Jump to content

A method for making panelled sails using paper

Recommended Posts

I've developed a method for making paneled sails from paper that works nicely to simulate the three-dimensional texture of a sail. It seems to offer a lot of visual interest, more so than a flat sail, and the procedure is pretty manageable. I like paper sails for several reasons: they hold their shape better than cloth sails (including a natural bellied curve), they have a nice texture (especially when colored by pastels), and there's no need for complicated or careful sewing. In this topic I'll walk through the method I worked out so far, starting with making the panels themselves. I haven't seen much else about paper sails on MSW, so hopefully this is of interest to some folks.


I first tried paper sails on my 18th century longboat build and was quite happy with the result. In that case, I just used a flat sheet of paper and drew on the seams and stitches. It worked, but was too flat. For my current build of a US Revenue Cutter, I decided to try making sails the prototypical way, assembling them from long panels of material joined at the edges. I first asked for guidance in another sail-making thread, which produced a lot of good ideas and guidance. This guide to sail-making from the Historic Naval Ships Association was a particularly useful suggestion, as it's chock full of detailed diagrams for the arrangement of panels and the overall design of sails for different craft. Following these guides, I made a few sails and was very pleased, so I finally put in the time to document each step of the process for the foresail of my revenue cutter. Here's what these sails look like on that model:




Cutting & Assembling Panels


I used bond paper, which is heavier and more textured than regular printer paper. This is commonly used for printing theses; my supply came from leftovers of Mrs. Cathead's graduate thesis. Beware of watermarks in bond paper; you don't want your sail advertising a paper company when you shine a light on it! As shown above, I mark a sheet of bond paper in scale 2' strips, then cut the strips on a small paper-cutter. Using a dedicated fine brush, I run a narrow strip of basic wood glue along the edge of each strip, then lay it out on the edge of a neighbor strip. A glue stick might work too, but I've been fine using this method. Repeating this process produces a nice 3D-textured shape from which you can cut the final sail pattern. Make sure you pay attention to the direction in which you lay out the strips; I did one of my sails backward (so that the seams ran counter to the other sails) and had to start over because it looked funny. Above, you can already see how the overlapped panels create more visual interest than a plain, smooth sail.


Next, I cut and attach any corner reinforcement panels. Then I cut thinner strips for the edging of the sails, and fold them in half. Then I brush glue along the inner surface of each one, and carefully fold it in place along the sail's edges. There are several ways to do this: you can brush 1/2 of the strip, glue it on, then brush on the other 1/2 and fold it over; or you can brush the whole inner surface at once. Although the former approach sounds better in theory, I've found that the moisture in the glue causes the paper to buckle, so that if you do the 1/2 approach, the strip bends out of true and is really hard to align on the sail's edge. If you glue the whole thing, it stays straight and is easier to handle. Incidentally, the same buckling-when-wet property works to your advantage in the sail overall; as the moisture dries between the panels, the sail inevitably takes on a bit of a curve, which nearly perfectly mimics the gently belly of a sail with wind in it. I also cut any reef-point strips and attach these.


Once the sail is fully assembled, I color it with artist's pastels. You can use your finger or a cotton swab to gently rub on color; the paper takes up the color wonderfully, and it really brings out the texture of the bond paper. The 3D nature of the assembly helps, too, as the pastel powder naturally collects a bit along seams and highlights the structural elements of the sail. You can use a mix of colors to get just the appearance you want. One important warning: don't rub too hard, and hold the sail flat. A downside of paper vs. cloth is that paper creases; if you rub too hard or otherwise force the paper to bend or kink, you'll never get that feature out again. Some folks may want to use some kind of fixative on the color, but I've never bothered; the bond paper holds pastel really well on its own. Just be careful about handling the sail with fingers coated in pastel; you don't want to leave a dark fingerprint smudge somewhere.


That's the first stage. You could stop here for a basic version, but I went ahead and added boltropes and reef points, which I'll cover in the next few posts.




Link to comment
Share on other sites

Part II: Adding boltropes


My understanding is that boltropes are hard to get right in scale. The ropes themselves are pretty small at most common model scales, and the stitches that hold them on would be essentially invisible, certainly at this project's 1:64 scale. However, leaving them off removes clear visual interest and makes it difficult to attach lines to the sails properly. One approach in the paper-sail method would be to bury a fine line within the folded-over edging; this is the method I used on my longboat. Glue one side of the edging down, then spread glue on the rest, stretch a thin line along the seam, and fold the edging over. You now have a boltrope that's hidden from sight, but strengthens the sail and can be carefully looped at each corner to provide the proper attachment point (and it's easy to form cringles anywhere just by tugging it out slightly from the stitching). However, for my current project, I wanted to include the visual interest of stitched boltropes even if they were out of scale. I know my model isn't perfectly accurate, and I'd rather it be a visually interesting representation of a real ship. So here's how I added them.


First, I punched holes for the stitching all the way around the sail, having measured and marked straight lines of evenly-spaced points. Then I laid out my boltrope and stitched it into place with a running stitch (I used basic white sewing thread). This can be done two ways: either with a needle (as shown above) or with a deadeye/block threader like this one from Model Expo (which I love) [edit as of 2022: these are no longer sold by Model Expo but here's an example of an equivalent product from Joann Fabrics]. The former is a lot faster, but the needle's eye tends to make wider holes. The threader takes long, but leaves smaller holes that aren't as visible. The sail in this demonstration used a needle throughout, as I wanted to try it. Another benefit of pastel coloring occurs here: a bit of pastel rubs off on all the lines, inherently coloring them to match the sail.



I stitched the boltrope on loosely all the way around, making extra stitches at each corner to create a proper loop. There will be two loose ends of the boltrope meeting at the first/final corner; we'll deal with that soon. Just leave a few inches extra when you start. Once the loose stitching is done, I used a fine tweezer to work along the stitch, pulling out all the slack. The boltrope sits naturally on one side of the sail; technically this is accurate, but rather out of scale. The true-scale boltrope would look like it was right along the sail's edge even if slightly to one side. However, once you get all the stitching really tight, you can actually use your fingers to massage the boltrope up almost to the edge of the sail, where it looks about as right as you can get. Once each corner's loop and stitching is tight and as I want it, I applied a small drop of CA glue to the stitching binding the loop in place, ensuring that it's not going anywhere.


Now for the final corner. When the boltrope is stretched tight in all directions, cut it short at both ends and weave each end back into the stitching, overlapping itself a little. Then you can nip it off carefully near the corner, allowing for one final loop, and pull the stitching tight to hold it in place. Another small application of CA glue holds this in place.



This is actually a very sloppy final corner; the worse one I've done so far. I cut the upward-running rope too short, so that my joint falls down the side of the sail. I meant it to fit right in under the loop, where the extra stitching hides it. Still, it's barely noticeable from more than a few inches away.


This approach gives you out-of-scale, but functional and very interesting, boltropes. Personally I think they look really nice in the context of the model overall (see any of the overview photos). They demonstrate to any viewer how this part of the ship would work, and they give the sail extra texture. Again, I like that this approach demonstrates the reality of the sail rather than perfectly simulating it. Your approach, and priorities, may vary.


In the next post, I'll attach reef points and show the completed sail.

Edited by Cathead
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Part III: Adding reef points


Reef points add a lot of visual interest to sails, and they're easy to add in the paper-sail method.



The reef bands were glued on in Part I. Where to place the reef points is something of an uncertain topic; I found references for a variety of options, including one point on each seam, one point within each panel, and two points within each panel. I chose to use the first approach. Because the paper layers were extra thick here, due to the seam and reef bands, I used a small drill bit to open up a hole rather than trying to drive a needle through.


For the reef points, I cut a series of rigging rope a bit longer than I needed. I wanted my reef points 2 scale feet long, so I cut the rope 5' long to allow for trimming, then used a deadeye/block threader to run each line through the sail. The threader creates a strong crimp in the line, so I tried to center each line in the threader before pulling it back through; the crimp then becomes a natural reference point holding the line in place where it passes through the sail.



When all the lines for a given band were threaded, I clamped a piece of wood across the sail 2 scale feet below the reef band as a reference marker. You can get the length right here in two ways: either trim each line to the right length relative to the crimp, or don't worry about the crimp and pull each one back through the sail until only 2' are left on the side you're working on. I then used a fine brush to gently apply a bit of glue to a line, then pressed it into place on the sail with its tip against the wood. You only have to hold the line in place for maybe 10-15 seconds for the glue to take hold, before moving on to the next one. I like to get glue from the tip to about 2/3 to the sail, not all the way to the sail. This means the line naturally bows out a bit where it comes out of the sail, giving it some 3D texture. Don't overdo the glue or you'll get weird stains on the paper. Also, don't worry about trying to get each line perfectly straight; they're going to want to curve this way and that, and buckle a bit, and that's exactly what you want because that really makes them look like loose lines dangling down. You want just enough glue to hold them relatively flat so they look like gravity is working. If you glue them too flat or perfect, they'll look glued on and artificial.



Once one side is done, it looks something like the image above. Then you just turn the sail over, clamp the wood at 2' again, trim the remaining lines to length, and glue them in the same way.



If there is more than one reef band, do the upper one first, since you're overall working on the lower side. Above, you see the same process being repeated for a lower line of reef points.



And here are the two completed lines of reef points. They have a nice randomness that looks like loosely dangling lines. Note that, once again, I slightly messed up this demonstration by not cutting the upper line of reef points quite evenly (they're too short on the left). It figures that my demonstration sail would be the sloppiest of any I've made so far, but I hope the idea comes across. And, as above, this sort of things fades away when the sail is placed in the full context of a rigged model.


I'm quite happy with this method. I've now made all six of the sails for my topsail schooner this way and feel that they have a strong visual interest and a realistic (if not perfectly accurate) appearance. Moreover, the method uses cheap material that's easy to work with, and requires no special skills other than some patience and care when handling glued paper. It's easy to test on random scraps first before trying a full sail, and it's easy to customize. For example, you could skip the panels and just use a full sheet of paper, or skip the boltropes, and still use the rest of the approach to have a nice sail that holds it shape and can even be shaped to hold a curve. I hope others find some or all of this interesting and useful as a different way to produce interesting sails for nautical models. Thanks for reading.

Link to comment
Share on other sites



Thank you for your treatise. What paper did you use?    I was skeptical at first as I was thinking the paper would deteriorate in color and strength relatively quickly so did a quick check on commonly available paper.  It appears that high quality alkaline paper will last 1000 years and average grades about 500 years.  Acid papers will turn in color and become brittle much more quickly.  

All in all, a very interesting alternative to cloth or silkspan.




Link to comment
Share on other sites



Check the first post; I used bond paper, which is a high-quality durable paper originally used for government bonds and now commonly used for archival papers or theses. It's expected to be a long-lasting paper because of its intended uses. It also has a nice rough texture that really simulates cloth well at small scales (as compared to printer or photo paper, which is too smooth and shiny).


You raise a good point, depending on the intended life of the model. I don't imagine that any of my models will outlast me or have any interest beyond my lifespan (I'll be shocked if they're still of interest to anyone in even 20-30 years), so I'm not real worried. But I could definitely see how a more professionally-minded modeller might have concerns about the long-term durability. I suspect that coloring the paper with pastels doesn't hurt, as it's just a surface treatment. I don't know whether any kind of fixative spray would affect the lifespan one way or another. Finally, I don't know for sure what the glue will do; I know most modellers swear by basic wood glue as a very stable and long-lasting fixative, and assumed that it would behave the same way with paper, but can't say for sure.


Thanks to everyone for checking in; please let me know if you try it because I'd love to hear about other people's experiences (better yet, post here so we can collect more experiences and advice).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Paper intended for max longevity is made of rag from fabric rather than wood pulp. It'll be labeled "100%rag". Wood pulp is full of acids that oxidize the paper and make it brittle and yellow. Some suggest that sealing paper on all sides with a varnish or coating of some kind will block oxygen from aiding the decomposition of the paper but I imagine it wouldn't guarantee immortality.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As I have used this technique on virtually all my models made over the last couple of decades, I may be allowed a couple of comments ;) :


Not sure what scale you are working in, but 'bond' paper seems to be rather heavy even though it would be a good quality of paper. I would rather go for something as thin as possible.


If I wanted to stich-on the bolt-rope (I never worked in scale, where this would be possible physically), I would use the thinnest fly-tying yarn I could get holds of (something like 18/0 and perhaps even split it).


The reef-points are actually held in place by stiched-on crown-splices on both sides of the sail. These can be simulated by two figure-of-eight- or over-hand-knots that are pulled very close to the sail.


Not sure, whether 'dafi' presented his technique (already) in this Forum, but for his 1:96 scale HMS VICTORY he developed a three-layer technique using self-adhesive tapes as used by book-restorers to (almost) invisibly patch up ripped pages. Strips of that paper-tape are pasted from both sides onto a backing of very fine silk weave ('silk-span') to create the effect of the sail-panels. This composite can be crumbled and creased to give a realistic cloth effect and when stitching-on the bolt-rope the silk-weave prevents the edges from ripping out. Interesting technique, but I have not yet used it myself.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wefalck, thanks for your insights! Nice to hear from someone with more experience in this regard.


Regarding reef points, I forgot to say this: I had tried to simulate what you decribe, but found that I was simply unable to tie a knot tightly enough on both sides of the sail to look right. There was always enough slack so that one side or the other shifted outward slightly, ruining the effect. This may well be simply a failure of skill; if it could be done right it'd be great.


This particular model is in 1:64; I used bond paper because it's what I had on hand. I model on a tight budget and find great value in reusing materials already available to me. As I'm just an amateur, this sometimes is more important to me than perfection. For my model, the paper is close enough on inspection for all but the most knowledgeable, and here in the American Midwest, there is virtually no one knowledgeable enough to know the difference.


Kiwibob, I have not tried rice paper, as noted above I used what I had on hand. I appreciate the suggestion, though, as now other people can try it and see if they prefer it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Eric, I eally like the look of your paper sails. In the photos they "read" really well. Think I'll try them next time, maybe on My Syren build coming up. On mt Halifax I used handkerchief material but I don't sew and although the the lady who did it for me tried hard it wasn't quite right. I did use spray starch to stiffen the cloth some and make it more managable. I see one guy on the forum used old kahki pants and got great results. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Depends on the material also: cotton (as used in the USA) would be more whitish, while flax and hemp (as mainly used in Europe in the pre-industrial age) would be more greyish-yellowish. The older the sail the more light-greyish it would be, presumably, due to the constant exposure the elements and light.


Small fishing vessels frequently used 'tanned' sails (as in the above botter), the resulting colour being anything between a dark red, reddish brown and yellow ochre, depening on what was smeared on the canvas.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 years later...
  • 2 months later...
  • 1 year later...

@Valkyrja68 - thanks for commenting on this thread from five years ago.  It's nice to see these older articles showing up in my "New  Posts Since Last Visit."  And IMO this is a gem of a thread.  


@Cathead -  I add my 2-bytes worth to the comments.  A well, done tutorial.    Not a criticism since links change over time, however, the link to the deadeye/block threader is dead.  I did find an interesting alternative at Model Expo:  Illuminated Threader.  I thought it a good idea to update the link.


The other deadeye threader doesn't show up at Model Expo.  However, searching for 'needle threader' gets you sources for the tool and similar alternatives.  Amazon has them (as if that might shock you).     


I am doing some rigging on a shrimp boat and found that a big-eye beading needle works decently.  The ones I have are a bit long.  However, smaller sizes (lengths) are available.  The smallest diameter I have found are 0.35 mm.  Has any one used these on deadeyes and blocks? 


I have run into the needle snagging and fraying the line sometimes.  The thread gets snuggly stuck into the corner of the 'eye' and hard to pull free without a bit of fray.  However, since the fray is at the end of my thread, it's easily cut-off.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

7 minutes ago, robert952 said:

I have run into the needle snagging and fraying the line sometimes.  The thread gets snuggly stuck into the corner of the 'eye' and hard to pull free without a bit of fray.  However, since the fray is at the end of my thread, it's easily cut-off.  

Probably the easiest way is instead of a threader that also may or may not distort the holes is just to put a drop of CA on the end of the thread.  When dry, trim at an angle so it's pointed.  Then rig the block.


I did try some needle threaders, etc. in the past but by the time you put the thread through the threader, you end up needed basically a hole twice the size of the thread and thus, out of scale or just looks strange.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, robert952 said:

the link to the deadeye/block threader is dead.  I did find an interesting alternative at Model Expo:  Illuminated Threader


Thanks for catching that! It does look like ME stopped selling the basic ones, and a lighted one seems rather wasteful. I updated that post to include a link to an equivalent product from Joann Fabrics:




I've definitely used these with blocks to great success.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

We had this discussion already in another thread some time ago: If you can use such needle threaders on blocks this means that the holes in the blocks are too big for the 'rope' and/or that the 'rope' is too soft and can be squeezed too much. The holes should be about 10% wider than the nominal 'rope' diameter.


I would follow Mark's advice and stiffen the tip with varnish and then cut it to a point.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...