Christopher Brimley updated October 26, 2011


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  • Build a Great Lakes Freighter in HO Scale

    by Ken Larsen

    Photos by the author unless otherwise indicated

    The setting sun casts a reddish glow as the Victoria prepares to depart the ore dock on Michael Rabbitt's HO layout in Wayne, PA. The blast furnace in the background predates the Walthers kit and was completely scratchbuilt by Mike, as was the ore bridge.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 36

    Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, during the '60s, I became familiar with a unique type of ship known as the "lake boat." I saw these interesting craft during repeated visits to Ford Motor Company's River Rouge steel mill in Dearborn and the Great Lakes Steel Corporations Zug Island facility. At my impressionable age, I was convinced that these floating monoliths - along with the railroads - were an integral part of the steel manufacturing process. So when I discovered the hobby of model railroading, I resolved to build a layout featuring a steel mill with a docked ore boat as soon as the necessary space, money and time became available.

    Thirty years later, when Wm. K. Walthers introduced The Works™ series of HO structures, my childhood dream was partially realized: I modeled a fictional "inland" steel mill in the cramped basement of my previous home in a Maryland suburb. My subsequent move to a larger dwelling in July 2000 finally placed a lakefront steel mill layout within reach. After drawing up a workable trackplan, I proceeded to build an HO-scale model of a Great Lakes ore boat.

    Archive photo of the steamer William G. Mather, underway on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. After retirement, this vessel was preserved as a floating museum.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 37

    While I realize you are not reading Scale Ship Modeler please consider this project, as I do, part of the industrial scenery. Ships are, in fact, typically entered into the "scenery" category in NMRA contests. Over the years, various railroad modeling magazines have featured layouts with Upper Lakes-style ore docks (e.g., Fred Carlsons Gladstone and North Houghton in the November 2000 MRG). Walthers makes the ore dock, but what does the modeler do for the ore boat? The following is my answer to that question. Although this was not a snap-together kit, Im sure you will agree that using Sylvan Scale Models Great Lakes Freighter kit as a base is considerably less daunting than a complete scratchbuilding project.


    Lake boats are freight-hauling vessels used only between ports on the Great Lakes. Despite being referred to as boats, they are often larger than many oceangoing ships. Their primary identifying characteristic (prior to the late '70s) was the presence of deckhouses at both the extreme forward and aft ends of the hull. They varied in size from the 40' wide/280' long "canallers" (so named for their ability to traverse the Welland Canal between Lakes Erie and Ontario), to the 80' wide/750' long vessels constructed in the late '50s and early '60s. Today they have grown in size (100' W x 1,000'L) but diminished in number; furthermore, the separate forward and aft houses that once existed on earlier designs are now combined into a single large house on the stern.

    Modern lake boats haul bulk commodities - typically iron ore, limestone and grain - from Lake Superior to destinations on the southern and eastern lakes. Sometimes they carry Appalachian coal on their return trips. However, northbound and westbound vessels usually sail empty, with their hulls rising noticeably high above the waterline.

    High-volume sellers/buyers of raw materials frequently at least in the past operated their own fleets. (In the industrial downsizing of the last 20 years, of course, some companies have gotten out of the marine transportation business.) Examples of lakes fleet operators included: Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, United States Steel Corporation and Ford Motor Company. But transportation enterprises operate most lake freighters, especially today. Algoma Central, American Steamship, Canada Steamship Lines, Columbia Transportation (now Oglebay-Norton), and Upper Lakes Group fall into this category. Like the railroads, shipping companies use unique color schemes to make their vessels' ownership readily identifiable.

    Partially completed and painted hull composed of Sylvan kit parts.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 38

    More information about lake boats can be found at the Great Lakes & Seaway Shipping web site:

    Planning Phase

    With the wealth of information available on the internet and in printed media, I could have replicated almost any prototype vessel. However, since my primary focus is on railroading and not maritime modeling, I opted to build a freelance model. Two factors led me to this decision. First, of the very few manufacturers producing HO scale lake boat kits, their hulls only measure 6" (43.5 scale feet) in width; most prototypes of my chosen era were 55' to 65' wide. (I briefly considered purchasing a correctly proportioned waterline model of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald from Resin Unlimited Inc. (, but it was not yet available when I started this project.) Second, even if a larger-hulled model had been readily available, it would betray the compressed dimensions of the mill structures (especially the blast furnaces) on my layout. So I planned for a fictional ship, which I would name the Victoria. My model would be based on the William G. Mather, a 600-footer of the former Cleveland-Cliffs Steamship Company. This retired vessel has been preserved as a floating museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and its volunteers have published an excellent web site ( with extensive historical and technical information and, most important, numerous photographs at various angles. The Victoria would be a selectively compressed version of a Mathertype lake boat painted in Cleveland-Cliffs livery. As for the name, well, I didn't feel it would do any harm naming this six-foot long model for my wife, considering the amount of household living space it would consume during construction!

    My next step was to order a cast-resin Great Lakes Freighter kit from Sylvan Scale Models, Inc. ( I recently learned that kits are also available from Bearco Marine Models ( These are apparently upgraded versions of the old Voco models out of Chardon, Ohio. I have not seen the models themselves, but in looking at the photos from the website, they appear to have the same vacuum-formed hull with enhanced detailing. Since the basic Sylvan package only produces a 36" (261 scale foot) long "canaller," I ordered three 12 " hull extensions to restore the proper length of a typical upper-lakes boat. These four items would have sufficed if I modeled the 1910-1940 era, but for a steel mill layout of the 1967-1970 period, I needed a ship with a larger forward superstructure and pilothouse. This is where the additional materials and kitbashing come into play.


    For the hull, I used components of the Sylvan kit. I spray painted these prior to assembly in order to save myself the trouble of masking the hull and deck components later. One thing I noticed about the "solid" guardrail section of the bow was that it was too short for a modern vessel. To correct this, I cut away the existing resin and replaced it with .040 thick styrene sheet strips, 1/2" wide and 5 1/2" long on each side, cementing these to the hull with one-minute cyanoacrylate (CA).

    For the large lettering on the side of the hull, I printed some large letters on my desktop computer using a word processor set at a 72-point Arial Bold font. I had to scale my printer output at 180% to obtain 1" high letters. Next, I unraveled a 2' section of 2" wide masking tape, placed it on some clean Plexiglas, then laid the sheet of printed words "CLEVELAND - CLIFFS" on top of the masking tape. Using an X-Acto blade, I carefully cut out each of the letters. (My biggest challenge was peeling off the tape from the Plexiglas without damaging the letter stencils.) Finally I placed the masking-tape stencil on the hull and spray painted two thin layers of flat white.

    For the handrails running along the main deck, I used the nylon fishing line and brass stanchions supplied with the kit. First I epoxied the aft end of each fishing line to the hull. Then I calculated the number of stanchions I would need in order to space them 1" apart - this worked out to 47 per side. Once the epoxy hardened, I threaded the top and center lines through the corresponding holes on the stanchions (I had to widen each of the holes with a safety pin before the fishing line would fit). Next, I used a pin vise to drill a line of .020 holes at 1" intervals for anchoring the stanchions. Stretching the fishing line as tight as possible, I clamped and glued the forward end and waited 24 hours for the epoxy to cure. The stanchions were then installed in the holes.

    The Forward House

    Loosely stacked scratchbuilt components of the forward house.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 39

    As I mentioned earlier, I did not want to use the Sylvan forward house components because they seemed too small for a boat of the postwar era. Luckily, I had a large amount of Plastruct tubing of various diameters left over from previous scratchbuilding projects. A trip to the local hardware store provided me with some styrene outdoor drain fittings for under $5.

    For the rounded front of the crews quarters, I bisected the 4" diameter styrene drain cover. A U-shaped piece was cut out from the 4" rectangular part of the gutter drain adapter to form the rear. Using a belt sander, I shaved the bottoms of both pieces until they were roughly 1 1/8" (8 scale feet) in height.

    The 02-level deck consisted of a .040-thick piece of styrene sheet, 6" wide by 4" long, cut in a semi-circular shape in the front. For the solid front railing I cut a 1/2" section of 6 " diameter Plastruct tubing, tapered on the ends, and cemented it to the styrene sheet with Plastic Weld.

    The Pilothouse

    To make the modern-styled pilothouse, I initially cut and sanded a 1 1/8" tall section of 3" diameter Plastruct tubing (this height was a mistake, as I'll explain shortly). Next, I used a fine-point permanent marker to place evenly spaced marks at alternating intervals of 3/8" and 1/16" for the front windows. With a side-cutter normally used for clipping rail, I made 1/2" incisions with the flat side facing each 1/16" pair of markings; then, with a set of needle-nose pliers, I carefully broke off the plastic inside the 3/8" marks. After carving out 13 window spaces in this manner, I used a fine-grade file to flatten and smooth the bottom edges. An empty plastic peanut butter jar provided the rounded glass to complete the front windows. (Some modelers may have chosen to insert separate, precut 1/2" lengths of 1/16" wide styrene strip for the vertical window braces. I used my own method because I wanted to always be able to remove the window glass during spray painting; keeping the braces as part of the original tube makes them more resistant to being broken off.)

    For the rectangular rear section of the pilothouse, I cut a U-shaped piece from the 3" side of the styrene gutter drain adapter. I then proceeded to carve out the 1/4" rear window holes using the side cutters and needlenose pliers in the manner described above.

    As I mentioned earlier, I miscalculated the height of the pilothouse. To correct this, I cut and sanded additional 1/2" sections of the 3" diameter tubing and the gutter drain, then glued these to the bottoms of their like-shaped parts. The proper plan would have been to cut a 1 5/8" tall component of each section.

    The roof was made by cutting out a plate of .040 sheet styrene in the exact shape of the pilothouse, rounded on the front and rectangular on the rear. For the curved awning, I used a Plastruct 60° angle cone. Its staircase-patterned interior made it very easy for me to score a 1/2" high ring that fit perfectly. I used sheet styrene for the non-curved sections.

    The Stack

    Full-length view of the Victoria taken on the authors driveway. The waterway and shore were digitally added by the author.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 40

    Sylvans stack, like their pilothouse, is much too narrow (3/4" diameter) to look like it belongs on a '60-era lake boat. At first I was going to substitute a 5" section of Plastruct 1 1/4" diameter tubing. However, since I had chosen to imitate a Cleveland-Cliffs vessel, I decided to use something shorter and fatter. A 3" long piece of 2 1/2" diameter Plastruct tube was cut and then mashed from a round to an oval cross-section. On the bottom outside surface, I piled on styrene putty, then sanded it to achieve a slightly tapered appearance. The jagged bottom edge was covered with 1/8" styrene strip; some of this same styrene was used on the inside near the top in order to support the top platform, which I made by cutting an oval piece of .030 styrene. Two 1/2" sections of 1/4" diameter tube were then cemented on the stacks forward end.

    Since this was to be a Cleveland-Cliffs vessel, I needed to cut out two 1 1/2" tall "C" letters, paint them bright red, and cement one to each side of the stack. I floated them on pieces of .040 square strip styrene to match their appearance in prototype photos.

    Finishing Details

    The Sylvan kit provided more than enough parts to produce a highly detailed model, and I made generous use of most of these, including the anchors, lifeboats, anchor windlass, mooring line winches, doors and fairleads. But for ladders (thats the nautical term for stairways) and remaining (upper-deck) handrails, I chose to purchase a few sets from Plastruct and Central Valley. I was in no mood to repeat the difficult work of stringing fishing line through brass stanchions when guardrail sections were available to quickly attach with CA. Also, the styrene handrails were easier secure to the styrene staircases.

    Using a 2:1 mixture of Floquil Polly Scale Weyerhaeuser Green and Reefer White, I spray-painted the forward and aft houses in Cleveland-Cliffs distinctive Pea Green. I applied unpainted 1/16" wide .020 styrene strip along the edges of the upper decks for the white trim.

    The "Empty" Hull Section

    Full aft view of the Victoria. The photo was taken on the authors patio; the lake and sky were digitally added by the author.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 41

    Even though my HO scale lake boat is not an operating model, I can change her appearance from "full" to "empty" by inserting an extra section of false hull underneath the vessel. To do this, I carved a 5' section of 3/4" thick fiberboard, cut and sanded to the contours of the hull but slightly thinner (~.050) and covered with sheet styrene of thicknesses varying from .020 to .040. Since the forward section of an empty vessel rises higher than the stern, I needed to cut the styrene sheet strips in a gradually increasing width from 5/8" to 1 1/2". I didn't want the styrene on the forward section to bear any weight, so I glued some leftover 3/4" diameter tube sections under the bow. To prevent sagging in the center, I attached some packaging Styrofoam. For the underside of the stern, rather than attempting to attach sheet styrene matching the graduated curves of that surface, I applied a layer of modeling putty.

    On the plus side, fiberboard is easily cut or sanded into any desired shape; there is no splintering as with regular wood. The disadvantage is that it is highly porous. Any surface being glued or painted must be thoroughly washed - perhaps even varnished - otherwise any paint or cement you apply will not stick.

    In addition to a base coat of Weathered Black, I sprayed the removable bottom with a thin layer of Boxcar Red since this part of the hull spends half of its time below the waters surface and tends to corrode sooner.

    Looking Ahead

    Like many of my model railroading projects, Victoria is a work in progress. Although she is currently in layover status on my mantelpiece, I hope to launch her in the near future on a reconstructed steel mill layout. Now, who is going to produce the Hulett kits to go along with the ore boat?

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  • Steve Lamb
    Steve Lamb Makes me wanna build an HO Edmund Fitzgerald except the model would be 100.55 inches long. It could be compressed down thought and still look good.
    October 26, 2011