Building a Star Wars Medical Frigate

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here, I know. Sorry about that. I’ve been busy. Partly work, partly not. One of the things I’ve been busy with since I last posted is getting somewhat obsessed with the X-Wing miniatures game. It’s a fun and in-depth tactics game involving little Star Wars spaceships, so regular followers of this blog will see why I like it. But I don’t want to talk about the game itself today.

Because I’ve also been getting caught up in the arts and crafts aspect of the hobby. Mostly that’s meant repainting ships, which I’ve done a whole lot of. But from time to time I’ve also made my own ships. That started with an extremely rough and ready extra TIE Fighter I made not long after getting the starter set, purely to beef up my rather thin Imperial roster. Two years or so on, I now have all the TIE Fighters I could ever want and my ship-building has switched to the vessels that don’t yet exist in the game.

The first proper project I undertook was Director Krennic’s shuttle from Rogue One. When that was a success I moved on to something a bit more challenging, with more colour and a lot more surface detail – the Consular-Class Republic cruiser that appears at the beginning of the Phantom Menace and throughout the Clone Wars. That went very well, and I still love looking at it up on my bookcase. Now that a growing slate of Republic ships are appearing in the game, I’m looking forward to flying it properly.

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Rebel_fleet_ESBBut what I’ve always really wanted to tackle was the Rebel medical frigate that first appeared in the Empire Strikes Back. The Nebulon-B Escort Frigate, to give it its proper name, is one of the most iconic and gorgeous big ships in Star Wars, its unorthodox shape making for an extremely visually interesting ship that combines power and fragility, as well as a wealth of details that make it a model-maker’s dream. Or nightmare, depending how you look at it. I’ve tried making one before, early in my X-Wing career. I built a 1:350 scale one out of foamcore, card and paper-clay.

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The card Nebulon-B. It’s lost its stand and static discharge vanes in the intervening years.

This went OK and I had a lot of fun doing it, but you can’t get a lot of detail out of card and it turned out I’d made it too big to really be practical to use in-game. As my shipmaking skills grew, I knew I wanted to revisit it and make a slightly smaller Nebulon-B out of plastic.

This summer, I did.

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I’m pretty happy with how it came out. There are a few niggling mistakes and rough edges that bug me, but it’s far and away better than the cardboard one, and sits very respectably alongside the officially released ships. Here’s how I did it.

The first thing, as with any project of this kind, is to gather reference. This actually turned out to be my biggest mistake. There are a lot of blueprints and schematics for the ship available online, and initially I worked from one of those. Except, as work progressed, it became very clear that these were all really inaccurate, and the proportions they gave looked completely wrong. Part-way through the build I shifted to working almost exclusively from reference photos of the original filming model. This meant remaking some of the earlier sections, which was a pain.

But it was worth it in the end. For much of the detailing I worked straight from the pictures, which was fine since I had no intention of trying to reproduce all the fine details exactly. For the main shapes and the structural elements, though, it was important to get the measurements right, so I imported the nearest images I could get to orthographic projections into a photo-editing program and scaled them to the size of my intended model – 1:500 scale, about 60cm long. This meant I could use the program’s measuring tool to find out any lengths and angles I needed.

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DSC_0179From there it was simply a matter of building it up little by little. Fortunately the ship’s very modular so I could start small with the self-contained builds of the various pods in the forward ‘blade’ stack. The main thing to take account of here was the need for a structural stand to run up through the first few of these and support the model. I made the pods – like the rest of the ship – mainly out of styrene plasticard, supplemented with bits of model kits and then with details glued on that were made from everything from bits of old toys to chopped up pen lids.

While I was doing this, I was thinking about how to do the large, rounded main forward hull. This is actually quite a complex shape – more so than it first appears, and isn’t the kind of thing that’s easy to make out of styrene without a vacuum former or a pre-made piece that just happens to be the right size and shape. Neither of which I have. In the end, I made the hull out of parts of the forward section of a B-17 bomber model kit, expanded with bits of styrene and then smoothed over and further extended with Milliput epoxy modelling putty. This made it rather heavy and also a bit uneven, but it did the job. Still, it’s one of the aspects of the model I’m least happy with.

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The next major structural element I needed to work out was the main spine of the ship. As something so spindly, it as obviously extremely important that this be completely rigid, strong and straight. After a lot of searching online for different kinds of plastic tubing, I eventually bought some 12mm plastic plumbing tube. This was perfect, but I made another of my mistakes here – not buying a pipe-cutting tube straight away. Instead I relied on sawing, which made getting clean, straight cuts virtually impossible. In the end I did get the tool, but not till I’d done almost all the pipe-work in the ship.

I detailed the ship’s spine using bits of the widest styrene tube I could get, chopped up and superglued onto the base pipe. This served as a base for layering up countless more greebles made of styrene, wire and model-kit parts. At this stage I also had to work out the docking mechanisms. In the Empire Strikes Back, the Millennium Falcon is shown very prominently docked with the Nebulon B and I wanted to be able to replicate this in the game. I’d already modified my Millennium Falcon with a countersunk magnet to allow it to rotate on a ball bearing for nice swoopy angles in game. It was easy enough to drill a small hole in the plumbing tube and screw in a round-headed screw, which the magnet fastened to very nicely. I also drilled a couple more holes and glued in ship-support pegs from X-Wing miniatures so I could dock a couple of other small ships alongside the Falcon. I probably should have spaced these out a bit better – as it is, you can only fit 2 small ships in without the Falcon.

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From there it was a matter of adding the hull cladding on the front section – which was straightforward enough – and then starting work on the rear hull. The main complication in all this was that I wanted to incorporate lighting into the ship, so it as at this stage that I had to start thinking about accommodating wiring. The main lighting is at the back, with orange LEDs lighting up the 7 engines, but I also included 2 removable hull panels that would reveal damaged sections behind them, the idea being that I could do this as the ship sustained damage in-game. Each damaged section included a flickering yellow/orange LED taken from a cheap LED tealight. The removable hull panels are held on with tiny 3 x .05mm magnets.

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The back section is basically just an elaborate plastic box filled with wiring. There’s a small shelf on one side where a 9V battery sit, and 3 small switches that control the engine and damage lights. This is all covered over with another removable hull section. The superstructure on top of the rear hull is entirely cosmetic and made out of the usual mix of styrene, model parts, putty and bits of broken old toys.

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All that done, it was just a matter of glueing the various parts together. A variety of glues are used in the ship. I used plastic cement on the styrene parts and superglue for fastening most other kinds of plastic. For structural bonds that needed to set quickly and support a lot of weight, I got through a lot of hot glue.

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For painting, I primed it with a Tamiya light grey acrylic primer and then set to work airbrushing on the main coats. One of the trickiest parts of this turned out to be finding neutral shades of grey – because a lot of model paints are intended for battleships or aircraft, they often have a blueish tinge.

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In the end, a lot of the model is painted with a mix of Tamiya White and extremely small quantities of black. It’s important to paint it lighter than you want it to be in the end because the weathering will darken it down a lot. The other tricky aspect of painting was working out the colours on the front blade pods. In the shooting miniature and a lot of other people’s replicas these are quite distinctly coloured; on-screen, though, they appear completely washed-out and grey. There was obviously a danger with a ship like this that it might end up as a massive, boring grey lump on the table, so I spent a lot of time layering up colours and knocking them back till I got shades I was happy with. There’s a lot of complicated masking on those pods, as well as liberal use of the hairspray chipping technique to scuff away grey and reveal more vibrant bits of colour.
The only other splash of colour on the model is the red stripe on the main hull. That was done with masking tape and an airbrush, and then chipped using the same hairspray technique.

For weathering, I used oil paints, as I do on all my miniatures. They’re incredibly forgiving to use and also extremely cheap since a little goes a very long way. The whole ship was weathered with very thin washes of brown and black oils, which I tried to focus particularly on the panel lines I’d scored into the plastic and in the crevices. It took a long time to do this, and in places several layers were needed, but the end result’s pretty good, I think.

Finally, when the oils were dry (it takes a few days), I brushed some black and brown weathering powders on in a few placed – especially the engines and the damaged cavities. I then sprayed the whole thing with a matt varnish.

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A final, last-minute addition came when I found a Hot Wheels Millennium Falcon reduced in a shop. This looked to be much closer to the right scale for this ship than the X-Wing game’s one (the smaller ships are all around 1:270 – only the very large ones deviate from that significantly). I superglued an X-Wing peg to the top and repainted it, so it can dock on one of the small ship connections. This gives me a choice between a Falcon which is in scale with the Nebulon B or one which matches the other smaller ships in the game.

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That’s pretty much it! None of the techniques here are particularly exotic. It’s all just standard styrene plasticard building and kitbashing techniques, most of which I learned from here, other YouTube videos and articles online. I don’t consider myself any kind of expert model-builder – until a couple of years ago I hadn’t touched a model kit in about 25 years. Everything you see here is what I’ve managed to teach myself in a handful of projects over less than 2 years. The main piece of advice with a big ship like this is just to stick at it, keep thinking about the next step, and to keep up the momentum. Any specific questions, do feel free to ask!

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