Making a Capstan


Most model ships will have either a capstan or a windlass which was used to raise the anchors. Today I will discuss how to make a capstan from scratch. I will write a future article on how to make a windlass.

Often times a kit will include a rudimentary capstan for your model. However, you might wish to add additional details by making your own capstan to replace the basic one in your kit. In this tutorial, I will show you the basic structure of a capstan found on a ship of the mid 1700's. Capstans varied widely depending on the time period of the ship, so you may ned to do additional research to determine how your capstan should be constructed.

The capstan starts with a base. Photo 1 shows the base for a capstan I made for my Rattlesnake model. The Rattlesnake was built in 1780.

Photo 1

Your kit's plans will usually show the shape and size of the capstan base. If your kit does not have a base, it is best to make one that is square and slightly larger than the capstan itself.

Every capstan has a center rod. This rod is usually 6 to 8 sides in shape. The number of sides is determined by the number of whelps that mount to the sides of the rod. The whelps are used to wrap the anchor rope around and provide friction needed to pull on the anchor rope when the capstan is turned.

I like to make the center rod out of a square piece of wood to start. The length of the rod will depend on the height of the capstan itself as well as whether or not the capstan is a single capstan or a double capstan.

A double capstan means that the rod extends to the deck below it where a second capstan is attached. This enables men to turn both capstans simultaneously to raise the anchors. Today I will address the double capstan.

Photo 2 shows what a rod might look like for a double capstan. This rod is 6 sided. The top and bottom have a round tenon cut into it. Near the center of the rod. there is an area that is round rather than 6 sided. This round area fits against a deck beam that helps to stabilize the two capstans and provides a smooth area to enable the capstan to turn between the two decks. The tenon on the bottom fits into a round hole in the base. The tenon on the top fits into the capstan top.

Photo 2

The next part to be made are the whelps. You will need 6 whelps per capstan in this example. The height of the whelps should be shown on your kit plans. For this example, the model was in 3/16" scale so the whelps were cut to a length of 5/8" which is approximately 40 scale inches.

The whelps of a capstan have their own unique shape. The shape can be easily cut using a #22 Xacto knife. Photo 3 shows the typical whelp shape. Each of the 12 whelps for this particular capstan were cut to this shape by first cutting one and then using it as a template to cut the other 11 whelps.

Photo 3

Often your kits plans will show the shape or will provide precut whelps. The height of the whelps is based on the height of the capstan top. The bottom of the whelp sits just above the capstan base. The capstan top sits on top of the whelps. In this example, the whelps are 40 scale inches long. The whelp is broken down into two parts. The upper part is slightly smaller in length that the lower part. So in this example the upper part is 18 scale inches long while the lower part is 22 scale inches long. Don't worry, it doesn't have to be perfect because in most cases, the scale of the model is small enough that the average person viewing it at a normal viewing distance will not be able to tell the difference in 18" versus 22". Unless you're building a model from scratch that will be entered into some kind of competition, all that is needed is to make the lower portion of the whelp look slightly longer than the upper portion.

As I mentioned earlier, the capstan top sits on top of the whelps. Although the top is round, it has several layers of wood in it. The center layer has notches cut into it that form square holes that the capstan bars are inserted into which are used to turn the capstan. To aid in making this center part, a template similar to the one you see in Photo 4 will help.

Photo 4

This template has 6 sides because the capstan has 6 whelps. If your capstan has more sides, then you will need a similar template with the correct number of sides to it. The purpose of the template is to aid in marking where the 6 notches must be cut to make a uniform shaped center piece.

Notice in Photo 4 that the cross lines are used to mark the center point of each square opening, They have been projected onto the sides of the round wooden circle I cut out using basswood. Each side of this centerline has another line thus marking a notched area that I can cut with my Xacto knife. Photo 5 shows the piece of wood after cutting these 6 notches out.

Photo 5

To finish off the capstan top, all that is needed is to cut two more round pieces of wood and create a sandwich of the three parts as shown in Photo 6.

Photo 6

The thickness of the layers will depend on your particular ship. You can generally find a drawing of the capstan on your kit plans which will help you to determine how thick to make each layer. The center layer which has the notches in it for the capstan bars will be thicker than the other two layers. The upper layer will be thinner than the bottom layer.

The upper layer is often arched from side to side so that the center of the top layer is actually thicker than the outer edges. However, given the scale of most model ships, this arched top is often not easily discernible.

The bottom piece of the 3 layer sandwich must have a hole drilled through it so that the tenon on the upper end of the capstan rod can fit into the capstan top.

To assemble this capstan, first the whelps for the bottom half were glued to each of the 6 sides of the capstan rod as shown in Photo 7. The rod has been inserted, not glued, into the base. The lower whelps are glued to the rod, not the base. They sit just slightly above the base so that the rod can turn freely. Also notice that in this example, there is not top to the lower capstan.

Photo 7

After the whelps were added to the bottom portion of the rod, the second set was added to the upper port. As you can see in Photo 7, the upper whelp that I've added is glued to the rod. The top edge is flush with the top of the capstan rod where the tenon begins. When the capstan top is added over the tenon, its bottom surface will fit against the top of the upper whelps.

Between each whelp are wedges that help to strengthen the entire structure. These wedges are shaped like small triangles, however, the outer edge is rounded. The upper wedges have a convex rounded outer edge while the lower wedges have a concave outer edge. The upper wedges are thinner than the lower wedges. Photo 8 show a capstan I made for my 1/4" scale HMS Kingfisher model. Notice the difference between the upper and lower wedges that fit between the whelps shown in this photo.

Photo 8

Now all that is left is to add the capstan top that you made earlier. Photo 9 shows the completed double capstan. NOTE: The Rattlesnake capstan was made based on the plans of the Rattlesnake drawn by Harold Hahn. Those plans did not show the lower wedges, however many ships had them so I wanted to point this out by showing you a capstan that did.

Photo 9.

The dimensions for the various parts of a capstan will vary from ship to ship. Often you can find reference books on the internet for ships of the time period of your subject model that might help in determining the thickness and length of the various pieces. If not, you can simply use these photos to see the general thickness of the various parts as they relate to each other. Also, your kits plans should show a general drawing of the capstan that can be used to determine overall height and width.

This concludes my discussion on how to make a capstan.


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