Project Number Eleven
American submarine R-26 Diorama (1919)
Completed in February 2011
Hello, for my next diorama attempt, I'm going to do a dockside scene,
with a vessel tied up to a pier and men working on it. The ship is
question is actually a submarine, the R-26
of the old 1920's US
Navy. The R-26
was one of a class of small diesel-electric
coastal/harbor defense submarines designed and built at the tail end of
WWI. Constructed in Connecticut, the R-26
was commissioned in the
fall of 1919, too late for WWI service, and served her entire peacetime
career based out of the Panama Canal Zone before being scrapped in 1930
as more advanced submarines came into the Navy.
The diorama will represent a scene late 1919, a typical day in the Canal
Zone, as the R-26
is in port, her crew doing routine maintenance
on the boat. It will show just the forward 15% or so of the boat, 8
inches or so shown to just behind the bow planes, as my diorama box will
be an 8x10 picture frame. As with my last two projects, it will be in
1/35 scale, with a human being 2 inches tall.
Here is a pic of the R-26
R-26 Build Day One:
Day One! First I need to build the submarine's bow, about the first 30
feet of it. I couldn't find any decent schematics for the R-26
her class, so I just used the best photos I could find and eyeballed it
the old fashioned way. Several photos had a man standing up straight on
various parts of the hull, allowing me to compare heights against a
standard 6 foot tall man (probably should have dropped that to 5'8" or
so, but my 1/35 scale people are all based on 6-footers). The top deck
and the bottom base I cut out of 4mm thick foam board from an old sign
from work, after first making a paper template. I cut out the hole for
the hatch on the top deck, using a quarter as a size reference (a near
In between I put a series of foam board bulkheads to give it a box-like
strength. I used a lot of glue in this step and had to be careful not to
put the bulkheads in areas that I needed to have see-through zones
(portholes and the like). The 4mm foam board cuts like butter with an
exacto knife, which is very nice.
The sides of the hull I made out of two layers of cardstock, with all the
needed ports and holes cut out. The drainage holes I will make with a
hole puncher (need to get a smaller one) and the larger cutouts I'll make
with an exacto knife. The biggest features of the hull are the two anchor
beds, which are inset into the hull a couple of feet or so, and the
openings for the bow planes, these I'll cut out with my exacto knife.
As I'm waiting for a chance to go to Fort Wayne and buy a better hole
puncher, I will work on the deck for a bit. First up is a rectangle of
wooden deck planks, which I will make out of twenty 5mm strips of
cardstock, doubled up for additional thickness. A solid ring around the
companionway hatch completes the planking.
There's a smaller, square hatch in front of the planking, for loading
torpedoes into the torpedo room beneath, which I'll model closed. I made
hinges and a handle out of paper, eventually to be painted brassy.
Further forward is a seven-foot tall vent pipe, for bringing fresh air
into the spaces below. It was only fitted and raised while in port or
while running on the surface, and was lashed to the deck when not in use.
It's just a rolled piece of paper with notches on one end and some
widgets, super simple to make.
Next up is a large cleat, which is an anvil-shaped chunk of metal about
the size of a housecat that was used to tie a boat to a pier. After
messing up with several different paper and wood designs, I decided to
make it out of Sculpey clay, which worked much better. I'm constantly
amazed at the utility of this clay for making small, odd shaped objects,
it is indeed a great leap forward.
And lastly, right at the point of the bow, is a large, swooping, open
hawser pipe that seems to have been used primarily for tying off ropes
and anchor chains. It's just several thicknesses of cardstock bent to
shape. As it hangs down over the sides a bit, I'll have to wait to attach
it until I get the hull sides finished.
That's all for today!
R-26 Build Day Two:
Day two! Continuing now on the sub's hull sides. I finally got up to
Hobby Lobby this morning and bought a couple of sizes of craft hole
punchers, got them on sale for just 2 bucks each. Now I have three
different diameters of round hole I can make (yay!).
With them I can finally (after several weeks of stalling) finish punching
out the different diameter drain holes on the sub sides. A submarine's
hull, of course, is riddled with holes to allow the water for ballast to
enter and exit, and the nose section has a fair share of them.
The anchor beds are next, made by cutting out a section of the hull,
taping on a new section, and figgiling it around until it looks right.
Punch out a hole for the hawser and it looks pretty good. I'll do the
actual anchors later.
Now I can attach the sides of the hull to the frame with Elmer's glue and
scotch tape. I put on the bow hawser next, as it hangs down a bit.
Thankfully everything mined up fine (mostly) and now I can start thinking
about the bow planes.
The bow planes are like wings on an airplane, they help the sub rise and
dive in the water. They retract into the hull fairings and I'll model
them in, as I'm cramped for room in my 8x10 frame, and as they really
should be while docked. After failing to make anything decent out of
paper and glue, I ended up making them out of Sculpey clay. A bit of
sanding and a lot of superglue and the planes look ok.
Lastly are the railing stanchions, which, per my standard practice, are
just trimmed down toothpicks glued into holes in the deck made with a
push pin I swiped from the office at work. The railings themselves will
be thick black linen string, the closest I can come to the two-inch wire
cables that were used in real life. I'll paint them gray in the end, more
like the real thing. The portside railings I'll model down and coiled
(maybe) to allow gangplank access (I've seen this in numerous photos of
docked submarines of this class and era, suggesting that the railings
were fairly easy to detach and reattach when needed).
With everything on, I can do some last minute sanding, trimming,
tweaking, and with that I think I can paint the sub's bow now. Colors for
this era were boring Steel Gray hulls and decks (yawn...), with the only
real color differences being on the wooden planks, which were a pale
Using a pencil, a Sharpie pen, and a lot of luck, I drew on the depth
markings and the big "R-26" for the ship's name, plus some hash marks in
the anchor beds (unclear in my photos, maybe some sort of chain guides).
I didn't want any of these markings to stand out that much so I didn't
paint over them, just used the pencil and the Sharpie and then dry
brushed over them with gray paint to blend the black into the hull color
(I figure exposure to salt water would fade them quickly).
As for weathering, I took into account the steamy climate of Panama and
the fact that these boats usually spent most of their time in port where
they were on the surface exposed to the elements and I worked in quite a
bit of rusty weathering on the edges and ports. This is just a mixture of
black, tan, brown, and white paints, mixed with my fingertip and pulled
down with a dry brush.
And with that, I'm done for today. Next up I'll work on the hatch and the
R-26 Build Day Three:
Day three! First up today was installing the starboard side railings (the
port side will be down to allow gangplanks from the dock). I used heavy
linen string, which ended up being a bad choice as it is hard to work
with in small segments. In real life the railings were loose metal wire
about 3 inches thick, so in the end my string with its sagging looks ok.
I painted it gray to match the rest of the boat and called it done (in
the future I will use copper wire for things like this...).
Next is the round, thick pressure hatch on the top deck. I built it out
of various materials and glued it in place after painting it gray.
The inside of the torpedo room is visible now through the open hatch so I
have to detail it a bit. Well, at least paint it. After some research I
discovered that sub interiors were painted white in this era (better to
see in the dim light), so this is what I did with (the "inside" of the
hatch was gray as it would be exposed to view when opened). My plan is to
have a human standing in this hatch, so I'm not going to try and detail
the interior spaces past painting them.
And with that, I'm done (for now) with the submarine itself. Now time to
build the pier that the boat is docked beside. I'm not looking for
anything complicated, just a simple wooden planked pier held up on wooden
pylons. It will be about (real life) six feet off the water, making it
(in my scale) just a tad below the level of the sub's deckline. Looking
at my 8x10 diorama frame, the pier will run along one long side, about 8
inches long and about two inches wide and standing about 2 inches out of
the water (the pylons an extra inch). Below is a photo of some random
dock, this is what I'm looking for...
Building materials will be all wood, with the planks out of craft stick
and the pylons out of dowel rods. Support beams and such will be out of
assorted scrap wood I have lying around in boxes (much of it left over
from the HMS Canopus
build last summer). All the new stuff I
bought today with a Wal-mart gift card my sister-in-law got me for
Christmas, so I don't feel bad about spending the ten dollars on modeling
After drawing out the plan on paper, my first step is to build the
walkway of the pier. Simple process, really, just tedious and a lot of
Elmer's glue. I purposely tried to make some random gaps in the planks,
plus roughed up the outside ends and such to give it a weathered look. Of
course, a lot of the weathering will come via paint. Note that the
finished diorama will only show a part of the dock, as it's much wider
than what I can fit into the scene in my scale. So there will be the
"outside" edge that I'll make a false wall for.
The pylons are dowel rods, five of them, each around 3 inches tall. I
roughed them up and made the ends worn before gluing them into the
notches in the walkway. It looks good. Had to cut out the back wall to
get everything lined up, but that went ok, just needs painted underneath.
And that's all for today!
R-26 Build Day Four:
Day four! Back to working on the jetty today. First need to paint the
dock a weathered brownish color with lots of stains and scuffs. Will use
a variety of dry brushed colors to blend in the right tone once it's in
Piers like this usually had some sort of bumpers to keep ships/subs from
rubbing up against the pylons in the tide. In this case, it's just a log
tethered to the dock with ropes around it, a cheap and simple way of
keeping metal off wood. I'll make it out of a dowel rod, but obviously
can't do anything with it until I make the water. While I'm using dowel
rods, I also want a couple of old pylon posts poking up out of the water,
maybe from an old pier that was torn down or just fell down and was
replaced. More weathered dowel rods painted brown.
Time to put this all together now, at that stage. Got my 8x10 picture
frame, my latex caulk, and all my pieces. Got some free time when the
house is empty (caulk stinks bad), and am good to go. Painted the glass
of the frame a nice murky bluish greenish grayish color first, hope that
shows through nicely.
Laid down a layer of caulk for the water, smoothed it out, this is a
sheltered harbor, not the open sea, so just the barest of ripples. Placed
the dock, the sub, the pylons and the bumper, and set it aside to dry.
This will take a couple of days to set firmly.
R-26 Build Day Five:
Day five! The caulk has dried and I see that my experiments with greenish
paint to represent the seaweed/algae of this coastal harbor failed pretty
miserably. Had to tone down the too-bright green color with some over-
coats of dark blue, which helped, but I still may tone it down some more.
Thinking that I may have to "build down" the sides of the diorama frame
to give it more of the illusion of depth. The current picture frame is
just a quarter-inch thick, which tricks the eye into thinking the sub and
the dock are "sitting on top of" the water as opposed to "floating/stuck
in" the water. I'll think more about this later.
Also did some detail work today, including adding a tether rope to the
log bumper floating between the sub and the dock (realize now that I
should have made it a half log), added the laid-down railing wires to the
portside deck, and whipped up a gangplank from the dock (might have to
come up with some tie-down ropes for this).
All for today, Suzie and Kaden are waking up ;).
R-26 Build Day Six:
Day six! Time to do the ropes that tie the sub to the dock. Going to use
a shoelace, as it's a perfect match for the heavy braided ropes I see in
period photos. It loops from one pylon on the dock to the tie-off thingie
on the bow and back to another pylon. In retrospect, I needed a smaller
shoelace, but too late now.
Need something more on the dock, so I made a big general goods box out of
paper and a couple of navy blue sea bags out of clay and string, just
props for the scene.
Time to think about people now. The sub's bow is pretty small, so I don't
think I can cram more than 2 guys on there without it looking weird.
Another 2 on the dock and that should populate this diorama well
(hopefully not over-populate it...). After some thought, I'm going to start
with Seaman Roberts, who will be painting the side of the boat. Actually,
he'll be painting over the black "R26" with white, as was actually done
in 1919 in accordance with a new US Navy policy on ship color schemes
(amazing what you can learn on the internet...). After some searching I
found some photos of painting planks hung off the sides of subs for this
purpose, which was easy enough to make.
Took a moment and went back and repainted the mooring lines (the
shoelace) more of a "rope" color, as it was bugging me. Still should
replace it with something smaller, but that's to-scale per my photos.
This is why I set deadlines for these projects, I tend to go back over
details endlessly and if I don't set a deadline I'll never, ever get it
Anyway, period clothes for the US Navy submarine service on the Panama
Canal Zone station in 1919 took two forms. First were the official dress
uniforms, which were boring white shirts and white pants, with brown
belts and brown shoes. Undershirts were a pale white and caps, when worn,
were also white and scarves, when worn, were navy blue. Not very
colorful, but accurate. These uniforms were only worn when in on shore
leave or when some Admiral was lurking about. Here are some typical 1919
submariners in their dress whites...
Of course, while out at sea, on a cramped submarine far from port, dress
codes were vastly different. Dress whites gave way to blue jeans and cut
-off t-shirts, or overalls and bare chests. Sub crews were notoriously
close knit bunches and the line between officers and enlisted men was
blurred unlike in the surface navy. Here are some men at sea, dressed to
work and not to show off...
Officers had to keep up appearances, obviously, so while in port they had
to stick to the dress whites with all the piping and trim that comes with
the ranks. Here are some officers...
My diorama takes place in port, but it's also a work day, so to speak, so
I'm going to dress my figures in a mix of dress whites and workaday
denim. Seaman Roberts will have his gray denim jeans and white t-shirt
and his white navy cap, and be holding a paint brush. As before, I'll be
using Sculpey clay over copper wire skeletons, hopefully with more
attention to detail than in previous builds. Differently than before, I'm
making the torso and arms first, baking it, then doing the legs and head
separately and baking the whole thing together again. This makes it
easier to keep from messing up limbs and parts trying to make it all at
once. Goofed on the arm placement and the angle of the legs, so I had to
extend the painting platform a quarter inch out to make him fit, but he
does now. Also painted the numbers a bit and added a paint can, now he
looks like he's on the job!
It's hard not to notice just how small this submarine is, now that
there's a human figure next to it for comparison. These old subs were
indeed quite small, only 500 tons and 175 feet long. Match that against a
typical WWII American submarine which was around 2,500 tons and 315 feet
long. Even that pales against a modern nuclear-powered US Navy submarine,
which is 8,000 tons and nearly 400 feet long. So, the R-26
sized accurately in this diorama, it was just pretty puny in real life.
Anyway, that's all for today.
R-26 Build Day Seven:
Day seven! On to Seaman Hutchins now, who will be standing on the bow,
looking at the dock (at something to be made later). He's a bit more lax
than Roberts, and his white t-shirt is off and tucked into the back
pocket of his gray jeans. He's also not wearing his hat, which I'll hang
on a railing stanchion nearby. He'll be holding a potable water jug in
one hand and be leaning against the vent pipe. This is my first attempt
at a semi-nude figure, so don't expect anything perfect.
I had considered placing another figure near the open hatch, but after
blocking it out with a skeleton, the deck just looked too crowded. I also
nixed placing another figure on the dock, as it threw off the symmetry of
the diorama in an odd and unexpected way. So, instead I decided to
substitute any more humans for two albatross seabirds. I figure the Canal
Zone is rift with shore birds, always poking around the harbor looking
for scraps, brave enough to wander right up to men and machines. I made
two albatrosses with modeling clay, using some photos on the internet as
references, one sitting and another about to take flight. Placed them on
the dock, in such a way as to suggest that Seaman Hutchins is watching
them, perhaps even yelling out for them to scram as they are poking
around the seabags (seabirds are "rats with wings", ask any sailor...).
A few touch-up re-paints on the sailors, a couple of trims and scrapes on
the hull, and a few more tweaks to the water, and with that, I am
declaring this diorama officially done! Yay! All in all a rewarding
expenditure of a week's free time and about twenty bucks. Thanks for
reading, I'll get it packed up and mailed off to my parents this week.
Here are the final pictures of the R-26
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that's between you and the
vengeful wrath of your personal god...