Introduction: How to Build a Wooden Popsicle Stick Ship

Our oldest recently was tasked with a family project to build a model of one of the three ships that sailed with Columbus when he discovered the New World.  As luck would have it, she chose to build the Nina over the Pinta or the Santa Maria.  Why lucky?  Because the Nina was not only the smallest of the three but it also has a modern full size replica that sails about and has a lot of pictures on the internet.  This provided us with some great reference pictures!

We were free to choose the medium in which we desired to work and she chose Popsicle sticks.  So far we were off to a great start!  Our ship had to include a main deck with a raised railing, sails with rigging, a flag, and the ship's name on it somewhere.  With task in hand we took to the internet to find some sort of guidance.  I certainly didn't expect to find a "Here's How to Build the Nina out of Popsicle Sticks" guide, but I assumed someone somewhere would have something we could use as a jumping off point to modify to suit our needs.  You know what?  There wasn't!  After an exhaustive search (which included shout outs to friends on Facebook) I settled on the one and only thing I could find which was a 12 step instruction set that was lifted directly out of a craft book and posted on eHow.  Unfortunately, whomever posted it grossly misunderstood the importance of pictures.  The instructions were very sketchy at best so after about the third or fourth step we felt we had enough to go on our own and just abandoned them completely.

So to help out anyone else choosing to undertake such an endeavor, I present to you my very first attempt at an Instructable!

Step 1: Implements of Construction!

Popsicle sticks - we just bought a box of 1,000 but probably only used about 200-300
Assorted wooden dowels for masts (5/16 and 1/4 in) and yards (3/16 in)
Paper for sails
Twine for rigging
Elmer's Glue All
Scissors - heavy duty for sticks and a lighter set for paper
Utility knife
Assorted rubber bands and "clamps" - bull dog style office binding clips and small chip clips are incredibly effective
Tube shape for forming the front sail (Lysol wipes container worked perfect for us)
Spray paint if you want to color your ship

Not shown:
Twist ties centers with plastic removed (or any other thin wire)
Colored pencils
One toothpick
One slightly damp paper towel
Paint and fine brush for the hull name

Be sure to allow several days to do this.  There is a lot of glue drying time involved.

Step 2: Basic Building Blocks

Three sticks glued together with two side by side and the third straddling the pair half on each stick make up up the primary building blocks.  These will be used to form almost every facet of the ship.  We started with making 20 of these but you could easily just build up twice that and use most of them with no problem.  I had to keep making more as we went along.

Spread the glue on one stick, use fingers to press the other two together on the table, and then pressed the glued stick on to them.  Be generous with your glue but not so much it oozes on to the other two sticks when pressed together.  You'll most likely have seepage between the cracks on to your table, but there's nothing wrong with that, that's just more glue between your sticks and makes the bond stronger.

Once pressed together, just hold them all tight for a minute or so until it starts to set and doesn't pull apart when you let go.  If you get a particularly stubborn set, you can use a couple of clips to bind them together for a few minutes until it really sets up.

Try and make sure the sticks are mostly flat.  If they are warped a bit, you can warm them up in your hands and slowly bend them in to shape.

I recommend assembling these on a non-porous surface and not worrying about trying to cover it.  The Elmer's dries pretty quick and peels right off with no effort at all.

This is an excellent task to do while watching some television or a movie.  It doesn't require a lot of attention and can easily be done on something like a TV tray.

Step 3: Assembling the Keel

Decide how wide and how long you want your ship to be.  We wanted to go with a two stick length (not counting the bow) so we settled on a six stick width (which seemed just about right) but you could easily go eight if you wanted.

Once you determine the size, lay out the sticks and figure out how many building blocks you'll need to cut in half in order to stagger the surface so it's nice and solid.  Think about a brick wall and how they're staggered; that's the effect you're after.

Once your pattern is determined and you have everything cut and ready, flip them over so the single stick side is face up.  Now use single sticks to fill in the gaps between all of the building blocks.  You'll need to cut some of the single sticks to maximize the overlapping brick effect.

Step 4: The Walls

Determine how high you would like your hull walls to be.  We chose the lower main deck to be six high and then made the higher aft section eight high.  To build a six stick high wall, lay three of the building blocks face down (the single stick side up) and then glue a single stick between each pair, just like you did with the keel.  Once it's complete, you'll have five sticks on one side and six on the other.

Attaching two sticks to one side of the lower walls in a stair step configuration by allowing each to hang half off the one below it will provide you the railing of the ship once assembled.

For the taller walls, adding five steps instead of two will allow you to add an extra stick for width on the upper deck.  This will give you a slight flaring out in the rear.

Step 5: Building the Decks

Once you have your keel and walls, you can assemble your top decks.  For the forward main deck, just make it the same width as your keel.  For your raised rear deck, you'll want it to be one stick wider.  Just lay your building blocks down and assemble them in the same manner as you did your walls.  There will be no staircase on the decks, though; they're just flat.

I learned the hard way that the time to drill the holes for your masts is before you attach the decks to the hull walls.  You'll need to kind of eyeball where you want them to be and drill them out ahead of time.  It's a lot easier to repair or replace a deck you break before you install it than after.

When drilling out the mast holes, start with a small guide hole and slowly work your way up.  Don't just jam a "big" drill bit through the deck or something will fall apart.  I completely split the center stick right down the length of it and I did it after it was installed.  I used a lot of glue and some angling of the masts to repair it, but it's not nearly as good as it would be had I done it properly.

Step 6: Attaching the Aft Hull Walls and Deck

Standing the keel on end and using the upper deck as a spacer (not glued in) to keep it all square, glue the walls to the keel.  We flipped the walls so that the stairway railing was on the table and then placed a healthy line of glue along the little angle shelf at the "top" as this corner mates with the keel surface when it's assembled.  I then applied the clamp to hold it all together overnight before doing anything more with this section.  I really wanted to make sure it was solid before working with it.

If you have two c-clamps you could probably also glue in the deck at this time but I don't so we did it this way and then clamped the top the next day.

Having a partner help assemble this portion is great.  It's kind of a hassle trying to hold all those pieces in place, align the clamp, and then tighten it down with only two hands.

Step 7: Attaching the Rear Wall

Once the keel and deck are both firmly attached and set, you'll need to create a back wall.  I didn't get pictures of it in progress, but you can see it in the finished product.  Because of the smaller gap on the inside, we couldn't trim down the preassembled building blocks so we trimmed seven loose sticks to match the height of the side walls.  We then used partial stick lengths to mate five of them together in the same manner as all of the building blocks were made, taking care that the partial sticks would fit in the void between the upper deck and keel inside the ship.

These five sticks were then glued to the deck and keel while the two loose trimmed wall sections were glued directly to the back of the side walls.  Hold the hull assembly so that the back is facing toward the ceiling and layer plenty of glue on all those uneven sticks.  Lay all the rear wall sticks in place and then set the ship down on its keel.  Align all the sticks so they fit as squarely and evenly as possible.

Now stand the ship up on the rear wall and place a weight across the front of the high walls.  I just laid the front deck that I already had built up across them, set a big glass of water on it, and then let this set overnight.  I'm sure there's a less precarious solution to providing weight here, but it was after midnight and I was tired.

Work a little quickly while placing and aligning the back wall.  If you take too long to flip it over, you'll lose a lot of glue as it seeps down the hull walls.

Step 8: Creating the Bow

To create the bow, you will need 16 sticks with one end trimmed down.  How far to trim them back will depend on what angle you want your bow to have.  I recommend trimming two to what you think is a good length and then holding them in place to form the triangle.  This will help you decide if you should go shorter or longer; cut the rest of your bow pieces once you have the length you want.

Now comes what I felt was the trickiest portion of this whole project: creating the hinges.  I read if you soak the sticks they become pliable and you can bend and shape them as you please.  I have no idea how well that works, how long to soak them, or what's involved with the drying process to keep them in the shape you want.  We only had a week for this project so I opted for the cut hinge approach.

To craft your hinged pieces, you'll need to pick a line at about 1/3 of a stick.  Using a utility knife, you'll want to cut a straight line most, but not all, of the way through the stick.  You're trying to keep that last layer in the stick mostly intact.  You can then CAREFULLY create a bend with the slice on the outside of the curve.  Once you have ten hinges crafted, use them to bind 12 bow pieces into two walls.  Use the remaining four trimmed pieces to create the stair step railing at the top.

Start your hinge cuts with the blade of the utility knife flat against the stick and kind of see-saw it back and forth a bit to get a groove started.  Once it's formed, use the tip of the knife to slice through.  It's much faster but if you try it without a groove to guide the blade, you'll most likely wander off center and won't have a straight cut.

Try very hard not to bend the hinges back straight again after the initial bend.  The wood is very thin and bending and straightening them four or five times (sometimes even less) will just snap it completely in two.  They're delicate alone but when you stack a few together they work quite well.

Be sure you pay attention to which side you mount the stair step railings.  You have to alternate sides because each wall of the bow will mount on opposite sides of the ship.

Step 9: Attaching the Bow and Forward Walls

Glue the two bow pieces to the two forward walls.  Make sure the bases of both pieces are sitting on your work surface when you mate them so that everything will be the same height.  In this picture, you can see how a variety of clips and clamps can be useful while waiting for the glue to dry; the two black clamps are mating the hinged bow section to one of the forward walls while the gold and clear clips are holding the the other bow piece's railing section in place.

Notice in the background you can see two horizontal building blocks fixed to the rear hull walls.  I installed these to help provide overall strength and integrity to the final assembly.  When the bow/forward wall sections were dry and ready to install, we applied a clamp to that horizontal strengthener piece (the other half of the clamp was on the outside of the hull wall) and then wrapped some rubber bands around the keel and front end of the forward wall.  We applied glue to the mating side of the strengthener piece, the back of the forward wall where it will touch the front of the rear wall, and the seam along the bottom of the forward wall where it mates with the keel (in the same place we did the rear walls when mounting them).  Once that all dried, we repeated the process with the other side.  Note that the bow pieces are loose at the front of the ship and not yet glued together.

Once the forward walls are dried and solidly in place, it is time to form the bow.  Apply a generous amount of glue to one set of the cut ends of the bow pieces; mate it with the other cut side.  Try to arrange it so you have an even triangle and then use a couple of rubber bands wrapped around the bow to pull them tight while the glue dries.  I'm sorry I didn't get a picture of this but it's really the best way I found to press them together.  The angles are just too sharp for any kind of clamp or clip to work.

You'll notice that there is a gap in the railing right at the tip of the bow.  Just leave it for now as this makes the perfect place to mount the bowsprit (that pole sticking out of the front).  We'll cover that in another step or two!

Step 10: Finishing the Deck

Once the bow has set, it's time to finish the deck.  We chose to assemble this portion rotated 90 degrees from the main deck for ease of creation/installation.

Since there was clearly going to be a lot of custom shaping involved, we decided to make a paper template first.  The easiest way to do this is to lay a piece of paper under the ship and trace the inner walls of the bow area triangle on to the page.  Cut it out and then lay it in place on the top of the bow.  It should rest neatly on the top hinge pieces; if not, trim as necessary.  Label the top of the template in case your triangle isn't perfectly symmetrical.

Place the template on the table and determine how many sticks  you'll need to create the deck.  Place the sticks on the table and then lie the template on top of them upside down; the bottom of the triangle should be aligned with the edge of the bottom stick.  Trace the edges of the triangle on to the sticks.  You have now marked the shape you need on the bottom of sticks that will form the bow deck.  Remove the triangle and draw a line from the point to the base right across all of the sticks.  Remember that you're looking at the underside of the deck so these marks will be hidden in the final assembly.

Cut the sticks to size with the scissors.  Once they are cut, lie them in place in the bow and trim with the utility knife as needed.  While doing this there will be lots of putting them in to test, removing, trimming, retesting, etc.  As you do this you will inevitably lift and knock pieces around.  This is the reason for marking the back side.  It makes it easy to determine how the pieces fit.

When all the pieces are properly sized and ready to be assembled, lie them out on the table, bottom side up.  Using small scrap bits of sticks, glue them together using the building block technique.  After the assembly has dried, run two beads of glue in the seams of the bow and press the deck in place.  Repeat these steps for the underside of the bow if you desire.  I'm not sure if it added anything to the final product, but we chose to deck the bottom as well in the hopes it would aid in stability.  After all, this was going to school so any help we could give it would be a boon!  In the pictures of the bottom, you can see I didn't bother taking the lower deck all the way to the point.  I believe there is a threshold of diminishing returns vs. the labor you put in to it and that was mine.  Our top deck made it almost all the way to the tip!

If there's a small gap at the extreme point of the top bow deck, don't sweat it.  Remember that we'll be inserting the bowsprit and it will cover any tiny hole there.

Step 11: Fill in the Gap

You'll notice there's a large vertical gap between the main and upper decks.  While the bow is drying, this is a good time to fill it in.

You should need three and a half stick heights to do this.  To get the half stick, just split one lengthwise (a simple task for the utility knife).  Fit the sticks in place and then, using a nice sharp pencil, carefully trace the shape of the hull against the back of the sticks.  Grab your scissors and cut along your lines.  Fit the pieces in place and trim as needed.

Glue these pieces together with shorter scrap pieces using the standard building block technique.  For the half stick on the bottom, it's ok to go right to the edge of it as it will be flush with the lower deck so no clearance is needed.  Make sure your binding pieces are short enough to fit inside the gap of the ship.

Stand the ship on the aft wall, apply a generous bead of glue to the front of the rear deck and walls, fit your final decking piece in place, set the ship back down on the keel, and wrap a couple of rubber bands around the raised section of your ship to hold it in place while the glue dries.

Step 12: The Masts, Yards, and Bowsprit

If you pre-drilled your mast holes, skip to the next paragraph.  If not, now is the time to decide where you want your masts and drill out the holes.  Start with a small guide hole and slowly increase the bit size one, bit at a time.  Don't just jam a "big" drill bit through the deck or something will fall apart.  I completely split the center stick right down the length of it and I did it after it was installed.  I used a lot of glue and some angling of the masts force the deck in to position in order  to repair it, but it's not nearly as good as it would be had I done it properly.  If you must drill at this stage, take your time and go slowly; now is not the time to be in a rush.  Popsicle sticks just aren't that sturdy.

Insert your masts in to the holes you have for them.  We had larger more sturdy masts up front and thinner smaller ones in the rear.  Check the height of your masts.  Are they where you want them?  If not, now is the time to trim them down.  I used the scissors to score a nice groove where I wanted to cut them and then pinched the dowel between my thumb and the utility knife blade.  I used my other hand to rotate the dowel around keeping the knife in the groove as it cut through.

Place the masts back in their holes.  You now need to determine how wide to make your yards and where they are going to rest.  Yards never mount at the top of the masts so be sure to leave space above the yards to attach your rigging.  Grab your small doweling and, using the same technique you used to trim the masts, trim it to the lengths you want your yards to be.

Now score a groove in the center of each yard.  Remove your masts again and score a groove on each one at the height you want the yards to mount.

Place the masts back in the holes for the last time (I promise!).  Apply a bead of glue around each mast where it meets the deck.  Rotate the mast as you squirt the glue and it will spread the glue evenly around itself.  This is much easier than trying to move the bottle all around the shaft.

After the masts are set, grab the metal twist tie innards or wire and wrap it around the groove in the mast just enough to form the circle.  Open it slightly and lift it off the mast.  Wrap the loose ends around the groove you made in the yard.  Slide the loop back down the mast to the groove again, and then rotate the yard like a plane propeller to take up the slack and snug it up against the mast.  Repeat for your remaining masts.

Once all the yards are in place, apply a dollop of glue to trickle down in to the wiry bits between the masts and yards.  Allow this to set up a little and apply some more as needed to fill in the gaps.  The idea here is to just add a bit of reinforcement with the glue.

Find yourself an appropriately sized section of your yard dowel scraps and fit it in place for the bowsprit.  With the utility knife, you can carve the sides to fit it in to the gap at the tip of the bow.  Once you have it fitted, make a note of the places it meets the ship, pull it out, put some glue on those mating surfaces, and fit it back in place.  If you shaped it just enough to be a snug fit, you won't have to add any additional pressure to hold it while the glue sets.

Once all of this glue is dry, you're ready to head outside and paint!

Have several wire pieces available.  Of the three masts we had, two wound on nice and snug on the first shot but the third just wouldn't tighten properly for some reason.  We ended up breaking two wires on it before finally getting it right on the third one.  I have no idea why as we did all three yards with the same approach.  Just the way it goes, I guess.

Your sail styles will be dictated by how you mount your yards.  If they're all horizontal, you'll have all rectangular sails.  We were modeling after a real ship which had triangle sails in the back so our rear yards were longer and mounted at an angle.  Before you mount your yards, look up some pictures of different sail styles and note how the yards are set up.

Step 13: Paint Your Ship

Now for the part that all the kids love: painting!

Let all that glue set up and get nice and dry.  Overnight is best if you have the time.  Grab your spray paint, set up some old newspapers outside, give that youngster the can and let them go to town!  You can always touch up if you need to but kids love this step so let them have at it.

I didn't think about the tiered effect shadowing the spray when we did this.  You may want to set your ship up on a raised surface for painting so you can get the undersides of the hull railings.  Ours came out a bit light under there but not too bad.  Next time I'll definitely make sure we raise it up so we can get it all.

By the way, she didn't paint the plants in the background.  It's winter here!

Step 14: Making and Attaching the Sails

Determine how big you want your sails and cut them out of a couple of sheets of normal printer (or copy) paper.

How big should your sails be?  It's really up to you.  As we were trying to model a real ship, I actually measured the dimensions on a picture of it and then, using the full width of the yard, used a ratio to determine how tall I should make it to be similar.  Ours should have been 5" x 7" but I actually extended it to 6" so I could arch it and roll the bottom up and glue it to the mast to hold it in place.

Why arch it?  So it looks like the wind is blowing it and causing it to billow outward!  If you'd prefer to let it hang straight, you can certainly do that.  Just size it, cut it out, and glue it in place.  If you want to add some flair, you'll need that curved surface and a damp paper towel.  As I mentioned in the tools and materials section, we used a tube of Lysol Wipes for this and it worked great!

Cut out your sail and have it standing by.  Grab your curved surface and VERY slightly moisten a paper towel.  Lay the paper towel over the tube, place your sail over that, and then use two rubber bands (one about a quarter of the width from top and another the same distance from the bottom) to hold it all together.  Let it sit like this for about 90 to 120 seconds and then remove the rubber bands.  Gently lift your sail, remove the moist towel, and place the sail back on the curve to let it dry out.  In the meantime, measure and cut your remaining sails.

To mount your sails, simply run a small bead of glue along the yard and stick the sail to it.  This is the time you don't want to be too carried away with glue.  You're just sticking paper to it and if you use a lot, it'll soak the page and bleed through and look awful.  If you're billowing your main sail, use a spare thick dowel to give the bottom of it a nice curl.  This will give you a spot you can use to glue it to the mast.

If you plan to billow the sail, make sure you place any patterns or designs on it before you curl it.  Also, you'll notice that the rubber bands leave an indent in the sail creating a small line running down it.  This is the perfect spot to apply your rigging in the next step.

If you wish to have different sail colors, such as black, construction paper should work just as well.  You may need to use a little more glue to attach them, though.  You'll probably also need to let it set longer on the moist towel if you're after the billow effect.

Step 15: Creating and Attaching the Rigging

To create the rigging, we just used some lengths of twine.  We used it whole for the mast and yard rigging and then frayed it in to smaller pairs for the sail rigging.  We added the sails and rigging about 60-90 minutes after the final coat of spray paint.  The can said you could start handling it after an hour.  What was nice about doing this at this stage is that the paint, although it didn't deform, peel, or come off in any fashion, still had a slightly tacky quality to it that helped hold the rigging in place.

We looked at a lot of pictures to get a feel for where the rigging would go and then applied it as we felt it best simulated the real stuff and provided a good feel for what it's doing.  One thing you'll notice when you start looking closely at these details in pictures, is the insane amount of rope that was strung about on these old ships.  Don't try to replicate all that or you'll go mad.  Just hit the high points and I'm certain you'll be happy with it.

We went with the full size twine and tied a knot around the top of each mast.  The front two masts we ran down to the bowsprit and tied them off there and the rear, since we left off the aft sprit for ease of construction, we just glued it to the deck near the wall.  We also used the full twine for the rigging attaching the yards to the masts.  For the main sail, we tied it around the mast near the tip and then glued the twine to the yardarms.  With the square sail mounted on the yard, we couldn't tie it around.  For the two triangle sails, we were able to tie the twine to the yardarms and also around the mast.

For the sail rigging, we used the frayed pairs and left them quite long so we had plenty of extra, just in case we needed it.  On the main sail, we knotted one end, glued that to the yard, hung the string down the face of the sail,  curled it underneath and then draped it back over the top of the yard again.  This allowed us to apply a spot of glue on the string and then glue it to the bottom of the sail.  For the triangle sails, we knotted it around the the yard at the high point of the sail, let it hand down along the sail edge, and then glued it to the bottom point of the sail.

Once all the glue dried, we then lowered the strings to reasonable locations on the decks near the railings, cut them to length, and finally glued them in place.

Step 16: The Final Touches

As the final touch, every ship should have a flag!  Just cut out a small rectangle and have your little one create a nice little flag.  Make sure they put it on both sides!  Glue it to a toothpick and fasten it to the highest mast.  We tucked ours in to the rigging and added some glue to keep it in place.

Don't forget to add the name of your ship somewhere, too.  Mom grabbed some white nail polish that had a nice fine brush in it and painted the name on the back.  You can see it back in step 7.

That's it.  You're all done!  Enjoy your new ship!