Part 2 of 2: Details and Modifications

Building the S.S. John W. Brown

in 1:250 scale
by Wilhelmshavener Modellbaubogen

by David T. Okamura

Illustrations by Peter Crow, Paolo Pizzi and David Okamura
S.S. John W. Brown photos by William H. Geoghegan

Completed model of the S.S. John W. Brown

MODEL CONSTRUCTION (continued from Part I)

Winch Wailings
Photo of steam-powered winch on the John W. Brown

After the basic hull and superstructure were finished, I encountered the first serious error with the Wilhelmshaven John W. Brown model. As these photos show, the cargo winches on the Brown are steam-powered with a large center drum. For some reason, both the Liberty Ship models published by Wilhelmshaven have narrow center casings that presumably mimic electric winch housings. While I realize their Jeremiah O'Brien kit was originally intended to be a simplified gift shop souvenir, it really wasn't that difficult to include accurate winches. Repeating this error on the generally superior John W. Brown is less excusable.

Winch parts sheet, before modifications

Unfortunately, I stumbled across this flaw after gluing all ten winch housings onto the deck. This was the one time I appreciated the slick paper stock, as it was possible to peel the winches off the deck without much damage. I salvaged the winch sides and discarded the narrow center strip. Using the extra material in the "Verchnittreserve", I fashioned a small strip folded into a squared-off "U". I then glued the outside winch panels and trimmed to create the new winch. The center drum was a thin wood dowel with black thread coiled around it. The rollers were installed according to instructions (a wire connecting axle was added), and the steam piston cylinders were simulated using thin wire with the insulation partially stripped off. The winches were then re-attached to their bases on the main deck. In spite of my initial frustration, the modifications weren't difficult at all and are well worth the extra time.

Original and modified winches One example of winches in place on the model.  See other photos for additional detail
Deck Guns and AA Guns

As mentioned in my earlier article, the John W. Brown has significantly more firepower than the Jeremiah O'Brien, particularly in the stern. The 3-inch guns are fairly basic but well modeled, though extra detailing could improve their appearance and accuracy. Take care in rolling the gun barrels. I suggest building all three 3-inchers at the same time, and then chose which pair looks identical in appearance for the aft guns. Since they will be mounted side-by-side on the raised platform, consistency is desirable. The third gun will stand alone on the bow platform.

Parts for the 3-inch guns 3 inch, 5 inch, and 20mm aft guns Parts for the 5-inch gun Patrts for 20mm gun

The large 5-inch gun proved to be another mystery. Looking carefully at the diagrams and picture of the actual gun, I had to conclude that Wilhelmshaven actually printed the parts in reverse! If you rely on the printed fold marks, you will have a mirror image of the gun breech mechanism. Again, I was a bit disappointed that such a mistake would slip past Wilhelmshaven twice, since this also appears on the Jeremiah O'Brien. Once aware of this error, it's not too difficult to correct by switching the parts around and inking in details on the other side of the breech parts. (You could also scan and print out a mirrored image of the gun pieces if you're handy with graphics or photo editing software.) The railings around the 5-inch gun platform might not be completely accurate, but they add to the overall impression. Since this gun dominates the stern, you might want to add more details such as gunner and loader seats, gunnery controls and ammunition lockers.

While the instructions suggest using needles for the 20mm gun barrels, thin wire is a far safer alternative. Unfortunately, there's no indication on length. By eyeballing the guns, I determined that 7 mm was about right, with an extra 3 mm to insert inside the gun assembly. Use CA to attach metal wire to paper, and to keep the barrels in alignment. Since four AA guns are mounted at the corners of the main superstructure, you want to make the guns as consistent as possible. I would actually hold off gluing any of the guns to the deck until late in the construction process, since it's too easy to accidentally snag and distort a gun barrel.

Plastic Armor and Bridge Detailing
Front of John W. Brown bridge, showing plastic armor

For a long time, I was debating whether to include the "plastic armor" which covers some of the Brown's vital areas. This is composed of slabs of an asphalt-like substance, mainly designed to absorb bullets and shrapnel. I finally decided to add a layer of paper to simulate the raised surface, but not to depict the individual slabs by drawing lines or scoring the paper. I was concerned that this would look overscale, but considering that the plastic armor has cracked and shrunk over the decades, you might want to draw in the slab detail.

Note simulated plastic armor on front of bridge and around gun tubs

Frankly, it would be far easier to add this detail before constructing the superstructure sides. I had earlier scanned the superstructure parts (a photocopy would suffice, and by examining photos of the Brown I penciled in the areas covered by the bridge armor. Be sure to leave a margin around the bridge windows and portholes - the later has a "bull's-eye" effect after the armor is applied. Using removable tape, I attached these pieces over sections of the spare gray "Verchnittreserve". With a sharp blade, I cut through the templates and the underlying paper. Long strips of paper slightly thinner than the superstructure and bow 20 mm gun tubs sufficed for plastic armor. There's no plastic armor around the 3-inch or 5-inch guns, or around the aft 20 mm gun tubs.

There's also an error on the starboard side of the superstructure. The John W. Brown does not have a long ladder rising from the boat deck to the bearing deck. Instead, steps lead down to the bridge wing (see photo below), and another flight of stairs leads down to the boat deck. Thus, you need to paint out the ladder (the plastic armor on the starboard side of the wheelhouse will cover the top part of the ladder), cut and move the starboard bridge steps slightly away from the superstructure side, and then scratchbuild a new set of stairs leading to the bearing deck. Do not do this to the port side, as this arrangement is correct. (Unfortunately, I converted both sides and discovered long afterwards that I should have left the port ladder alone.)

Portside view of sujperstructure View of starboard stairs

I added a steampipe to the front of the stack and painted the top gold for the whistle. Thin brass wire served for the guywires. The supplied radar mast was a simple piece of laminated paper, so I substituted a length of metal wire and added the platform, radar set, signal flag crossbar and rigging. (The flag is the State of Maryland, since Baltimore is the Brown's home port.) By the way, while Wilhelmshaven provides the colored interior of the flag locker mounted to the bridge front, you should either add the signal flag partitions or (in my case) cover the opening with a gray-painted "tarp".

The flying bridge (dubbed the "Monkey Island") required a great deal of attention. Wilhelmshaven provides nothing for this area except the raised platform and the paper railings, making this look like a boxing ring! The ship's wheel, binnacle, gyrocompass stand, engine room telegraph and other equipment needed to be scratchbuilt and installed, along with the thread railings and wire canopy framework. (At the same time, you should create a second wheel, binnacle and telegraph for the aft steering station, located just under the 3-inch gun platform on the aft deckhouse.)

Flying bridge and View of superstructure from above, showing monkey island

Looking through the John W. Brown's official website (, I saw a shot of her superstructure that showed the ship's service ribbons and name board. Using a photo editing program, I managed to copy, crop and print the service ribbons to the right size. The nameboard came out slightly blurry, so I used a word processing program to type out the name in an appropriate font, then imported it to a graphics program where it was further refined and a negative made, resulting in white letters on a black background. Both sides of the ship have nameboards and service ribbons. These are visible in several photos throughout this article.

Liferafts, Lifeboats and Davits

The liferaft brackets on the John W. Brown have recently been re-installed, and the liferafts haven't yet been mounted. However, using photos of the Jeremiah O'Brien as an example, I added seats from thin strips of paper. I highly recommend soaking the delicate brackets with superglue to stiffen them.

View forward, showing liferaft brackets Lifeboat and davit

The lifeboats are very simple, with no details. It's possible to cut out seats and add flooring, but the simple solution is to paint the top with a slightly darker gray to simulate the canvas covering. The tarp overlaps the sides of the boat, and should be secured with lines wrapped around the bottom. This can be either thread or thin lines drawn in ink or paint.

After I glued the boats into place, I sensed something was wrong. The boats looked a bit undersized. Looking closer, I realized that the davits should be moved so the edges are flush with the side of the boat deck. (I had earlier glued them centered with the boat cradles, according to the location lines on the deck.) Furthermore, the davit arms were too long. They should be trimmed short just at the beginning of the bend, so the davit ends are exactly above the ends of the lifeboats. The boat tackle should hang straight down and attach at the bow and stern. A doubled length of thin thread, with knots coated with glue and paint to imitate the blocks, served as the boat tackle. Coils of rope were also draped over the line connecting the davit arms. While I'm still not completely certain about the lifeboats, cutting down the davits is a definite improvement.

Masts, Cargo Booms and Rigging
Foremast rigging detail

Since rigging inevitably adds tension, I needed to make the masts as stiff as possible. As you can imagine, this isn't easy on a paper ship. I glued the masts around pieces of thin wooden doweling and secured them to the winch housings with CA. Though the masts themselves were rigid, the fact that they were mounted on a paper deck and hull meant that some "give" was unavoidable. After gluing the topmasts (substituting wire for the original laminated paper parts), I stretched the top line just tight enough to eliminate sagging and kinks, but not to pull the masts out of kilter. This required a delicate touch and patience. This line was very important, for every time the rigging drooped I knew I was applying too much tension on another section of rigging.

The line below is the radio aerial, which is actually skewed slightly off-center to port by the two lead wires attached to the top of Part 26i. You must first stretch a line with just a little sag, glue the radio lead wires to the top of Part 26i, and then stretch the leads over the radio aerial, making sure that:

  1. The radio aerial doesn't interfere with the radar
  2. The radio aerial between the leads is parallel with the deck and the ship's centerline
  3. The top line doesn't sag from too much tension that would bend the topmasts towards each other.

Once everything has been properly positioned, secure the leads to the aerial with CA and trim the ends after the glue cures. Insulators are made from globs of glue and paint. Yes, this is rather tedious, and an extra pair of hands might be helpful, but it can be done with enough patience. Afterwards, add the signal flag halyards from the flag locker to the radio aerial just slightly forward of the bridge front. The results can be seen in several earlier photos taken from above and to either side of the superstructure.

Aft rigging detail, showing cargo booms

The cargo booms are thin strips of laminated paper four layers thick. I consider these flimsy and not very realistic. Unfortunately, tapered round wooden toothpicks are just too short for the booms. I used Plastruct 3/64"/1.2 mm Butylene Coated Wire, imitating the taper by stripping the plastic coating off the end and smoothing out the transition with glue. Wilhelmshaven provides some very basic deck supports, and if you are using the paper booms you should employ them. At sea, the cargo booms were usually in a lowered position except for the "jumbos," which were secured upright to the masts. However, this doesn't show off the cargo boom rigging, so I decided to display my cargo booms in a half-raised position.

The cargo boom rigging information is almost non-existent. There's only the color picture on the cover, and the black-and-white model photos don't show the masts and booms at all. There are three kinds of boom rigging: the lines used to raise and swing the booms over the sides of the ship, the wire ropes from the winches used to raise the cargo in and out of the hold, and the thicker stays that braces the masts.

The boom positioning lines should be represented by brown thread. For each boom, a line from the end of the boom goes through a pulley located at the corner of the mast platform, then directly downward where it's secured to the side of the winch housing next to the boom pivot. The excess line is coiled and hangs on the side of the winch housing. Another set of lines attached to each boom end is secured to the inside bulwarks and coiled - there's also a block and tackle linking each pair of boom ends.

Use thicker black thread to mimic the wire rope leading from the winches to a pulley just beneath the boom pivot point. The wire cable then travels under the boom to another pulley at the boom end, and down to where each pair is linked together by a common cargo hook. I used globs of glue to simulate the pulleys, and a cut link of miniature chain served as the cargo hook. Lines from the cargo hold covers secured the hook in place, but be careful not to use too much tension or the masts will bend.

The jumbos were glued upright, with a large block and tackle connected to the center of the mast platform. Another block and tackle was at the boom end, the cargo hook lowered to the deck. This can be seen in photos of the foremast rigging, above.

The stays are thin brass wire, inserted into holes in the deck and laid against the cargo masts. A small drop of CA sets them in the desired position. Originally, I glued the stays first, but to ease assembly I recommend attaching the stays after you finish rigging the cargo masts.


I'm not aware of photoetch railings specifically made for 1:250 scale other than the sets HMG produces for their own high-quality models. I'm sure that one can find acceptable railings in 1:200 or 1:300 scale, if one hunts long enough. Wilhelmshaven includes paper railings that are very good, but I determined that the white background would stand out too much against the monotone gray hull. Fortunately, there are not many railings on a Liberty Ship.

I decided to create some thread railings by using the Wilhelmshaven parts as templates. Using the same techniques I described in last month's "Notes from the Cutting Mat," I placed double-sided removable transparent tape over the railings, stretched lengths of thread over the lines and then added drops of CA. Prompt blotting of the glue with a wadded ball of facial tissue soaked up the excess CA, but there's still a lot of "flash trimming" after the glue has dried and the thread railings removed. Once the railings are cleaned up and painted, they are glued into position. It's very similar to photoetched brass railings, but it's easier to bend thread railings around curves such as the stern.

Miscellaneous Detailing

At this point the John W. Brown was essentially done, but there were all sorts of little details that needed to be added. Rolling the bollards proved a bit monotonous, but Part 63 caught my attention. At first glance it looks like a bitt with an extra post. Looking carefully at photos of actual Liberty Ships, I concluded that this is really a closed three-roller chock. Omit the long oval Part 63b pieces and create more circular endcaps for all Part 63a rollers. Then take a strip of paper and attach to the ends of base Part 63, creating an open rectangle with the rollers inside.

Auxiliary diesel generator housing

The auxiliary power generators were housed in the rectangular structure just aft of the engine room skylights. This had two fuel tanks on the roof and twin exhaust stacks braced by a center support. This was easily scratchbuilt with paper and wire.

The galley stack was an enigma. I knew one had to be mounted near the engine room skylight, but I haven't seen any photo of the Brown that shows the stack. My stack is based on those on similar Liberty Ships.

Other minor additions were the spare anchor on the side of the troop latrine, folded gangplanks in the recesses of the bulwarks, and liferings. The last item provided much needed color to the ship, and I'm glad I included them.

Unfinished Business

While I'm perfectly satisfied with the model in its present state, I know there are areas that could use more work. Certainly the deck guns could be improved, and one can easily replace the printed ladders with photoetched versions. Ammo lockers, more ventilators and other small details can be added. Then there's the name and homeport on the stern that can be created with decal lettering, and also the depth markings on the bow and stern. One can also add subtle rust marks and other weathering, though admittedly the John W. Brown is kept in immaculate condition by a loyal team of volunteers.

Perhaps another day I'll fiddle around with the John W. Brown again. In the meantime, my Jeremiah O'Brien is still sitting in the framework stage. After all the lessons learned building the Brown, I'm sure this model will be a noticeable improvement, especially if I decide to airbrush the entire model with a more accurate paint job. (I'd better first check to see whether such an application will cause the paper to warp and shrink.) It's simply a matter of motivation, but right now I'm already busy with other projects. Henry J. Kaiser is probably laughing at my lack of progress (he could build a real Liberty ship in the time it took me to write this article), but perhaps the Jeremiah O'Brien will be finished in a year or two.


Despite some errors and the slick paper, you can build an impressive John W. Brown straight according to the instructions. Those wishing to build a more accurate Liberty Ship will undoubtedly rebuild the winches, but that is the only major flaw. Between the two Wilhelmshaven Liberty Ships, I would certainly recommend this kit over the Jeremiah O'Brien. Again, my thanks goes to Peter Heesch of H&B Precision Card Models for donating the John W. Brown kit for this review and construction article.

Satrboard view of the completed model

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.