Building a Cotton Press in 15mm

After building the Southern Mansion, I wanted to add more structures which would have belonged to Civil War plantation complexes. One of the most characteristic landmarks was the cotton press. This large wooden structure consisted of a screw mechanism and a wooden compartment into which the cotton and a piece of cloth bagging was put. By turning the screw, the cotton was pressed into a bale. The bag was then stitched together and bound with rope.


My model of a cotton press is mainly made out of match sticks and thin strips of wood. I often use old plastic cards for bases – they are thin, don’t bend or warp and have a good size for many 15mm structures. The cotton compartment was built up with matchsticks. The press part was made out of balsa wood and two dice frames. For the screw, I just took an ordinary screw. I also decided to use a clear acrylic rod as a buttress because I didn’t trust the stability of my construction.

Around those two parts, I built up the framework with thin strips of wood. After priming, I painted and drybrushed it to give the impression of weathered wood.

In my lead pile, I found a spare mule (well, I found several – for some reasons I’ve amassed a lot of mules!) to which I added a harness with bits of a paper clip and paper. I also made some cotton bales out of Green Stuff. They are based on a period painting and, while not perfect, were easy enough to make.

And this is the finished cotton press:

Belonging to the production infrastructure of the South, cotton presses were often destroyed by Union troops. My model will make a fine objective for games of Sharp Practice.


Building a Southern Mansion

One of the most characteristic buildings of the Civil War South is the plantation house or mansion. Often built in a sumptuous neoclassicist style, it served as the home for the planter and his family. Many examples survive and a quick internet search reveals a number of inspirational images.

My project started with a quick sketch and an outline of the necessary parts which would make up the building. Those were then cut out of plastic sheet. I then glued on windows and doors from Auhagen. Those are made for H0 model railways and are in 1/87, but they work perfect with 15mm figures.

I by all means wanted to have the characteristic weatherboarding effect and decided to cover the walls with thin strips of cardboard. This is labour-intensive work but the result looks rather nice. By the way, it turns out that the best cardboard for this purpose comes from spaghetti boxes – a welcome excuse to eat even more pasta!

The walls were assembled and the structure was strengthened with some pieces of wood. My models are gaming pieces and I always build them to survive the rough handling of eager wargamers.


For the columns of the balcony, I used wooden dowels. They have a nice structure but of course no capital; however, I decided I could live with that.

The rails of the balcony were made from fancy toothpicks I nicked at a buffet – when I saw them, I immediately knew they would be perfect for such a project!


I decided to make a removable roof and built a quick mock-up out of cardboard. This is something I sometimes do with more complex structures – I’m prone to making errors in my calculations, so it’s better to check it before cutting the wrong shapes out of plastic.


The roof shingles were made out of cardboard – again a mind-numbing work but the result looks nice.

When everything was finished, I assembled the whole structure, primed and painted it. And that’s how it looks:

Building an ACW Earthwork

In July 1864, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers took part in a probing assault against Confederate fortifications on James Island. Together with two other regiments, they attacked a Confederate fieldwork fitted with artillery. I have found no detailed description of how this particular piece of fortification looked, so I decided to make a generic earthwork for the scenario.

Drawing of Confederate earthworks by Alfred Waud

I normally only make rough sketches for my projects, but this time, I drew the outline of the structure in the size that I actually wanted to have it on a large sheet of paper. This made it easier to determine the overall size – I wanted it to be an imposing center-piece for the table, with space enough for three guns with their crews, but I also didn’t want it to become too large.

The structure itself was based on a 1mm thick sheet of plastic. To make it more massive, I used two layers of 5mm thick foamboard to raise the whole thing a bit. I then drew the outline of the fortifications on the foamboard.


The wooden walls stabilising the inner face of the fieldwork were made out of match sticks. As always, I glued them unto a piece of paper and, when the glue had set, cut them out in the shape I needed them. This saves as lot of time and is less of a hassle than fiddling around with matchsticks trying to fit them into place individually.

On the flanks, I made raised platforms for infantry to shoot from. I also made wooden platforms for the guns. These can be seen in many period photos and were built so the guns would not sink into the earth when recoiling and could be pushed back into position easier.


The actual earthworks were then modelled with DAS Air Drying Modelling Clay. It was the first time I used this clay, which is recommended by master modeller Tony Harwood. I’ve only used FIMO Air Light before, which is much lighter and a bit softer, but also more expensive. DAS is surprisingly stiff and it takes some work to make different bits stick together seamlessly. When I had the feeling I finally got it, I was almost finished, so the parts I modelled at the beginning look a bit uneven.

Normally, I would use sand to get a surface structure, but I discovered that I had run out of fine sand, so I decided to try structural paste. I primed the whole thing with Vallejo IDF Israeli Sand Grey and then used Vallejo Dark Earth, which is the same paste I use for the bases of my figures. This was then drybrushed with GW Terminatus Stone. The wooden parts were first painted with GW Stormvermin Fur (a brownish grey), washed and drybrushed with GW Baneblade Brown and Vallejo Silver Grey.

And here it is with artillery:

It looks impressive enough to be a daunting objective for the 1st South Carolina, and I could even use it to recreate the famous charge of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner.

Building a 90-day Gunboat

In July 1861, the US Navy Department ordered 23 gunboats as an emergency measure to enforce the blockade of Confederate ports. Due to their rapid construction, those light-draft vessels were known as “90-day gunboats”. They proved to be good sailors and became workhorses of the navy, doing blockade duty as well as being deployed on the rivers.


One of those vessels, USS Katahdin, was involved in the ‘Great Naval Cattle Drive’ which I want to play as a scenario with Sharp Practice. Another fine opportunity to build a ship from scratch!

The first decision was to reduce the size. Katahdin was 48 meters long, which would amount to 48cm in 1/100 (the nominal scale of 15mm figures). Not only is this a tad too large for my smallish table, all my other terrain is reduced in scale anyway – I don’t think any of my buildings are really 1/100. Also, my ground scale is reduced by one-third. So I decided to build the ship in 1/160, making the hull 30cm long and 5,5cm broad. This, in turn, would necessitate to reduce the size of the cannons, but I think this is an ok compromise – I certainly prefer it to having to distort the proportion of the whole vessel, as can be seen in some commercially available models.

There are not many detailed images of this class of ship available. My main source was a photography available from the Library of Congress. I also found some interesting pictures in Charles Stedman’s Sketchbook. Stedman was a surgeon who served on USS Huron (and later on the Monitor USS Nahant) and who made a series of humorous sketches of everyday life in the navy.

Those images were good enough to get the proportions and a general impression of the boat. As my model was going to be a gaming piece, I wasn’t too concerned about accuracy, I just wanted to achieve an overall effect of recognizability.

The hull was built as a laminated hull, made up of layers of balsa wood glued together. This was then sanded and the gaps were filled with Milliput.


The deck was planked with strips of wood, while the planking of the hull was made out of strips of wood veneer.

The small deck construction in the stern was made out of plastic. Some other details were added and then the whole ship was painted; black for the hull and a light brown for the deck and masts. I got the small guns from a modelling shop, but I built the big pivot gun from scratch, as the commercially available guns were too large. The guns look tiny in comparison to the crew, but that’s a compromise I can live with. The crew is from Peter Pig. I know that the rigging is complete fantasy, but it’s supposed to give an impression while, at the same time, not get in the way of placing the figures.

It was really fun building this ship and I’m looking forward to getting it onto the gaming table!


Gibbons, Tony: Warships and Naval Battles of the US Civil War, Limpsfield: Dragon’s World 1989.

Hill, Jim D. (ed.): The Civil War Sketchbook of Charles Ellery Stedman, Surgeon, United States Navy, San Rafael, Ca.: Presidio Press 1976.