As part of our holiday-themed entry during the Gnome Stew break, here’s a rundown of building your own Excelsior-class (refit) starship as a Christmas gift and prop for your Star Trek game. What? Doesn’t everyone do this?
The building of a 50 year old starship from a 15 year old model in pictures.
I will confess to two great passions — among many — that include Star Trek and gaming. Having the chance to work them together brings me great joy. In early November I was struck with the idea of a Christmas gift that would be unique, memorable, and topical. However, as with most things, the plan got a little out of control.
The U.S.S. Endurance
Regular readers may be quick to pick up that Martin is currently running a Star Trek campaign, one that I am fortunate to be playing in. The game is set aboard the U.S.S. Endurance, a 50 year old starship that has narrowly avoided being mothballed by virtue of the depletion of the fleet following Wolf 359. In fact, with the security of the Federation of paramount importance following the Borg attack, any space-worthy starship is pressed into service. Couple with an inexperienced crew (the PCs) and you have the foundation of a great campaign.
As is the nature with Star Trek and the system we are playing with, Decipher’s now-defunct Star Trek RPG, starships are very much characters unto themselves in the game. In this case the Endurance, a feared combatant during the Federation-Cardassian war, is more famous than her crew. Battle-tested and scarred, this ship has many quirks that make her unique and a prototype sensor array that no one really expects to work. Her history is a storied as her namesake, the Endurance, commanded by Sir Ernest Shackleton the noted explorer who guided his entire crew to safety following the destruction of the Endurance on their trans-arctic expedition.
Finding the Ship
The first issue is that contemporary Star Trek models are hard to find. There exists a 1:2500 scale three-pack of starships that includes the U.S.S. Enterprise-B — our Endurance stand-in — but that model is too small. Our interest is in something larger, a 1:1000 scale Excelsior-class refit Enterprise-B. The only one that existed was AMT’s Enterprise-B model that was released alongside the “Star Trek: Generations” movie.
While there have been rumors that AMT will re-release the Enterprise-B model in 2011, I lacked the ability to wait. To eBay I went and was disheartened to find that these old AMT models go for upwards of $60. I lost one bid that ended at $90! So it appeared this idea would be relegated to the graveyard of Wolf 359.
Regular searches of eBay did yield a great surprise in the first week of December; a sealed AMT U.S.S. Enterprise-B kit with a “Buy it Now” price of $23. Sold!
In the Details
I haven’t done any modeling (no, not that kind) in about 20 years, but there is a die-hard group of starship modelers out there. And bless them all, because a few searches will find you some great resources, among them Starship Modeler.
The first was Acreation Models, where you can find near-authentic “Aztec” decals that mirror the paint scheme used on the Star Trek studio models. In this case, the repurposed Enterprise-B model that would become the U.S.S. Lakota in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
In fact that model was sold at Christies Auction House for the tidy sum of $132,000 but not before some intrepid photographer took some close up pictures. Both the decals and these pictures would be useful in making our model look as authentic as possible.
Now there is no canon U.S.S. Endurance nor pennants and hull lettering to match. This is easily solved with decal paper that you can run through any home printer. Use your favorite program, print out, spray on an adhesive covering (so the ink doesn’t run when placed in water) and you’re good to go.
With these items in my arsenal I await the arrival of the model.
Laying Down the Hull
Unfortunately commercial shipping being what it is, the model arrived — new, as advertised — a scant four days prior to our Christmas party. I was disheartened that I could complete it in time — and the decals had still not shown — but I decided to champion on.
One of the first things you do with a new model is gently wash it. In this case, having sat in a box for 15 years, the plastic definitely needed to be washed, even though they were still sealed in their original bags from the factory. Who knows what debris was covering the plastic for that long!
The kit isn’t overly challenging or many parts, but certainly wasn’t particuarly well-designed. There are large gaps in the sections that make the primary hull and the main delfector dish is a mess. Huge gaps! To be fair, the model design is pretty old.
Normally you’d fill the gaps with modeling putty then sand it down and paint over. Unfortunately I lack the time to do so.
In every step of the way you need to be thinking ahead. It isn’t so much about following the assembly steps but what you can be doing while the piece you just assembled is drying. With limited time while one piece is drying you can be painting others. In this case, we spray the entire model with a gloss white coat. Why? The model will be (eventually) covered in decals and gloss provides a better surface for the decals to adhere to. After the entire model is done we’ll add a matte clear coat. It’s counterintuitive to some but the end result is worth it.
Still no decals so assembly continues and items that can be hand painted. This includes the neck support structure, photon torpedo launcher, and the interior of the secondary hull where the shuttlebay will be. The stand gets a high gloss gold finish.
At this point we’re a day away from the party and still no decals. You’ll see why that’s a problem later. So the impulse engines have been painted and assembled and the upper portion of the secondary hull has been assembled. The warp engines are being built and painted. The nacelles are made partly of clear plastic and are painted from the inside so that they appear illuminated from the interior. Unfortunately we can’t prime the clear plastic (it’ll fog) and the paint doesn’t like to cover the material. Several (three) coats are required and this greatly slows down engine/strut assembly.
It’s in the Decals
Modeling is about details. Typically the smallest features add something to a model. In this case it’s not one small feature but about a hundred. The decal set shows up on our last day but with over 100 pieces there’s no way the model will be done in time. Onto my backup plan!
Knowing that this was a possibility that the Endurance wouldn’t be done on time, I had already planned on a stand-in gift to foretell what was to come. All starships have a dedication plaque located on the bridge that has the date of completion, the Starfleet registry, and engineers responsible for her construction. They’re not terribly hard to make if you have some design skills and access to Photoshop. I’ve done them before as props, but never for this period of starship, circa 2314. Setting aside about two hours, I go and retool an excellent baseline PSD plaque found online. The Starfleet symbol needs to be redone for the era and I create one. The entire plaque is then printed out on high-resolution paper and mounted on a frame. I then take the plaque and wrap it in the AMT model box. So while the yard engineers are finishing the Endurance at least Martin will have something to unwrap! (And it’s still a cool prop for the game!)
Having missed the party date I’ve now earned a reprieve of another week — when we’re scheduled to play Trek again. I’m still putting in 4-6 hours a day in the model but at least I have a buffer now to finish the model correctly.
If you haven’t put on model decals before from a kit they are a substrate of plastic with glue on the back attached to a paper backing. You dip them in warm water for about ten seconds and the decal then comes off the back of the paper and you slide it into place. Because they’re malleable they can curl on you if you’re not careful. Also, ripping is an issue. Putting them correctly in place is a bit of a challenge, too. Finally, they’re darn small. The custom decals are even thinner than a normal kit decal; it’s like trying to put wet tissue paper in place.
There’s special decal glue that I use with a brush, placing on before the decal and then afterwards. This glue also thins (!) the decal even further; place some pressure on it while it dries and the decal will adhere to the nooks and crevices of the model, making it look painted on. The end result is spectacular, it’s just absurdly hard to do and tedious. Especially a hundred times over.
The first thing I do is scan all the decals of the kit into my computer. Should I ruin any I’ll have the option to reprint, although that’s time-consuming.
Playing With Fire
Lost in these pictures is the fact that I’m handling the model with my hands which get dirty from glue, paint, and the oils of my skin. All of which are deadly to the custom, ludicrously-thin decals. I have to wash my hands and dry them with regularity. At this point I’m still assembling and can’t seal the decals on with a dull coat. Our only victim thus far was a dorsal decal just about the phaser arrays that ripped.
Steady as She Goes
My big fear having done several days of decal work is the original kit decals. I scanned them into my computer immediately upon opening the box but the Aztec decals don’t include registry or pennants; you’re presumed to used the original kit decals. Normally not a problem, but these decals are 15 years old! Will they work? Will they fall apart the moment they touch water? I’ve no idea.
From within Illustrator I create a text vector path and align up with the kit decals. Using the same fonts used in the show, the Endurance gets named! Also the registry, nacelle markings, and even the aft shuttlebay name. These are all printed out (along with the earlier decal I ripped) and then spray coated twice to lock in the ink.
Interestingly, perhaps because of the type of ink jet printer I used, some of the ink on the model decal paper “crinkles” and splits. At first I panic but then I realize that this plays into my hand in making the Endurance look older and more weatherbeaten. You’ll notice on the close up shots if you look very closely.
Putting decals on top of decals is a tricky affair as you don’t want the bottom ones to get too wet or they may come off. Also, decals tend to be somewhat of a matte surface, meaning decals don’t stick to other decals (just themselves) very well. Unfortunately I still am too pressed for time to lock in with a clear gloss coat; the registry decals go straight on and I pray the surface ones are dry enough!
Everything goes smoothy but the kit decals have a unique problem in that they have yellowed from the glue being so old. This is only apparent where the decal is clear; on most of the kit decals I can cut close enough so as not to see. The exception is on the primary saucer with the pennant markings that bracket the name and registry; they’re a dull cream/yellow behind them! Using water and glue I can “wash” away most of the discoloration. I’m tempted to remove them entirely (risky) and reprint from my scans, but it’ll take time. I let one dry to see the effect and, as it turns out, it looks quite good! The Endurance looks slightly different — a byproduct of being a 50 year old starship having gone through many repairs — and it also gives a slight “retro” look to her. I like it and the decals stay!
I haven’t spent much time discussing paints, although the Endurance does have quite a bit painted on it. I’m using both acrylic and enamel paints based on color needs (but not mixed together). Most painting consists of small touch-ups; only major sections like the warp nacelles and hull strut call for heavy detail painting. Small bits like red/green port and starboard running lights are done by myself and outside the design. Weathering is next and I use a dry brush technique along with makeup pads. Essentially put a little paint on the pads and then wipe off until only a little bit remains. Then gently run over detail areas on the model and the paint will “grab” on these details, making them pop. Also using a variety of colors (mostly aluminum) “streak” on weathering in the direction of the ship’s travel to show fatigue from space travel. Now the vacuum of space doesn’t necessarily weather a starship, but certainly passing through atmospheres, gasses, and having debris strike the ship would leave their marks. Also, impulse engine exhaust. Even if it doesn’t entirely make sense, it’s essentially the topcoat paint of this 50 year old starship flaking off over time, revealing her exterior surface. Roll with it!
After assembling the final parts all that is left are several coast of clear dull coat. This gives the starship her matte finish and gets rid of the high gloss. This also helps lock in and protect all the decals on the model so she’s not quite so fragile to handle.
Launching the Endurance
The big joke at the table is that we can’t possibly loose the Endurance because it’d kill me to make another! The truth is that the model is only a snapshot in time and a nice gift to remember the campaign. If the Endurance is destroyed in the next episode it doesn’t make the model any less special or I any less proud of the work I did on it. It’s still a great gift! If anything it’d give me an excuse to start on that Endurance-B model that I’d been thinking about…
I’m invariably asked how long I spent on the model. It’s hard to say but looking at the timestamps on my photos it’s somewhere in the area of ~40 hours.
But in the 24th century we’ve moved beyond monetary concerns and I believe that we can all agree that this one U.S.S. Endurance is simply priceless.