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Building a scale model of HMS Terror

On condition of anonymity, Canadian Geographic photo editor Jessica Finn caught up with the man building Terror.

  • Nov 30, 2014
  • 764 words
  • 4 minutes
The work table with finished parts, plans, tools, and materials for the construction of a model of the iron storage tank located in Terror's stern. Expand Image

It takes passion to recreate a piece of history, especially when records are incomplete and no one’s lived to tell the tale. One man’s passion is now turning into something tangible: he is recreating a 1:48 scale model of HMS Terror, the yet-to-be found ship from the lost Franklin expedition of 1845.

What inspired you to recreate a scale model of the ship HMS Terror? And why that ship, and not HMS Erebus?

HMS Terror and Erebus were 19th century technological marvels – the state of the art of nautical science. They were also at the centre of some of the most dramatic stories of exploration and survival in the history of the Royal Navy. They completed the last great exploration voyage by sail (the highly successful Ross Antarctic expedition), and were the first exploration ships to use hybrid locomotion. Erebus was a fine ship, and Franklin’s flagship, but Terror was the more storied vessel. In 1814 the Terror took part in the Battle of Baltimore, for which the Star Spangled Banner was written. She spent more winters in ice than Erebus, and was nearly wrecked multiple times; in fact, she withstood more punishment from the natural environment than any Royal Navy vessel of the era. She was a fascinating, tough little ship. There is no better candidate for a model. 

I understand that complete accuracy is important to you. What tools, resources and materials have you or will you draw on to make your project a reality?

Accuracy is always the goal, but this proves difficult for the Terror because she was extensively modified several times throughout her career. The project began with accessing the extensive number of ship plans from the National Maritime Museum, many of which have multiple layers of annotations. I scanned and placed the original plans one on top of the other in a professional illustration program and then carefully traced the components that I determined were in use in 1845. Extensive historical research was necessary to fill in details missing on the plans, especially for the advanced technology used on the Terror. It was very exciting when I finished the first profile, as this version of the Terror had never been drafted before, and to my knowledge they are the only plans that show the complete architecture of the ship. The plans are then transformed into the wooden model using fairly standard woodworking and modeling techniques.

What materials are you using to build the model ship? Is it an expensive hobby?

Ship modeling is basically woodworking on a miniature scale. I’m building the model out of high quality hardwoods, using holly for the decks and wales, and a beautiful Swiss pear for the hull planking and superstructure. The wood needs to be cut to precise scale thicknesses, so it is initially expensive. However, considered over the course of the build, which will take several years, it’s probably cheaper than many other hobbies. Most of the tools I use are quite simple and inexpensive; simple carving knives, files, hand drills, and tweezers. However, I do have a specialized miniature table saw to cut tiny planks! I also use a lamp with a magnifying lens for the smallest pieces. 

What have been the biggest challenges regarding this ship build?

The greatest challenge has been to understand the confusing modifications and annotations on the existing plans, which are often overlapping, and have faded over time. They require careful study and a good understanding of 19th century ship architecture to effectively interpret, and I’ve had to do hundreds of hours of library/internet research to fill in the missing blanks in the plans. The metalworking and woodworking can be tricky, and my mistake pile is quite large! But there have been great rewards as well; my blog has put me in touch with some of the world’s foremost Franklin researchers, and their response to my project and the discussions I’ve had with them have been very rewarding.

When do you expect the project to be completed? Once complete, what are your plans for the model? Will you attempt to build Erebus next?

This project is really two in one: creating the first accurate plans of the Terror as fitted in 1845, and the first accurate wooden model as it existed in 1845. I hope to be finished both sometime in 2016, which will amount to three years of work. I don’t know what will happen with the model – I’ve had tens of thousands of visitors to my blog in just a year, and there is a lot of interest. My hope is that people will get a chance to see it on display. 

Learn more about the Building Terror at


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