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Gaetan Bordeleau

In search for the perfect wood for the North American model ship builder

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I began model ship building many years ago, and I still do not know if the perfect wood specie exist for model ship. In Europe , the favorite wood is pear wood and boxwood, 2 fruit woods with no grain pattern. These 2 species grow well in few countries in Europe. Pear wood has an excellent workability and it is easy to sand. Boxwood is probably the perfect wood for carving.


In North America, what choice do we have, if we want to use native woods. I do not know if we have in Museums scale model ship before 1800. If so, what would have been the wood they would have used. In Canada, around 1750 in Quebec city, René Nicolas Levasseur built around 10 full size ship in oak. I did not see in the archives if he did small scale model ship.


What choice do we have in Canada, more specifically in Ontario and Quebec? The best woods have to be the fruit woods. Apple wood could be probably the best choice, but there are 2 problems availability and I read that few furniture was made from this wood but likes to crack. If I want to build a large size model like by example 1/24, supply would be extremely difficult.


I do not know of any fruit wood specie that I could buy in large quantity, so I have to turn to the hardwoods.

Some people use maple but the grain is very large and sanding is very difficult. 

Birch, may be, could be good, but availability  is a problem.


The last one cherry wood, is it really a fruit wood or is it some kind between the size of maple tree and apple tree. I do not know what the wood of cherry tree like in France look like? 

To build a model ship  at this scale I would need about 10 X 2'' by 10'' by 12 feet, the cost may be $500. The reason why it is preferable to use domestic wood is the price. The same quantity of exotic wood would be more like $5000.

Workability and sanding are very excellent, nice edge retention, but at least 0 to 5% has perpendicular grain in a plank. These trees grows relatively fast and the grain if not carefully chosen can be out of scale.


So is there a perfect fruit tree with oak grain in miniature for the grain pattern? The best I know are fruitwood without grain pattern.


If I do not find the right wood, does that mean that I cannot build a model? If I really want to build at least one, I have to make a choice.


What would be your choice and why???


Capture d’écran, le 2019-09-23 à 08.52.16.jpg

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Cherry for sure.....But many dont like the dark color that develops.   On that list if you prefer a lighter wood that is hard,  I would choose yellow birch.   It is as hard as cherry.   BUT....you must really pick out your boards by hand because you have to hunt for the pieces with little to no grain.   Grain is a problem with most of those woods.  So you need to select the clearest premium boards.  


On the softer side.....if you like the lighter woods.....Yellow poplar is really good.  But again you have to pick out the good pieces that arent greenish and have little grain.   


Then there is of course Yellow cedar which isnt on your list.   But it has very little grain at all but is very soft like basswood.  It holds a sharp edge but takes some getting used to in order to use it especially after you have been used to a harder wood.  It is my preferred wood after boxwood but it is about 1/4 the price.


Here is my 1/4" scale frigate in yellow cedar which is common and easy to get in large 2 x 6 or 2 x 12 billets.








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My evaluation of your list:

Not good choices, because of obvious and out of scale grain and pores   - 

Ash - all three


Oak - both      editorial comment: is really awful  in how it looks in scale - hits you between the eyes.


For framing

Not good choices, because it is soft,  blunt (not crisp) edges,  fibers roll  - 

Aspen - both     ed.  a trash wood put in service for economic reasons


Maple, soft/ especially silver

Poplar, balsam   ed.  a trash wood put in service for economic reasons

Sycamore, American  -  "lacewood"  I hate it.  When I started with this I bought a large supply because of what Underhill wrote about Sycamore.  Turns out - what the English know as Sycamore is actually a Maple that is a bit softer than Hard Maple, but close enough.  The North American Sycamore ( Platanus occidentalis  ) is different - it is similar to Black Cherry in hardness and looks close enough to Hard Maple in color to be difficult to isolate.  The fibers roll, it fuzzes when sanded or cut, it stinks when cut.  It has flecks in the grain - the "lace".


From what is left.

Elm, white  - I do not know

Elm, rock  -  I think I have some.  I bought what I thought was Black Cherry from a picker who got it in an estate sale.

                    it is very hard, not as unobtrusive in grain as I would wish, but acceptable.  Dulls blades.  Color is similar to aged Black Cherry


Elm, red  -   got a "deal" for a couple of planks from a cabinet maker in Lexington, turns out - he shed it because it was too cupped  to plane to a reasonable thickness.  I do not need it in a 4 or 8 foot length, so I salvaged more processing shorter lengths.  I advise giving cupped boards a pass if you can.  The wood is similar to Black Cherry in hardness.  Too much grain.


Sassafras   - way too much grain - got some with the Red Elm -  the way the grain presents, I think it will make an interesting base board, especially if dyed blue or green - it looks like ocean waves.


Beech,  American  -  similar to Hard Maple  except for a grain peculiarity - visible but not obvious "dashes"

Beech,  European  -  similar to Hard Maple - just a bit darker

Birch,  Yellow  -   similar to Hard Maple


Yellow Poplar   -  Tulip Poplar  ( Liriodendron tulipifera )  soft, easy to work, sharp edges, no visible pores,  can get really large boards  not expensive -  the problem is the color - it is streaky - nice yellow to green  to  a color that reminds me of a treated pier piling.   If you can select  out the yellow, it is great.


Black Cherry  -   Excellent - hard enough - has grain, but it is not obtrusive -  it will oxidize to a darker color over time - similar to steamed Pear.   it is softer than Pear  I harvested some Sweet Cherry - the wood is near identical in grain and hardness, but the color is yellow green.   Black Cherry has small inedible  fruit,  but Black Cherry syrup - pharmacy compounding - is made from the bark.  If you want darker but beautiful frames, this wood is the champion.  What you get from a lumber yard now will be light pink - color development takes time.


Hard Maple  -  (sugar)   about twice as hard as Black Cherry.  The closest in a commercial domestic wood to Buxus.  Not near as hard, but hard enough.  Color is similar to Buxus, but more blonde than yellow.

                       The Maple that I buy is plane cut.   I like two inch unplanned.  I slice off frame thickness boards for my thickness sander from this.  Maple has peculiar grain characteristics.  The plane cut surface has the normal faint oval pattern.  A slice perpendicular to this can yield a variety of faint patterns.  From the desired scale parallel layers, to flame, to tiger striped  -  it all depends on the distance from the pith.

The flame and tiger on the face of a frame timber is certainly not scale, but it is not bluntly obvious.  I think it adds interest.  Hard Maple is strong, holds a crisp edge,  is hard enough to keep your from getting into trouble when doing aggressive shaping. 


I think both Hard Maple and Black Cherry will serve your purposes excellently.  I can get either for less than $10 bf - maybe half that for Cherry, but  I sense that there is a covert inflation in play - from my increase in food costs.   I mill my own wood and I find rough, unplanned stock provides more wood - even if it does not sit against a saw fence as sweetly as planned stock.  If you like it, buy more than you think you will need.   I remember getting already dark red, clear Black Cherry from Homer Gregory Mill for $1 bf way back when.  Both the quality and cost are long gone. 

Edited by Jaager

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To add to this:  if you are a chainsaw harvester,  even if you own a wood lot with Hard Maple or Black Cherry or Black Walnut,  it is highly probable that it is better to buy the rough sawn and kiln dried product from a hardwood mill or dealer.  Better to sell it to  the industry and buy it back processed.  Seasoning takes time and the wood may not play nice as it dries.  The work of a lumber jack is more than a little dangerous and most of them do it full time and know what is hazardous as a matter of experience.  For non commercially available species, this is about the only way, and if extreme care is taken , should work out OK.  But if you can get it another way, it is very false economy to play lumber jack.

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Thank you guys for your inputs.


Yellow cedar, may be I could get from British Columbia, it would be expensive to ship in Quebec but the look of the grain is interesting


Maple, very easy to get here in Quebec. I think I would need to get lucky  to get a nice batch. The problem is the large spacing between each year which I think is larger than cherry. In comparison sanding maple and cherry are 2 different world.


We have 3 different opinions and cherry is in everyone list. I remember very well in 2013, I did participate in a kind of contest for model ship builders. Here is what a judge wrote about cherry: ''The biggest issue with this model was the choice of wood used. In many cases, the grain appeared out of scale.  Reading the rest of his comments, it was  very clear that it was impossible to satisfy this gentleman; but he was not completely wrong. If I had 1 question for him; it would have been: if cherry was wrong, then which wood would have been right?


Exactly as Chuck and Jaager previously wrote, we must  carefully select the boards we are going to use.  


Here is an example of cherry wood enhanced with tung oil. Although I am probably more selective today, and I could  even get a step higher in the quality control to select ''the perfect look wood'',  all along the cutting procedure from a 2  by 12 inches up to few millimeters thick. 




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Cherry looks really good if you like the darker color after it oxidizes.   The annoying part is getting good boards.  You have to get the best grade that doesnt have any sap or gum pockets.   You need to shoot for as little grain as possible and I prefer the lighter boards.  I have had a great deal of success getting super clean 30" long boards 2" x 6" from Cherokee woods on the west coast.  I have talked with them extensively and they understand what we need as ship modelers.  They dont sell sheets but if you can mill your own with a band saw and thickness sander its really nice stuff.   The shipping from the west coast to new jersey wasnt bad either.  I usually by 20 of these boards at a time and it costs me $90 for shipping.   About $300-$350 for the cherry.


Look at these two boards of cherry.....bottom came from Cherokee.   The one on the top is considered the same grade as the one on the bottom.  The top board came from a source in vermont.  They were both called black cherry.   These are boards I milled myself.   Because I wasnt there to pick them out in person you will sometimes get some clean boards that arent perfect for ship modeling.   The grain is too pronounced on the top board but its still considered a clear top grade board.   The grain on the bottom is more muted and about the best you can hope for with cherry.   




They also have an excellent quality of Alder wood which is super clear.   Alder tends to be knotty but if you ask for crystal clear cut-offs 30" long they have a bunch in this length range.  They are happy to get rid of them.  Excellent finish and it is a bit lighter than cherry....although not my preference.  It has small rays in it similar to birch.




Cedar is super soft....you really need to get used to it.   But it finishes wonderfully.   It holds a sharp nice edge.  Here is a partially framed cross section model in yellow cedar.  Edges of the frames are crisp and the end grain doesnt darken or turn black when you apply a finish to it.    Along with it is a close up of planking in cedar.



I buy mine locally believe it or not at




because they use it for log cabins and to make moldings for houses.   They have huge beams 12 x 12 and 16 x 16.   Its amazing to watch these guys.   Check out there site.   This is the only wood they have that I can use for ship models.   Its unfortunately cash and carry.  Unless you want to buy a truck load.  Again I get 2 x 6 x 30" cut offs that are crystal clear and I can pick them out in person.   


Dont get the port orford cedar....its not the same stuff.   Not good at all for ship models.  You would be surprised where you can find it.....


Its a west coast wood so you need to look in British Columbia......see here.   https://www.carlwood.com/lumber/softwood/yellow-cedar/



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You are spot on about the difference in effort expended in sanding or cutting between Black Cherry and Hard Maple.  Maple requires a lot of work. But, Buxus s. is significantly harder than Hard Maple. 

In light of the obsession with Boxwood,  Buxus s. is about 1.5 times harder than Castelo, which is 1.25 times harder than Hard Maple.  Depending on your focus, relative hardness has not been a determining factor.


If no grain is the important characteristic,  Chuck has the answer with Alaskan Yellow Cedar.  It does not get much more reduced than that.  I think Port Orford Cedar is similar.  But it is not much easier to source than AYC.   


Out of necessity, I concede some grain.  We are using wood after all.  I am happy if the wood does not have open pores and the difference between Spring and Summer bands is moderate..  Oak, Ash, Hickory when scaled have pores large enough to be soup bowls @ 1:48 and most Walnut species are not much better. 


An interesting species is Bradford Pear.  It is hard and has a bit of a waxy surface.  But it grows fast and it is possible to get a surface for a frame that has 1 - 1.5 year's growth rings. It is a bear to cut with a chisel too. It was/is popular for municipal street planting,  Attractive blooms, leaves, relatively compact, easy to care for, but for one characteristic = it branches a lot and the branches are at an acute angle.  Their mechanical attachment to the main trunk becomes less as the branches increase in size over time.  A powerful wind storm can split off most or all of them.  It sort of looks like a peeled banana  with just the peel.  After a major storm, it is easy to get a serious supply.


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