Making Silkspan Sails


Over the years we’ve all seen sails on model ships in one form or another. Most kits that supply sails in the kit use cloth such as muslin because of its color and close appearance to old time canvas. These sails are usually pre-cut and sewn up around the edges with rope for attaching blocks and rigging lines such as the model shown in this photo.

For some model ships such as the one shown above, these sails don’t look too bad. The detailed sewing of panels and seams gives the sail an authentic look. The sails looks somewhat natural in the way that it hangs thus enhancing the overall appearance of the model.

This type of sail is even one that you as a modeler can create yourself with a sewing machine and a little bit of sewing experience. In my business, the Lauck Street Shipyard, I have even developed a practicum on how to make your own sails using some muslin cloth, a sewing machine, and a scale drawing of the sail you wish to make.

Today I’m going to show you a different technique for making your own sails using a very special type of material called silkspan. Silkspan is more of a tissue than a cloth often used by modelers who build radio controlled model aircraft. It is used to cover the surfaces of a ribbed wing and sometimes even the fuselage or the entire model aircraft. One would not think that a paper type product would qualify as a viable material for a model ship sail, but there are some real advantages for using silkspan.

Silkspan looks like tissue paper but it is much stronger because it actually has silk spun into the fibers. It can be purchased from a number of sources on the internet such as Sig Manufacturing (www.sigmfg.com).

Silkspan most often comes as a white sheet of tissue, but can be colored most any color you desire. If water is applied to it, it will become limp allowing for shaping. After shaping it, the shape will be retained once the water has evaporated from the material. The benefit to this property is that one can wet the finished sail, shape it to look like it is furled, and when dry, it will retain a more natural look than a heavier cloth such as muslin.

Oddly enough, I have also found that you can print details such as seam lines onto the silkspan. You can easily glue pieces of silkspan to each other to give the appearance of reinforcement panels as seen on actual sails.

Given these properties, I will show you just how easy it is to make silkspan sails in any shape, size, or color and use them on your scale model ship. These sails should open up all kinds of possibilities for display such as furled sails, sails under wind, or just plain sails hanging from a yardarm.

You will need some supplies to to make these sails. I found some unpainted picture frames at a local craft store that worked well for making these sails. You’ll probably want a couple of these frames so that you can work on more than one sail at a time. I opted for a 12” x 14” frame such as the one shown in this photo.

As you can see in this photo, I have cut out a piece of silkspan that is the same size as the frame. Flipping the frame over, I used some packing tape to attach the silkspan to the frame as shown in this photo.

The silkspan is a bit transparent, and of course, white is not the color we want our sail to be. To color the silkspan, I used a very diluted mixture of artist’s acrylic paint in a tube and water.

Windsor & Newton makes a variety of acrylic paints in tubes that are inexpensive and work great for this purpose. You can purchase individual tubes in a variety of colors. The most often used colors for tinting the silkspan to look like old canvas are Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Yellow Ochre. You’ll also need a tube of Titanium White.

First mix some Titanium White with the color(s) of your choice to obtain the overall color you want your sail to be. Once that color has been mixed, dilute it in a large cup or glass jar until it is the consistency of milk.

You’ll need a soft, wide artist brush to apply the color onto the silkspan. When you do this, the silkspan will become loose looking and will sag. Just paint on the color. Do not try to adjust the silkspan to make it tighter.

As it dries, it will become taught as shown in this photo.

At first the silkspan will look a bit transparent, but as you apply a second or even third coat of the diluted paint, it will look more like a piece of scale canvas thus losing its transparency. I gave this sail three coats of my diluted paint solution.

Once your silkspan looks the way you want it, you can remove it from the picture frame. To do this, I used a very sharp #11 Xacto knife to cut through the silkspan along the inner perimeter of the picture frame leaving the tape and remaining silkspan attached to my frame. Afterwards I peeled the tape off to prepare the frame for making another sail.

With this dry, painted piece of silkspan, I placed it over a sheet of white bond paper I use in my inkjet printer. I trimmed the silkspan around all four sides until it was slightly smaller than the printer paper. Then using some frosted Scotch tape, I taped the silkspan to the bond paper as shown in this photo.

As you can see in this photo, I have trimmed the silkspan at the top and bottom so that there is just enough bond paper exposed to apply the Scotch tape. Only a very small amount of the tape lies across the edge of the silkspan - approximately 1/16”. The tape is folded over the edge of the bond paper and pressed down smooth on the backside of the paper.

After taping down the top edge, I pulled the silkspan taught across the bond paper and trimmed it to a slightly shorter length. Then I taped the bottom edge of the silkspan to the bond paper.

Now the fun part. You will need to create a scale drawing of your sail with all of its details using a photo program such as Adobe Photoshop or a CAD program. I used AutoCAD for this purpose because it allowed me to import the actual drawing of the sail, scale it, and then trace over it with brown colored lines.

What you are going to do is load the silkspan/bond paper piece into your ink jet printer. On my printer, the paper is loaded upside down which means that the silkspan was face down in the printer tray.

Then, using my CAD software, I printed the traced sail drawing onto this piece of silkspan as shown in this photo.

Let me explain what you are seeing in this photo. First, the sail is about 1/16” larger on all four sides than the finished sail. The dashed lines around the edges of the sail represent the fold line as well as points where cringles or loops of rope will be created.

The vertical lines represent the numerous panels that make up a sail. The small dotted rectangles across the upper face of the sail represent reinforcement panels and the dots at the top represent where the sail will be attached to the yardarm with loops of thread or fine rope.

There are also some horizontal markings in the lower portion of the sail on alternating panels which represent additional reinforcement panels.

The next step in this process is to attach the rope that circles the outer edges of the sail and is used to form the various cringles where ropes and blocks will later be attached. Let’s look at the next photo first.

This photo shows what you will need to complete your sail. First, above the sail you see a bottle of Turbo Tacky Glue. This is a thick white glue you can find at most any craft store. It works well on cloth and paper, dries invisible, and can be diluted with water.

Next to the bottle of Tacky Glue, you see a small jar. I have added some of the glue to the jar and diluted it with water to the consistency of milk.

Next to the sail you see a pair of tweezers with a fine tip, a #22 Xacto knife, a small paint brush, a toothpick, a #11 Xacto knife, a pair of fine tipped scissors, and a metal ruler. All of these tools will come in handy while attaching the rope and reinforcement pieces. You can also see in this photo some tan rope that I have already begun attaching to the sail.

To begin attaching the rope, start at the top of the sail, and fold the sail over your ruler by aligning the ruler with the upper edge of the dots that will later show you where to attach the ropes or thread when mounting the sail to the yardarm.

After making this fold, tuck the rope under the folded portion starting in the center of the sail. Let the outer end of the rope simply hang outside the upper corner at the left in of the sail so that you are attaching the rope in a counterclockwise fashion. (You can go clockwise as well. Counterclockwise just seemed more natural to me since I am right handed).

Now using your paintbrush, apply the diluted Tacky Glue to the sail underneath the folded edge. You can use the toothpick as well as the #22 Xacto knife edge to help press the folded portion tightly against the rope. (If you hold the #22 Xacto so that the round portion of the blade is flat against the silkspan and close to the rope, you can press the folded silkspan down flat and tight against the edge of the rope). The next photo shows a close up of the sail as I attach the rope around the perimeter of the sail.

As you can see in this photo, I have formed a loop or cringle in the upper left hand corner of the sail and then continued the rope down the left hand side of the sail. I folded the left hand side of the sail over using the dashed lines printed on the sail as a guide. At each dashed line, I made a slit so that I could form this rope cringle with the rope. NOTE: Your scale drawing of the sail should show all of these details on it. You should use that drawing to locate each of these details on your traced scale drawing.

This process of forming cringles and attaching the rope around the perimeter of the sail is continued until the entire perimeter has the rope attached and all of the cringles have been formed. The next photo shows more of the attachment of the rope around the perimeter of the sail.

All that remains now is to add the reinforcement pieces. To do this, I took scraps of the silkspan that were left on the frame and cut the small strips needed to make these reinforcement pieces. Using the steel ruler and #11 Xacto, I cut strips the width needed to make these reinforcement pieces.

The last photo shows the finished sail.

You can see the horizontal thin strips of reinforcement silkspan I applied to the sail using the diluted Tacky Glue. There are additional pieces along the two outer edges running vertically and some smaller pieces in alternating panels at the lower area of the sail. All that is left is to attach the sail to the yardarm (which I have not done yet in this photo).

After attaching the sail to the yardarm, you will have to attach the various ropes and blocks to the cringles along the sides and bottom of the sail. You can also add the reef ropes through the horizontal reinforcement bands using a needle and thread. Typically these ropes have a knot on each side of the sail to hold them in place. For scale model sails, it is easier to have a knot on one side of the sail and use a dab of the tacky glue undiluted to hold these ropes in place.

I hope that you find this tutorial useful for making silkspan sails for your own model ship. This method gives you a very detailed scaled sail with endless possibilities in the shaping. Very thin brass wire can be used along the two outer edges of the sail and bent to shape like a sail in full wind. By attaching rope to the bottom cringles and wetting the silkspan sail, shaping it as a furled sail can be easily accomplished.

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