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I prefer displaying ships in water. I’ve tried using pedestals and dry-dock looking bases, but ships (in my opinion) look best in their element. Ships are the most beautiful and graceful of man’s creations in or out of water. Like seals and penguins, they look awkward out of the water, but their grace and beauty have no equal when afloat. I have no problem with full hull models. It seems to me that full hull lovers are the more technical modelers. They want to see everything possible including the props, shafts etc. At least that’s how my modeler friends put it.

Photo 1.jpg (20806 bytes)I’ve experimented for years with different techniques for simulating waves in the larger scales using various materials, but with little success. I tried using Celluclay after reading a articles by modelers who've used it with success. But it’s messy and it shrinks like nobody’s business. A number of years back I read an FSM article by Dennis Moore about using Gel Medium to simulate water. This technique works beautifully in the smaller scales. I use Gel Medium to this day for all small-scale models. The problem with Gel Medium is that it’s not thick enough to form large-scale bow, or larger waves. It has the consistency of mayonnaise making it impossible to mold into convincing bow wakes and swells in the larger scales. Also, it shrinks. Just like white glue and putty, as the acrylic gel dries, the carrier agent that keeps it moist evaporates. The only way to make larger swells and waves is to apply it in layers, which is a time consuming process. I tried this and I just wasn’t satisfied with the final appearance on large-scale models.

Photo 3.jpg (15548 bytes)I finally came across a modeling material that looks like the real thing. It’s cheap, molds like clay, and will not shrink. The material is Sculpey modeling compound. It is available in arts and crafts stores for about $8.00 and will make enough water for 4 to 8 large ship models depending on the size of the base and waves. Sculpey is soft as clay and will bake hard as a brick at 275 degrees in your oven.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out some techniques to create fantastic looking water. First the model should be mostly assembled, painted and decaled with no brass details or other delicate parts that could be damaged due to handling. This is because the model will need to be handled, test-fitted and positioned during this phase. Once set in its water base, the model can be safely handled using the base. This comes in handy keeping the model stable while installing photo-etch parts and rigging later on.

Start where all good models begin - good photos! And not just any photos. There are tons of great photos of almost every ship in the US Navy on some of the Navy web sites. Aerial shots are best since they allow the best view of wave patterns. If you’re building a battleship, use a battleship photo; if a carrier, a carrier photo etc. This is because hull shape effects the pattern of waves flowing from the ship. Just look at aerial photos of a carrier and a battleship for examples. The peaks and toughs of the waves as they abut the hull are generally as follows:

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Note wave pattern against hull
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Note water coloration
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Good shot of waves against hull
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Note pattern of waves flowing away from ship

Selecting the Base
A hard grade of wood will be required for the base to withstand the 275-degree temperature in the oven without warping. I use Ash but Cherry, Walnut, Oak or any other hardwood will work. Softwoods such as pine and poplar while cheap, will warp and split as the moisture is baked out of them. Don’t spend a bunch of money for a wood base either. Unless your model is large, requiring a special cut, you will find most millwork shops (where they make cabinets) have scraps they will part with for a few bucks. They might even rout an edge for a few dollars extra. Don’t get one of those simulated wood plaques. They’re only covered with wood grain vinyl and may catch fire in your oven!

Photo 4.jpg (19450 bytes)I first stain the routed edge and let dry. Since the entire top of the base will be covered with water it’s a good idea to scuff it up with 60-grit sandpaper. This will give the wood "tooth"  and provide the Sculpey a rough surface to grab hold of. Otherwise it may pull loose during the baking process. Position the model on the base. Using a pen or pencil, trace around the base of the model. When sculpting the waves, this line will act as a guide so you will know where the model will be on the base in relation to the waves (see photo 4). So remove the model from the base! What you want is about 1/16" gap between the model and the waves

Sculpt the waves to represent your photo. There’s no need to coat the entire base with Sculpey. Test fit your model from time to time to make sure you have a good fit. I use the Sculpey Photo 6.jpg (13373 bytes)only for waves and swells, leaving bare wood for the surface. Don’t worry about fingerprints or small imperfections. They will be dealt with later. Smooth the Sculpey as best you can. Bake the base according to the directions on the box. Don’t bake too long! If your base has average waves (about " thick) don’t bake for the full 20 minutes. Over baking will cause cracks and may cause the Sculpey to separate from the base. I learned this the hard way. If cracks occur, they can be filled in later. When the base is removed from the oven the Sculpey will still feel somewhat soft (and hot!). That’s okay. As the base cools the Sculpey will harden. If it’s still soft after cooling, bake a little longer. It’s better to under bake than over bake.

The model can now be placed in the hole left in the Sculpey. Coat the inside of the hole with a thick layer of Gel Medium and place the model in it. Any gaps at the sides where the Sculpey meets the water will be filled with the Gel Medium. Any excess can be used to blend into the Sculpey with a soft, flat brush. Make sure you are happy with the positioning of the model within the gel/sculpey! There is no way to remove it once the gel has dried!

Photo 5.jpg (8012 bytes)Mask off the routed edges. Now give the Sculpey and wood a consistent water-looking appearance. You will need some Liquitex Gel Medium. This is the same stuff I spoke of earlier that makes great looking small-scale waves. It comes in containers as small as plastic tubes to gallon containers. A single tube is more than enough for most models. I use a medium sized soft round brush to apply the gel. A larger brush may be needed depending on the size of the base. A soft brush is necessary because a stiffer brush would make it impossible to smooth the mayonnaise-like gel.

Cover the entire base with a thick coat of Gel Medium. Using you photos, sculpt in smaller waves as you go. Be sure to coat all the waves and wood. If you have cracks or fingerprints in your Sculpey the gel will fill them smooth them. If, after drying overnight, the gel shrinks into the cracks, apply another coat just over the cracks. The gel also prevents thin, delicate sections of the bow waves from breaking away. This also gives the wood base and the Sculpey waves a consistent appearance. The biggest complaint I have about Gel Medium is that it produces curly cues each time the brush is pulled from the gel. To smooth these blemishes, let the gel dry until it can be touched without any gel sticking to your skin. A tacky texture is perfect. Dip a soft wide brush in water and gently brush over the gel. Since the gel is still water soluble, it will smooth the tops of the waves giving it a smooth, natural appearance. Let the base dry for a day before proceeding with painting. The Gel Medium will continue to dry until it’s clear, but you can still paint it as long as it’s dry to the touch on the outside.

Photo 8.jpg (15064 bytes)Painting
Painting is easy and straightforward. I use acrylics to paint my water bases, though oils work equally well and allow more time to blend the colors. I use three colors for painting water. Liquitex Phthalocyanine Blue, Phthalocyanine Green and Titanium White. I first mix the base color for seawater. A good start is to mix one part green to four parts blue. Test it on white cardboard and adjust to taste. As a rule, Atlantic waters are bluer while pacific waters tend to have a greener tint. Mix a large quantity of base coat for use on future projects.

Paint the entire water surface with a couple of base coats. The acrylic will be water soluble for about an hour allowing plenty of time to blend in green and white. The color of water changes as bubbles mix in, so add a little white and some green. This is really where a good photo pays off. Carefully blend the colors together to get a natural appearance. Blend white at the bow wave and the larger swells and let dry (see photo 7 & 8).

Mix some white with the base coat to a shade just a bit lighter than the overall water color. Using a wide soft brush, dry-brush the entire base with lighter shade. This will accent the smaller waves and keep the rest of the water from looking too monochromatic.

It’s now time to add white water. Use Titanium White right from the tube and touch up the bow and larger waves. Be Careful! White water is like weathering. It’s very easy to over do. Depending on the speed of the vessel, white water could vary from almost none to solid white, characteristic of ballistic subs as they move through the water. Add the white at the leading edges of the bow wake in a broken pattern. Remember that nature doesn’t paint straight, even width lines.

That Glossy Look
Water doesn’t look like water unless it’s glossy. There’s no secret to this and the answer can be found at the grocery store. Future Floor Wax is perfect to add super gloss to water but a few rules should be followed. Use a soft, wide flat brush to paint a thick coat over the water. The one rule to remember is to drag the brush very slowly to avoid stirring up very out of scale air bubbles. The first coat will give a glossy finish. Don’t touch it or your water will have fingerprints. Let this dry at least two hours and apply a second coat for a super gloss. Let the Future Floor Wax dry at least 24 hrs before touching it.

I have made waves over 30 scale feet high on a 1/350 scale Bismarck by applying the Sculpey in layers. This is the best stuff out there for making large-scale waves. Try this technique on your next model and you will add a whole new look to those waterline models.

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Click to enlarge