the radio and motor on top.

And if you want that B.C. Ferry, you are looking at upwards of 500 hours of work and very little change from $1000.

Most of us who are in the hobby would count the building time as part of the entertainment value. Per hour, the cost is pretty low!

What type of Model?

A lot of the joy of model boating is that each model is unique. The only restriction you should put on your choice is that you like it! And, perhaps, that you can find room to store it and a way to get it into the water. (Incidentally, Harrison Pond is only about 20 inches deep.)

So we do see on Harrison Pond detailed scale ships up to 6 feet long, fantasy models like my Bionicle Battle Tug, scale sailing ships even to old square riggers, working submarines, styrofoam crocodiles with working jaws and sound, even motorized rubber ducks.

So your model should be a reflection of you and your interests.

I personally get the most fun out of the stories behind my boats, so I built a Clyde Puffer because of an interest in the Forth and Clyde Canal from bicycling its towpath. Then there was a Thames Barge because my grandfather used to take me down to Whitstable Harbour to look at them as a kid. Two “Springer” tugs, the first because I loved the story of their invention so a group of boat club members could build them quick and play tugs together, and the second to reflect my grandson’s interest in Lego figures. My current model building is a very classic hull shape based on the design rules that governed the J class and the 12 metres of the America’s cup, but the hull construction is that of a miniature cedar strip canoe.

When I finish this, I want to make an Anglo-Saxon longship, a WW2 Fort/Park merchantman, a really powerful model of an old steam tug, for which I already have a fibreglass hull, a lateen rigged Xebec, a Shetland boat, ……………………………………………………………. I’ll never have time for them all but they are things that dreams are made of.

What are the ways to build a Model?

There’s a huge range of choice. All the way from designing and building from scratch your own ship or boat, to buying an “Almost Ready to Run” kit.

If you are just starting out, it’s probably important to choose something that will reward you quite quickly. That is, a plan or a kit that will not get you bogged down in detail before you get it completed and have the fun of running it. And having something to run on the pond lets you start training yourself in radio control while you build something altogether bigger and better.

So pick a plan or a kit that is simple. You can always add detail and complexity later if you want. And the mechanical and electrical parts can always be re-used on another model later. If you look on the internet, there’s very effective ways to build a simple tug from a swimming “noodle”.

From “Model Boats” magazine, Feb 2019

If you have any experience of model building, then start by using it. For instance, if you have built plastic scale models like the “Airfix” kits, then you can consider turning an “Airfix” into a working model by figuring out how to waterproof it and add motor and radio controls. It is quite a challenge, especially “shoehorning” the gear into place and then getting the ballasting right so the model behaves well on the water.

If you have experience of model aircraft, then balsa wood also makes great model boats, and they are much more likely to survive the first five minutes of running than the aircraft. If you look at model boat plans for sale, you’ll find many of the simpler models are designed for balsa. And the tools for balsa modelling are simple and cheap.

An awful lot of the work in model boats is building the hull, so you can consider buying a ready-made hull in fibreglass or plastic, which gets you about half-way, and then fitting it out yourself. This is also a great place to start for those who have built previously in plastic, because Styrene is a great material for superstructures.

Fairly new to boat modellers is computer controlled laser cutting. Thin plywood can easily be cut very accurately to any profile shape, and there are many services available that can take your drawn plans and turn them into a set of parts. This a great way to translate the “lines” of a full size prototype, which are fairly readily available, into a set of plywood frames onto which you can build your hull. Laser cutting has also made modern wood kits much more accurate, and thus easier to get right, than ever before.

From Sarik Hobbies, Pilot boat kit.

So there are lots of ways to get into the hobby. And once you’re in, even more ways to carry on. Lots of fun learning new skills, and many, many daydreams to be had about what you could do. You can, in time, own many ships and boats, and unlike the real thing, they are not guaranteed to get you cold, wet, and bankrupt!