Copper Plating Techniques

Many of the model ships that we build today require the addition of copper plates to the lower hull in accordance with the original ship. Some kits include the materials needed while others do not, and sometimes a model builder just wants to upgrade the materials included so as to make the model ship look more historically correct.

There are several products on the market that are commonly used to copper plate a model ship’s lower hull. They range from a simple roll of copper tape (Photo 1) often used by stain glass artists, to individual photo etched copper plates (Photo 2).

Photo 1

Photo 2

Another type of copper plate available from various retail sources are stamped plates with nailhead impressions embossed into the copper as shown in Photo 3. These plates tend to be thicker than the tape or photoetched versions making them more difficult to apply.

Photo 3

The photo etched plates offer very detailed etchings of the copper nails used to attach the plates to the hull, but can become quite expensive given the number of plates needed for a particularly large model ship.

Copper tape offers the most economical method for plating a model ship. However, the individual plates must be cut from the tape which adds additional time to the plating process.

Photoetched and stamped plates require an adhesive of some sort to attach the plates to the hull. I normally use a medium viscosity super glue such as Zap A Gap in the green bottle as shown in Photo 4.

Photo 4

Copper tape has an adhesive back making it the easiest to apply. Because this is a roll of tape, custom size plates can be easily made.

Turning our attention first to the copper tape, let’s look at some methods for cutting the tape into individual plates. The first method that comes to mind might be using scissors or a sharp knife such as the Xacto #11 blade. Although these tools can be effective, the time it takes to cut each individual plate, and the accuracy of repeated cuts does not make either of these methods efficient nor accurate.

My preferred tool is the Chop-It, sold by Micro Mark (item 84046) as shown in Photo 5.

Photo 5

The Chop-It offers a number of advantages for cutting copper plates.

  • The sharp razor blade produces a clean, straight cut.

  • The metal strip that is oriented perpendicular to the blade provides an edge to place the edge of the tape against so that the cuts are at a true 90 degree angle.

  • The plastic accessories provided can be used as a stop so that the tape is butted against the stop at a precise distance from the blade. This ensures that each plate is cut to the exact same length.

  • The process of cutting the plates is much faster and more accurate than any other method.

Cutting the plates is simple and easy, but one important feature is missing from each plate - the nail head impressions. Model ship builders demand detailed parts and historical accuracy as much as possible. Plain copper plates without the nailhead impressions simply aren’t acceptable.

Most modelers who have worked with the copper tape method are familiar with the ponce wheel as shown in Photo 6.

Photo 6

The ponce wheel looks something like a spur worn by American cowboys. It has a series of spikes arranged in a circular pattern on a wheel that turns freely. The wheel is attached to a handle. By rolling the wheel across the copper plates, impressions are made that can represent the nails used to hold the plates to the hull.

You can roll the wheel across the back of the copper tape as shown in Photo 7 which will cause the copper tape plate to show raised points as shown in Photo 8.

Photo 7

Photo 8

As you can see in Photo 8, the nailhead impressions are across the bottom and one side of the plate. Additional rows could be added but doing so may be difficult to duplicate so that each plate looks identical. Most modelers add these impressions along one side and one edge since the plates will overlap on one side and one edge.

In my quest to make a more accurate nailhead impression, I stumbled upon an idea I have not seen commonly used. That is, to use stainless steel blunt needles to make the nailhead impressions. These come in various gauges. Photo 9 shows a 21 gauge needle that I purchased on Amazon (25 to a bag).

Photo 9

By inserting a small dowel in the plastic end, I had a simple handle and could press the needle into the copper tape thus leaving a perfect round impression. Photo 10 shows several plates that I made using this needle.

Photo 10

Of course, the biggest disadvantage to this method is the time it takes to make the nailhead impressions in a single plate. This brings me to a solution to that problem.

Having a laser cutter available to me to make all kinds of model ship parts, including kits, makes it quite easy to create a stamp with these needles tightly glued into the stamp so that a complete set of plate nailhead impressions can be made with one press of the stamp into the copper tape. By creating a CAD file the size of my plate and laser cutting small holes into the wood I was able to cut the needles off of their plastic holder and glue them into these holes thus creating a stamp with the needles accurately lined up and evenly spaced. This can be seen in Photo 11.

Photo 11

Now, using this stamp, I am able to stamp all of the nailhead impressions onto a single plate with ease.

Ok, so you’ve got your copper plates, they’re either photoetched, stamped, or copper tape stamped, and you’re ready to copper your hull. The first thing you must do is mark the waterline across the hull since this is the topmost location of the copper plates. To do this, I use a waterline marker as shown in Photo 12.

Photo 12

This particular holder comes from Poland. As you can see from the simple design, it could be easily made at home from plywood or particle board and a few simple tools.

The principle behind the waterline marker is that the location of the pencil can be raised or lowered. The model must be properly oriented on the same surface as the waterline marker so that the keel is perfectly perpendicular to the surface. The model must be held in this stable position as the marker is dragged across the table surface thus marking a pencil line across the entire length of the hull.

You should be able to obtain the height of the waterline from your set of plans. Keep in mind that if the ship is one that does not have the waterline parallel to the keel, some supporting pieces that raise the bow (usually the bow is higher) so that the keel is at the proper angle in relationship to the plans to properly mark the waterline.

With the waterline now marked on both sides of the model, you are ready to add the copper plates. I like to lay the model on its side with a soft smooth cloth underneath it. This will help protect the copper plates, but you must ensure that the cloth does not snag any plates already installed thus bending them or tearing them off.

Copper platting always starts with the keel at the stern. In this example of a model of the Constitution, the pates are made of copper tape. If you are using photo etched plates or the thicker stamped plates, the method of laying them is the same with the exception of how they are physically attached to the model.

I use Zap A Gap super glue to attach those types of plates. You must be careful to add just a small drop of glue to the backside of the plate spreading it so that it covers the entire surface area. I use tweezers to hold the plate in position (and to apply the glue) before pressing the plate against the hull. Platting with glue is a bit more difficult because too much glue will cause it to ooze out and get all over the other plates. If you don’t position it correctly, you’ll ruin the plate trying to remove it and could cause damage to other plates previously glued in place. There’s no easy solution but to gain some experience first, and that’s why using copper tape is a bit easier for a new modeler.

On the starboard (right) side, the plates progress forward and upward as shown in Photo 13.

Photo 13

On the port side, the plates run in the same manner but the nailhead impressions on the side of the plates are actually on the opposite side as the ones on the starboard side.

The first row of plates should start even with the sternpost and along the bottom edge of the keel. Each plate overlaps the previous plate slightly. I like to also add a row of plates along the bottom of the keel with the upper edge bending over the keel edge and overlapping the bottom row of plates.

The second row of plates starts with a half of a plate so that the seems are staggered. This staggered pattern is similar to the way modern day bricks are laid.

When a row of plates reaches the bow, again, I trim them to match the curvature of the stem and then continue the row of overlapping plates along the bottom surface of the stem as shown in Photo 14.