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Thanks to Howie Burgess for the neat caricature.

Where to Begin

Welcome to all you new modelers to my site. This page is for you who are not sure where to start. For you veterans there may be some ideas you can use below.

Confused as to what's port and what's starboard and which color light identifies which? Here's and easy way to remember. Port, left, red are shorter words to where Starboard, right, and green are longer words.

What about Left and Right hand props? It works for the wheels (propellers) as well. Clockwise rotating wheel on port, counter-clockwise wheel on starboard. To tell if a propeller is clockwise or counter-clockwise, place it on the shaft and view from the stern. Turn the prop in the direction it would go to push the boat forward. If it turns the same direction as the second hand on a clock, then it is a clockwise (right hand) propeller. In other words the top of the propeller turns to the starboard direction. If it turns to the port then it's a counter-rotating (left hand) prop.


Where do we begin? First letís determine what type of vessel interests you. There are speed boats, recreational boats like cabin cruisers, military vessels, merchant ships, paddle wheel driven vessels, Great Lakes vessels, submarines, and work boats like trawlers, tugs, towboats, and miscellaneous specialty vessels. Next you'll want to decide what scale to build in. You'll need to find a scale that will be large enough to be stable and hold radio gear, but on the other note, you'll want to scale to be small enough that the model will be manageable and transportable. There are lots of clubs and forums on the web that are dedicated to modeling specific vessels and lots of groups with general interest in assorted vessels. If you haven't guessed yet, this site is all about inland river work boats. keep in mind though, that most of the tips here can apply to most other model vessels. So if you're ready, let's talk about towboats.

Do you want to build a small harbor tug or a large line haul towboat? In practice, if Iím going to build a boat to radio control, boats smaller than 100' in scale, I wouldnít build no smaller than 1:48 ( 1/4"=1'). If the boat is bigger than 150' then I wouldnít build no larger than 1:48 ( 1/4"=1').

Are you planning to push a full tow or just make up a small barge just for fun? The standard size of barge is 195' x 35'. In 1:48 scale that would be 48 3/4" x 8 3/4". Thatís a four foot barge in 1/4" scale! A typical tow for mid size boats are 15 barges, five long and three wide. Thatís 20' 3 3/4" x 26 1/4" and thatís just the tow! How about a 100' boat with six barges, 2 wide & 3 long? In 1:48 scale that would be 25" for the boat and 12' 2 3/4" x 17 Ĺ". Just want a boat and donít plan to build scale barges, well a 100' boat in Ĺ" scale would be 50" long. That would be manageable except for weight. Remember these are displacement hulls and it takes a lot of weight to put them down at waterline. Most modelers I know that build boats from 50' to 150' use 1:32 scale (3/8"=1'). A 100' boat in this scale would be 37 Ĺ". Click here to check out a scale chart.


There are many things to consider when building a boat for radio control. Most important, what do you want to operate with r/c? Do you just want to be able to steer left & right and go forward & backwards, or do you want independent motor control and steering control?

Independent steering control??? Youíll notice that towboats have steering and flanking (backing) rudders. They can all be coupled together on one servo or have separate control with either all rudders on the port on one servo and all rudders on starboard on another. You can also do them like the prototype and couple the steering rudders on one servo and all the backing rudders on another.

But it doesnít stop there! You can also have lights, horns, cranes, fire monitors, smoke generators, winches, and other things operated by r/c. For the best basic setup, use a four channel with separate steering and flanking rudder control and two speed controls (for twin motors). With separate motor control you can turn the boat in it's own length without even touching the rudder controls.


I've been asked a few times how I apply measurements to my working stock in the scale I'm building in without using full size patterns. Whatever scale the plans are in, I have a ruler in that scale. I have another ruler in the scale that I'm building the model in. That way, whatever the dimension is on the plans, it is the same on my working stock. In other words, 5' in 1/8" scale is still 5' if I'm building in 3/4" scale. I find it easier to work this way, I guess because I've always worked from general arrangement plans from shipyards. No, I don't have a lot rulers around. I have an architect's rule (you know, the triangle type) for the plans and a metal railroad rule scaled in 1:48 (O scale) and 1:87 (H-O scale) scale since these are the two principal scales I work with.

To apply the hull profile measurements to the working stock, first I measure for the waterline and use that to base my other measurements from. Taking measurements from the head log then down from the waterline will give a reference point for the bow rake. Make as many of these reference points as you want then just connect the dots. Do the same working from the stern to get the stern rake and rise.


I try to mount every thing where it will be convenient without having to remove the structure to turn things on and off. A really good place is use the exhaust stacks. I glue a piece of brass tubing in the stack and slide another piece in it, which is the exhaust pipe, and it glues onto a push on/off switch mounted in the deck. To turn things on/and off, just push down on the exhaust pipe. You can do as many as four switches that way on a twin screw boat with the aux. Generator exhausts going out the stacks too. Another place to locate switches is under a life boat that lays upside down on deck or inside a vent or box on deck.

One trick I use to tell if my batteries are on or off is to use a double pole switch for my main battery and my receiver battery. I run the wiring to my motors and/or receiver on one side of the switch and run some lights on the other side. I donít use the same power source unless my lights are the same voltage as the unit Iím switching. For instance, I run my guard lights ( the yellow lights that light up the deck) with my receiver switch so when itís on my guard lights are on as well. I connect the red and green navigation lights on the switch with my main power to tell if itís on.


There are many ways to build hulls and the technique is really up to what the person building is comfortable with. Thereís the solid hull where the hull is carved out of a solid block of wood. Thereís the bread and butter where boards are sandwiched together to make up a hull. Thereís the plank on frame where a frame is made up and then strips of wood are glued on to make the hull. Thereís also what I call sheet on frame, which is my building method. Thatís where a pattern is cut from a sheet of wood that makes up a side, deck, bow, or stern section and glued onto framing.

Another idea is Bill Zumwaltís method he calls styrosa! He uses basic extruded styrofoam used for insulating homes and shapes it into a hull. Then he hot glues balsa wood to the outside of the hull area and hollows out the inside for the r/c gear and electronics. He and I, both fiberglass our hulls. You can view both of these methods on the Hulls page.


Again there are many ways to build the deck cabins. A lot of modelers use aircraft plywood and bass wood. I like to use clear acrylic plastic. I mask off for my windows and doors so after itís painted I have prefab windows and doors. See Construction 101 page. Otherís usually cut out their windows and doors and use clear plastic to fit in the pane. Some even use microscope slides to cut real glass window panes.


Towboats are different from speed boats and the motors needed are different too. With speed boats you need a high RPM motor that eats up battery live and will only give you a run time of five minutes to a half hour. Towboats, on the other hand, are slow moving vessels and can use motors that pull less than two amps. An idea motor for a towboat turns around 5000 RPM with 10,000 RPM the maximum you'd want.

Motors create RF (radio frequency) noise that can interfere with your radio signal. The best way to keep RF problems at a minimum is to solder a .01uF (micro-farad) capacitor onto each motor lead then onto the casing of the motor. To further dampen RF noise, solder a .047uF capacitor across the two motor leads. The best way to get the capacitor leads to adhere to the motor casing is to rough up the casing a little with a cut off disk in a moto-tool and put some rosin on it before soldering. Brushless motors do not require suppression capacitors.

You don't need to buy those $50.00 and up motors. Shop around the electronic stores below and find what you need for around $5.00 most of the time.

GEAR REDUCTION, though not mandatory, will reduce rpm motor speeds going to the prop and further reduce the current load on the motor and battery. I have never used a gear box on any of my towboats and have pushed some pretty big tows. You would be surprised how little effort it takes to move weight on the water. Your biggest enemy is the wind and water current. The good gear drives will have Nylon Gears to reduce noise. Metal gear drives are noisy, and can cause radio interference. A Belt Drive is the best to go with because they're smoother running and also easier to install, but may be more expensive. The ratio of the drive means it's two measurements from engine to shaft in turn speeds. It can range between 2:1, to over 6:1. Here, the usual ratio's most often used are 3:1, meaning the motor turns 3 times, to ever single turn of the propeller. Unless it needs more reduction, like in the case of a "Paddle Wheeler" for example. I usually find a gear drive producing 100 to 124 rpm for paddle wheel boats.

Here's Bill Zumwalt's A,B,C's on things to consider when powering your boat......

"A" ..... What Scale - Is The Model = Its OVERALL SIZE? .... This pertains to the models interior and what its Hull & Structures ( their inner space ), will allow you to Install? Meaning things like - the Motor ('s ), Battery & Other Components, which may limit some of your choices? If your building - a kit, does the plans recommend certain parts = Motors, Batteries - Etc.??? If So, you may have to stick closely to what is recommended, but even then, you may still have a few choices - so keep this in mind!

"B" ..... What Size Propeller ( 's ) will be Used or Needed? .... The size of the Propeller, the larger its diameter, the larger the current loads will be on its - Motor, Battery & Speed Control. Here, even slight changes in Propeller - Pitch, using different props, can effect performance or heat build-up problems in motors and speed controls. Boiled down to basic's = the whole idea here, is to make a model handle best - at Very Slow Speeds, without adding expense to the builder!

"C" ..... Will the model require - A Gear Drive ( 's )? .... Here, if its a Kit, you may find the instructions "May or May Not" indicate a need for a certain ratio, or set of motors to use with the gear drives? Here again, hull space within the model, will determine whether you can use a drive - or not, if its a Scratch built hull? But a good rule of thumb, is to always use a "Gear Drive" on any model, which can be fitted with one. Especially in boats that will not travel over 15 miles per hour, in their real counterparts. Here, the faster a motor turns, the harder it is to control the model, so you want motors that spin easily at low speeds, which only use small amounts of current to attain this.

"D" ..... How much will the model weight - Once Completed? ..... Here, if its a small model 12 to 18 inches long for example, this can be critical. If the motors, batteries and other r/c components are to heavy. While larger models, may require a few extra pounds of lead weight = Ballast, after everything is installed, to get the hull - down to its proper waterline draft.... NOTING = The more weight, the harder it will be to get moving!

"E" ..... How large a Battery, will the model - use? ... The hulls overall size, usually determines this, including what type of battery may be required. For example, a small model, may have only enough space for a typical - 7.2 volt Ni-cad pack, or a pair of them. While a larger model will allow space for bigger batteries, like the "Gel Cell" types, in 6 to 12 volt sizes. Remember to measure the space around the inside and with the structures - on the hull. To see if - pairs of "Nicad Batteries" for example, will fit? Or the hull has enough space - Elsewhere, for these items or another type of battery has to be used? Then you can better determine what type of choices you have, along with choices in types of dc motors, speed controls and other components will work.

"F" ..... Just because you have space for something, doesn't mean you have to install - it! .....Here, I mean you don't have to do things, if you don't want too. Just because somebody else did them - in their model, you have choices you maybe haven't even considered yet, that would improve the model - ever further. I've seen guys add details and so-called "Whistles & Bells" functions to models, then wish they hadn't done it. Because they found something better, that worked even easier. But that's the problem you run into, in the hobby of scratch building, about the time you master doing something, some outfits starts offering the same thing - at a pretty reasonable cost. OH WELL!!.


The best prices I have found for r/c radios, batteries, and accessories is...

Tower Hobbies, P.O. Box 9078, Champaign, IL 61826-9078

I buy my motors and some other electrical stuff from a surplus mail order store...

The motors I buy are rated anywhere from 3000 rpm to 12,000 rpm. Around 4000 to 6000 is what you want to buy.

All Electronics, Mendelsons Electronics Company, Jameco Electronics

What fittings I donít scratch build, I buy from...

Blue Jacket Ship Crafters

A good merchant for work boat kits is

Harbor Models

I get my clear acrylic from a local plastics manufacturer. Check the yellow pages under plastics.