Saturday, November 30, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Building a Battleship

As I've worked on producing and testing my Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks miniature spacefleet this year, one thing that I've harped on numerous times is that the officially produced Battleship figure is way too small in size. It's off-scale with the rest of the minis, is barely larger than the UPF Cruiser figure, is in fact smaller than the Sathar Heavy Cruiser (see here), and doesn't match the apparent length shown any depiction in the boxed set (see below). That's just the kind of bonkers scaling issue that will bother me endlessly (see also: AD&D time & movement scale).

So I decided to take a stab at fixing the issue. If you compare the existing miniature to the side-view illustration in the Campaign Book p. 6 (see here), you'll see that the figure seems to need an additional piece in the middle, cylindrical and wider than the other parts, that should be about 4-5 cm long. I toyed with some ways to make this superstructure -- that's a big thing to try to mold by hand, and make it look regularly machined, with green stuff -- so I was thinking about getting some dowels and cutting one off the right size. Then at some point it dawned on me that a wine-bottle cork (like the ones I have lying around as mini sculpting bases) is exactly the right size in both length and diameter. So I started with a cork and bits and pieces of stuff from the hardware store, balsa-wood cutouts, green stuff components, and matching connectors on the ends (thanks to Isabelle for some of those ideas). I took some inspiration from the Jim Holloway illustration above and added "conning towers" on both the top and bottom sides. This probably took a week of trying various elements, novice sculptor that I am. Below you can see this new "leaf" piece along with the other pieces of the official battleship miniature:

In the past week, I've been working on molding, casting, assembling, and painting the figure. The relative hugeness of the piece again made it quite a challenge! First of all I put a few coats of polyurethane on my new piece, because I was worried about the rubber mold possibly getting stuck on the wood and cork elements. Then I made two mold boxes (first one was too small), and used 3 pots of play-doh as a bed for the first half of the mold (applying lots of release agent over everything). 

I let the first half of the mold sit overnight, then did the rather tedious play-doh cleaning job the next day. Below I've got the second half of the rubber mold poured, and inside the wooden mold braces. Problem: Even though I thought I was carefully calculating and measuring the amount of rubber needed, I guess the residue sticking in the cup amounted to more than I expected, because if you look closely near the right one of my little "satellite dish" elements is still sticking up out of the rubber. So at this point I had to pour and mix an additional batch of rubber in order to cover up the top of the figure. I've used a lot of rubber here.

Next day: I was a little apprehensive about whether the rubber would detach from the cork and wood parts, but this mold came apart just fine.

One problem with this mold is that the bottom of the figure has a concave divot for where the stern of the battleship will connect, and the rubber failed to fill in that piece. I've got a very obvious gap there, that if filled in with metal would prevent the pieces from locking together. So what I've done here (Isabelle's idea) is to fill in that gap with a little play-doh. This worked reasonably well, but pouring the hot metal in instantly dries it out, so the piece falls out afterward and needs to be re-fit on each cast. Granted that it takes me about 4 or 5 tries to cast something with a new mold, this got a little irritating.

So here I am after about an hour or two in the kitchen, trying my half-dozen test pours (cutting a widening the pour-hole each time), and patiently waiting for the big hunk of metal to cool down for at least 15 minutes each attempt. (A few weeks back I actually did spill molten metal all over my fingers and got a pretty bad -- it healed up in a couple of days but hurt like hell the night it happened. So I'm trying really hard to avoid a repeat of that situation.) This one piece is so big that my ladle can just barely contain enough metal for it; and you have to pour it in about four "dips" as it takes a while for the metal to sink all the way in. Anyway, towards the end of this session I do get one really nice cast.

At this point I have all of my components together: The original battleship bow & stern sections, my new midsection piece, and all 8 engines that came with the original kit. There's a little bit of cleaning work I have to do, filing flash and digging out some remnants of play-doh from pieces I used to make molds before, nothing too bad. I also had to do quite a bit of filing on the connector pieces because my new section didn't plug into them right initially.

Now we're looking at a day later. The first thing that happened when I tried assembling this thing is that, it being so enormous, I depleted all of the super-glue I had available. So I had to go out and get more. Then I had problems getting those big front & back pieces to stay stuck on; I probably re-glued each of them 3 times apiece. Then I was trying to glue all those little engines on in the right way; I did half of them, and then the bow would fall off. I'd re-glue the bow, and setting it down to dry would knock off a couple engines. Then the little knobs connecting the engines were broken, and I had to drill in a new spur; which caused the stern to break off. And so on and so forth. I think I was gluing for a whole night, but I finally got the thing to hang together.

Next up: Painting the battleship, starting with gray-primer and then a blue base coat. On top of everything else, I'm close to running out of blue paint just trying to get this base color down!

Last steps: Doing the dry-brush top coat in reflective metallic silver, and then mounting the piece on the upraised stand. Here I was again worried that the normal stand wouldn't support it (either in total weight or balance), and that I'd have to design some custom four-legged stand. But to my pleasant surprise, this part worked without a hitch, and the normal stand (connected to center-of-mass in my new big midsection) functions perfectly, and the whole thing seems really stable. In conclusion, I'd say that my amateur sculpting skills didn't quite match the level of detail in the original figure, but the overall scale and profile is much more to my liking, so I'm calling this a success. Below you can see the new piece with the rest of the UPF fleet of ships. Now that's what I'd call a Battleship!



  1. I like it. It looks like a suitable imposing capital ship.

  2. Love your Saturday posts, Delta.