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.

On the Painting Table

I’ve made good progress with the Union cavalry and have now painted 24 mounted troopers and about 20 dismounted. However, I recently got distracted by something else: I read a fascinating book about small-scale amphibious operations by the Union navy which inspired me to make a Naval Landing Force for Sharp Practice.


A Dog Before a Soldier was written by Chuck Veit, president of the U.S. Naval Landing Party, a living history group depicting Union Sailors and naval officers during the Civil War. The book, which is very well written and meticulously researched, describes a couple of obscure operations of the Union navy, among them such jewels as the ‘Great Naval Cattle Drive’. This is not only entertaining, it also sheds light on the important day-to-day contribution of the navy to the Union war effort. Furthermore, it offers plenty of inspiration for Sharp Practice scenarios. Of course I now need a landing party, a boat and a herd of cattle!


The boat will be a Unadilla-Class gunboat, also called 90-day-gunboat as they were rapidly produced at the beginning of the war. I went for a laminated hull, made up of several layers of balsa wood. The scale is slightly reduced to about 1/160.


The landing force will consist of sailors and marines. I’ve already painted a couple of sailors and two groups of marines some time ago, so they just needed reinforcements. My first batch was from Freikorp15, while those are from Minifigs. I actually prefer the Minifigs figures, they are nicer sculpts and the poses are a bit more varied. The marines are just normal Union infantry painted with white trousers and crossbelts. Unfortunately, Peter Pig doesn’t offer armed sailors, but they make a very nice naval artillery crew.

Union landing parties often had the support of a Dahlgren light boat howitzer, a very versatile gun which had a special carriage so it could be manhandled up a beach. As no one offers such a gun in 15mm (or 28mm for that matter), I decided to build one from scratch using spare wheels, a paper clip, parts from a plastic model kit and a broken knitting needle. I’m quite chuffed with the result, if I do say so myself.

Finally, the boat needs a crew. I’ll use the Peter Pig naval artillery crew for this, supplemented by a couple of figures from the Colonial range, where they offer a nice ship’s crew. The uniforms are not perfect matches, but they’ll be close enough.

As I didn’t like the look of my normal ‘earth’ bases on the boat’s planks, I decided to make my own bases using wood veneer. I glued strips of veneer to a piece of papers and then glued washers on the paper. As the veneer is very thin, the washers can easily be cut out with scissors. I’ve already cut the figures from their original bases with the hobby knife, so the next step will be to glue them unto their new bases.

This is a fun little project and I’m already thinking about how to design the landing force for Sharp Practice.

The Raft will make a short break and will be back on 7 January. I wish all of you happy holidays!

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.

Building an ACW Blockhouse

The current issue of Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy magazine contains a very nice scenario for Sharp Practice featuring a fort, so naturally, I wanted to build one. For the ACW, a fortified blockhouse seemed to be the most appropriate version.

During the American Civil War, blockhouses were widely used to secure lines of communication, such as railroads. The were massive constructions: the walls were often made out of two layers of logs and the foundation was covered with earth. The rooms were at least 9 feet high so as to faciliate loading the muskets.

I decided to make a two-storey construction with the second level built at an angle. My model was based on an illustration in the Osprey volume on American Civil War Railroad Tactics:


After drawing a simple plan, I cut all the wall elements out of thin plastic and glued them together. This was easy, as the whole structure consists basically of two square boxes. For the logs, I used 3mm wooden dowels which I roughened up with a rasp to give them some structure.


The dowels were cut into the appropriate length with secateurs (the best tool for this kind of work) and glued to the walls. As the lower half of the ground level was supposed to be covered with earth, I attached bits of blue foam – I would create the earth mound later with modelling clay. Like all my buildings, this one is reinforced inside, as I want it to withstand rough handling at the hands of wargamers old and young (I always ask myself: Is it robust enough for my nephew?).


The base for the outer fortifications was also cut out of plastic sheet. I used matchsticks for the woodwork and air drying modeling clay for the earth mounds. The modeling clay shrinks when drying, but the gaps will be covered during the next step.

Copious amounts of PVA glue were applied to the ground parts and everything was covered with sand and grit. After this has dried thouroughly, I washed the whole structure (including the buildings) with thinned down PVA glue. This makes the sand stick, seals the wood and makes it easier to apply paint.


Now the second level had to be attached to the first – but how to align it properly? I marked the centre of area of both parts and then drilled holes. A short piece of wire (actually a piece of a paperclip) was used to fasten the two levels together.

Now the upper part is in the exact centre and can be povited so that its corners project over the middle of the walls of the lower level.

The next step was to make the roof. The shape of the roof is a pyramid which I wanted to cover with wooden planks. The easiest way to do this is to make a paper cut-out model of the pyramid and glue the strips of wood unto the paper. Their edges don’t have to fit, they will be trimmed afterwards.

With a sharp knife, the wood can now be trimmed along the edge of the paper. Fold the paper and voilà, you’ve got a pyramid-shaped roof! The same technique was used for the half-pyramids of the lower level corner roofs.

I decided to keep the main roof removable. This was mainly for storage reasons (I found a box that fits perfectly, and building terrain to fit your storage space is always a good idea), but it also allows to put figures into the upper level.

The whole thing was primed with Vallejo Surface Primer IDF Israeli Sand Grey. I wanted to give the wood the look of freshly cut logs which had the bark removed, so I tried to get a brighter, more yellow-brownish hue. The wooden parts were first painted with Baneblade Brown and than washed with an mixture of Nuln Oil (2 parts), Seraphim Sepia (1 part) and Agrax Earthshade (2 parts). I applied three layers of drybrushing, first with Vallejo Gold Brown, then Vallejo Yellow Ochre and finally a very light drybrush of Vallejo Silvergrey.

The earth was painted to fit in with my mat and the bases of my figures, namely with a layer of Vallejo Beige Brown drybrushed with Terminatus Stone.

On the top of the roof, I applied a flagstaff made of steel wire and a flag – I’ve made two flags, one Union and one Confederate, so the blockhouse can be used by both sides.


This was a fun and not too complicated project. I’m not sure about the colour of the wooden parts, for my taste it doesn’t ‘pop out’ enough and is a bit too similar to the colour of the earth – maybe next time, I’ll stick to my tried and tested grey hue for old wood.

I’m really looking forward to using the blockhouse on the gaming table!