Painting and Assembling 1:1200 Scale Napoleonic Ships


Ray Trochim

To help some gamers get started in the majestic period of the age of sail, I have prepared a brief description on how to assemble and paint your 1:1200 scale miniature ships. The guide is not overly detailed, but players and/or modelers should find the following information useful. Gamers are encouraged to further research the subject for more details. An excellent book on the subject is "Navies of the Napoleonic Era" by Otto von Pivka, which has almost every major ship of every power, when they were built, their total guns, and what happened to them. The book also covers engagements between 1793 and 1815 in a brief history along with sections on the different navies of the period. However, the book mentions nothing about a shipís appearance.

When building your miniature ship, make sure all parts are trimmed of flash and the pieces fit into the holes or slots. Some assembly might be done before painting like attaching the stern to the ship hull, but paint the masts and hull separately and then assemble the ship after it is painted. Normally, ship models do not come with a flagstaff for the national ensign, but this can be added without any major problems. Finally, most small ship models tend to leave out the "dolphin sticker" and spar on the bowspirit. You have to add this yourself for a completely accurate model, but itís not necessary.

Painting Schemes

Essentially, privateers and some frigate captains painted their ships any way they wanted, either out of necessity or for deception. These ships could occasionally be all white, all yellow orche, all red, all black, or all slate blue-gray. The most common scheme for the frigates and brigs was the back hull and a colored stripe (yellow, red, reddish-yellow, white, green, or maybe light blue) which would sometimes be made wider or narrower in the hopes that it would camouflage their size when viewed from a distance. For ships of the line, paint schemes tend to be a little bit more involved.

Early in the 1700ís, shipsí hulls would be painted yellow orche or clear varnished wood with narrow black streaks along the wales of the shipís sides (see figure 1), but it is likely that other variations upon this basic theme were used on ships of all navies. After 1780, British captains were given yellow and black paint for their shipís hulls. Its application to the hulls was at the discretion of the captain. If a captain should choose, he was able to add other colors to be used in painting the ship (rarely white), but this was done at his own expense. Other navies followed a similar practice with their ships, with red or maroon and black being the most common colors in the Spanish navy. Several paint schemes began to emerge during this period. Ships would be painted black with single or multiple stripes. See figures 2, 3 and 4 for some examples. These stripes were either solid, one broad stripe along the hull, one wide stripe on the upper or lower hull of the ship, or even no stripes at all. In some cases, the stripes on the hull did not necessarily run along the lines of the gun ports.

A new checkered paint scheme has been said to have originated in the Royal Navy around the 1790ís and was copied by the other navies of the world. When it actually started and who actually used this new paint scheme first is anybodyís guess, but the stripes with black gun ports seems to have been referred to as the "Nelson checker" and the paint scheme became more common in the Royal Navy as he rose to prominence (see figure 4, but with black gun ports). By the Napoleonic wars, this new checkered paint scheme was the most popular among captains of all navies, but other paint schemes like that shown in figure 2 and others would still be in use.

During the periods of the American and French Revolutions, ship colors were not very well defined. By the Napoleonic period (roughly 1800-1815), a lose set of national patterns had started to emerge. However, there will always be exceptions. The British navy began to adopt the Nelson Checker using yellow on black. A contemporary described the yellow used by the British as "baby puke yellow" but most paintings and other sources place it as a yellow ochre or rich yellow, but as this faded I can see how the term baby puke yellow got started. This color was used more and more on ships of the Royal Navy when it became a standard, but the transition didnít happen overnight. The United States navy began to adopt a similar pattern using white on black. French ships were painted in various forms using black with red stripes or different shades of yellow (dominant color). The use of white was uncommon and did not begin to be more widespread until about 1810 to 1812. Even so, you can still paint French ships with yellow or red stripes. Also, donít over look the possibility of red with white channels or trim. Spanish ships were painted in various forms as well, but red or maroon would be the most common color for their ships. Other navies would be similar to the British and French navies. Some Russian ships might have used green, but the use of green on black is questionable. I would be interested in hearing from others with supporting evidence that green stripes were used on any ship-of-the-line.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Some Historical Paint Schemes

Some examples of ships at The Battle of the Nile 1798 taken from a data sheet provided by Davco miniatures:

British ships

HMS Alexander: Plain yellow sides with a black stroke

HMS Goliath: Yellow sides with a black stroke between upper and lower rows of gun ports

HMS Culloden: Yellow sides with two narrow black strokes between upper and lower gun ports

HMS Zealous: Red sides with a narrow yellow stripe

HMS Minotaur: Red sides with a black stroke between upper and lower gun ports

French ships

Le Guerrier: Dark yellow sides

Lí Aquilon: Red sides with a black stroke between the upper and lower gun ports

Le Franklin: Medium yellow sides

Le Heureux: Very dark yellow sides

Le Timoleon: Very dark red sides

Le Guillaume: Light yellow sides with black stroke between upper and lower decks

Some examples of ships at The Battle of Trafalgar 1805 taken from a data sheet provided by GHQ and other sources:

All of the British ships were painted in the "Nelson Checker" of alternating black and yellow stripes and black gun ports. To further distinguish the British ships from the French/Spanish ships, the British painted their masts yellow instead of having the normal varnished wood. Yards and mast tops were still black. There was no standard color scheme among the French and Spanish ships. The French ship Neptune for example had reddish-yellow stripes on a black hull while the Intrepide might have had bright red stripes Others had red or yellow stripes of various shades. Some Spanish ships such as the San Justo and Santa Anna were painted almost all black and the Spanish Santissima Trinidad, a four deck ship-of-the-line, had a deep red hull and a narrow band of white under each of the four rows of gun ports. Other sources suggest that the S. Trinidad was painted red with white stripes, and another description gives it red stripes edged white on black, and yet, one other reference suggests that the ship was actually white, with red stripes!

Other Parts of the Ship

While you are safe using natural wood colors when painting the rest of the ship (the deck being a very light color of wood or light tan/beige), the following information offers some alternatives. If you want to the actual source, this information comes from an article in the Jan. 1990 issue of Miniature Wargames magazine.


Inside Bulwarks red or ochre red, yellow, green, blue, black, or brown

Gun Carriage red, yellow, wood ochre ditto, and green

Outer Bulwarks dark blue, dark gray ditto, and red or brown


Fighting Top Armings blue, red white-and-blue green and white


Masts varnished, yellow varnished, white

Masts Tops black black

Mast Bands black black

Yards black black

Again, don't take this information too seriously. Different shades of natural wood colors will probably work just fine. It should be noted that the British would paint their masts yellow with black yards and masts tops: the current paint scheme of the HMS Victory. The Americans would paint parts of the shipsí masts white with black yards while other parts of the mast remained varnished wood. I have never seen any information that points to a ship with masts painted red, so I would avoid this color. Most masts were varnished wood with black yards and mast tops. The bowsprit was painted in a similar way to the masts. The base of the bowsprit would be painted or varnished wood and the far end would be painted black.

The stern of a ship is a little bit more complex because they could be very decorative. Gamers would be safe painting this part of the ship black with gold details. You could even paint some of the large sections of the stern the same color as the stripes of the ship. You can even try painting the windows light blue and the trim gold. On GHQ ships, a modeler can take advantage of the fine crisp details by painting the stern gold and then using a good black wash to fill in the windows and other cavities. Repaint the trim and other details with gold if needed. British ships that were painted to the new standard paint scheme would most likely have black sterns with yellow details (current paint scheme of the HMS Victory at Portsmouth) but again, there will be exceptions. American frigates began to adapt black sterns with white trim and details.


Do not paint the sails plain white, instead, use a dirty white color like Poly-Scaleís dirty white or take a bottle of plain white and add a dash of earth brown to it. After painting the sails, you might like to use a brown wash (red-brown works well here like Testorís leather color) and highlight the areas of the sail that you would like to make stand out. You might even experiment by painting the sails dirty white, then wash the whole sail with a brown color, and then go over with dry-brush of dirty white. There are several different ways you can paint sails and you just have to determine for yourself which way is best for you. The one tip I would like to pass on to the reader is that most of the time is better to paint the sails first and then paint the masts and yards.


The amount of rigging and which type of rigging you want to install depends a lot on your tastes and patience. First of all, I do not recommend doing any of the running rigging. Itís too difficult to do and it offers no support to the masts of the ship model. Just do the standing rigging. Second, use only black thread for everything but ratlines and the running rigging where you would want to use light brown. While the model instructions may suggest that you can use different colors, they won't look right. I highly recommend using this metallic thread that comes from West Germany (165yd/150m W.GERMANY, Sulky Metallic 142-7051) because it is very strong and it doesnít have that fuzzy thread look. When rigging, besides copying the historical rigging, you have to make sure that the model's masts are supported. Adjust or add to the historical rigging to make sure that each mast is pulled both forward and backward equally for good support.


Examples of standing rigging and shrouds

When you run the rigging through the sails, don't just glue the thread to a notch you made in the masts... it will pop out later. Wrap the thread at least once around each point where it needs to be glued. To keep the thread from going slack, alternate the direction you rig the ship. Run the first line from front to back, the second from back to front, and so on, alternating with each thread. Overall, rigging is more of a personal thing. You can eat up a whole day installing rigging on your 1:1200 scale ship and have it look terrible. Just the right amount in the proper places can get a good look.

Shrouds and Ratlines

Shrouds: The taut ropes running form a masthead to the channels on the side of a ship. Ratlines: The small ropes that join the shrouds of the ship horizontally and serve as a way for the crews for going aloft. The ratlines/shrouds are the trickiest to get right and should be put on the ship miniature first. For each shroud/ratline section, use a mesh-like black cloth or screen (like very thin window screening). Finding the proper screening that looks good can be very very difficult! Maybe someday, hopefully, a company will make and offer special etched shrouds/ratlines sections for 1:1200 scale ships. You can buy special screening form Langtonís miniatures. I have ordered a sample of this, and I have to admit, itís the best stuff I have found to date.

Langton Miniatures Tel/Fax:

North Trendeal 01726 882805

Ladock, Truro

Cornwall, U.K.


If youíre like me and you still donít like the looks of the screening material, you can make a jig and produce your own custom shrouds/ratlines sections or just run the shrouds without the ratlines. If you try to make the shroud/ratline sections using a jig, I recommend using a brown thread for the ratlines. The ratline ropes are much smaller in comparison to the shroud lines, and when viewed from a distance, the ratlines are hard to see. If you just run the shrouds without the ratlines, the simplest way to do this is to drape the lines over the fighting tops, placed side-by-side. Not completely accurate, but this will give the mast the best possible support. Don't waste your time trying to drill the tiny holes in the channels and running your shroud lines trough them, just attach the shroud lines to the channel edges. This gives it a much more accurate look then drilling the holes, and is a heck of a lot easier to do. When attaching the shroud lines to the channels, you have to use some care with the crazy glue. I recommend using the end of a toothpick to apply the glue, otherwise you can get glue flowing everywhere but where you want it. I also highly recommend that you use your X-Acto knife to make little tiny notches in the channels to help as a guide in placing the shroud lines evenly and to remove any paint for a better bond. The number of shroud lines to use is all up to you, but the chart below will give you a starting point for what looks good on GHQ ships. When the shrouds are in place and the glue is completely dry, cut the excess thread at the bottom of the channel with small scissors or snips and then apply a little bit more glue with that trusty toothpick. When youíre all done rigging your ship, go over the glue points with a brush on flat or proper color paint to take out the glossy effect of the glue.


Fore Mast

Main Mast

Mizzen Mast

80 to 100 guns




74s & large Frigates




40 gun Frigates




32 gun Frigates




Basing and Colors

Basing your ships is more of a personal preference then anything else. Make sure that you mount all of your ships on stands that project past the ends of the model and that are thick enough so that the miniature can be picked up by the base easily. This will help protect the model from damage. A typical base for a GHQ made 74 gun SOL (and 40/32 gun frigates) would be about 3" long by 1.25" wide, and a typical base for a GHQ made 80 gun SOL would be about 3.5" long by 1.25" wide. A good base thickness would be about 3/8". Just make certain that the base extends past all parts of the ship model and is thick enough so that it can be picked up without difficulty.

Bases can be made form all kinds of materials, but wood seems to be the best choice. There are various putty and gel compounds you can use to create waves, but a very simple solution involves the use of lighting fixture panels. A clear plastic lighting fixture panel with the irregular pattern called "Crushed Ice" can be used. If you do not want to buy a 3' by 4' section, you might be able to go down to or your local hardware store and buy small sections. Paint the smooth side of the plastic with your favorite sea color (pick a dark one). Then lightly dry brush the very tops of the rough side with white or leave clear. Mount the ship on the rough side while the flat side that was painted is glued to a thicker base. The result is a pretty good imitation of the ocean. I have also seen some gamers just use plain clear bases. This also looks good because you can see the colors that are under the ship. For storage, they have specially built racks that secure the ship even if the rack gets flipped upside down. No need for magnetic basing when set up for this. If you are planning to put metal on the bottoms of your ship stands and placing them in a box lined with magnetic striping (or vice versa), magnetic force may become a problem. A 1:1200 scale 100 gun GHQ ship-of-the-line typically has a 3.5" by 1.25" base. It can be difficult to pry the stand loose from its box without damaging the ship. Consider putting the magnetic material in spaced intervals.

The flags

Gamers/modelers will probably want to put some flags on their ship models. Flags on ships not only look good, but will help identify the nationality of that ship from a distance. If you can come up with a good way to make the flags removable, then you will be able to change the nationality of a ship. A removable system using something like stretchable thread might work well. You can then make a series of flags of different nationalities, inserting whichever flag you need for a particular battle. This will give you tremendous flexibility to play a variety of scenarios with just a few ships. This will also allow your French ships to switch from the Bourbon White ensign to the Revolutionary Tricolor, depending on what year it is. (Some people assert that the frequency with which the royalist French surrendered caused the white flag to become associated with surrender or truce flag). Flags are best made out of paper and can be painted or inked in the appropriate colors. I've seen other materials used like metal foils but I find that paper and water based paints are best to work with. The use of flags by different countries and commanders varied considerably. Ships usually went into action festooned with flags flying from every mast, primarily to avoid costly mistakes in the thick smoke of a fleet action. The ensign which flew from the spanker gaff was quite large (in model 1/1200 scale 3/8"x 1/4" would not be too big). The commission pennant which (in model 1/1200 scale it would measure about 1-1/4" long and narrow) was flown from the main peak. The jack or some personal flag was flown from the fore peak. Older ships had a jackstaff halfway out on the bowspite and this flew the national jack.

Now for a brief description of the flags to get gamers started in producing flags for their ships. Two notes though: the French tricolor was often used in the canton on a white field for the ensign. Other countries have been known to do this as well in different forms. Pennants of all countries where fork tailed. The fork tails on the pennants were predominate.


Pre 1790 flags were all white (ensign, pennant, and jack). Post 1790 flags were the standard tricolor (ensign, pennant, and jack), but sometimes the ensign would have the tricolor in a canton on a white field. The tricolor would be Blue, White and Red. Here are two examples of French ensigns:

Ensign with tricolor in canton

Tricolor Ensign and Jack



The ensign, pennant, and jack had Red, White and Blue equal size bars running along the flag. Top bar was red, middle was white and the bottom blue as shown.


Ensign and Jack


Like Holland, Spanish flags are in three horizontal bars, Red, Yellow and Red from top to bottom as shown.


Ensign and Jack


The ensign, pennant, and jack were red with a white cross. Like the pennants, the ensign and jack had fork/swallow tails.

Ensign and Jack










The ensign, pennant, and jack were blue with a yellow cross. The ensign, pennant, and jack were forked tailed but with three tails instead of two. The center tail was as wide as the yellow stripe of the cross.



Ensign and Jack



The ensign, pennant, and jack were all red. The ensign had a star and crescent moon in the upper corner at the staff.

Ensign Jack


The ensign and jack were white with a blue 'X' on it. The pennant had a small square like the ensign and a long white runner.

Ensign and Jack



The British system was somewhat complex. So complex that the French were mystified by the system of officersí flags, but so at times were the British themselves. The field of the ensign and the pennant was in the squadron color of the admiral commanding - red, white, or blue. Unattached ships flew the red ensign and mixed pennant (one red, white and blue stripe running down the runner). Signal ships on patrol tended to fly the white. The Union jack was carried at the forepeak by all but flagships. Flagships flew the admiral's flag at the fore. Admiral - white with red cross, vice admiral - blue, and rear admiral - red (Nelson was a Vice-Admiral of the white). Commodores flew the short swallow tailed flag instead of the pennant.

Admiral flags blue, red and white

White Ensign

Red Ensign

Red Pennant


United States -War of 1812:

The ensign was the standard stars and bars with the proper number of stars. The pennant had a blue field that took almost 1/3 of the pennant with stars and three red stripes and two white stripes running down the runner. The jacks were all blue square flags with stars or blue forked/swallow tailed flags with a circle of stars in the center. The swallow tailed jack is also know as the commanderís pennant.

Signal Flages:

Signal flags of all navies were large and flown from all masts. The signal systems of the navies are far to complex to be discussed here but overall, the information above should get players started. I encourage everyone to look into it a bit more for more detail.



Clear for Action

I hope this article helps you eager midshipmen out there to step up and become captains. The nice thing about age of sail gaming, is that you can start playing with just one ship with most sets of rules. Look at and/or try one ship from each manufacturer and examine its quality and ease of assembly and painting before you go out and buy a whole squadron. Some companies offer a very nicely detailed ship but lack the options available, while others might not be as crisp or detailed, but offer a full range of accessories. See you on the high seas.


Back to Kai's Age of Sail Miniatures Page

Back to Kai's Miniatures Home Page

Back to Kai's Home Page