Saturday, July 21, 2012

Paint, paint, paint your boat...

As I've blogged recently, my current active project is writing war-game rules for ancient galley warfare and painting the wee ships to play them with. I have three ships completed with another six in progress.

My models of choice are the Xyston 1:600th scale range. Most ranges have a limited number of the larger Hellenistic giants and Xyston is no exception. The single large ship in the range is a hepteres, also called a septireme or "seven" because the rowing arrangement put seven men on a single file. The exact way this was done remains a mystery. It could be a single bank of oars with seven men on one oar, two banks with four men on the oars in one bank and three on the other, or three banks of oars with rowers arranged 3-3-1 or 3-2-2.

Most of the ships are quinqueremes, also called penteres, or "fives" because they have five men per file. This is mostly thought to be two banks of oars arranged 3-2, although it could be three banks arranged 2-2-1, or a single bank with five rowers per oar. Xyston makes Greek, Phoenician, Hellenistic, and Roman versions of the quinquereme. These really amount to different styles for the bow and stern. The styles are somewhat fanciful and I assume that I can mix 'n' match in how I compose ships to use in a game. The only real differences are that the Hellenistic quinqueremes come with towers and bolt shooters and the Roman quinqueremes come with a corvus.

The second largest group of Xyston ships are triremes that features three banks of oars with a single rower on each oar. This is the warship of the classical era and was the mainstay of the fleets in the Greco-Persian wars and the Peloponnesian War. It's unclear whether it was completely superseded by the quinquereme in the Hellenistic era; however, the later trireme was heavier than the type Themistocles had built for the Athenian navy, which was light, fast, and highly maneuverable. When the fight on the seas during the Peloponnesian War devolved to the ugly slugfests in Syracuse harbor, the Athenians, who were the masters of battle in open waters, were at a disadvantage against the heavier Syracusian triremes and the newly-developed quinquereme.

Finally, Xyston makes a hemiola and trihemiola, which are light ships that were mostly used for dispatch duty, piracy, or anti-piracy.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

The Xyston models come with lots of bits. I'm not a fan of lots of bits on the models I use for gaming. This is one reason why I eschew plastic figures—too many parts to glue on and break off. (Although the main reason I eschew them is that they're plastic.)

Xyston ships come with masts and sails that can be furled or unfurled. The unfurled sail uses more lead than the main hull of the ship model. The furled sails look better, but the mast is cast metal and I fear it will bend or break with the kind of handling miniatures go through. After playing around with replacing the cast mast with brass rod, I decided to forego the masts and sails. This look probably isn't right for Hellenistic navies. The classical navies generally stowed their masts and rigging before battle, but the later navies may have kept them up, even though motive power in a naval battle was always by oars. Cleopatra's rapid departure from the debacle of Actium was facilitated by readily unfurled sails.

The models also come with some kind of railing or gunwale with shields on it that looks more like it belongs on a viking longboat. I haven't seen anything like this kind of gunwale on drawings I've seen of ancient galleys and I suspect that Xyston made it up. What I have seen in drawings is a very flimsy railing that looked like it served no other purpose than being a convenient thing to grab when a seasick crewman leaned over and heaved ho. Like the masts and sails, I left these off the model. Too fiddly to put on and I didn't like the look. Of course not using these bits means having a lot of lead jetsam (that I paid for) going unused.

Where Knelt the Vanquished Foe...

Apart from leaving things off, I did make one addition to the models. The Xyston ships are finely cast with some nice detail, but they don't have decking that looks right. The models just have a flat slab of metal for the deck. After looking at that for a while, I decided it just wouldn't do.

To remedy this I cover the deck part with thin styrene plastic card that comes scored at 1mm intervals. The result is something that looks like deck planking.

Basing and Assembly

The quinquereme hulls come in one piece, not counting any towers and artillery I might put on. The hepteres comes with a center section and two ends that have to be butt-joined, but on the one models I completed, they went together nicely with no visible seam. The triremes have the rowers' boxes separate. The space cut into the hull for these parts is bigger than the part itself, so there's a bit of a gap that has to be filled with Testor's green putty.

The oars don't actually attach to the hull. The oars should be coming out of the outrigger, but the area where they connect is minimal. What I wound up doing is priming the oars separate from the hull. I glue the hull to the base and then glue the oars to the base positioned correctly in relation to the hull.

The steering oars come separate and are kind of fiddly to attach. I prime them separately and glue them on to the ship and base at the same time. The steering oars are one size "fits" all. The hepteres is a tall model and the steering oars fit just right. For the other ships, I had to cut down the paddle end to get it to fit right. I normally loathe dealing with fiddly bits, but these turned out OK.

For bases, I use .030 sheet styrene with Litko magnetic sheet on the bottom. The bases are just big enough to fit the model, I don't leave a lot of space for seascape. The fit on the hex map is tight enough, that I can't spare any room for aesthetics.


The models paint easily. I paint the decks with Vallejo Iraqi Sand and then give then a wash of burnt umber (or is it raw umber or burnt sienna?). I paint the hull and oars overall in Vallejo Light Brown. All the paintings I've seen show the ships to be mostly in natural wood.

The detail is in the strakes that stand out from the hull. I paint these in somewhat muted colors: browish-yellow rather than fully saturated yellow, gray-blues, olive greens, dull reds. Ancient pigments didn't allow for the kind of deep, rich colors we have now, so the colors I use make a subtler contrast. It also helps to mask the errors.

I've been building and painting these models down on my dining room table because I can spread out a little more (put another way, my painting table upstairs in the den is too cluttered). This appeals to Rhiannon who likes to sit in the chair next to me and cuddle—when she hasn't simply stolen my chair and prevented me from sitting at all. However nice an arrangement it is, she insists on my petting her and if I am remiss, she head-butts my painting arm to remind me of my duty.

If I'm not looking out for the head-butt, I can easily get a streak of gray-blue across a deck or into the oars. Six years of life with cats has already made me adept at predicting feline behaviors and getting out of the way. For the few times I'm too slow, I have become adept at touch-up.

I dry-brush Iraqi Sand over the oars after I've painted everything else in order to call them out a lithe more. The rams are painted antique bronze and other highlights are painted however I feel. For example, the Carthaginian quinqueremes come with tent-like thingummies at the stern. I thought about making them look circus-tenty with stripes and doodles, but opted for more military-looking solid colors like deep red and olive green.

I painted the towers on the hepteres and Hellenistic quinquereme I've finished so far in red and green. Although I have read that they were often painted gray to look like a stone tower. I have more towered ships to paint and I'll probably stick with gray for the rest. If I want variety, I'll use different shades of gray.

I paint the bases a solid turquoise color and then go over that with the same color lightened and thinned. I daub this on to make puddles that give a mottled appearance when dry.

At this point I give the ships two coats of Krylon Matte Finish. Despite it's name, it leaves a very slight satin effect, which I find more attractive than the lusterless look of the Testor's dullcote.

When the matte finish is dry (I usually allow 24 hours between coats and after), I go over the base with heavy gloss gel medium that I get at Michael's. I glop it on with a brush and it's semi-opaque when first applied, almost like white glue.

The glop dries glossy and transparent with a texture that looks like a gently rolling sea. I finish up on that by applying a watered-down off-white around where the model meets the base to represent the foam stirred up by the ship and oars.

Ready to Play

I have three ships ready to go and another six almost there (just the basing left to do). The rules aren't complete, but I'll have something to play-test with.

I've only got the 1.5" hex mat for now. Monday Knight Productions has to do a production run of the 2" hex mats before they send mine to me. The ships are a little tight on the smaller hexes, especially the heptereme, but it works until the larger hex grid is available.

I plan to male some terrain in the form of coastline and little islands and rocks that will break up the playing area. I'll base the land pieces off the 2" hexes so that they conform to the hex grid.


In the song "I'm So Tired" John Lennon calls Sir Walter Raleigh "such a stupid git." However, the popularization of tobacco products over the intervening centuries has produced one highly beneficial result: cigar boxes, which are just perfect for storing a miniature navy.

For these models I used a wooden Padron 1964 Anniversary Series Imperial box. Apart from the cigar getting a respectable "95" rating from Cigar Aficionado, the box is just the right size for my need. Wide and short, I can fit several ships inside. I line the bottom with Litko Aero Systems flexible sheet steel, so that the ships' magnetic bases stick like glue for disaster-free storage and transport. (Thanks, Wally.)

I only have the one box, so I'll need to scour the cigar stores looking for at least one more. I'm not sure how many they'll hold, but I foresee having one more model than I can fit in the box. It always happens.


  1. Wow, they look good. Hope the rules turn out great. I might end up playing another period.

  2. Dear Dave,
    Your galleys look terrific. They bring to mind the great books by John Stack - Captain of Rome, etc. - which deal with naval warfare during the Punic Wars. Anyway, you might want to stare at Rhiannon and remiond her periodically that there is a market for cat skin gloves. She's a cat, probably doesn't read too well, and would not be wise to your stretch of the truth.
    I enjoy your blog - keep up the good work.

  3. The ships look good. Are you thinking of painting eyes on the Greek ships? I seem to recall that was a distinctive feature for them (although I may just be thinking of the Hollywood versions).

  4. I thought about painting eyes. It was definitely something done in classical times, but I'm not sure if it was continued into the hellenistic era. It's something that will look good if executed well, but I'm afraid I'll mess it up--and getting head-butted by a cat won't help keep my hand steady.

  5. You have the cream of the crop there, David.

  6. I assume you're referring to my cat. She'll appreciate hearing that. :-)