Building an ACW Observation Balloon

Some time ago, I read a very enjoyable book by Charles Evans, War of the Aeronauts. It deals with ballooning during the American Civil War, especially with Thaddeus S. C. Lowe’s Union Balloon Corps. It’s an interesting story which again shows that, if the Civil War was the last napoleonic war with regards to the tactics employed, it was also the first modern war when it came to trying out technological innovations. The book is also full of ideas for scenarios, especially for small scale skirmish games like Sharp Practice.

So why not build an observation balloon in 15mm?

I used an 8cm diameter styrofoam sphere for the balloon part. The smaller Civil War balloons were about 10m in diameter, so at a scale of 1/100 this is pretty close. To hold the balloon and connect it with the base, I used a 4mm thick rod of acrylic glass with a length of 35cm. The styrofoam is soft enough that you can push the rod in, using glue to hold it in place.


To model the gas vent, I used tin foil – it’s very light, can easily be pushed in shape and when covered with paper looks like fabric.


As you can see on the picture, I also covered the clear acrylic rod with cling film to prevent it from getting dirty during modelling and painting.

The styrofoam and tin foil was then covered with thin strips of tissue paper which were soaked with thinned down PVA glue. I was careful not to get too many creases, but as I’m generally a rather sloppy worker I couldn’t avoid them all. Fortunately, I’m not a perfectionist!

I first tried to paint the balloon in a drab brownish colour, as this seems to have been the colour of the fabric, but it looked kind of boring. Fortunately, some Union balloons were painted in garish colours and adorned with portraits of George Washington. I’m not up to painting a portrait on a sphere (or elsewhere), but painting the balloon in a blue hue definitely made it look more interesting.

The ropes for the basket are made from string and are fixed in a hole I drilled at the top of the styrofoam sphere.


The basket is made of a cheap table mat I once bought to make wattle fence. It’s got a nice texture and is easy to cut and glue together. I made two baskets, as I wanted to also model a crashed balloon. Don’t forget to make a hole in one version so you can thread it into the acrylic rod!


The basket was again painted blue, as this was the colour used by the balloon corps. The observer is a dismounted staff officer from the Freikorps15 range. I cut off his base to make him fit into the basket.


Now for assembly. I made a small ring out of wire for the rigging, which I threaded into the acrylic rod, followed by the basket, which I carefully glued in place. Before working on the rigging, I put the whole thing unto a base. A stable base is important to keep the model from crashing on the table during play, so I used two 5cm steel discs and a couple of steel washers to add weight. The acrylic rod was glued into the holes of the steel washers and the whole thing was covered with some bark and filler to create a scenic base.

For search and rescue scenarios, I also wanted to make a crashed version – there were incidents when balloonists were stranded behind enemy lines after their craft had gone down.

I again used tin foil to make a structure that looked like crumpled fabric. After glueing it to a base, I covered it with paper tissue soaked in thinned down PVA glue.


The basket was added to the base, the whole thing was painted and then adorned by some loose string so as to suggest tangled ropework.

And that’s it – an ACW observation balloon:


I made some mistakes rigging the basket to the balloon, which resulted in some of the strings looking twisted. Apart from that, I’m pretty happy with the result. It looks nice and will add an original objective to our games of Sharp Practice.


8 thoughts on “Building an ACW Observation Balloon

  1. Pete S/ SP November 11, 2016 / 6:00 pm

    Nice little build tutorial that. The deflated ballon is a nice touch too.



  2. Mikko November 12, 2016 / 1:41 am

    Brilliant idea and very nicely put together. Definitely looks the part.

  3. daggerandbrush November 16, 2016 / 11:39 pm

    I agree, it looks the part and the deflated balloon is a cool idea.

  4. Kevin Knapp / Thaddeus Lowe, Aeronaut. December 3, 2016 / 7:32 pm

    As a professional hot air and gas balloon pilot I rarely use the “C” word (crash). A more appropriate description would be “deflated” after the balloon landed.

    • cptshandy December 3, 2016 / 8:23 pm

      Thanks for the kind words and the great links. I didn’t know there was a reenactment group, how cool is that! I’ll join the facebook group, and I’ll avoid the ‘c’ word in the future…

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