Part 1 of 2: Kit Overview and Basic Construction

Building the S.S. John W. Brown

in 1:250 scale
by Wilhelmshavener Modellbaubogen

by David T. Okamura

Illustrations by Peter Crow and David Okamura


They were called "Emergency Ships" and considered expendable. If they simply survived their maiden voyage and delivered their urgently-needed cargo, they were deemed successful. Critics labeled them "Ugly Ducklings" and even "Kaiser's Coffins" after the man who mass-produced these homely transports. However, the more than 2,700 Liberty Ships completed between 1941 and 1944 played a vital role in the Allies ultimate victory in World War II. Literally "built faster than the U-boats could sink them", the Liberty Ships won the deadly battle of attrition in the Atlantic, and many continued as tramp freighters well into the 1970's. Now, only the museum ships S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco and the S.S. John W. Brown in Baltimore remain of this once-mighty merchant fleet.

For more information on the John W. Brown, please refer to William H. Geoghegan's excellent history and walk-around article in this issue of

Wilhelmshaven's Liberty Ship Models

Published by Möwe-Verlag of Germany, the Wilhelmshaven line of 1:250 scale ships is highly respected among paper modelers. Since 1953, Wilhelmshaven has produced very impressive, high-quality waterline ships, including a Bismarck/Tirpitz kit that's 39 inches long. (Wilhelmshaven also has a smaller line of 1:50 scale aircraft and a few other miscellaneous models.) For decades the vast majority of their models were based on German prototypes, mainly WWII and the postwar West German Navy, plus a wide variety of commercial and cargo ships. Those wanting U.S. ships had to be content with the superliner S.S. United States, a couple of nuclear submarines and a USS Forrestal whose massive proportions were spoiled by a green fight deck. (One could modify the Gorch Foch to resemble the USCGC Eagle, the Z-1 into a post-war Fletcher class destroyer, or the Lütjens into a Charles F. Adams destroyer, but that was about it.) Recently, Wilhelmshaven has released more American ships, including the WWII cruisers USS San Francisco, USS Indianapolis and USS Alaska. There's even a very tiny 1:250 scale USS Constitution.

Wilhelmshaven also has two separate Liberty Ship models, the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien and the S.S. John W. Brown. While this review will concentrate on building the Brown, it provides a good opportunity to compare the two models side-by- side. The O'Brien (kit number 1259), is copyrighted 1997, while the Brown (kit number 1264) has a 1999 copyright. I already had the O'Brien kit when the Brown arrived for review, and while I was informed that there were some improvements in the newer model, I didn't think there would be major changes. (At the time I was unaware of the major alterations that were made when the Brown was converted to a Limited Capacity Troop Carrier.) As it turns out, they are surprisingly different in several respects. There are also a couple of significant issues with both models that may affect your decision on which ship you wish to build.

The Jeremiah O'Brien Model: a Brief Overview

The Jeremiah O'Brien consists of five 430 x 300 mm sheets (about 400 parts), making it fairly simple for a 1:250 scale paper model. This is to be expected, since the original Liberty Ships were very plain in appearance, with few guns or extraneous details. While I've heard that the O'Brien was one of Wilhelmshaven's first models designed with the aid of computer software, the artwork resembles their traditional hand-drafted style. There are English instructions (rare in a Wilhelmshaven kit), a few diagrams and a very helpful tips sheet on basic paper model techniques. I suggest you read this carefully if this is your first Wilhelmshaven ship, even if you have had some previous experience building paper models.

Frankly, considering Wilhelmshaven's reputation for quality, I was slightly disappointed with their Jeremiah O'Brien. The kit looks like it was rushed into publication, as one page is completely overprinted in gray, instead of coloring each individual part. There are also a few mistakes in the hand-numbering of the pieces, but most are fairly self-evident. The coloring seems a shade too light (almost a gull-gray), but you could always blame sun fading and weathering. (Adding some rust streaks here and there would bolster this impression.) The O'Brien's wooden hatch covers don't look right, so I'd cover them with tarps, as was the usual practice at sea. (The John W. Brown's covered hatches are much better in my opinion - see the comparison below.) My biggest complaint concerns the simplistic, two-dimensional ventilators that are completely unrealistic in such a large scale. (Again, the Brown's ventilators are far superior.) Also, the ugly, oversized, black anchor and ship's name printed on the bow has got to go.

I understand that this model was originally intended for the Jeremiah O'Brien's souvenir shop, which may explain some of Wilhelmshaven's uncharacteristic compromises in accuracy and over-simplifications. If one goes strictly according to the instructions without modifications, a fairly convincing replica of a Liberty Ship can be built with few problems. For a more accurate Jeremiah O'Brien, I'd highly recommend substituting the ventilators and repainting the hull during the early construction stage. Actually, a complete paint job might be a worthwhile improvement if you restore some of the printed detail afterwards (such as hatches) or install three-dimensional replacements. Some of the detailing tips used on the John W. Brown (covered more fully in the next issue) will also be helpful.

The John W. Brown Model - Initial Impressions

Like the O'Brien, the John W. Brown is printed on five sheets, with a slightly larger parts count. There's a colorful cover sheet with a large photo of the actual ship (reproduced at the beginning of this article), plus some history of the vessel. The English instructions are a bit more detailed than the O'Brien set, and some additional photos of the finished model are provided. A tips sheet is included.

Upon first glance, the John W. Brown looks stunningly different from the O'Brien, even though the vast majority of parts are identical. The computer drafting is crisp and precise. The coloring is a nice fresh coat of gray paint, and the bow name is accurately printed in small block lettering. The anchor is still printed on the hull instead of a separate assembly, but it's much less objectionable than the clumsy silhouette on the O'Brien. There's even a Plimsoll mark amidships, but no depth numbering along the bow and stern. (Model railroad fright car decals can take care of this afterwards.)

Unfortunately, the beautiful printing of the John W. Brown proved to be a very mixed blessing and my biggest ongoing headache during construction. Unlike the earlier O'Brien kit, this model is printed on glossy paper. While this gives an even, smooth appearance to the colored parts, glossy paper has distinct disadvantages. For one, the print inks do not soak into the paper but dry in a thin layer above the sheet. Thus, the coloring is very vulnerable to nicks and scratches. Sharp folds inevitably crack the colored layer, exposing the white paper. It is also nearly impossible to get an exact shade of paint for touchups. With a more absorbent paper, color matching is less critical, as the pigments soak into the paper and tend to blend in better.

More frustrating is the fact that glossy stock doesn't adhere well with the usual paper glues. Usually, glue saturates paper fibers and creates a strong bond, but slick surfaces resist such penetration. When applied between two pieces of glossy paper, the glue acts more like a lubricant rather than an adhesive! Using more craft glue to anchor a piece only results in unsightly clear globs when dry. Also, touching up glue seams with acrylic paint or watercolors can be a nightmare, as the wet paint doesn't soak into the paper but softens the glue bond instead. I've had several ventilator seams open up after I painted the exposed seams, and it's very difficult to fix this mess once the ventilator is secured in place.

One could use cyranoacrylate adhesive (CA or "superglue"), which doesn't soak into and darken glossy paper, but the curing fumes may cause "frosting". After my experience, I'd suggest spraying at least the reverse sides of the parts sheets with a matte finish to give some "teeth" to the surface for the glue to grab onto. I also recommend a lot of patience when assembling models on glossy paper, making sure that pieces are firmly together and aligned in position as the glue dries. I've seen joints creep apart and items "wander" from their spots, but that's mainly due to hurried construction. Another option used by Saul Jacobs is to scan and reprint glossy models on his preferred paper, but unfortunately some parts of the John W. Brown are too long for most home computer scanners.

(As a side note, I understand that Wilhelmshaven actually sells a CD-ROM with the John W. Brown model in Adobe Acrobat format. Cardstock is provided, but I don't see the advantage to this arrangement if the supplied paper is glossy. I also don't know whether the files are intended for standard American paper sizes or computer printers. The main benefit is the opportunity to reprint any ruined part - or a tiny piece that has disappeared forever in your shag carpeting. List price for the CD-ROM is the same as the printed model.)


Before you start construction on the John W. Brown, you need to make a few decisions. First of all, how detailed and accurate do you wish to build this model? Originally this article was supposed to be a simple introduction, building a model without any major additions ("out of the box", as our plastic modelers call it). However, I discovered some inaccuracies in this model, and since the original ship still survives and is well documented, these errors tend to stand out. I corrected most of the most obvious mistakes, but I didn't go "all the way" in adding details such as photoetched accessories. Instead, I'll provide some additional hints to improve the appearance of this kit without too much trouble. The main modifications were:

  1. Opening the scupper outlets along the hull sides
  2. Opening portholes
  3. Making doors and hatches more three-dimensional
  4. Adding mushroom vents to decks
  5. Using miniature chain for the anchor winch
  6. Building new anchors
  7. Rebuilding cargo winches to a more correct appearance
  8. "Reversing" the 5-inch gun
  9. Installing "plastic armor"
  10. Adding tarp detail to lifeboats
  11. Correcting lifeboat davits
  12. Rigging the cargo booms
  13. Railings
  14. Adding other miscellaneous details

You can choose to build the John W. Brown "as is", perform any or all the modifications listed above, or go further to create a fully-detailed model. (Some additional suggestions will appear in the next issue.) If you want to improve this model (or perhaps convert this ship into one of the Brown's sister Limited Capacity Troop Carriers - I wouldn't suggest retrofitting this kit back to a standard Liberty Ship), you should do some research. Besides the official John W. Brown site at, there are other very good web links in William H. Geoghegan's walk-around article. I also had the benefit of examining two detailed models of Liberty Ships at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro, California. Be aware that even though Liberty Ships were built to the same general pattern, there were many subtle variations (due to design changes during the production run, different shipyards, in-service alterations, etc.), so no two Liberty Ships were exactly alike.

Framework and the Hull

The framework is standard "eggcrate" construction, with a center spine and transverse formers at regular intervals. (For the purposes of this article, the Jeremiah O'Brien's framework is displayed behind the Brown in the above photograph.) While the frames may appear flimsy at first, the completed structure is sufficiently strong to maintain its shape. However, I strongly suggest attaching the base plate to a rigid building board and keeping it in place during the entire building process. (I removed my model in mid-construction, and unfortunately the ship received some otherwise avoidable wear and tear before completion.) Wilhelmshaven suggests using tiny "dots" of glue to secure your model, later sliding a metal ruler under the hull to free it. I don't like the idea of potentially tearing up the bottom surface, so I use rubber cement on a sheet of Plexiglas. Make sure the Plexiglas is perfectly flat, since even relatively thick sheets can develop a slight bend. A few pennies glued to the base plate provide some additional "ballast".

The main deck adds a great deal of rigidity for the model. Be sure to align the deck segments carefully and touch up the edges where they butt together with paint. Don't be overly concerned if the outline of the framework shows through after gluing the deck into position. The superstructure, aft deckhouse, hatches, and winch housings will hide most of these bumps. Don't forget to cut out holes for the four 20mm gun tubs, and if you intend to use miniature chain for the anchor winch, be sure to open the holes for the chains.

Before you glue the deck down onto the framework, you may want to take care of an annoying little Wilhelmshaven quirk that I really dislike - the company's logo prominently displayed on the main deck. On the Jeremiah O'Brien, the seal is just aft of the number two hold. Since the troop latrine on the John W. Brown occupies this spot, this logo is located at the very stern. It is actually fairly easy to cut out and splice a new deck section for the O'Brien, using a scrap piece from sheet 2. The hatch, winch housing and steam pipe covers can hide the seams. It's a bit trickier to get rid of the logo decorating the Brown's stern, though a large coil of mooring rope may be the easiest option. One could trace the area aft of the stern deckhouse onto the extra gray section on sheet 4 (marked "Verchnittreserve") and cut out a new stern deck. Another method is to scan the part and remove the logo via a graphics program, printing the stern deck onto thin paper and laminating over the area. I tried the latter as an experiment, but it is difficult to exactly match the color and texture of the original paper. Likewise, it's not easy to match the deck if you decide to just paint over the Wilhelmshaven seal. Since the overhanging 5-inch gun tub will obscure part of the afterdeck, whatever option you choose should look OK in the end.

Try to match the hull color as close as possible when touching up the seams in the hull sides, as they are right dead center of the model and will attract attention. As suggested in the instructions, I decided to cut out the scupper outlets. Don't follow the instruction procedures, but glue the interior strips (parts 19c-d and 20c-d) to the hull sides and cut out the holes before gluing the sides to the framework. The holes printed on both sides of the hull pieces should match up perfectly. Remember to cut out the stern railings if you don't want the supplied paper railings. You can save the large closed chock and paint out the railing lines, though it should actually be cut off and moved slightly inwards onto the aft deck. If you are building three-dimensional anchors, be sure to cut out the anchor holes now.

Attaching the hull sides to the framework is a delicate procedure. The joint where the hull segments meet should line up precisely at the break in the main deck. One has to be very careful not to have sharp breaks where the frames attach to the hull. Due to the relatively thin cardstock used on this model, I decided to add thin paper strips on the frames to provide a smoother surface. Note the yellow highlighted pieces on the Jeremiah O'Brien's unfinished hull. Make sure these strips follow the curve of the hull.

Even though I used very little glue, I did notice some "ribbing" along the port side after the glue dried. (This is the reason why most photos show a starboard view.) For the starboard side I only spread a thin bead of glue on the main deck and baseboard tabs, letting the hull sides "float" over the transverse frames without glue.

The ship's name and home port are missing from the stern. Admittedly, it would be difficult for Wilhelmshaven to align this across the split curved afterquarters, and many Liberty Ships had both stern and bow names painted over during the war years. (Nameboards mounted on the superstructure were hinged to fold over and further obscure the ship's identification while at sea.) One could add decal letters to the stern (don't let water drops soak into the paper and avoid decal setting solutions!), or paint over the bow name, though covering such attractive printing would be a shame.

Main Superstructure

The Brown had very little railings since steel pipe fabrication and the ensuing cutting and welding process took up too much construction time. Most of the railings were confined to the main superstructure. Wilhelmshaven provides paper railings that must be doubled over so the detail can be seen on both sides. However, the gray coloring makes these railings appear to be solid walls, so it would be wise to replace them with thread or photoetched replacements. (There doesn't seem to be many 1:250 scale brass accessories, but you might find a close match with some 1:200 scale products.) Trim off the railings from the superstructure parts, but pay attention to their locations for future installation of replacement railings.

The printed portholes aren't too bad, but opening them up and glazing them after the final matte spray coat looks far better. Be sure to carve a small "divot" in the superstructure framework so it doesn't bisect the center bridge window.

Likewise, consider cutting out the doors and hatches and reinstall them for a more three-dimensional appearance. The wooden doors should be slightly inset in their doorways, while the hatches are raised detail. Be sure to carefully cut out the door and hatches, and touch up all exposed white edges. Scraps of cardstock behind these pieces will keep them in position.

One little detail that's easy to simulate are the small mushroom vents found on some of the decks. These are simply the heads of straight pins painted gray and glued into holes punched with a sharp needle.

In this picture, you can see some of the mushroom vents along the edge of the bearing deck and around the skylight. You will need to paint the undersides of some of the decks, especially outside edges of the boat deck and the bridge wings. Be sure the bridge wings follow the camber of the decks. This is important since the jutting 20mm AA gun tubs over the bridge have bottom edges that follow the curve of the bridge wings. Bridge wing supports have not been added yet.

Be advised that the funnel instructions are wrong. The ladder does not face forward; instead the funnel should be positioned so the seam faces due aft. (The ladder should then be on the aft port quarter.) A steam pipe and whistle would later be installed on the funnel front. The funnel cap gave me a lot of trouble. This seam does not line up with the funnel seam, and it should slightly overlap the top of the funnel. I'm not completely happy with my final result, so you might want to trace this piece onto scrap cardboard and test fit it first.

Also note in the above picture the long ladder next to the bridge wings and the lifeboat davits. Both would come back to haunt me later. Details will be in the next issue.

Aft Superstructure and Gun Tubs

One of the biggest differences between the John W. Brown and the Jeremiah O'Brien can be seen in this photo. The aft gunnery was substantially increased when the Brown was converted into a Limited Capacity Troop Carrier. A raised gun platform was erected for the twin 3-inch guns, while the 20mm AA guns that formerly occupied this site were moved to elevated gun tubs abaft the number 5 cargo hatch. This gives the Brown a distinctly "heavy" appearance in her stern. I'd suggest going out of sequence and install the stern winch beforehand, as it will be difficult to align all the pieces around all this clutter. Wire supports are already installed under the AA gun tubs, but need to be added under the 3-inch tubs and the aft deckhouse wings. Also, three supports should go under the 5-inch gun tub.

Anchor Winches, Anchors and bow Gun Installations

The bow guns were also different on the Brown. The elevated 20mm AA gun tubs usually installed abaft the foremast were moved forward and connected to the 3-inch gun platform with catwalks. It's best to complete the anchor winches and other assemblies before adding the gun installations. (The mooring bollards and chocks can wait until later.) You might want to add the supports for the wave break since there are already placement markings on the deck.

While Wilhelmshaven corrected many of the minor errors present in the O'Brien kit, occasionally they overlooked something when designing the Brown. In this case, there are a couple of missing placement lines, and the marking lines for the anchor chains are wrong. (A side-by-side comparison of the two kits' anchor winch parts is above. The O'Brien's winch pieces on the right are correct.) Pay particular attention to the diagram for the winch construction. As mentioned earlier, you might want to replace the paper chain with miniature links purchased at model railroad hobby stores. Eleven or twelve links per inch should be about the right size. The anchor chain should be painted gray, though there would be large spots of exposed and rusty steel where the links worked against each other. Also, notice that the chains rubbed against the 3-inch gun house, whose sides are now heavily scarred.

You will notice two triangular "ears" flanking the doorway on part 46. These do not actually exist on the actual ship but were added by Wilhelmshaven as supports for the number 1 hold cargo booms. If you are using the original laminated paper booms, you should keep these supports and glue the booms stowed in place. If you decide to raise the booms, you should trim off these supports.

I earlier scanned the bow section and from the printouts fashioned new anchors that were glued right over the printed anchors. (I lengthened the stocks so they would enter the opened anchor holes.) The original anchors were decent compared to the O'Brien, but if you replace the paper anchor chains you really should follow through with three-dimensional replacements. This really adds to the overall appearance.

Coming Next Issue

Now that the main components are installed, we'll turn to the details such as masts, liferafts and lifeboats, guns, ventilators, cargo booms, rigging, railings and final details. I encourage you to try the John W. Brown, but don't start on the cargo winches just yet! That's another story...

My thanks goes to Möwe Verlag and Peter Heesch of H&B Precision Card Models for donating the John W. Brown kit for this review and construction article.

This two-part series originally appeared in the October and November 2001 issues of, which ceased publication in 2002. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and Peter Crow, who took many of the photographs used for illustration.