USS Vesuvius – The Dynamite Cruiser of 1888

Vesuvius (1888)

Displacement 930 tons;

Length Overall: 252’4”; Breadth: 26’6″; Draft: 9′

The USS Vesuvius was a one-of-a-kind experimental vessel launched in 1888.  She was built by William Cramps and Sons in Philadelphia, PA and powered by two triple expansion steam engines, each driving one propeller.  The contract called for a top speed of 20 knots, and the Vesuvius made 21 knots at her sea trials for acceptance.

The main battery consisted of three pneumatic cannon, which were mounted in fixed position taking up most of the forward part of the hull.  The three guns can  be seen protruding from the deck in the photo above.  The photo below shows the guns looking forward.

The guns fired projectiles of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, explosives that were more stable than dynamite, but still sensitive enough to require the pneumatic cannon for firing.  The guns were fired by compressed air, and the hull also had space for large compressed air tanks, compressors, and storage for multiple projectiles.

One purpose of the design was to permit “silent bombardment” of civilian targets, rather than ship to ship gun battles.  Popular press at the time of her launch referred to the Vesuvius as the “Dynamite Cruiser” and “The Terror Ship” because the cannon were silent when fired and a target could be bombarded without warning.  The first indication of attack would be the explosion of the projectiles.

The Vesuvius participated in 8 shore bombardments of Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American war.  Although some reports of the results were positive, particularly the fear induced in the civilian population, the ship was largely unsuccessful.  Aiming the cannon required orientation of the ship, as in the older former mortar-equipped bomb vessels, and the Vesuvius was also poorly armed to counter an attack from even small vessels coming out from the shore.  Vesuvius mounted only three 3-pounder guns in addition to the pneumatic cannon.

The Vesuvius had an extremely sharp hull, with an overall length of 252 feet, breadth of 26.5 feet, and draft of 9 feet.  Her lines at given below in a plan obtained from the National Archives.  The original plan is dated 1887.

Below is another contemporary plan including an outboard profile drawing of the ship, also from the National Archives.

One consequence of the rather extreme hull design and the powerful engines became evident when she was came under attack from shore based craft during one bombardment of Santiago.  Lacking adequate defensive weaponry, the ship needed to reverse quickly to escape the attackers and nearly put her stern under water due to the power of the propellers and the low freeboard astern.

As a result of the experience with the Vesuvius, there were no more pneumatic cannon equipped ships built, and in 1904-5 Vesuvius was refitted as a torpedo-testing vessel, equipped with three 18 inch torpedo tubes and one 21 inch tube.  At least one of these tubes was mounted in the hull, athwartships.  She conducted torpedo experiments for a couple of years before ending up at Newport as a station ship until sold and scrapped in 1921.




Building RC Higgins 78 foot PT in 1:16 scale

This blog will follow the construction of an electric powered, RC controlled, scratch built model of a Higgins 78 foot PT boat.  I have built several other similar boats in smaller scale, the largest a 1:20 model of a 77 foot ELCO.  But having returned to New Orleans, living near City Park and Bayou St. John, where the Higgins PTs were built and initially launched, I wanted to build a boat to operate on the Bayou.  The Bayou is a tidal estuary and the waters can be rough in windy weather.  In addition, there are commonly floating hazards, from bottles and bags to driftwood and turtles.  And the occasional gator.  So I wanted a boat large enough and strong enough to operate safely.  The smaller, 1:32 scale boats, would be fine on calm days in the inner part of the Bayou, but probably not able to function in rougher waters.  I also wanted performance to at least appear to match the prototype with a boat that would plane and show a small rooster tail at speed.  And a finished boat that would appear, at least from a modest distance to be realistically armed and have animated functions that would make it fun.  These latter desired characteristics led to my exploration of computer chip controlled LED lighting and sound.   The posts will be in reverse chronologic order and updated monthly.

USS Constitution – Hull – Diorama 3

Next steps were to complete the scaffolding with planking and workers and add some carpenters to the decks.

The planks used for the scaffolding were band sawed from small branches found around town.  I also made up some ladders for the workmen to use in various ways, on the scaffolding as well as the hull.

There are carpenters working on planking the hull and men walking up the scaffolding to work on deck.











With the addition of a case and some lighting, the model was pretty much complete.  I think that surrounding a model with a glass case is perhaps the only way to keep the modeler’s hands off it!

There are more detail pictures of the shipyard diorama on the Constitution Page.



USS Constitution – Hull – Diorama 2

Now all that remained was to gradually fill in the remaining space with all the other activities I wanted to show.  I put in first activities that were related to the two already modeled.  For instance, early on I modeled the charcoal kiln and the workers making charcoal for the forge and wheeling it to the smithy.  At the same time, I build small boxes to hold metal stock and filled the shelves adjacent to the smithy.  The charcoal kiln was made from Sculpey.


I also made up several wheel barrows and a small wagon to hold various things.  I used one for the charcoal, one for the deadeyes later, and the wagon to hold the deadeyes with iron work installed.



Then I went back to the other end of the shipyard, and made up a platform saw and modeled cut planks and the men handling them.  Then I put in some timbers to make a floor for the second level of the saw shed and stored some planks there.








Then I had space to add the timber stock piles and some crosscutting sawyers.  And piles of cut lumber for decking and planking.  And the crews handling the cut lumber including the men rigging a load for the crane to lift onto the deck of the hull.







Then a pile of curved timber and crotch pieces and the men working to square timber and to adze the bentwood into shape for knees and other bracing timbers.

Then a couple of pole lathes, one making deadeyes.  And a man on a carving horse roughing out rough stock for spindle turning. And a man drilling holes in the deadeyes and a man wheeling them to the smithy for the ironwork to be added.

Now, with the addition of a few idlers and spare hands, the ground level of the yard was getting pretty complete.  I added more detail on the ground, some litter and clutter, lots of sawdust, and used some gloss varnish to model the wet sand and shallow water at the end of the ways.  It was getting to look pretty much as I wanted.


USS Constitution – Hull – Diorama 1

With the hull installed in the base, I began to create the shipyard scene on the unfinished, port, side of the hull.

I wanted to show many of the activities that might happen in a ship yard of the late 18th century.  To do this, I had to compact some of these to fit in available space, and I also included activities that might not have happened simultaneously, but rather in linear stages as the hull was constructed.

The activities I chose to include are the following:

  • timber/lumber sawing – pit and platform sawing, crosscut sawing
  • timber squaring, adze work to shape curved timbers
  • planking hull – drilling holes for iron bolts, installing trennels
  • lathe turning – spindle turning, turning of deadeyes
  • black-smithing, iron forging, charcoal making
  • using crane to hoist timber onto hull
  • final fitting and carpentry on interior of hull

I started by building a shed to protect the two pit saws from the weather.  The pits were made up from small stones glued to mat-board, then installed into holes cut into the higher end of the base, near the bow of the hull.  I then built the shed as a pole barn with open sides and made it high enough to provide lumber storage on a second level.

The figures were made up from Sculpey(TM) polymer clay.  I collected fallen branches and twigs on daily walks through the neighborhood to use for modeling timber and to saw with band saw to make lumber.  I also collected moss and lichen for later use in scenery.

I modeled one pit actively sawing, the second pausing to off load cut planks.  Once the shed was completed, I glued it to the base and then used latex wood filler to model the ground around the pits.

Early on, it looked like this.

Next, I went to the other end of the base and built up a bit of ground to install the “smithy”.  I wanted to place the two structures at each end first, to better gauge the room I had for additional activities.

The smithy forge and chimney was built from small wood blocks glued to mat board, then painted.  The whole thing was built on a small piece of mat board, which was then glued to plywood for mounting to the base.

Forge in process.

Once the timber framing of the smithy was done and walls added, I made up the bellows and a couple black smiths as well as anvils and tools to hang on the wall.



Here the interior is nearly complete.  The mat board is ready to glue to plywood, which is then elevated on some small blocks to raise it above the level of the ways and to about the same height as the opposite end of the base.


Here the smithy is fastened to the corner of the base and the ground around it modeled with wood filler.  There is a line of pilings along the edge of the banking.  Also, there are some shelves beside the forge area to hold metal stock.

Another shot of the interior of the smithy with the smiths working on the iron work for deadeyes.



Once I had the two shed structures at the corners, I next build the scaffolding along the hull.  This was made from twigs lashed together.  I did this next to see how much room it would require and how much room I would therefore have left for the activities I wanted to model.

I first glued upright large pieces to the base.  Once the first group was in, I added horizontal and diagonal bracing.  Note that several of the uprights are taller, to form the crane to be added later.


Here are shots of the first row of uprights, then some of the additional rows of uprights, the horizontal and diagonal bracing members.

Note the large stockpile of twigs.

Once the scaffolding was roughed in, I modeled the ground with wood filler.

USS Constitution – Hull Part 3

When complete, the spar deck timbering looked like this:

The hanging knees are installed on the starboard side only. I have added capstans and various railings as well.

At this stage, the quarter gallery and transom in place, I had a change of plans.  I had intended to leave the starboard side un-planked below the wales, but it looked kinda stupid, so I decided to fully plank the starboard side.

Planking in progress:

Once the planking was done, I painted the entire starboard side.  The Constitution was launched without her copper bottom, and was probably coated with tar from the waterline down, so I painted the entire side black.

Then, another change of plans, and I decided to paint the stripe in yellow ochre, from the top of the wales to the channels.  From what I had been reading, this would have been more likely the original color scheme. Also, it is likely that at launch, the vessel did not have lids on the gun ports, other than temporary lids fitted to the most forward port on each side, when underway.  So I chose not to model the ship with gun ports.  With the addition of the rails on the starboard side, the rudder, deadeyes on the channels, and painting the trim, the hull was ready to be mounted on the base for the diorama.

The diorama base was built on a slant.  I recall visiting the sites of several New England shipyards from the early nineteenth century and  being impressed with the fact they were largely just gradually sloping land that ran down into shallow water.  One I visited had the remnants of a huge lathe used to turn masts and spars, which “machine” was simply a rugged pylon for one end, a movable stand for the other, and a tool rest similarly constructed.  Those memories, together with review of available photographs of shipyards in the latter nineteenth century, formed the basis for the design of the diorama base.

The hull was left mounted to the cherry board on the blocks as originally configured.  The base was constructed with an opening to allow the hull mounting board to slide in partially beneath the 1/8″ plywood forming the ground level of the base.

At the stern, I placed a few more blocks leading into shallow water.  The surface of the ground was detailed with latex based wood filler in multiple stages, as the diorama evolved.




USS Constitution – Hull part 2

The starboard side of the hull is being completed above the wales, to about the point it might have looked at launch.  No masts or spars, save the bowsprit, and not much equipment.  Other than pumps, of course.

The port side is left unfinished.  Framed but not fully planked.  The plan is to have this side surrounded by scaffolding with many shipyard carpenters working on planking and final finish work.

This idea has a few glitches as it is necessary to complete some things in different order than might have been done for the real ship.  The transom, for example, is completely finished, carved and gilded in the model, as it just was easier to do the entire thing rather than just half.  In another case, since I wanted to show the framing of the spar deck, I had to install the supporting clamp on both sides even though the ceiling had been installed only on the starboard side, and would, I think, have been completed before the clamp installed.  Or maybe not.  Also, I will build the diagonal hanging knees on the starboard side only but put the lodging knees and half timbers on both sides, since the hanging knees would be after the ceiling.  Since the intent of the project is a diorama to show the various tasks and skills that made up an old shipyard as well as to show how different the Constitution looked originally from how she appears today, I decided that strict attention to details of the how and when of the order of assembly of a ship was of secondary concern.  And any errors will give the observant perfectionist plenty to see and comment upon.

Here’s a shot of the portside quarter gallery framing.  When the hull is on the base and the shipyard diorama started, the plan is to have this part surrounded by scaffolding with carpenters at work completing the framing and planking of the gallery.



This is the starboard gallery completed and painted.  Once I am further along with the building, I will paint the planking on this side also.  Probably it will be black with a white strip along one of more of the trim strips.  According to some accounts, Constitution originally wore a yellow ochre “Nelson checker” stripe between the open gun ports.  Not sure about that, yet.

Trailboards also carved, painted and gilded.  The decoration will later be extended back slightly toward the hawse holes.









The rudder box.  Note the ceiling and the clamp on the starboard side.



Starting the spar deck framing.  Riding bits added to the gun deck.  I will not model the stove/galley as I would not think that would be installed at launch, but after.







Another shot of the gun deck planking.  You can see the ceiling on the starboard side, and also the first of the diagonal hanging knees supporting every other deck beam, straddling the gun ports on the gun deck.  The openings in the spar deck railing for the guns on that deck are directly over the beam between these braced beams, between the gun ports of the main battery.

You can see the notches in the beams to receive the carlins.  The notches are cut with a blade and filed to final shape with a square file.  The ends of the carlins are cut to fit between the beams with “ears” extending from the upper end to fit in the triangular notch.



This is a shot of the deck beams/carlings being installed, working from stem to stern.  There are lodging knees and hanging knees also being placed.  To the right of the model is a copy of a blue print from the national archives dated 1926, which gives the layout of the beams and knees for the spar deck and gun deck.  The drawing was a presentation to some dignitary around the time of the restoration of 1927, and it is not clear whether it shows the beaming as found or as reconstructed.  But either way, it is a very different layout from that shown elsewhere, as in the Marquardt book “Anatomy of the Ship”.  The location of the main beams, the pattern of bracing with carlings, lodging knees, and hanging knees differs in the two sources, so I am making a best guess as to what the original might have looked like.  One additional difference is the number of full sized beams crossing the hull in the opening in the waist of the ship.  In the 1927 version, there are only two beams fully crossing the hull out of a total of eight.  In the Marquardt version, a conjectural reconstruction of what might have been in 1812, there are nine beams, all of which cross the hull, one of which has a removable portion to allow access to the main hatch.  I compromised on 7 beams crossing the hull out of a total of nine, the two beams left out being over the fore and main hatches.  In addition, I made the center carling over each hatch “removable”, a feature shown on the Marquardt reconstruction.  I figure my guess is as good as any other.

Here are some shots of the hanging knees in process and in place.  The blanks are cut on the band saw, then sanded to rough shape, and final fitted with a square file to make the notch fitting over the clamp.


Ultimately, I decided on the hanging knee configuration that made the most sense to me.  I used the Doughty draft to lay out the locations of the guns on the upper deck spaced evenly between the gun ports on the gun deck, then concluded that the simplest arrangement, two knees on alternating beams, would be the easiest way to clear the gun ports and still make the upper deck sturdy enough to carry the guns.





USS Constitution – 1797

The plan I used to construct the hull was obtained from the National Archives, and is the “Doughty copy” of the original 1795 draft plan, probably reflecting the Joshua Humphrey design most closely, as William Doughty was his yard clerk and draftsman at the time.  This plan probably was the plan used to construct all three of the three heavy (44 gun) frigates, of the total of six frigates authorized by congress in 1794.  Although this plan survives, the frigates were built at different shipyards, and plans at that time may have been more guidelines than prescriptions.  However, it probably pretty closely reflects Humphrey/ Fox/ Doughty design and intentions.  It really is a revolutionary hull, as shown in the lines.  Further, the construction is massive.  Ribs are on average 22 inches wide with about 2 inches space between them.  They are 12 to 18 inches thick, and with 4 inches of timber inside and out, the ship had walls of about 24 inches of timber.  There were also other innovations in timbering as well as the shape of the hull.  The model shows the rather extreme “make and space” of the original, and makes a good contrast to other vessels of the era, such as 12 pounder frigates like Raleigh and Essex.

Here is a shot of the hull on the work bench.  The smaller hull on the right is the Benjamin Latham, a mackerel seiner in the same scale.   Another work in progress, the Latham is planned for use in a diorama of the boat at work catching fish.

In this photo also, there is a small bag on the left containing some previously done sub assembly work.  I had fabricated a transom for the model a couple of years ago, using various sources of conjectural reconstruction of what the original transom might have looked like.  I chose one from the Marquart “Anatomy of the Ship” series based on contemporary descriptions and a painting by Corne.  Since the Doughty draft showed very decorative quarter galleries, this conjectural reconstruction seemed consistent with that draft.  More on the stern and quarter galleries later.

The first steps included finish sanding of the inside of the ribs on one side for the ceiling planking.  Once the ceiling was done, the next step was installing the clamp to hold the deck beams for the spar deck.

The clamps are being glued in place.  Using lots of clamps.




The clamps are in place, and now details are added to the gun deck.  Hatch coamings, riding bitts, and bowsprit are being installed.


Next steps are to add the cap rail, then the cathead, and then start on the head details.


A shot of the head rails under construction.  The trailboard is installed, but the hawse holes not yet drilled.  The figure head will be discussed and modeled later.

Then to the stern.  Here is a shot of the transom installed.  It is carved into boxwood, then the windows fabricated and installed and the assembly installed on transom framing to give a nice curve.

I chose to gild the decorative carving on the transom.  It is not known what the original looked like, but the elaborate decorations described in contemporary accounts, and knowledge of practices of the time, suggest this is an appropriate way to proceed.

Quarter galleries are the next step.  The starboard side is the finished side, and will be completed first.  The port side will be framed only as described later.

The decorative portions of the quarter gallery are carved from boxwood.


The upper portion of the quarter gallery with gilded decoration.




Vesuvius – Superstructure and details

Back home in time for hurricane season and back at the bench.

Continuing to construct the main cabin, conning tower, skylights, vents and guns.  For the most part, using cardstock and balsa to keep the weight topside to minimum.


Companionways, skylights, etc.  The hull has been painted with flat white spray paint.  The propeller shafts are left masked off to be ready to apply the red bottom paint later.

Details forward.  The capstan is carved from maple.  The scuttles for the chain storage locker are made from flared copper tubing, as are the hawses.  I will add the brass portholes later.








A bit farther along.  Ventilators are carved from maple.  Portholes are brass eyelets (3/16″) from Tandy Leather, filled with clear epoxy then epoxied into the hull.  I left the brass unpainted as it looked pretty, although the original would have been painted steel.

Superstructure mostly painted a buff (tan) color, with some details in black.  (stack, guns)

Hull after painting the bottom red.  I used a gloss red spray paint.  Probably not entirely authentic, but pretty.






Nearing completion.  The deck furniture and fitting are in place, and the foremast is rigged.   This bow – on shot shows the blunted bow I used on the model.  The actual boat had a very sharp bow, but I did not model it that way, as I thought it would be too fragile if there would be a collision.  As with a dock or something similar.


Finished model.  Anchors are carved from ebony.  Because the deck is removable, the anchor chain is made from a cheap necklace from Michael’s and the necklace fastener used to connect to the anchor as the anchor is fastened to the removable deck, and the chain to the hawse of the hull.  Guns made up from sections of aluminum and brass tubing.


Another shot of the bow to show some detail.

The stanchions were made up from 22 gauge brass wire, then threaded with 20 gauge wire to make railings.

Main battery guns with boom cradle and foremast.  Chocks and bits made up from maple.




Rest of foredeck with companionway, conning tower, and the 2 pounder guns.  I modeled them after Hotchkiss guns of the period, although it is not known what exactly the guns used on the Vesuvius might have been.  Barrels carved from maple and trimmed out with brass wire, brass flat stock.  Base made up from cardstock.







Forward part of the main cabin.  Wheel made up from turned boxwood ring and brass wire.  Wheel base, engine room telegraphs, and binnacle carved from maple.  Life boats carved from pine, then covered with “canvas” made from tea bag tissue and painted.  The coal scuttle access ports are painted buff.  Probably not as on original, but they show nicely when painted this way.

After portion of the main cabin showing the carved ventilators and lifeboats and rigging of the life boat davits.  The small launch can be seen on portside aft of the cabin.

This is the third 2-pounder gun on the stern.  This probably reflects the original armament of the vessel, and was later augmented with additional 2 pounder guns.



Stern view with props in place.  Ready to go.






Another view of props and rudder.





The model atop my desk, with pictures of the original vessel behind it.  Awaiting spring weather for final sea trials.  I did do a bath-tub test to verify waterline and check radio control functions, but will await warmer weather to try the bayou.

Best regards.



Vesuvius Hull – Superstructure 1

Vesuvius – main cabin

I fabricated the cabin from card stock and thin plywood to keep the structure light, as I intend to ballast the hull low to keep it stable.

Here is the start of the cabin on the workbench.

I cut out for the windows and doors, saving the cut outs to make frames later.

The cabin sides are fastened to the plywood base and trial fitted into the deck recess.

The circular chart table is modeled, but I later decided not to detail the interior of the cabin, so it just serves as reinforcement.

The plywood top of the cabin is trial fitted  in place, and the windows and doors are framed with cardstock trim.


The cut outs of windows from the cabin are re-cut to make frames for the windows.  Painted and glued to plastic, they will be installed before final gluing of the top plywood piece for the cabin.

The upper deck is 1/64″ plywood, planked with cardstock planks, as the main decks.  Once it is detailed, it will be fastened to the upper plywood former of the cabin.

Windows in place, upper deck planked and installed, smoke stack and life boats roughed out and railings started.


Time to take a summer break and head to Santa Fe!  See you in September.

Vesuvius Hull – Decks -1

As mentioned before, the unusual shape of the hull led me to ballast heavily low in the hull and to keep the upper portions of the decks and superstructure as light as possible, lest the model turn turtle when in the bayou.

There are basically two decks.  A main deck about two thirds the length of the vessel, and a higher forward deck.  The shape of the bulwarks of the hull reflect these two deck levels and have in addition a third level in the extreme forward part of the hull which is also decked and covers the hawse pipes.

For the deck camber, I used formers cut  using the ship’s lines from the plan as a guide.  I first rough cut out the two main deck pieces from 1/32″ plywood, using the actual hull as a pattern.  Then I laid out locations for the deck formers so they would fall between or adjacent to existing deck beams in the hull.

the formers were extended about half an inch or so to each side and then glued to a building board.

This snap shows the building board, after removal of the deck as discussed later, and two of the extra formers.



After gluing the formers to the board, I then glued the deck pieces to the formers and held the deck in place with rubber bands.

Both deck pieces were constructed similarly.

Once dry, the formers are trimmed to the deck width and then trial fitted to the hull, further trimming the remaining center portion of the formers to fit in the hull.

I then trimmed the decks to more precisely fit the hull, and notched the lower deck to fit inside the forward portion of the hull where it overlaps the upper deck by about half an inch.

For deck planking, I used strips of cardstock cut from manila file folders.  One plan I have shows deck planks on the forward deck and on the cabin top to be narrower than those on the main deck, and I duplicated  this feature on the model.

I glued the cardstock down with waterproof glue then lightly sanded and coated with several coats of polyurethane varnish, which provided a pretty decent white-wood finish for the deck..

This is a snap of the two main decks trial fitted to the hull.

Here I have marked out the position of the main cabin, as I will be cutting out the deck so the cabin will fit just inside the cut out.  I plan to have necessary running controls and switches accessible through this opening so it will not be necessary to remove the entire deck when running the model.