How would you like to have had the opportunity to build your first wooden or plastic model ship having spent nothing for the kit and knowing that you will have as many chances as you need to get it right without ever having to purchase the kit over again? Uh-huh -- good luck with that! But one of the beauties of card modeling is that you can do exactly that -- build your first model for free. Or at least pretty close to free.
Many card model designers and/or publishers offer one or more free model kits. These come in the form of a downloadable file, usually in PDF format. You simply download the file, print out the kit on your printer using appropriate card stock, and you're off to the races! So, technically the kit isn't completely free, since you have to buy the paper and supply the printer and ink, but you get the idea.
One thing to keep in mind when considering a downloadable model is that almost all designs from anywhere other than the U.S. are designed to be printed on A4 size paper. Occasionally designers will make their designs optionally available in 8.5" by 11" format, but this is the exception rather than the rule. U.S. modelers will need to scale their models to fit 8.5" by 11", or else print the full-size pages in multiple pieces, which wastes some paper and ink on redundant parts.
The nice thing about a free model is that if you ruin it during construction, you're not out of a lot of money, plus you can simply reprint one or more pages and you're back in action.
A WORD OF CAUTION!! Many unscrupulous persons scan commercially available card model kits and then host them at third party file sharing sites -- these are not 'free models'. They've been stolen. DO NOT PATRONIZE SUCH SITES! Not only are models obtained from such sites pirated and thus not welcome at MSW, but designing card models isn't exactly a lucrative business. Buying card models from legitimate sources helps out our designer friends, who are very often fellow modelers as well as designers.
OK, so where can you download some free models? Here are some sites to check out:
Models 'n' Moore: This site offers a number of designs by the late Magnus Morck, mostly American Civil War gunboats.
Digital Navy: The Admirable-class minesweeper has introduced many card modelers to the hobby. A lightship, torpedo boat, and 1/700 scale HMS Dreadnought are also available. Don't try 1/700 scale as a first card model, unless you are a masochist.
Paper Shipwright: Several free models, of which the most detailed is the river monitor SMS Rhein.
Zioprudenzio: Mostly Italian naval vessels in 1/400 and 1/200 scale. Some of the smaller 1/200 models might be a first good project (no experience with them myself). (EDIT: Zio Prudenziati passed away in 2014, and the link to his old site no longer works. I have been unable to find his models hosted elsewhere.)
There's others, but these are some of the most commonly used resources. Give them a visit!