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Papier Mache Narrowboat

Papier Mache Narrowboat by Chris Shilling

Chris Shilling has successfully completed his papier mache narrowboat. Here you can follow the project from start to finish. [Updated 25/05/06]

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  • Date addedAdded: May 13, 2005
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Papier Mache Narrowboat


My son Robert and I have been making radio controlled boats for the past six years. It started as a personal challenge to myself, to see if I could build a simple radio controlled boat from scratch (strictly no kits allowed). The first boat I built was extremely simple in design. It was constructed from plywood and door surround wood from B&Q. Basically, it was a wooden box with a simple tapered bow, but it allowed me to teach myself how to get a boat to sit correctly in the water, how to create the correct power to weight ratio, and was a general proof of concept.

Somehow, swept on by success, I decided to build a battleship. I chose the Admiral Graf Spee, a German pocket battleship from the second World War, for two factors. Firstly, the German battleships had prettier paint jobs than the British ones, and secondly, because it was an old battleship design and therefore simpler than the bigger later ships such as the Bismarck. Apart from the deck, she was built entirely out of balsa wood. Powered by sizeable lead acid batteries, she will sail sedately around the local boating lake for an hour or two.

Since then, I've built "Dizzy", a proof of concept hovercraft, rapidly followed by "Dizzy 2", a much more aesthetic hovercraft of similar design.

Having a number of powerful motors left over from the hovercraft, I built "Zippy" which is a speedboat based on the popular children's series "Rainbow". She looks like a child's toy boat, and is rather cute, but underneath the deck lies two extremely powerful electric motors that give her an impressive turn of speed.

The most complicated, and most recently completed boat, is "Patience". She is based upon the Mississippi river boats of the mid 1800s, and has some 5,000 separate pieces in her construction. The railings alone make up some 500 pieces of wood and polystyrene. She has a sound system which can be remotely switched on and off, (playing New Orleans Jazz!), a lighting system with tiny bulbs each about the size of a pea, and she has chimney stacks with smoke generators in, to add a little authenticity.

The completion of Patience left me with a problem... What to build next? Scratching around for suggestions, I asked my Father. He said "why not make a paper boat?" Always up for a challenge, and calling his bluff, I decided to look into the possibilities of building a radio controlled boat whereby (except for the electronics and drive train) everything was made entirely of paper, or paper products. I'd never worked with papier mache before, so the challenge was quite daunting.

Another problem I had was that I'd never really seen a narrowboat out of the water, so I had no idea what the hull looked like. My son and I took our cameras down to the local canal marina, and asked the local boat sales company if they would mind us photographing the boats in dry dock. This gave us a good visual idea of what it was that we were going to build.

The local ASDA store supplied the corrugated cardboard, and newspaper and PVA glue was acquired. The kitchen table once more began to resemble Harland and Wolfe.

I drew up some simple plans, in order to make sure that the scale was reasonably accurate, and carefully cut out the panels that I would need. Bending cardboard into the curves necessary for the hull proved to be a trial. The best way, I found, was to score through one side of the cardboard, along the spaces between the corrugations. Once this was done, the cardboard bent without rippling, and a sheet of paper could be stuck onto the scored side to add some of the strength taken away by the cuts.

Once that was complete, additional bulkheads were fitted to the boat, to increase the rigidity of the frame, and the outer surface was covered in newspaper layered papier mache. Layers were built up, and lightly sanded between each one. The propeller shaft and prop were then fitted, the inside of the hull coated in several layers of papier mache, and the hull sanded and painted in car primer spray paint (Halfords - grey). The surface was nowhere near smooth and ripple free, but I wanted to test the boat in water before I committed to hours of sanding and filling. I applied several coats of black car body paint to give a waterproof shell.

Once dried, the assembly was tested in the bath, and proved to be a great success!

The superstructure is now partially built, and awaiting layers of papier mache.