Modellism of arsenal

The Arsenal model is a leisure activity 1 , which is to build a model scaled-old wooden ships, mainly from the time of the xvii th and xviii th century, from monographs .

Considered from the “model” point of view, as the top of the art, the modeling of arsenal forces the model maker to respect in the smallest details not only the external appearance of the ship , but also the methods of construction of the various elements. components the ship: frame , vaigrage , interior fittings, rigging , going as far as to reproduce the techniques and devices of assembly and assembly of the original model, such as mortises and tenons, embedding parts, studs and pins, caulking bridges, fodder ropes …

The arsenal modeler finds his pleasure in the manufacture, as close as possible to the original model, of all the parts that go into the composition of his model, even cutting his own wood and making his ropes to diameters adequate.

This activity requires searching for reliable sources of information in local, regional, national and international archives. Some authors publish very complete monographs of ancient ships. Many websites and forums on the internet deal with the subject.


When Mazarin died in 1661 , wars and internal struggles put the economy of France in ruins. The king, on the advice of Mazarin, takes Colbert as steward of Finances. ” Richelieu […] had decided to make France a maritime power, which it was not until then. The vicissitudes of the times had not allowed this great ambition to be realized, and the French navy remained embryonic, weak against those of England and the Netherlands. When Louis XIV came to power, assisted by Colbert, this ambition was resumed, with the aim of opposing the Dutch ” 2 . In a speech delivered on August 3, 1664 3Colbert denounces the causes of the ruin of trade in France, openly accusing the Dutch , who control everything up to and including exchanges between French ports . The Dutch protect their trade with their own army, consisting of 10 to 12 thousand men troupe and 40 to 50 vessels of war, they are the undisputed masters of trade on all seven seas.

Colbert sees the restoration of commercial independence as the salvation of the national economy. And to assure this independence, the country must have a naval force capable of defending its commerce, and reducing the Dutch supremacy. The Royal Academy of Sciences , which he built 4 , is used to publish an Atlas describing in detail each stage of the construction of a boat. The Academy applies for the first time mathematical knowledge in the design of hulls and rigging of ships.

The project is grandiose but simple: to industrialize the production of the necessary raw materials, by the scientific management of the forests and the development of the transport routes, to industrialize the production of the ships, to industrialize the manufacture of the ropes and foundry parts … To his appointment as Minister, the French fleet consists of about twenty warships aged able to navigate, from 16 to 56 guns, including only 9 ships of the line. The English navy has 157 vessels of all tonnages (74 of which are large vessels, shipping 30 to 100 guns), a ratio of 1 to 8 with the French Navy. 15 years later, the French State has 196 ships, not counting the galleys, and in 1677, it counts 300 ships, and the best arsenals in the world 5 :Toulon , Rochefort and Brest in the first place, assisted by the ports of Dunkirk , Le Havre , Calais and Boulogne . In fifteen years, France became the first world maritime power, and its ship models, including the vessel of 74 guns built later on the basis of the plans established by Jacques-Noël Sané (1740-1831), became so remarkable that they will be gradually copied by all the other maritime powers, starting with the British and the Dutch.

The construction of ships is no longer an approximate and artisanal work, many vessels built are subject to Colbert’s order of a very precise realization of a preliminary model at the scale of 1/12 to 1 / 48 according to the vessel concerned, allowing to visualize what will be the future vessel: ” The intention of Roy is that it is made in each arsenal of models in small of a vessel of each of the five ranks in which the measures are reduced 1/12 or 1/20 of all their proportions and measures.  »Decree of Colbert du6 .

These models were originally built in and for royal arsenals, the term “arsenal model” remained.

It should be noted, however, to be honest that Colbert is not the inventor of the arsenal model. Phineas Pett  (in) (1570-1647) is seen ordering in 1603 a model of a galleon for Prince Harry, the eldest son of James st 7 . He later built many more for the British royal family.

Modern modelism

Although certain models of Colbert or his successors are carefully preserved in national museums , the same is not true of construction techniques. Knowledge is gradually lost, until it is almost forgotten.

Some very few enthusiasts continue to build wooden models, based on information that is more and more approximate.


After the Second World War , the plastic is spreading, the company Airfix , a molding company, has the idea to create a plastic model kit to build. His first model is a Fergusontractor . Faced with the success of this new type of product, she begins to produce boats and planes. It is a huge success that immediately gives rise to competition, as well as the model-making market .

But the models remain relatively simple, and not conforming by the material used to the beauty of the ships of yore. Some manufacturers put on the market kit boxes containing pre-cut pieces of wood. For economic and technical reasons, these wooden kits use low quality materials, the cuts, even laser , remain approximate, the scale of parts is often disproportionate, the conformity of the model itself with the reality is more than doubtful. These models are fast enough to mount, but the quality is not at the rendezvous.

The bashing kit

Modeling enthusiasts, while working on a kit basis, embark on the improvement of commercial kits. The model maker modifies the content of the model provided, by re-making some pieces, adding others, completing and specifying the finishing level of the model with information collected elsewhere, such as the plans available from the Museum. of the navy.

The scratch or construction plan

By using plans to improve the model, the constant search for quality leads the passionate modeller to take the plunge, and he begins to make models in scratch (literally: from scratch). All you need to do to start is to obtain a model plan, or better a monograph of the ship to be built, boards of wood of different thicknesses, a knife with a retractable blade , a manual coping saw , some needle files and sandpaper. With experience, the acquisition of electrical machines makes the job more sophisticated.

Arsenal Modeling

Until the mid- 1970s , due to lack of documentation or knowledge, the few model makers building warships with wooden sails produced fairly approximate models. They base their work on simplified plans, the hulls are made of ordinary wood, sometimes cut in the mass, only the final aspect is taken into account, and these boats involve multiple technical and historical anomalies without speaking out of scale details. .

In short, these models are not very precise just remember the prestigious navy of our past. It is difficult at the time to find the information needed to improve this work. Apart from the models present in museums, the documentation is almost non-existent. Some ancient works deal with construction techniques , the rare copies available are forgotten or jealously kept away from the knowledge of the general public. The archives sleep under a thick layer of dust.

Renaissance Arsenal model

But thanks to the research that Jean Boudriot has pursued for more than 20 years, and to the publication of his monumental work “The 74-gun ship ” 9 , we are witnessing at this time the revival of naval model making as it was practiced in the arsenals royal in the xvii th and xviii th centuries. Called Arsenal model, this activity, initiated by Colbert and finally found, is based on an exact reconstruction of the ship, both for its framework and for its interior fittings and equipment.

Model builders in the spirit of arsenal modeling base their work on the extensive research done by some scholars for whom the architecture and equipment of large wooden vessels are an inexhaustible subject. These studies are gathered in exhaustive monographs where the model maker has only to draw to discover the complete plans of a ship and no longer of a model, its history or simply the small detail that is missing.

Following the theoretical work of Jean Boudriot founding the revival of this activity, a few specialists such as Gerard Delacroix spend, using modern drawing tools, to put into practice, that is to say to the publication of complete monographs, detailing in detail the construction techniques.

International Development

The French school developed naturally following the work of Jean Boudriot and Gérard Delacroix , the members of the Association of Friends of the Navy Museum 10 not being the last supporter of this renewal of the historical model.

The quality of the studies carried out on the French Navy by the initiators of this renewal crosses the borders, and we can distinguish some other schools, for example the Belgian school 11 , which add to the quality of the achievements a touch personal in the aesthetics of finished products. Modeling arsenal is spreading in all countries of the world, and exceptional artists are noted by their works. Everyone can admire the work of the Germans 12as Americans 13 , their Canadian neighbors, or Italian 14 , Russian 15 , Estonians 16 and Japanese, not to mention the effectiveness of the discrete Chinese.

Arsenal Model Making Activity

General principles

The model must be the exact replica of the original ship, without simplification. It is necessary to respect the particularities of the time as well for the design of the hull as for the realization of the artillery , the installation of the rigging or the rendering of the sculptures .

It goes without saying that the building elements resulting from the trade are systematically discarded, being prefabricated, they are never satisfactory on the dimensional or historical plans. Similarly, the techniques of imitation, trompe-l’oeil or almost are here imperatively banned. The models kept in the National Museums of the Navy, are the indisputable examples that serve as a basis and reference to the realization of these quality pieces. The aesthetic aspect is equally sought after, using noble materials, precious woods, natural fibers for rigging and brass,sometimes even silver for metal parts.

By applying this rigor, the construction of a large three-decker of the xviii th century demand course several years but can equally make a smaller or single ship, or “ship slice” that require much less time . The pleasure is just as intense as the satisfaction of having created a magnificent object whose technical and historical reliability is remarkable.

Modeling arsenal is practiced by passionate enthusiasts, diversity and the wealth of tasks they have to perform before obtaining a quality piece are very motivating. They must be alternately carpenter , blacksmith , tailor , sailboat or sculptor . In this field, reflection and research take a lot of time, some will even say that a well thought out piece is already almost finished. Many of these models, through the research they have requested, the particularly rigorous application provided for their realization and the beauty of the result obtained, are often compared to the masterpieces of the Compagnons du Devoir. This is one of the best recognitions for this activity which, for some, could be assimilated to an Art .

Expected characteristics of the arsenal model

The definition below was given by Arthur Molle 17 .

The best reference of this model is certainly the model of a 74 guns, built by Augustin Pic and preserved at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. Although not rigged, this model is one of the best examples of a scholarly demonstration of shipbuilding of the time made with particular care, but also with a very rare taste.

Let us also quote the model of the Artesian , vessel of 64 guns , remarkable for the hull and the fittings, as well as for the rigging.

This of course applies to the way, it being understood that these references disregard a chronological evolution that is indispensably respectable. These references do not imply the obligation to treat a model as a whole, but detailed and detailed studies that skilfully demonstrate the assembly of structural members, constituting complex parts of the building, are desirable.

This applies to the mechanical operation of the moving parts, which play a role in the maneuvering of the vessel (capstan, rudder, pumps, set of upper poles, etc.) this notion is not restrictive.

Regardless of the piece presented, it is important that it be so that the detail is not avoided, while admitting that it is simply mentioned, with all the desired accuracy.

It is therefore a question of choosing according to the parts studied, an appropriate scale by facilitating the examination. Too much miniaturization as an end in itself is to be avoided.

This leads us to admit certain conventions. Convention for example at the level of paintings. Needless to say, the vessels of the old regime received the protection of plaster, tar and various paints. It will be up to the modeller to treat his subject in the most appropriate way, the models left in natural wood preserving a nudity that reveals the finesse of the work of adjustment, although this way of doing does not conform to reality. When using paints, these, in the absence of other verifiable indications, will refer to the color palette, delivered by Jean Boudriot in each of his monographs, this use calling anyway to the good taste and harmony. In the case where the model would be left in natural wood, it can be resorted to different species, so as to reveal certain fundamental pieces or simply the opposition between oak and fir. The model maker will however ensure that these oppositions remain subtle and harmonious, proscribing anyway, species with fibers or a flower disproportionate to the scale. Some noble woods must be avoided in exchange for fruit trees such as walnut, pear, cherry, apple and plum. The lime tree, although foreign to this classification, is also indicated for its qualities. species with fibers or flowers disproportionate to the scale. Some noble woods must be avoided in exchange for fruit trees such as walnut, pear, cherry, apple and plum. The lime tree, although foreign to this classification, is also indicated for its qualities. species with fibers or flowers disproportionate to the scale. Some noble woods must be avoided in exchange for fruit trees such as walnut, pear, cherry, apple and plum. The lime tree, although foreign to this classification, is also indicated for its qualities.

These remarks are also directed to the masts, as to the choice of species and the adoption or not of the painting, while ensuring however that the aspect of the rigging and the wing is indeed the reflection of the reality.

This type of agreement also applies to the presentation of artillery, usually every iron in xviii th century, but also bronze in the xvii th century. This artillery may be in natural bronze, this shade agrees with the warm colors of the woodwork apparent, but the use of patinas giving the best appearance of oxidized bronze or iron painted black will be welcomed. This is true for the countless metallic elements, which dot the ship while taking care not to give an appearance too flashy.

Materials Employed

The basic material is wood . But this wood must have a number of characteristics making it clean to produce a model of quality. Its fibers must be thin enough to give a realistic appearance, taking into account the scale. It must be strong, stable over time, not deformed, but also be easy to work in the finest details.

The wood fruit , having a slow-growing, are among the most popular, with a marked preference for the pear , which combines all the desired advantages. The boxwood , with very dense fiber and particularly fine, is very appreciated for the manufacture of very fine pieces as well as for all the works of sculpture, in particular the decorations of bow and stern .

Another very hard wood, ebony , is also sometimes used for some elements, in spite of the difficulty to work it. Its particular color makes it possible to highlight some classically black or dark pieces, while avoiding the use of the painting.

But depending on the availability and the aesthetic research of the model maker, other woods are also usable, preferably avoiding wide fiber wood, or too light or too spotted. We can use without fear especially all fruit trees, such as apple, birch, lemon … The planks and bridges can be made of beech, mulberry or acacia, depending on the desired aesthetic effects, some fine pieces can also be carved in the olive tree. We find in the trade of the suppliers of boards of wood of quality, the reading of the dedicated forums makes it possible to quickly know the good addresses which sell by correspondence or on Internet.

Metal parts are usually made from brass parts , ductile metal and easy to work. Brass is, if necessary, blackened with oxidizing products . The ropes , impossible to find in the trade in correct quality and on the right scale, are made from thin wire by the pattern maker, using the same techniques, to the scale, as those used in the arsenals of time.

The sails are a major problem of the designer, so it is difficult to find a canvas with a frame that could approach the scale of the built model. According to the modeller’s tastes, he uses silkfabric or very fine cotton, tinted to obtain a result as close as possible to reality.


This is often the first question, because the first concern of one who embarks on the modeling of arsenal: “What fortune will I have to invest in sophisticated tools ? “.

What nenni! The modelists of the time of Colbert did not possess electric tower, nor numerically controlled milling machine, but blades of steel sharpened on a stone and patience. And we can admire the quality of their achievements in museums.

It is often said that the two main tools of the arsenal maker are patience and perseverance. One could add a dose of elbow grease. It then helps with some simple tools, scissors wood , often manufactured by the model maker himself (because the tools that are made yourself are mostly the best and most suitable) , a few fine files, sandpaper, a small manual scroll saw . Modernity helping, a mini electric drill and its varied strawberries, but powerful (it is necessary to avoid tools in 12 V which heat too quickly) is a complement quickly essential.

It is only with time that the model maker equips himself progressively with more sophisticated materials. And it is disadvised the beginner to run in the corner store to clutter expensive machines that will sometimes serve almost never.

The first useful investments, when one has definitely tasted the drugs of this activity, often refer to tools that allow one to cut one’s own wood, from rough logs or thick boards, because the raw material is also the expense first, if it is acquired commercially in the form of planchettes planed and sanded to the different thicknesses necessary, even if their cost remains well below that of a commercial kit. This requires a circular saw and a planer , tools found at reasonable prices in all hardware stores.

With experience, and to facilitate some delicate operations, some modelers are gradually acquiring other electrical equipment, coping saw, lapidary and belt sander, mini milling machine or lathe to shape guns . But many designers consider these machines as not essential to their activity, the work of the hand and the glance remaining the best guarantee of quality.

Steps to build a model

The construction of an old sailboat includes several stages, common to all models. The first step is either to acquire a quality monograph or, for the bravest, to build this monograph from information collected in museums and maritime archives .

Once the monograph is available, and the stock of wood is constituted, it is first necessary to build the shell, composed of the keel , the frame and its planking . Then the ship’s interior equipment must be set up on the various decks. The superstructure is a delicate part of the construction, but a lot of fun in the success of tiny details, such as the manufacture of furniture and the establishment of functional hinges on the doors of 1 to 2 cm high, or the realization of pulleysa few millimeters. Then comes the artistic creation, with the sculpture of the ornaments and vessels of the ship. Last but not least, in time consumed and patience necessary, the installation of the rigging , starting with the necessary manufacture of ropes of all diameters, their fodder, and pulley (set of pulleys and other equipment driving maneuvers) ) necessary for their implementation, not to mention the multiple spars of all shapes and sizes.


First of all, the model maker builds his “construction site”, a form that will allow the structural elements to be mounted while respecting the regularity of the positioning of the many parts composing it. Then begins the construction , with the creation of the keel, finished on the bow side by the prolonged brion of the bow , and stern side by the stern . This spine of the future vessel consists of about twenty to forty pieces.

On the keel rests a good sixty couples. Each of these couples includes a pair of limbs, and is composed of 12 to 15 pieces of twisted wood. Twisted wood was classically cut in old, bicentennial oaks that grew in an irregular fashion, in order to have the curved pieces necessary for the construction of the frame. It is a recent human mania to want trees with straight trunks, and the construction of such ships today is a feat, because of the absence of wood twist in the forests.

For the model maker, the solution is simpler, since it is enough to cut into the mass of a sufficiently large piece of wood. But the task remains important, since for the only frame without the ship, it is already about 900 pieces of wood carving. In order to simplify life, the model maker will represent the fastening studs (square and riveted iron dowels) of the constituent elements of the torques, ie from 35 to 40 fine brass rods of 0.3 to 0.6 mm in diameter. planted in holes made in each member of the frame. The easiest is done.

Before the timberwork is finished, the timbering of the bow and stern is still to be done, two parts of the frame with complex shapes, whose construction is at least as long as anything that has been done before, and with a much higher difficulty of realization. But the difficulty lies more in the care to be given to the work and the patience in front of the progress of the work, than in the realization of the pieces themselves. All the future vessel is based on the quality of the structure thus produced.

The frame completed, the shape of the ship appears, but it is out of the question to manipulate it out of his yard, all, being secured by the single keel, would break immediately during a manipulation with bare hands. Reinforcements fixed on the upper end of the couples, provided longer than necessary, allow the need to strengthen the assembly.


The planking of the shell will help to secure the assembly. This curling is done using long boards. Since there is no sufficiently large trees, each strake comprises of 5 to 8 boards of lined end to end, depending on the available wood. On some vessels, their abutment is made by a particular gap, for example in line of Jupiter , to better secure them. Their shape is not exactly rectilinear, because the strakes must marry the complicated shape of the hull in its horizontal section, between the bow and the stern. They are generally thinner at the ends than at the hull, and generally follow a slightly “S” pattern.

The pose begins with the smooth and the pre-tones , which, as their name indicates, surround the ship at its widest point, usually about the main deck for the pre-speakers, and at the top of the pairs for the smooth. The ribord and the galbar finish the planking along the keel, embedded in a grid made in this keel. The installation of these first elements sufficiently stiffen the framework so that it can now be manipulated outside of its construction site and receive the planking.

When the planking is finished, it remains to represent its fixation on the frame. There is no glue at the time, everything is fixed either by tenons and mortises for parts supporting constraints, or by nailing and pegging. The planks are fixed at the rate of two nails per limb, and in the parts under the water line by a nail and a gournable (wooden peg). The set represents about 10 000 nails or gournables to represent for the outside of the hull. Iron nails are usually made of fine brass wire with a diameter of 0.3 to 0.8 mm in diameter, the sanded end of which is blackened with tourmaline .

The curling finished, the same operation is performed for the hull interior glazing. The frame is now a completely rigid monobloc assembly.


At this stage of construction, the model maker faces a difficult choice. If he wants to show the details of the interior equipment, the presence of the fully lined hull is a major obstacle. In practice, it is often chosen to border one of the two edges only partially, and when the shell is finished, openings are sometimes made in the frame of the frame, which will reveal the internal details.

The internal arrangements are very variable from one ship to another, they depend on the function of the vessel and its size. From the open boat to the 3 armed bridges at war, passing by the transport barge , a great diversity exists, which allows the model maker to vary his choices of realization.

The main difficulty in the realization of interior equipment is the miniaturization of parts, and the many recesses to be made between the various elements of the internal framework. The set uses the meticulousness and the care given by the model maker to the shaping of the elements, a small error of setting up at the beginning amplifying as the work progresses.


The ancient ships had this particularity to be richly decorated, especially for the largest and most prestigious of them. The sculptures are usually located at the stern and the bow. It is a long moment of pleasure for the model maker to represent these ornaments on a scale, but which requires a great deal of patience and care.

The figurehead and the scenery of the transom are the necessary passage, but there are often also carved pieces all along the ship.

The modeler uses fine-grain wood for this purpose, allowing extremely fine details. The boxwood is generally the basic material, its natural golden hue participating in the development of these sculptures.


The rig completes the construction of the model. Its realization can take as much time as that which was necessary for the realization of the hull and its equipment.

The masts and other spars, the countless pulleys, not to mention the ropes with multiple diameters, require a lot of patience in their manufacture and their installation. Without finding the components in the trade, the model maker has to make everything himself. The ropes are made from glove or other fine thread, then dyed in a dark color reminiscent of the coating that protects them from the aggressions of the sea, the tiny pulleys are manufactured one by one, some pushing the detail up to the equip with their wheel mounted on a metal shaft. The sails are cut into fine fabrics and equipped with their seam strips and their maneuversbefore being put in place. Many modelers refuse to put sails, because of the scale problem of the frame. Some nevertheless arrive at remarkable results, by means of a work of high precision in the representation of the double seams of les.

Tips and Tricks

A recurring questioning of the model makers, especially those who are new to beginners, is the tips and tricks of the “old”. Since the rise of the arsenal model, the sharing of techniques of each other, especially thanks to the Internet and its forums, has progressively made it possible to find simple solutions to seemingly complex problems It involves shaping pieces of wood, working metal, making ropes or simplifying certain repetitive tasks.

If there are some books dealing with these issues, attending a model association and reading specialized forums are the best solutions to find answers to all these questions, including sometimes questions that the model maker does not even ask. not, persuaded that there is no alternative to what he practices.

Admiring the work of some experts may seem frustrating at first, and sometimes lets slip a “I’ll never get there”, but the practice demonstrates that everyone can achieve excellent results, with simple methods, provided that Will and patience guide the model maker’s hand.

Difficulty Modeling Arsenal

The other question, which often results in a hesitation to embark on this activity, concerns the difficulty of realization. As already indicated, the real difficulty lies more in the aptitude for patience and in the care taken to make a model than in real technical difficulties.

Without going so far as to say that anyone can make a quality model, it can be considered that a model maker who has made some models wood kit can without much difficulty to model arsenal. The necessary starting tools are weak, and the financial investment reduced, a model in framework is more economic than a kit, for a qualitative result without comparison possible with the kits of the trade.

The major difficulty is perseverance, a simple model such as a rowboat can take a few weeks, but the complete construction of a three-decker will take several years. This is why it is sometimes chosen to make only a slice of the ship: stern, center cut … The important thing is not to engage in a model without being able to accurately define the time it it will be necessary to devote to it to succeed, and the availability of the model maker will largely define the choice of the model.

Attendance of an association of modellers and participation in dedicated forums will allow the modelist candidate to measure the interest and the richness of this activity. The most difficult thing is the acquisition of his first monograph.

See also


  1. ↑ The time required for the realization of a ship according to the principles of model arsenal makes illusory the idea of ​​being able to live from this activity, even if very few talented specialists are sometimes brought to sell one of their works to a great museum
  2. ↑ Dumez 1996
  3. ↑  [ archive ] History of the life and administration of Colbert – Pierre CLEMENT
  4. ↑  [ archive ] Ministry of Culture
  5. ↑  [ archive ] Net Marine
  6. ↑  [ archive ] Museum of the Navy. The exact text of Colbert is: […] The intention of the king is that it is made, in each arsenal, small models of a ship […] and it will be necessary that these models are made with as much accuracy and justly they serve perpetually for the measures and proportions to all the ships that will be built in the future.
  7. ↑ Port Cities: – Phineas Pett  [ archive ]
  8. ^ The painting of Mayer described on the site of the National Museum of the Navy, Paris  [ archive ] .
  9. ↑  [ archive ] The 74-gun vessel of Jean Boudriot
  10. ↑ Association of Friends of the Maritime Museum – France  [ archive ]
  11. ↑  [ archive ] ASBL “AMarsenal”, a Belgian association that brings together lovers of old shipbuilding
  12. ↑  [ archive ] Arbeitskreis historischer Schiffbau eV
  13. ↑  [ archive ] Ship Modelers Association – USA
  14. ↑  [ archive ] Magellano Group – Italy
  15. ↑  [ archive ] Shipmodeling – Russia
  16. ↑  [ archive ] Museum of Baltic Sea – Estonia
  17. ↑ Expected characteristics of the arsenal model : definition given by Arthur Molle on his site, Site of Arthur Molle  [ archive ], one of the great artists of this activity, who devoted his life, with his kind permission for the quote of the text.

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