So you want to build a warship – Part 1

Part 1 – Getting Started

Big Gun R/C Warship Combat has got to be just about the ultimate big-boys’ toy.  As a kid, my friends and I watched Combat and Rat Patrol on TV and played soldier, blasting imaginary enemies while reliving the great battles of the Second World War.  When I was about 10-12, I had this idea to build radio-controlled model ships, complete with guns that could fire.  At the time, I didn’t have the resources to pursue such a dream, but somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain, it stayed alive.

Then, out of the blue, I read columnist Dave Barry’s article mentioning Big Gun R/C Combat Warships International and the old dream came back to life!  I had been hooked all my life, but didn’t know it until I stumbled onto a bunch of guys who share my affliction!  With no small amount of help from my new friends, I took the plunge & got started in Big Gun.  This article, and the series to follow, is intended to help new skippers get a handle on the hobby so that they can get off to a successful start.  I’ve learned a lot – much more than I could reasonably stuff into a single article.  I’ll deal with topics ranging from ship plans, to construction methods, tools, and more.  A lot of what I’ll cover includes things NOT to do, since I’ve learned plenty of those as well!  Besides the construction tips, I’ve got some general observations that others may find useful in some way, and I’ll try to share those, too.

A friend of mine (who I’m trying to pull into the hobby) watching my early work on my first ship had the astute observation that, “The devil’s in the details.”  This is very true.  While nothing involved in building building a functional Big Gun warship is particularly difficult, there are quite a number of relatively simple things that have to be dealt with.  By having reasonable expectations to start with, anybody with average construction skills can be successful as a first-time shipbuilder.  NTXBG co-founder Dustin Delaire, who moved to North Texas from California, and was a member of the SCBG there, tells me that he’s seen any number of potential skippers come to a battle, get all excited and buy a set of plans on the spot, and say, “I’ll see you next month!” – expecting to have a fully-operational warship by then – and are never seen or heard from again.  Reasonable expectations up front can not only help a potential skipper get off to a good start, but also help save those who don’t have the necessary commitment from being disappointed.

Here’s a few general observations to start with:

  • It’s more work than it looks like.  While none of it is particularly difficult, there is a fairly large number of simple tasks that have to be performed.  All of these add up to a significant aggregate task.  Expect to spend a lot of time, especially in the early stages, as you learn the necessary techniques.
  • Break the project up into sub-projects, and set milestones for each.  Major systems – hull, propulsion & power, steering, radio, guns, decks & superstructure, and damage control – can be tackled separately (note that each system has certain dependencies on the others).  Achieving multiple milestones, by completing the different systems, can help keep the overall project’s momentum going by giving you regular accomplishments that you can bask in.
  • You can expect to put quite a bit of money in, especially if you build from scratch.  I’ve heard suggestions that ships can be built on from $700 to $1000, but this presumes that you know what you’re doing.  While I don’t have a complete accounting, I guess that I’ve got about $2000 into my first ship, a USS Baltimore-class heavy cruiser. While some of this represents items that I may be able to use later, on another ship, close to half is the price paid for false starts and what seemed at the time like good ideas, that didn’t work out as expected.  Having more money than sense is important for success in this hobby!
  • Don’t go crazy with “New & Improved” technologies.  A lot of people look at what’s going on, and think that they can do something totally revolutionary – that nobody else has ever thought of – that will give them a decisive edge in battle.  Put these ideas aside until you’ve mastered the existing technology.  Just about anything you’re going to think of has been thought of already, by somebody else, who found out (the hard way) why it wasn’t viable.  Even if you do have the Next Big Thing, save it for awhile – you’ll have plenty to do and think about as it is, without adding experimental gadgets.
  • Consider buying a used ship.  Not only is it likely to cost you less to get on the water, but it can also provide valuable ideas that you can use in your own construction.  You can see how somebody else solved the same problems you’re facing – sometimes their idea was better than yours, and other times you can build on their work to come up with a better solution for yourself.
  • Consider buying a fiberglass hull.  While hull construction is fun, it’s also time-consuming.  A pre-built hull can shave 4-6 weeks off of your total construction time, and get you on the water sooner.
  • Consider building a convoy ship as your first scratch-build project.  I know that it’s a lot more exciting to have a warship than a convoy ship, especially when you don’t have any ship at all!  But building a convoy ship first gives you a chance to “cut your teeth” on something that’s a little easier, and more forgiving of the first-timer’s mistakes that you’ll inevitably make.  My first reaction, when I got some convoy ship plans, knowing what I know now, was that this looked really easy!  I almost wish that I had done my basic learning on something a little less critical than a warship.  Also, now that I’ve got an operational warship, I wish I had something to shoot at!
  • Get your guns first!  If you’re buying guns, they can have long lead times.  Also, some guns may be easier to get than others.  Get your guns in-hand, and build a ship appropriate for those guns.  If you’re building your own guns, it will be well worth your while to get the system built and tweaked out before you stick it into a ship.  A warship is, for practical purposes, a weapons platform.  Everything else – propulsion, steering, even the hull itself – is there to support those guns.  Design and build your ship around your weapons, so that you know everything fits where you want it to and the total platform works the way you want it to.

I hope that your foray into shipbuilding project is a successful one.  If I can help more skippers get more ships on the water, all of us in the hobby will be enriched – and I’ll have more targets to shoot at!!  Next time, I’ll talk about plans – where to get ships’ plans and what to expect, as well as “tweaks and touch-ups”.  I’ll also talk about project management, and how a little more up-front time can pay itself back serveral times over, for the life of the project.

Good luck, and see you on the water!

Part 2 – Working With Plans