Brown Water Navies!

In the last week of the recent Season of Scenery challenge I made a start on the last large piece of scenery I wanted to go with my Paraguayan War stuff – a Brazilian ironclad! The Paraguay and Parana rivers formed the major communication arteries in the war zone, so control of the rivers by naval forces was critical for providing support to the armies. At the start of the war, both Paraguay and Brazil deployed warships in the theatre, both screw- and paddle-driven vessels. As the war progressed, the Brazilian navy deployed ironclads and used them to support operations by providing fire support and preventing the movement of Paraguayan river traffic.

The Brazilian ironclads bore marked similarities to US and Condeferate vessels used during the American Civil War, mostly being either casemate ironclads or monitors (a small number of the Brazilian vessels had in fact been ordered by Paraguay before the war began and these were bought by Brazil when Paraguay suspended payments for them, I think when it became obvious that they couldn’t be delivered). I decided I wanted to model a casemate ironclad, but it needed to be modular to some extent so that I could add or remove bits to create different vessels in the future. As with the other ships I’ve got for 20mm wargames, the model would be more representative than a true scale model.

First task was to sketch the ship’s profile, represented by the lower drawing on the page of graph paper shown above. Although most of the Brazilian casemate ironclads look broadly similar, the drawing above represents the overall appearance of Barroso and Tamandare quite well. Further research suggested that these vessels generally carried their boats on the casemate sides so I decided to leave them off. The top of the casemate also appears to have had a timber screen added around it to protect any officers or crewmen observing fire (I’ve shown that in the sketch) but I decided to maybe leave that until another day! Next step was to mark out the weather deck and waterline deck on 1.5mm artboard (shown below).

I scribed planking on the deck with the back of a scalpel blade since I wanted to use the hulls for other vessels. The Brazilian vessels may have had planked decks covering their armour since they were originally rigged with masts and sails, but I don’t know for sure! Being able to paint the planked decks in a lighter wood colour will help the final model from appearing to dark and drab though! The next step was to cut the decks out and add supports between them (shown below).

I opted to laminate card strips to support the deck since this keeps everything at the same height and takes out any inaccuracies I might have introduced in cutting them out. Gaps were left in certain positions to let me pierce the decks and glue short pieces of cocktail stick in place to locate the various deck structures. The bits shown above were then glued together (shown below) and a small fo’c’s’le added.

I added hull sides from card from a cereal packet, one piece wrapping round the stern and then one on each side forward. Holes were pierced in the deck, cocktail stick dowels added and then a basic box shape built for the casemate (shown below). The latter had vertical lines scribed onto it to represent armour plates, although at least one of the Brazilian ironclads appears to have had them arranged more like bricks in a wall.

After that it was just a case of adding some details (shown below)!

The funnel base was laminated mdf discs glued to the casemate and the funnel was rolled from paper, as were the guns and mooring bollards. The gun ports and ventilation gratings were cut from artboard, the latter being build up to sit on two of the deck spigots, with cereal box card used for the grating strips.

Without crew it’s difficult to judge the size of the model, but it’s about 280mm long and 60mm wide, shown above compared to the two steam launches featured in my previous post. Fortunately it doesn’t need crew, so that might help move it forward in the painting queue! There were several occasions during the Paraguayan War where the Paraguayans attempted to capture Brazilian ironclads at night by surprise, boarding them from canoes – none of these attempts succeeded, most being repulsed by accompanying Brazilian warships raking the boarded ship with case shot to clear away the Paraguayan attackers (and I’m assuming the supporting ships would realise that the Brazilian crews would have shut themselves in behind armour and so be relatively safe from any fire directed at them)!

Having finished the ironclad I had a think about what else I could use the hull for. My favoured option was for a paddle steamer that could be used as either a transport or a warship in any 19th Century setting. Whereas many of the Brazilian warships on the Paraguay river were screw-propelled, most of the Paraguayan ones seem to have been paddle vessels. I could also use a paddle steamer in Sino-French War and Boxer Rebellion games, so I thought I’d give it a go!

I made two paddle boxes from artboard and added paddles to the bottom, having first carefully worked out the angular spacing of the paddles. This all took some careful cutting out but seemed to come out fair enough. I made a basic cabin/superstructure and added steel paper to the sides so that I could add magnetic rubber to the paddle boxes to keep them in place. I wasn’t sure about the upperworks and in the end went for a large upper deck so that I could stand a few sailors and troops on it, also adding a small wheelhouse at the front. You can see this basic model in the picture below!

I had second thoughts about it at this stage as it looked very much like a Mississippi sidewheel steamer, which was not really the look I’d intended. I think maybe not giving it a wheelhouse and resorting to very sparse upper decking would have given me more the look I wanted. Having said that, I did like the overall shape and it obviously says “I’m a paddle steamer”! Maybe the paddle boxes could have been smaller, but they may then not have looked quite right.

The guns were two 3D printed models I had, with holes drilled in the carriages to let them pivot about the dowel pins in the deck. For a transport steamer I would just remove the guns and replace them with the deck gratings from the ironclad. The gun carriages are not proper swivel mounts but look the part for an improvised gunboat and I’ve got two other larger gun mounts from two other gunboat models that could be used in their place if I want them to. After this, it was a case of just adding detail to the big bits, such as windows, doors and strengthening strips to the upper deck. I also added mounting points at each corner of the upper deck to carry Gardner machine guns borrowed from my steam launches to provide close defence for a ship in the later 19th Century.

Overall, I’m really pleased with this model!

The height and width of the paddle boxes do tend to give it quite a presence I think! In the picture below you can see all of the bits for the ironclad and paddle steamer laid out. These make it easier to store, since the tallest bit is the paddle steamer’s upper deck and wheelhouse (which, with hindsight, I could have made removable as well).

As far as painting goes, the ironclad should prove quicker and easier (since it requires no crew). Since the hull will be multi-use I’ll paint it in a mid to dark grey, with light wooden decking and the casemate matching the hull. The funnel will be very dark grey. The paddle steamer cabins will probably be in mid brown, with a light wooden decking. The bottoms of the paddle boxes will probably be grey to match the hull, with the upper parts of the boxes in brown or white. Black is a common colour for 19th Century ships, which I’d represent with dark grey, but I’ll use lighter grey instead to permit the hull to be used for WW1 or even WW2 vessels (if I build any more bits to add to the hull that is).

Despite the imposing appearance of the paddle steamer, I’m really pleased to have got the ironclad built, as it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I started my Paraguayan War project (and first mentioned in this post 5 years ago). I’m hoping I can get some of the ships featured in this and my previous post painted sometime soon, but if not they’ll give me a good place to start next year’s Season of Scenery challenge!


  1. Hi John, really enjoyed you recent scenery posts. Two years ago I suddenly discovered there was more to military history between Waterloo and Mons than crimea, Zulu wars, boxer rebellion and the American civil war. The Franco Prussian war was always of interest to me but never quite happened- then I discovered the Schleswig Holstein question, then Italian independence wars and boom πŸ’₯. This is a long reply to explain I also discovered that naval ships at the transition from sail to steam was also just as fascinating. Your modelling of these period vessels is great simply because this is a limited market. Trouble is you have just added to my wants list – I want gunboats, early ironclads even danish submarines from 1848 – maybe the last one I could skip seeing as it was under the water a lot- like sunk! Still for mainstream tired eyes this seam you have offered up is a wonderful pick me up. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Lorenzo, glad you liked the post! πŸ™‚ I’ve got to agree with you on 19th Century wars – I’m having trouble getting back to my 20th Century stuff! I love early steam ships and ironclads and one of my all time favourite books (this is sad) is Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships 1860 – 1905, which I bought when it was first published! If you want them for 20mm gaming you might find that some manufacturers make models in 15mm scale and that might be good enough. I reckon two turrets and a new superstructure would let me convert my Brazilian ironclad into the Rolf Krake if I needed to! πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

        • I know what you mean! πŸ™‚ What I’d say is don’t head in that direction until you think you need to! I made good progress getting my armies together for the Boxer Rebellion before I started the ships – no point in having steam lighters if you’ve got nobody to take ashore in them! But I’m sure you can ignore all of the above if you’re feeling impulsive!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic construction John, and very versatile, having two different ships from the one hull, which means less of a storage problem. Wonderful to see your design and construction process in detail as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Dave! πŸ™‚ As you’ve guessed, storage is the issue to be solved and ships tend to be bigger anyway. Part of the challenge with them is to still work within my A4 storage foootprint but still come up with something that looks about right.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Nicolas! πŸ™‚ I’ve got another model that has some small bits like guns that can be swapped about but this is the first time I’ve deliberately planned the modular construction from the start (although I didn’t really plan much past the ironclad initially). It’s relatively easy to add small bits like access or cargo hatches that can be placed over the dowels when they’re not needed for anything more substantial. The biggest problem with these two was how to make the paddle boxes removable, but steel paper and magnetic rubber sheet came to the rescue!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Dave! πŸ™‚ They’re intended to be more functional than accurate but I think they look the part! The ironclad took about 10 hours work and then the extra paddle steamer bits took about the same (more “umming” and “ahhing” involved)!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow John, just wow!
    You basically answered most of the questions I had about the engagements in the war of the riple alliance with that.
    Those wip and the boats in itself are awesome. It is a real niche-time for marine warfare, but all the more unique I think.
    I also think that paddle steamer are in iteself a bit silly-looking, not talking about yours!
    But it is a fun idea nonetheless, reading through the history of those boat-types, I really want to start-up my Anno 1800 once again haha.
    Great by the way to finally understand what the “Monitor”-class actually is, I had always thought that it would be just a scout vessel, but it’s rather a mobile gun battery, with the purpose to set up choke-points or to literally monitor a situation actively.
    Great stuff, looking forward to the finished models!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Pete! πŸ™‚ Since I glue some of the finer card and details with PVA I’m increasingly using that to seal round those bits and along any joins. Since I’m creating braced/stiffened structures they don’t usually tend to warp. Cereal packet card goes a bit limp after PVA coverage, but is fine when it’s dry. Artboard probably doesn’t really need sealing before painting, although it probably needs two coats of paint to get a uniform finish.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Absolutely stunning work, John, just stunning. Once again I’d think these were store-bought models because you’ve done such a remarkable job of conjuring them out of bits of card and MDF. Can’t wait to see them painted!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Matt, that’s much appreciated! πŸ™‚ I’d like to at least get them primed to get me on the way to painting them! The ironclad seems the best bet because it has no crew! Having said that, I’m now revisiting some of my other ship projects so I’m sure the painting list is just going to get longer!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Incredible work on this one, John! This is like watching a real artist at work πŸ˜€ I look forward to seeing this one painted as it already is awe inspiring!

    Incidentally, the city where I grew up used to regularly have a festival where many of the existing Mississippi steam liner type of boats would come into town and people could ride or get a room in them among other things so seeing this post reminded me of something I went to regularly as a child. Those kind of boats are very impressive in-person too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your very kind words, Jeff! πŸ™‚ I don’t really think of it being all that artistic! Those festivals sound really good – I’ve only been on a paddle steamer once, on a day cruise on Loch Lomond back when I was a kid, but I remember being impressed by the sight of the engine running!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow, once again I thought these were manufactured and I should have known better! They look so perfect! What do you prime them with, any precautions you have to take given they are mostly paper? Do you usually weather them as well or leave them as is?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Faust! πŸ™‚ I’ll prime parts of them with PVA glue where I’ve used that to stick bits in place. Otherwise I’ll undercoat and finish them in enamel paint since they’re large (two coats of that), plus a spray varnish coat to seal them. Since the bulk of the main construction is artboard it’s quite robust once it’s glued into box sections. The paper bits in these models are flat strips rolled around dowel and glued along their whole length, so they’re quite robust. As a rule with bigger ship models like these, I tend to paint their base colours and add shading along any recesses and don’t bother with any highlights. The only weathering I’d usually apply would be the occasional rust streak in areas where I’d expect water to gather or run. I’m conscious that the ships are relatively large and I’d probably make a hash of any more weathering than that!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Also I guess if a ship is in use, it should be kept up and thus would have little weathering on it? I’ve mostly just seen old ships which are weathered or the occasional one at port.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I think you’re right there! You can see pictures of Royal Navy convoy escort vessels in WW2 that have rust-streaked hulls because of the harsh environment and limited time in port. I read a book recently about the design and development of Royal Navy ships since WW2 and one of the subjects covered in that was the improvements that have been made in paint and protective coatings used on ships.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Well john again the other lads have said it all!! I’ll just say BLOODY BRILLIANT !! what you can do with paper always amazes me. I grew up fifty yards from our largest river and as a kid we would see paddle steamers going up and down the river every so often and I developed a great fondness for them so When ever I can I take river trips on them. We still have quite a few running here for the tourist trade. Being a bit of a fancier I did think that your paddle wheels looked a bit on the large side so I check my books and found one very with the wheels pretty similar to you magnificent beast. Strangle enough it was one that passed our place all those years ago , it name was the Adelaide and is still with us today.

    Liked by 1 person

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