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The First Detailed Model Ships
The Ancient Egyptians were the first to carve detailed ship models. It was a common aspect of the Egyptian funeral practice to include highly accurate and detailed, painted, sycamore wood models of a ship and crew, intended to transport the soul of the deceased to the afterlife. These models, which may be almost 5000 years old, are truly remarkable in their state of preservation. Since the models usually show the crew in their respective places, these models have been useful in understanding the actual duties of the crew members, what they wore, and how the ship would have been steered. Much of what we know today about ancient seafaring has come to us from these models. The British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many other museums worldwide, display extensive public collections of these ritual boats.
In the decades since World War II injection-molded polystyrene plastic model ships have become increasingly popular. Consisting of preformed plastic parts which can be bonded together with plastic cement, these models are much simpler to construct than the more labor-intensive traditional wooden models. The inexpensive plastic kits were initially targeted to the "baby boomer" kids of the 1950s-60s who could glue them together and produce passable replicas in a single afternoon. Plastic models depict all sorts of ships with some having full hulls, others waterlined as the vessels might appear at sea. Subjects range widely including all types from the age of sail to the present day.
Scales vary as well, with many kits from the early days being "box scale"; that is, scaled to fit into a uniform sized box designed to fit conveniently on hobby shop shelves. Scales have since become more standardized to enable modelers to construct consistent scale collections, but there are still many to choose from. In Europe 1/400 scale remains popular, while in the United States and Japan the most popular scales are 1/700 (making a World War Two aircraft carrier about a foot long) and 1/350 (twice as long as 1/700). Nevertheless, mainstream plastic kit manufacturers continue to produce kits as small as 1/1200 and as large as 1/72, with a few even larger.
Despite the initial marketing to children, many adults have since discovered that, with extra effort, these plastic kits can be transformed into very realistic replicas. The early plastic model kit producers such as Airfix, Revell, Frog and Pyro have since been joined by Tamiya, Hasegawa, Skywave/Pit-Road, Trumpeter, Dragon Model Limited (DML) and many others in producing a truly staggering array of model subjects. The plastic model kit market has shifted over the years to a focus on adult hobbyists willing to pay for more elaborate, higher quality kits.
Another development in recent years has been the advent of aftermarket parts to enhance the basic kits. Decals, specialized paints, even turned metal replacement gun barrels are available to make plastic models much less toylike. The most important of these aftermarket products for ship modelers are the flat photoetched metal sets, usually stainless steel or brass, which provide much more realistic lifelines, cranes, and other details than are possible with the injection molded plastic kits. These photoetch sets have transformed the hobby, enabling the fine-scale modeler to reproduce very delicate details with much less effort.
The Internet Boost
The rise of the Internet in recent years has also boosted plastic scale ship modeling, providing a new venue for enthusiasts to show off their work and share techniques. Internet sites such as Modelwarships and Steelnavy are geared to plastic model ship builders, and there are many others such as Hyperscale and Modelingmadness which focus on aircraft but regularly feature plastic ship models as well.