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Planking Decks


Most kits have more than one visible deck. The forward most deck in certain kits sits higher, above what is considered to be the main deck. This forward most deck is called the forecastle deck.

The main deck usually contains a number of cannons on a warship such as the USF Constitution, the HMS Victory, the Pride of Baltimore, or similar ships. It is interesting to note that the USF Constitution did not have a forecastle deck. It simply had one large main deck that covered the full length of the ship.

A non-warship such as the Bluenose and Bluenose II still had a main deck, but there were no cannons on these ships because they were not designed for war.

Just aft of the main deck was another smaller deck that was higher than the main deck and generally at the same height as the forecastle deck. That deck was called the quarter deck.

Above the quarter deck there was often another deck generally found on large ships such as the HMS Victory, HMS Vanguard or HMS Pegasus/HMS Fly. That deck was called the poop deck.

Also found on larger warships were additional gun decks below the main deck. These gun decks ran the full length of the hull; however, there would have been removable bulkheads at the stern to separate a small living area for officers of the ship. At the bow of the ship would have been a fenced-in area called the manger where live animals were kept.

Below the gun decks were additional decks to house workshops such as the sail shop, the wood shop, the kitchen or galley, and a storage area for food items, arms, and ammunition. Most kits do not show any of these extra decks because the hull is fully planked covering such lower details.

Planking the decks in a model ship kit might seem like an easy task. However, depending on the time period of the ship that the kit represents and the type of ship, different methods were used.

Often certain lower decks that were only visible through hatch openings in the deck above had some planking on them, but such decks are often “dummy” decks. Dummy decks are partial decks that are just large enough to be in view through the hatch in the deck above.

The planking on the decks of most kits involves laying strips of thin wood on top of a sub-deck. However, this is not always the case. Historically the planking on a ship’s deck was a light color because the decks were often honed with stones to remove the grunge that would build up from the ocean water and men’s bare feet. This honing turned the decks a much lighter, bleached color. Typically model ship kits use a lighter wood for the deck planking which adds contrast to the model.

Deck planking on a real ship had tarred rope or horse hair caulking between the rows, so that water would not seep through to the lower decks. This detail is generally duplicated on a model ship by darkening the edges of the planks before they are installed. I will show you an easy method of darkening the edges, which I have used for many years.

Many ships had special planks along the outer edges of the deck, especially in warships where cannons were involved. I will be covering these special planks and how to make them, where applicable.

Many modelers like to simulate the treenails used to hold the deck planking to the deck beams. There are several methods to simulate these wooden nails which I will also cover in this article.

Kits with Sub-decks

The first decks I will cover will be decks found in kits that have one or more sub-decks. There is little difference in how these decks are planked. Forecastle, main deck, quarter deck, poop deck or lower decks are all planked using the same methods.

It is best to start your first plank straight down the center. This means that you will need to take some measurements from each side to mark a centerline on the sub-deck. First, measure the full width of the sub-deck with a small ruler. Then, divide that measurement in half.

Often hatch openings will aid in creating this centerline. The object is to lay the first plank straight down the center of the sub-deck so that the same number of planks on each side of it results in symmetry, especially on each side of the hatch opening.

The first deck you should plank on your model is the one that is the lowest of your decks. This might be a dummy deck that is only seen through the opening of a hatch. Depending on the length of that deck, you might want to break the planking up into smaller strips.

There are certain rules that were followed when planking the deck of a real ship. This is also true about planking the hull. Planks were generally no longer than 24’. The plank width was generally 9” to 12”. In a 1/4” scale model, that means that the length of the plank would be no more than 6” and the width would be 3/16” to 1/4”.

Of course, most kits do not pay attention to such details. Typically, deck planks are in millimeters rather than inches because most kits are made in Europe. The typical width will be 4 or 5 mm, and the typical thickness will be .5 to 1 mm.

To find the proper length of the planks for your particular model, first take the scale of your kit and divide the large number by 12. Then divide 1 by the answer. For example, a model in 1:48 scale would be 48/12 = 4, and 1 divided by 4 equals .250”. For a scale of 1:87, 87/12 = 7.25, so 1/7.25 = .139”. A model with a scale of 1:64 would be 64/12 = 5.333, and 1/5.333 = .187”.

Once you have this result, you have the length of one scale foot on your model. Multiply that by 24 to get the length of a 24’ plank. If your kit is in 1/64” scale (or 3/16” = 1’) then 24’ = .187 x 24. This means the plank would be 24 x 3/16” or 4.488”. You could round that off to 4-1/2” in length.

The butt joints, where two plank ends butt against each other, were generally offset from adjacent rows by five scale feet. There were always three rows of planking between any rows where the butt joints ended on the same beam.

Photo 1 shows a good example of deck planking that follows these two basic rules.

Photo 1

First, notice that the two black arrows point to butt joints that end on the same deck beam (or simulated deck beam in this case). There are three rows of planks between them.

Second, the blue arrow that points to a butt joint on a row adjacent to the row above it is five scale feet aft of the butt joint on the row above it. The same holds true for the next two rows where each one’s butt joint is five scale feet aft of the row above it. That makes up the three rows between the two rows that have their butt joints on the same deck beam.

By repeating this pattern and making each plank 24 scale feet in length, a pattern emerges as can be seen in this photo.

Getting back to the subject of planking the lowest sub-deck first, if that deck is long enough to break it down into its individual planks, then by all means do so. Start with the center plank first and then add planks outward on one side, staggering them by five scale feet, until you have added three additional rows adjacent to the center row of planking. Then, align the butt joint of the fourth additional row with the butt joint of the center row of planking.

This method of aligning the planks using the five scale feet offset and aligned butt joints every 4th row is typical for any deck which is long enough to use planks that are 24 scale feet long. Photo 2 shows a short sub-deck that still employs these rules of planking.

Photo 2

As you can see by the arrows, there are three rows of planking between rows that have their butt joints on the same simulated deck beam.

For longer decks, you will need to make marks the full length of your sub-deck so that a straight edge can be used to connect the marks creating a guideline down the center of the sub-deck. Photo 3 shows the first plank laid on the Bluenose II deck. This plank was centered on the centerline so that half of the plank width was on the port side and half was on the starboard side. Notice that the plank covers the mast hole. I’ll talk about that in a moment.

Photo 3

This photo and the previous photo show the blackened edges on the plank that simulate the tarred horse hair. Over the years, I have tried different techniques to blacken the edges of deck planks. The technique I like best is to use an artist charcoal stick that can be found in most arts and craft stores such as Michaels or Hobby Lobby.

The stick will have a smooth surface that you will need to scrape off with your X-acto knife, so the charcoal under this smooth skin is exposed. Then, simply rub the stick across the edges of the plank before you glue the plank to the deck.

I prefer to use Weldbond, Gorilla Glue (the yellow kind) or Titebond on my deck planks because it gives you a chance to move the plank, if needed before the glue sets up. I use a toothpick to spread the glue across the bottom surface of the plank. After adding a plank on one side of the center plank at the mast hole area, use a #11 X-acto to trim that center plank where it covers the mast hole and trim the edge of the added plank so that the mast hole reappears with its rounded edges. After you add planking to the other side of the center plank you can trim the remaining covered area of the mast hole.

You will notice that the plank in the photo above has not been cut into individual planks. This is another trick I’ve learned over the years. You can simulate the butt joints by laying a full length plank first. Then establish a starting point for your butt joints such at the end of the deck. Measure 24 scale feet from that starting point. Then using a #22 X-acto blade, press the pointed end of the blade into the plank at the tip and roll the blade across the plank creating a cut that does not go all the way through the wood.

By starting at the center and planking outward, you can position the tip of the blade right at the point where the edge of the plank meets the plank before it. Using this method, you won’t roll the blade over the previous row of planking when you make the cut.

After making the cut, take a soft lead pencil with a sharp point on it and go over the cut with the pencil, simulating the caulking at this butt joint. Photo 4 shows a typical deck where I created the butt joints using the procedure just outlined. I did, however, add these butt joints after all of my planks had been laid. If you are careful, you can first plank the deck, then come back and add the butt joints as I have done here.

Photo 4

You will notice in the photo above, that there is a special plank along the outer edges of the deck shown by the blue arrow. This special plank is called the nibbing strake.

The purpose of the nibbing strake was to prevent the deck planks that meet at the edge of the deck from coming to a sharp point. You will notice in this photo that each plank has a blunt end where it meets the nibbing strake. Planks like this are commonly referred to as nibbed planks.

You will have to check your kit’s plans to see if your kit uses nibbed planks. The nibbing strake is installed before the deck planking reaches the outer edge of the deck.

I have tried different methods for creating the nibbing strake and the corresponding notches in it. I have found that the most accurate and best way to create this plank is to start by gluing a regular, uncut piece of planking along the outer edges of the deck. If the deck has a sharp curve in it, you may have to soak the nibbing strake plank in water for 30 minutes or so because it might break when you try to bend it edge to edge.

Typically, there was another special plank that met the bulwarks planking at the edge of the deck. It was called the waterway plank. The waterway plank was thicker than the deck planking. It had a sloped or beveled upper surface that sloped down and outward to meet the deck planking.

The drawing on the next page came from my Armed Virginia Sloop practicum, so you can ignore the measurements shown. It does, however, show the layout of the bulwarks planking as well as the waterway plank which has the beveled surface sloping outward to the deck planking. The plank that the waterway plank first meets is the nibbing strake and next to the nibbing strake is the regular deck planking. You can also see the spirketing plank (sometimes called the planksheer) above the waterway plank and the regular bulwarks planking. This setup is very typical of a warship of the 1700’s and 1800’s.

Photo 5 shows a cross section that helps to explain this.

Photo 5

Getting back to my discussion on the nibbed plank and nibbing strake, at some point your deck planking will begin to intersect the uncut nibbing strake plank you laid along the edge of the deck. This can be seen in Photo 6.

Photo 6

This photo shows that the next plank to be laid on the starboard side will intersect the nibbing strake plank. A notch has been cut into the nibbing strake for the nibbed plank to fit into. I have enhanced this photo with some black lines to show that the notched area has a slight angle to it.

To determine where the nibbing strake should be cut, first lay the nibbed plank next to the previous row of deck planking and set the end of this new plank to cross the nibbing strake at a point where the notch you will cut is half the width of the new plank. Mark the nibbing strake with a pencil at the end point of the new plank. Then make a second mark on the nibbing strake where the new plank no longer intersects it. The length of this plank should be 24 scale feet.

Photo 7 shows the new nibbed plank after trimming it on the two marks I just described. The edges have not been blackened yet.

Photo 7

As you can see, the end of the plank has the same shape as the notched cutout of the nibbing strake. The edges of the plank are then blackened, and the plank is glued to the sub-deck into the notch made in the nibbing strake. NOTE: I like to use a #22 X-acto blade to cut out the notch in the nibbing strake.

In Photo 8 you can see that a second plank has been installed which has been fitted into the nibbing strake. A third plank is being held in position for marking so that it can be trimmed and the nibbing strake can be notched. Notice the mark that crosses both the new nibbed plank and the nibbing strake where the new plank no longer intersects it (blue arrow). The black arrow shows where the new plank meets the uncut edge of the plank before it. I've also enhanced the edge of the new plank to make it more visible in this photo.

Photo 8

Photo 9 shows the same deck after all of the deck planks have been installed. As you can see, the notches in the nibbing strake can grow longer as the curvature of the hull becomes less pronounced. The notches on the port side of the deck should match the notches on the starboard side for a symmetrical look.

Photo 9

Nibbed planks were used quite often on model ships not only because it is a more historically correct way to plank the deck but also because it adds a bit of detail to the model, which shows off the craftsmanship of the modeler. Once you’ve learned the technique of notching the nibbing strake and making the nibbed planks, you will want to add this detail to all of your decks.

The reason planks were nibbed is because they were tree nailed to the deck, and a pointed plank is prone to splitting when drilling holes and adding treenails. I'll talk about treenails later in this article.

The waterway plank was a special plank at the side of the deck. In warships particularly, this plank was thicker than the deck planking and had a sloped surface. This sloped surface was designed to stop the trucks or wheels of the cannon from banging into the bulwarks planks when the cannon was fired.

The other reason for the waterway plank was to provide a transition point where the scuppers exited the hull. Scuppers were special holes lined with lead that went from the deck, through the bulwarks and exited the ship’s hull on the outside so water could drain from the decks. (Think of a drain in a bathtub.)

If your kit has a waterway plank, this will be the first plank you must make and install along the edges of the deck before the nibbing strake and deck planking can be added. The waterway plank will butt up against the inside edge of any bulkhead extension pieces that often form the bulwarks of the model.

Photo 10 shows the planking at the side of the deck on the USF Constitution kit by Model Shipways.

Photo 10

In Photo 11 you see the spirketing or planksheer plank and the waterway plank at the bow of the USF Constitution model. I have drawn black lines to help show the profile of these planks. Notice that the edge of the waterway plank where it will meet the deck planking is the same thickness that the deck planking will be. The waterway plank then has a sloped surface where it meets the top, flat surface that the planksheer plank sits on. The planksheer is thicker than the bulwarks planking that will sit on top and above it so it’s outside edge is curved.

Photo 11

The waterway plank will usually have this shape. What I have found in many kits of large warships is that they do not properly show the shape of the waterway plank, and they often do not even include a waterway plank. That is why it is important to check your kit’s plans before proceeding with the planking of the decks. Even though the waterway plank may not be shown in your kit, you can easily make one using some of the stripwood in your kit. Photo 12 shows the waterway plank I made on my kit-bashed Rattlesnake model from Mamoli.

Photo 12

Kits Without a Sub-Deck

Many of the kits you can purchase today come without sub-decks. These kits are normally planked by simply gluing the planks directly to the top of the bulkheads. Before you can do this, you need to sand the tops of the bulkheads to fair them out. Fairing is the process of evening the edges of of the bulkheads so that planks flow smoothly from one bulkhead to the next. The planks need to lie flat against the top of each bulkhead. It is also important to remove the char on the top of the bulkheads, which is caused by the laser cutting so that the glued planks will adhere to the wood of the bulkheads and not the char itself.

The key to planking a deck without sub-decks is to place butt joints in the center of the bulkheads. This doesn’t leave much wood for the butted planks to be glued so careful cutting of the planks to length is very important.

Bulkheads are generally not spaced properly to allow for historically correct butt joints, as described earlier. If you are seeking a much more historical correctness in your build, you can add your own sub-deck using 1/64” thick birch plywood, which is often sold in hobby shops and arts and crafts stores. In this case, you should use card stock to create a template that will fit the bulkhead tops with notches that must fit around the outer edges of the bulkheads where extensions are added to form the upper bulwarks.

Photo 13 shows the deck of the Fair American kit from Model Shipways. You can see the waterway plank installed along the side of the deck area (blue arrow).

Photo 13

As you can see, the planks are still darkened on the edges using an artist charcoal. The hatches on this particular model presented a small problem in that the ends of the center rows of planking did not land on anything at all due to the false deck underneath the open hatch. In situations such as this, edge gluing the planks will help to stabilize the unsupported ends. You can also come along once the hatch opening is formed and add a plank underneath the fore and aft ends of the hatch opening.

Personally I prefer to use a sub-deck even if the kit does not include one. The reason is that it gives the deck planking additional support. It also comes in handy when deck hatch combings are added because there are two ways to handle the hatch combings, depending on the design of the kit. A hatch combing is that thick wood frame around the hatch that looks like a picture frame.

Some kits make the hatch combings thick enough that they are to be placed on the sub-deck and the deck planking is fitted around them. This is actually more historically correct. Other kits are designed so that the hatch combings are to sit on top of the planking. The wood provided for such hatch combings is not as thick as it should be if the hatch combing were placed on top of the sub-deck with the planking around it.

Another situation arises when there is no sub-deck and the hatch combings are designed to sit on top of the bulkheads with the deck planking flowing around the hatch combing. The problem with such a design is that the planks that surround the hatch combing have nothing to lie on when the combing extends beyond the bulkhead. The USF Constitution kit from Model Shipways is such a model.

Photo 14 shows how to handle such a situation.

Photo 14

As you can see in this photo, I have added scrap pieces of basswood between the bulkheads (blue arrows) taken from leftover wood in the kit. These pieces provide support for the deck planking that extends around the hatch combings.

Photo 15 shows this same deck after more deck planking was added.

Photo 15


Each modeler must decide how much detail he or she wishes to add to their model. Kits do not include treenails; and few, if any will even mention treenails in the decks. This is a detail that must be added by the modeler.

There are many different types of material that can be used as a treenail. In my early days of learning how to build model ships, I used broom straw. I even used uncooked spaghetti noodles for treenails on one large model I built.

As I gained experience and began building from scratch, I learned that more accurate looking treenails had to be made by hand using a drawplate and either bamboo, boxwood, or Swiss pear wood. Byrnes Model Machines sells a very nice drawplate which can be seen at this web address:

Another trick I learned in my early days was to take a small hypodermic needle and cut off the pointed tip with a cutoff wheel and the Dremel tool. The flattened needle could then be filed around the edges to give it a bit of a cutting edge. Then the needle was used to burn small circles into the deck that gave it the look of a treenail.

To use this method, I used a piece of scrap wood that I super glued into the plastic end of the needle to serve as a handle. I heated the tip with a candle each time I burned the treenail shape into the planking. You can now purchase blunt tipped dispensing needles on Amazon which come in various diameters. This method is excellent to simulate a treenail if the wood is basswood. Most kits these days use basswood for the deck planking or a very thin, light colored wood which will work also.

Another method I’ve used is to drill the holes for the treenails but rather than fill them with wood like a treenail, I filled them with wood filler. When sanded and finished, the wood filler looks very much like a real treenail. It helps to use a darker colored filler than the color of the deck planking itself.

The problem with treenails in a deck is that the wood in the deck is generally very white such as basswood, while the treenail is a much darker color. The contrast creates a somewhat freckled look which may not be what you were hoping for. Choose your treenail material's color wisely.

When applying treenails to a model, I use pinstripe tape laid across the hull or deck where one edge of the tape is aligned with the locations that I will drill holes for the treenails. Then using a Dremel tool with the correct diameter bit in it, I drill all the holes along that line. All that is needed afterwards is to insert the treenails, clip the tops off and sand them flush. Photo 16 shows a deck that I planked using holly, a very white wood. The treenails were Swiss pear wood which gave a lot of contrast between the two woods.

Photo 16

Of course there were rules about the number of treenails used in each plank depending on the width of the plank. My golden rule is if the plank is wide enough for the material you wish to use, then two treenails can be used; otherwise use one. When two treenails were used in each plank, generally the pattern has an offset look with one treenail near the left edge of the deck beam and the other near the right edge. I've added an example to the photo for demonstration purposes only (black circles).

The trick I use to get my treenails in a straight line is to lay thin strips of pinstripe tape or Tamaya masking tape along the line where I will drill the holes for the treenails. Then using a pinvise or a Dremel tool with a small drill bit, I drill the holes right next to the edge of the tape. This produces a fairly straight line, depending on how steady your hand is when placing the bit on the deck and holding it steady while the hole is drilled.

Of course, where butt joints exist, a treenail must be placed in the end of each of the planks, as shown in Photo 16. If you are installing two treenails in each plank, the butt joint would have two treenails in each side instead of one.

Finishing the Decks

Finishing the decks involves bringing all of the planks into surface alignment first. To do this, I use a combination of sanding and scraping, depending on the wood used in the deck planking and its thickness. For thicker planks, which are often found in kits where there is no sub-deck, scraping will help fair out the planking so that no part of any given plank is higher than the rest of the planking. The advantage of scraping the deck is that you can better isolate the area you are trying to remove wood from. Scraping also removes chalk and glue from the surface of the deck.

Sanding, on the other hand, covers a much broader area. If you have a plank that sticks up higher than the rest of the planking around it, and you try to sand it down to the same level of the surrounding planking, you will never achieve the proper surface alignment because you are removing material not just from the plank that is too thick but also from the surrounding planks as well. That is why I prefer to scrape the affected planked areas.

The #22 X-acto is my goto tool for scraping. The curved tip is perfect for isolating the scraping passes I make to the plank. Hold the blade perpendicular to the deck surface as well as perpendicular to the run of the deck planking. Then, push the blade across the plank maintaining the orientation so the edge of the blade doesn’t cut the wood but scrapes it. Depending on the run of the grain in the wood, you may need to reverse the direction of the scraping from time to time.

Don’t expect a smooth finish when you are scraping the wood. The scraping will cause the grain of the wood to be raised, producing a rough finish. After the raised area of the plank has been scraped away, follow up with sandpaper to remove the roughness and achieve a smooth surface for finishing.

I start with 100 grit sandpaper to remove black smudges from the artist charcoal. Then I switch to 150 grit and finally to a finer grit such as 220 or 300 grit sandpaper.

After your deck has been scraped and sanded, wipe it off with a tack rag. This will remove any remaining dust. I follow up with several coats of Minwax Wipe-on Polyurethane (satin finish).

Decks on real ships were not shiny so I try to give the Minwax finish a final sanding of 300 grit sandpaper after the last coat has dried. This will dull the look of the polyurethane finish. Typically no hatch combings or deck furniture should be installed until the deck has been scraped, sanded, and finished.

Tapered Decks

Some ships did not have straight planking on the decks. Even though a nibbing strake was used along the sides of the deck, the planks were tapered and curved to fit in the space between the port and starboard bulwarks. The Model Shipways kit, Bluenose is a typical example. It’s stern deck planking can be seen in Photo 17.

Photo 17

Notice that the planks on each side of the centerline curve inwards and are tapered on one edge. It is never a good idea to have any planking come to a sharp point, which is why this model still shows a nibbing strake.

Other Planking Situations

There will be times and kits that simply do not fit the situations I have described. The HMS Pegasus/HMS Fly by Amati is one example.

This kit has a forecastle and a quarterdeck that sit over the main deck. Because the areas beneath these decks cannot be seen once the model is finished, the deck planking at the sides is not complete. The deck does not have a nibbing strake and in some areas, no planking at all has been added.

Photo 18 shows the main deck of the HMS Pegasus model.

Photo 18

If you look closely at the planking near the bow, you can see that some areas were left un-planked (black arrows). This area will be covered by the forecastle deck and will be hidden from view.

The same holds true at the aft end of the deck. You can see some missing deck pieces just aft of the large deck beam forward of the capstan.This area will be covered by the quarterdeck.

The point I want to make is that it’s okay to leave such areas un-planked to a certain extent when the area will not be visible in the end. The areas most important are those that are visible when the model is viewed in its completed state.

There’s one other deck area that is a bit unconventional. On large ships like the HMS Victory, there is a small deck in front of the bulkhead at the bow where the forecastle deck ends. This can be seen in Photo 19.

Photo 19

This photo shows that small deck. As you can see, the deck has a gentle curve on each side of the centerline. There is no nibbing strake because the planks still have sufficient wood for treenails (even though I did not install them.) Planking like this is still historically correct without a nibbing strake and would not normally use one because the planks do not come to a sharp point. I have seen ships with this small forward deck that had another planked with the curve of this small deck placed over the ends of the small deck planks.

Normally, your kit’s plans will show when to use a nibbing strake on the decks of your particular model. The time to become suspicious is when the kits plans show planks that come to a sharp point. This simply would not be historically correct on any ship because a pointed plank is a very weak plank that could break easily and has little wood to support a treenail for securing it to the deck beams.

This complete my discussion on Planking a Deck on a model ship.

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