Scratchbuilding A Spelljammer

For anyone unfamiliar with the Spelljammer expansion, back in 1989 the writers of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons decided that their vast libraries of middle-earth-like modules wasn’t expansive enough. So they took us to space.

Dungeons and Dragons…in space. Just let that sink in. Illiterate barbarians operating complex space-faring machinery. Sorcerers throwing fireballs into the dark depths of the cosmos. Bards no longer limited to creepily hitting on wenches from their home planet. It was beautiful, and it was ridiculous.


Google Images / Spelljammer.Wikia

But one facet of the Spelljammer expansion stood out; The ships. The Spelljammer ships were a signature of the series. You can’t go into space without a ship. And for Dungeons and Dragons that doesn’t mean getting a bunch of Wizards together and inventing NASA. It means magical sailing ships that can fly, and all the beautiful and wondrous variety that brought with it. But I digress. If you want to see a lineup of Spelljammer ships, from the sleek and steady to the ridiculous, a quick Google search will suffice.

Here, for the first time, I’ve posted my attempt to create my own Spelljammer Helm from scratch.

Step 1: Ship Shape


Ransack your house for objects to trace…

Materials: Foam-core Board, Straight Needles, Exacto-Blade, Tape Dispenser (no tape used), white glue.

Recently my local Dollar Store started selling white foam-core board. Which means this project cost me a single foam board and half a bottle of white glue, so about $1.50 total.

For my Spelljammer, which I wanted to be on the small size for a 6-man crew, I started hunting around for oblong objects. See the tape dispenser on the left? Kinda looks like a boat deck, doesn’t it…?


Next I cut a keel (left) by tracing the middle of the deck and measuring out a prow and bow that would extend past the deck by another inch in the front, and half an inch in the back. I also cut 1-cm strips of foam-core for the hull. More on those later.

Step 2: Quarterdeck (And Wheel, Possibly)

Above you can see the initial quarterdeck as well. AKA where the captain stands and pilots the ship. Note that I don’t have a captain’s wheel. Some Spelljammers have wheels, others are piloted by magic or telepathy alone. I chose the latter for my ship.

For the initial cut I made a quarter-length tracing of the tape dispenser and layered it 5 times. 4 layers for the quarterdeck, and 1 thin layer for the railing.


Gouge fingers with knife as necessary.

I waited for the quarterdeck to dry before tapering the layers together for a more gentle curve.


I then cut the railings into tapers as well, and sliced into the front protrusion to form the steps. Note that any surface I glue to another piece of foam-core, I first strip away the outer paper layer.


Once I had the quarterdeck where I wanted it I set it with white glue, glued the keel to the deck, and pinned everything together.

Step 3: Hull

With the pins in place I didn’t have to worry about waiting for the glue to set. I moved on to the hull right away.


Here I set the first two hull planks on. It’s easiest to squirt the glue on the deck’s edge before wrapping the hull around it. Remember; using straight pins makes every part of the process easier and more forgiving.


At this stage I let the ship sit overnight, because building out the hull below the deck-level is a monstrous pain, and it will test your patience. Make sure everything at this stage is very secure, and re-glue any gaps or wiggles.

Step 4: Beveling the Planks

Remember those 1-cm strips from above? Now it’s time to cut a 45-degree bevel along the planks on both the right and left sides. This will help the planks seal together. If you’re looking at the plank from the end it should look like a trapezoid.


“Don’t look up at the TV… Don’t look up at the TV…”

If your bevel isn’t perfectly straight, don’t worry about it. Foam-core is soft and forgiving, meaning you can mash two segments together with glue and pin it into place anyway. Like puzzle pieces made of dish sponge.


See where the planks fit together, there isn’t a massive gape where two 90-degree angles meet? Bevel it, baby.


When you reach the underside you’ll start to test the bend limit of foam-core strips. If you’re careful a 1-cm strip can make a 45-degree turn over a few inches. I needed a boatload of straight pins to manage it though, so go slow and be careful not to snap your plank.


Finally, for the bottom hull (the strips touching the keel) I used 1.5-cm strips and wedged them under the oblong gaps. I then traced the inside gaps and cut the foam-core to size.

I also re-glued the gaps between the planks, beveled where the planks met the keel, and cemented the upper limb of the double-prow (seen left, on top of the 5E character sheet)


Of course it has fins…

With the ship mostly complete I started building the fins. My plan was to give it a narrow fish-like profile, which means multiple fin sails. I also wanted it to stand without extra sprues so I made the larger fins load-bearing by shoving straight-needles without heads into the foam and securing it with more glue.


Here she is; the HMS Fishgun (name pending)

Next; the grates, portholes, paints, and the EULA my players have to sign.

Step 5: The Grate


Sure, there are easier ways to get flat, thin bits of paper or wood, but why use the correct materials when we can perform unnecessary surgery on our fingertips?

For the ship’s grate I measured out a 1-inch by 1-inch square, glued it to a cardboard backing, and filled the inside with tiny grids of flattened toothpicks. Like a window pane. The background was painted black (with the rest of the ship’s initial coat) and secured with standard Elmer’s white glue. If you end up with minor gaps between the toothpicks don’t worry. A heavy paint will fill that in.


Step 6: The Portholes

Because the initial planks were measured to 1cm width I could have stacked a few 3-ring paper reinforcers onto the hull and painted over. But because I’m impatient I cut my portholes out of cardboard.


Note: You will have to re-edge and re-cut these many times before they look vaguely circular. Or just, you know, have steadier hands than me.


Step 7: The Anchor

Given the shallow bottom of my ship and the overall ‘pointed’ shapes, I went with a wedge anchor. Again, I used cardboard, Elmer’s glue, and salty tears.


I then attached a small segment of cheap  jewelry chain, available at any craft store. Here it is on 1-inch game grid, for scale.


I used multiple layers of glue where the anchor’s stem met the chain. For added strength, and to hide where the chain should be welded or looped to the stem. Then I glue the loose end into the front port, which was cut smaller than the other portholes for this purpose.


Step 8: Paint

For the hull I chose a base coat of light tan. I knew I wanted a light cherrywood deck and hull with a slightly darker red trim. To achieve this I used a thin terra-cotta paint by Game Color.


Note: It’s very important to have light, consistent brush-strokes when you’re using a thin paint to build wood grain. Go slow. Paint in one direction for every plank. And don’t go over your old brush strokes too much.


Finally we get to the rear castle, the portholes, and the trim. Remember; metallic paints are usually thicker, so they can really fill in gaps and blemishes.


Lastly, because this is a magic ship, I used a silver-metallic paint by Game Color to add magic symbols to the captain’s ‘ring’ and the larger fins. The symbols themselves were taken from the mumbo-jumbo language I filled my grimoire with a few months back.


Volla! The HMS Fishgun is ready to set sail. All for about 3 bucks in foamcore, paint, and white glue.

Published by jdplots

Author and mangler of plots.

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