Project Number Five
French torpedo boat Dragonne (1888)
Completed in September 2010
My fifth build will be of the old Victorian-era French warship the Dragonne
(which is a Frenchie way of saying "Dragon") was a small warship
of a class known variously as "Torpedo Boats", "Torpedo Gunboats", "Torpedo Avisos",
"Torpedo Cruisers", or "Torpedo Dispatch Boats", all terms used back then for any
type of small oceangoing ships designed as scouts for the fleet and escorts against
attacking ships. I'll call her a "Torpedo Boat" from here on out, as that's the
common term today.
was a schooner-rigged, twin-screw, steel ship with tumblehome
sides and a single funnel. She was just 395 tons and measured 197 feet long by 28
feet wide. While she had sails still, her main power came from 1,800 horsepower
locomotive-type coal-fired boilers (which proved to be temperamental at best), which
could theoretically push her along at 18 knots. She was armed similar to other
torpedo boats of her day, with a pair of tubes in the bow fixed to fire forward, plus
seven light cannons. Her crew was just 63 officers and men.
Built in 1888, she was a victim of the rapid pace of naval development in that era
and was virtually obsolete and of limited military value within a few years of
commissioning. Still, she soldiered on until 1910, when she was stricken and broken
up. In those 22 years of service, it was found that the Dragonne
built and suffered from numerous mechanical failures. She was also miserable at sea,
lightly built and prone to rolling in heavy seas, she was wet and uncomfortable for
I will be building her in H/O Scale, which is 1/87th, which will produce a model that
is 690mm long and just 88mm wide (or, 27 inches long and 3 and a half inches wide).
Just a bit bigger than my last build, the Fumizuki
. Like that ship, I will be
building the Dragonne
mostly out of cardstock and paper.
I'd normally start off with a photograph or two of the ship I'm building, but I
cannot find one single photo of this ship, nor of her seven sisterships, despite five
hours of googling. This isn't really a surprise, though, as, in this era, it was
usually the larger battleships and cruisers that warranted photographing by the
historians of the day, and these smaller, obscure torpedo boats weren't worth the
effort. Still, I have some emails out to some of my contacts, so maybe I'll come up
with something eventually (doubtful).
How can I build something without knowing what it looks like, you ask? Well,
fortunately, I do have a nice set of dockyard plans for this ship, retrieved from the
archives of the French Navy. They show enough detail and measurements to allow me to
construct her, even if I have no idea of what she actually looked like in real life.
I do love a challenge...
(Addendum: Today I received from a contact via email a single, fuzzy drawing of this
ship, scanned from an old Spanish book on warships of the Great Powers. While not a
photo, it does help a bit with the color scheme. Thanks, Dan!).
Dragonne Build Day One:
Alrighty, first day of work! Using my dockyard specifications, I drew out the shape
of the hull on my cardstock sheets. I then cut out a bottom piece and a narrower top
piece (bottom and top of what will essentially be a box for the hull). The hull is
tumblehome shaped so the top deck is smaller than bottom.
For strength, I then built a series of transverse bulkheads, which will hold up the
deck eventually. I learned the hard way from the Fumizuki
that you need a
good, strong interior structure if you are building in paper. Box system looks good
when done, but the stern needs some more thought as it's a complex shape.
As the hull sides slope noticeably outwards towards the waterline, I left a margin
along the bulkheads on the bottom. To this margin I fixed a strip of cardboard at
about a 45 degree angle, helped by copious amounts of scotch tape and Elmer's glue. I
cut out a rough ram shape for the bow, but I'm still trying to figure out how to do
the funky looking stern overhang.
Going to let the who mess dry 24 hours so the glue is nice and hard. Once that is
done I'll plate the hull with cardstock.
Dragonne Build Day Two:
Day two! After re-measuring everything (I was off a tad originally), I began work on
the main deck. Since I plan to have railings this time, I need a deck that is pretty
thick and dense. A single piece of a cardboard box would be the right thickness, but
by its nature cardboard is hollow in structure. So I just cut out seven identical
hull shapes out of cardstock and glued them together. This gave me a 1.75mm thick
deck that was quite strong (seven layers of glue).
I then spent some time carefully looking at my deck plans. These, unfortunately, were
not as detailed as I first thought, and it will be a challenge for me to figure out
what the pieces are (there are few notations on the plans, and those that are there
I've had to translate from French). But I was able to draw with pencil where most
everything needs to go on the deck. These included marks for the railings, the
masts, the funnels, and all the other assorted fittings to the deck.
I then glued the deck down (I cut it into three sections for ease). After clamping
and taping it down firm, I'm going to take a few days to let it dry thoroughly and to
hang out with my parents who are in for a visit. Back next week!
Dragonne Build Day Three:
Day three! First up was to build the hull sides. These are just strips of cardstock,
three thick for strength, glued on with Elmer's. They look good with the tumblehome
angle, I must say, even if the stern quarter is a bit off. Also fixed the bow as
there was a little lean to port on the bow ram, due to my cutting the form wrong.
Fixed (somewhat) with some cut-to-shape copy paper and generous amounts of white glue
to fill in the gaps.
Along the sides of the hull are your standard round portholes, quite small in this
1/87th scale. I used jeweler's 6mm jumprings, nine per side, glued down with a
tapping finger. The plans also show one smaller port down along the waterline
amidships. This is maybe a engine vent or maybe a galley trash port? I am working
with some really worthless line plans.
There are also some squarish hatches along the upper edge of the hull, six per side,
about twice the size of the portholes. Maybe coaling hatches? Bent copper wire around
the rectangular end of a USB connector and snipped them into shape to make them.
Unsure if these had any sort of bracing or hinges, they just show as simple
rectangles on the plans, but maybe I'll add some details later.
Hawserpipes were next, one per side on the bow. I used a plastic straw cut in half,
which worked well (sorta) and looked pretty close to what the plan shows. The anchor
chain will run through this pipe eventually. All these bits above I attached via E-
6000 glue and superglue, by the way, though I'm thinking of changing to a different
type of craft glue based on my mom's suggestions.
Next added some top deck details. Ventilator funnels out of drinking straws, mushroom
vents and oil pipes out of various sizes of jeweler's cord caps. Also used straws cut
up to make some smaller, tall vents and funnels. A few paper bits here and there and
the deck is getting pretty cluttered (as it was in real life). Then built some of the
larger cylindrical structures, such as the funnel, the main vents, and the two
cupolas. These I made from cardstock rolled around dowel rods and pencils to get the
proper shapes and glued together. The main funnel also got a steam pipe made out of a
lollipop stick with some brass wire braces.
Then built the squarish structures, including skylights, companionways, chain
lockers, main deckhouse, and several other items of questionable purpose. All were
made with cardstock taped and glued together, sometimes with an internal bracing of
cardboard. Where possible, I modeled doors and hatches open for that extra touch. A
few trims with a pair of small cuticle scissors and they look pretty good.
Masts went up next, using simple bamboo spears cut to length. I just poked a hole in
the deck where needed and ran the spears all the way down to the bottom piece with a
dab of glue. There are three masts in all, two 17 centimeters long and a third 14
centimeters, and they all will have crossbars and sails eventually.
Built the anchor crane next, which sits on the extreme bow of the ship. Just bashed
it up with paper, toothpicks and a little metal hook. Will probably try and rig some
string eventually to act as the chain.
And lastly for today I made what seems to be this boat's sole cannon (the deck plans
actually show no other armament, oddly, and without any photos I'm winging it). The
literature, such as it exists, give the Dragonne
a weapons suite of two
torpedo tubes and seven assorted small cannons, but the only one listed on my deck
plans is one gun on the stern. I assume the torpedo tubes are in the bow, maybe even
below the waterline as was fairly common in French designs. The gun I'll build is a
Hotchkiss Model 1885 47mm 40 caliber cannon in an open unprotected mount. Its utility
in actual combat was debatable.
I think I'm at a point to start painting now, but I might have to way a day or two
until I get some free time. I have amazed myself at how much I've been able to
accomplish on the boat in very little time. I think I've only spent maybe a total of
five hours on it so far.
Dragonne Build Day Four:
Only Day Four and I'm already painting! For most of her service life, the
carried the standard "Victorian style" livery common to almost all
European navies from 1880 to about 1905. This, again, was a Flat Black hull, White
superstructure and fittings, Light Brown funnels and masts, and a Dark Brown deck.
The only change I will be making is that instead of a Flat Black hull, she will have
a Medium Gray hull, which French ships on the Mediterranean station carried. I'm
hoping the gray will allow for a more pleasant looking hull than the often
overpowering black. Though grumbling because of a little problem with unpaid wages
and near-slave working conditions at the shipyard, the Painters' Union has come out
this morning in full attendance.
Halfway through the painting, I hit upon a way to make railings (for the first time
on a build) using jewelry findings, little lengths of wire with a neat eye-ring on
one end. These I found at Wal-mart for just a couple of buck for a hundred, though I
could probably mail-order them cheaper. These will work for the stanchions, of which
there are 22 per side.
I measured out the spots and pounded out holes with a small nail and a hammer (seven
layers of cardstock, seven layers of glue and a coating of paint are surprisingly
hard to push through). I then snipped them down, bend the ends over to make them
thicker, and superglued them in. The eye-rings are about 200% too big for scale,
though, but this is just an experiment, if it works, then maybe I can order some
smaller ones for future projects.
With the stanchions in, I made the railing out of thick linen string that I had left
over from rigging the Gilyak
. This worked out pretty well, even if the tension
wasn't what I wanted. Maybe I could use wire, if I could find a way to hammer it
Anyway, that done, I laid down another coat of paint everywhere and did some detail
work with a Sharpie and some colored pencils. As I still have a bit of time today,
I'll start working on the sails. This boat is "schooner rigged", meaning she has
three separate smallish sails that would allow her to maintain headway on long
journeys across open seas where speed wasn't an issue, and to have a back-up plan if
(when) the cantankerous steam engines broke down. All I have to go on for reference
is that one little drawing (below), but I should be able to work something out. The
line plans I have don't show the sails or rigging, which makes no sense to me...
First up is the "jib sail" on the foremost mast. While I cut a rough shape out of
cardstock to get the spacing right, I'm hoping eventually to have (maybe) cloth
sails. And, I've run out of time for today...
Dragonne Build Day Five:
As day five dawns I'm doing some last detail work on the deck, rushing to get this
boat done before the week gets busy. First up is the French ensign on the jackstaff
at the stern. This is the standard Tricolor flag, in use since 1848. Just used paper
with colored pencils.
Next up is the fairly complicated anchor system on the bow. I found some gold chain
at Wal-mart (part of a necklace) and cut it up into sections. I then built a round
chain port, glued it down to the foredeck, and ran the chains through it, over the
chain guides, and down through the hawserpipes on the sides of the bow. The chain
then looped back around aft and hooked onto the anchors, which were lashed to the
sides of the hull when out of the water. The anchors themselves look like crap, as
I've never been able to make a good anchor, but they will do. I painted the chain and
anchors with an Antique Gold paint to mute the shiney-ness of them and superglued the
whole thing in place. I need to look into some actual commercially produced anchors,
surely they can't be that hard to find.
Ok, back to working on the sails. And...three hours pass and I'm throwing in the towel.
After gluing all my fingers together and cussing up a storm, I determined that
rigging sails is currently beyond my capabilities. For future projects, I realize now
that I need to put more thought into how ships are rigged before I clutter up the
decks with stuff. With an open deck, I could have drilled out and placed eye-bolts in
the right spots to secure the rigging, which is almost impossible to do once
everything is built. Next time... So, I just set the rigging lines up with simple black
sewing thread, following the guide on the deck plans I have. I'd take a picture, but
thread doesn't show up on digital cameras very well. So instead, here's deckhand Kelby (he's drunk)...
And lastly for this build I'm going to whip up some crewmen. I recently bought online
a pack of assorted H/O scale figures for railroad dioramas. For under seven bucks (!)
I got 100 tiny little figures that I will use to populate my models. Admittedly, half
of them are women (plus a few kids), and they are painted garishly pastel colors, but
I can change all that. An H/O (1/87th) scale adult male is 20mm high, or about 3/4
French naval uniforms from the 1890s were pretty blah, usually simple blue shirts and
blue pants for the swabs, and slightly less simple blue shirts and blue pants for the
officers. Here's a nice period photo of two ordinary seamen lounging about...
So, with this as my guide, I repainted seven figures (one officer and six sailors) in
blue uniforms (two different blues for tops and pants). A spot of white for their
undershirts and another spot of white for the tops of their caps, plus black for the
boots and tan for their skin, and they are looking pretty good now. It took me a
smidge to figure out the best poses and locations, but once they were glued down, it
sure made the model look 110% better.
And with that, I can declare that the Dragonne
is done! Many, many more
lessons learned with this one, both good and bad, but in the end I think I produced
my best model yet. Total time from the laying of the keel to this moment is just
under two weeks, which is pretty awesome.
Items purchased specifically for this build:
1 bottle of gold paint $1.49
1 bottle of gray paint $1.49
1 bottle of brown paint $1.49
2 bottles of blue paint $2.98
1 length of gold chain $5.00
1 tube of superglue $2.47
3 packs of jewelry findings $6.00
1 pack of H/O scale figure $6.65
Total of $27.57 for new materials.
All of these can be (will be) reused on future builds, so I don't mind the expense
Here are some final pictures...
Go ahead, steal anything you want from this page,
that's between you and the
vengeful wrath of your personal god...