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Modeling Realistic Water In Large Scale



By Rusty White


I prefer displaying ships in water. I've tried using pedestals and dry dock-looking bases, but ships look best in the element they were designed for. Like seals and penguins, ships look awkward out of water, but in their element, their grace and beauty have no equal. 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.

I've experimented over the years with different techniques and materials for simulating waves in the larger scales with little success. I tried using Celluclay after reading a couple articles by modelers who have used it. The problem with it is it's messy and it shrinks like nobody's business. A number of years back, in one of FSM's early issues, I read an article by Dennis Moore about using Gel Medium to simulate water. This technique works beautifully in the smaller scales, but the problem with Gel Medium is that it has the consistency of mayonnaise, making it impossible to mold into convincing bow wakes and swells in the larger scales. Also, as the acrylic gel dries, it shrinks just like white glue and putty. The only way to make larger swells and waves is to apply it in layers, which is a time consuming process, and I just wasn't satisfied with the final appearance on large-scale models.

I finally came across a modeling material that gives a look like the real thing. It's cheap, molds easily, 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 but 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 during the handling, test-fitting and positioning phase. Once set in its water base, the model can be safely handled by the base. This comes in handy keeping the model stable while installing photo-etch parts and rigging later on.


To make realistic water for your model, start where all good models begin: Good 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 are building a battleship, use a battleship photo; a carrier, a carrier photo; and so on. The reason being, depending on the shape of the hull, ships make different wave patterns. Just compare aerial photos of a carrier and a battleship under way to see what I mean.


A hard grade of wood will be required for the base to withstand the 275-degree temperature in the oven and not warp. I use ash, but cherry, walnut, oak, or any hardwood will work fine. Softer woods such as pine and poplar, while cheap, will warp and split as 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, and they might rout an edge for a few bucks extra. Don't get one of those simulated wood plaques. They are only covered with wood grain vinyl and may catch fire in your oven!


I first stain the routed edge and let it 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" providing 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 hull, then remove 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. 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 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, then 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.

Coat the inside of the space left for the hull with a thick layer of Liquitex 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. Blend any excess into the Sculpey with a soft, flat brush. Make sure this is how you want the model positioned! There is no way to remove it after the gel has dried.

Mask off the routed edges. Now give the Sculpey and wood a water-looking appearance using more 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-size soft round brush to apply the gel. A larger brush might be needed depending on the size of the base. A stiffer brush would make it impossible to smooth the mayonnaise-like gel.

Cover the entire base with a thick coat of Gel Medium. Referring to your photos, sculpt in smaller waves as you go. Be sure to coat all the waves and wood to obtain a consistent appearance. If you have cracks or fingerprints in your Sculpey the gel will fill them in and smooth them out. 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. The biggest complaint I have about Gel Medium is that it produces curlicues each time the brush is pulled away 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 them a 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 paint it as long as it's dry to the touch.


Painting is quite easy and straightforward. I use acrylics to paint my water bases, however, 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 using one part green to four parts blue. Test it on white cardboard and adjust it to your 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 coats of base coat. The acrylic stays water soluble for about an hour, allowing plenty of time to blend in green and white. The color of real water changes as bubbles mix in, so add a little white and some green at those places. 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.

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 to 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 the solid white, characteristic of ballistic subs as they move through the water. Add white at the leading edges of the bow wake in a broken pattern. Remember that nature doesn't paint straight, even-width lines.


Water doesn't look like water unless it's very glossy. There's no secret to this and the answer can be found at the grocery store. Future Floor Finish 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 most important 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. Let this dry at least two hours and apply a second coat for a super gloss. Let the Future 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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