Armor

The Capitan Alonso

An 18th Century Spanish Smoothbore Cannon – The Capitan Alonso
By Mike Hanson.  Previously published in the March/April 2009 IPMS Journal

Cannon_Fin12I’ve always loved history, especially the early history of the United States.  When we travel, my family and I love to visit historic sites like the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. One of the oldest forts in the country can be found there, dating back to the Spanish conquest in 1672. It is the only extant 17th century fort in North America.  It’s well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area.

One of the highlights of our visit to the fort was seeing some of the original armament, in the form of bronze cannon. I was intrigued by these old Spanish cannon, as they were ornate, with ropes, wreathes, and crowns cast into the barrels; very different from the US Civil War era cannon at places like Gettysburg. (Civil War artillery is one of my other interests.)

I’m normally a automobile modeler, but seeing these cannon made me wonder if there were any kits available of old Spanish artillery.  After some investigation, I was unable to find anything resembling the arms at the fort.  However, I did find a 1/18 scale Napoleon cannon from Smer. It had the general lines of the Spanish cannon, and there begins my story.

The Smer kit is frankly pretty awful, almost toy-like rather a serious attempt at an accurate model. When I first got the kit I opened it and started to see what I could do with it.  I was quickly discouraged, and the kit went back on the shelf for a long, long time. Then I built a Civil War Napoleon from the ‘Guns of History’ line of models at Model Expo.  I did this kit as a memorial cannon, similar to those found on display at National Parks, and the model went together well and looked great.  I had worked hard doing the blue-green patina on the cannon’s barrel, and upon posting a picture to the IPMS web site’s forums, a member made a suggestion that I write an article on how to do the patina. That reminded me of the old Smer kit on the shelf in the garage.  It was junk, but should do fine for demonstrating the painting technique.  Little did I know it would turn into a much bigger project! Of course, my wife Rocio would probably tell you that she knew all along it would turn into a major production…

The Smer kit was designed to be a field piece, so it came with the associated carriage. Like the cannon, the carriage was terrible. This is what started me on my way into more than just demonstrating the patina. I really like the cannon at the old fort in St. Augustine, and my original reason for buying this kit was because I wanted to build a Spanish cannon similar to the ones found at the Castillo.  These were not mounted as field artillery, but rather in a fort carriage (also known as a garrison carriage). This is really just a box with wheels, and I felt I could stretch myself to scratch-build a reasonable facsimile. I didn’t have to worry about it being perfect, since historically how the carriage looked had a lot to do with the carpenter who happened to be building it.  So I googled for some drawings and images of similar types, and asked for advice from Ed Brut, a fellow modeler in the Pelikan IPMS chapter who has knowledge of the era. And I told myself I was just doing it to demonstrate the painting technique anyway.

StAug_cannonThe 1:1 versions were made from wood, so I decided to make the miniature from wood as well. I went to my local craft store and purchased an assortment of basswood in various sizes.  I studied the photos and drawings and started by building the sides of the carriage, which offers the primary support for the gun. (Fig. 1)  It was a straightforward job, since the real guns were made from timber, so it was just a matter of building up the sides to match the photos.  Most images and drawings I found looked like they were made from six heavy, square timbers. I matched up some of the craft wood and built mine up the same way.  The floor of the carriage was next, and based on some photos, the front was often rounded off. I thought that this might give the model a bit more character, so after the glue was dry I sanded the front into a similar arc. (Fig. 2)

The internal structure of the carriage is made up of a bracing support over the front axle and a platform on the opposite end where the breech of the cannon rests.  This platform is like a small table; the photos I had collected showed that sometimes it is just a flat platform and other times there is a groove cut into it.  To add a bit of visual detail to the model I decided to go with the grooved type. The breech of the cannon rests on a wedge that fits into the groove; as the wedge is moved back and forth the elevation of the cannon changes.  Using my Dremel tool, I shaped a small block of wood into the shape of the wedge. Inserting a wire pin as a guide the shape of the handle was formed around the wire using epoxy putty. Finer wire was wrapped around the handle to give it some visual detail. (Fig. 3)

Fig1

Fig 1 – Building the carriage

Fig2

Fig 2 – Sides and bottom

Fig3

Fig 3 – Wedge, for elevation

The axles were simple blocks of wood drilled out to accept wooden dowels. The wheels, on the other hand, turned out to be a real challenge. My reference pictures showed a variety of wheel types, mostly small wooden disks. The carriage at the Castillo had wooden wheels with studded iron ‘tires’ that looked good. The catch was they were not simple disks; they had a rounded shape, and were held in place with an iron cap. The ‘tire’ was a band of iron inset with metal studs. The iron caps reminded me of a small hat-shaped metal cap I had seen at the hardware store; a quick trip down the block netted me a handful of ‘cap nuts’ that were a close match to the ones in the photos. For the wheels, I took a trip to our local craft store and just went trolling for ideas. Happily, it paid off in some ¾-inch domed wooden plugs. They were not quite as rounded as the wheels in the photos, but they were close enough that I could excuse the variation as a different carpenter! I drilled holes in the center of each plug and test-fit them on the axle along with the cap nut. It was a good match. I then cut thin sheet brass into strips and glued them onto the wheels to replicate the iron tires, and then drilled out holes to accommodate 20-gauge wire, cutting it short to emulate the studs. (Fig. 4)

At this point all the wooden components of the carriage are ready for assembly. (Fig. 5)  The next step is to determine what hardware needs to be added, as there was quite a bit of differentiation between cannons. Some used a lot of iron banding, others just in key spots on the carriage. Much of the carriage was held together with iron nuts and bolts. Ed sent me a copy of some schematics that showed the general placement of the hardware. I was surprised at how long some of the bolts were, and how many of them were used; they could add a lot of visual detail but unfortunately not many are actually visible on the carriage.

Now comes the part where I find out how it all fits together. I begin the assembly by gluing the carriage sides to the floor, giving the glue plenty of time to cure.  This is wood, so I’m a bit out of my element, and want to be patient.  Which is not one of my strong suits.  Once it has cured, the internal structures go in and are clamped down. More waiting. Finally, the axles are added and after yet another wait, the structure of the carriage is complete.  I’m not putting the wheels on until after I paint it.

Fig 4 - Wheels

Fig 4 – Wheels

Fig 5 - Carriage parts

Fig 5 – Carriage parts

Trunion caps

Trunion caps

Assembled carriage

Assembled carriage

While all the glue is drying, work begins on the cannon.  Inside the Smer box, the cannon is molded in two halves.  I had started the kit ages ago so I had a head start on the barrel.  Such as it is – it really doesn’t have a true barrel, just a hole opening into the hollow shell of the cannon. The trunnions were too small, and because it was plastic it was very lightweight.  Filling the two halves of the cannon with epoxy putty added some heft and acted as an anchor for the barrel, which was made from an aluminum tube. The trunnions were enlarged using brass tubing. Not thinking I would ever actually do anything with the kit, I had used the partially finished barrel to test paint.  So some sanding and smoothing was in order.

StAug_Cannon2The cannon as it came out of the box had handles molded horizontally into the each side. To make it fit into the fort carriage, these handles had to come off.  A real challenge was figuring out how to add the molded-in patterns on the cannon. Artillery of this era tended to be very ornate, but the Smer cannon had none of these embellishments.  One thing I did want to do was add a name to the cannon. In the mid- to late-1700’s it was common for Spanish cannon to be named at the foundry.  Saint’s names were common – there was a cannon in the Castillo named San Marcos (St. Mark), and others from that era had names like El Espanto (The Terror), El Destrozo (The Destroyer), Generoso (Generous), El Toro (The Bull), and El Belicoso (The Quarrelsome One). I decided to name mine in honor of my late father-in-law. He had spent most of his life on the sea, so my cannon would be christened the Capitan Alonso.pattern

I decided to use thin sheet styrene. Once I decided on a font for the name and a pattern – I wasn’t planning on exactly replicating a specific cannon, so could improvise a little – I could transfer it to the plastic and trim it out.  I used my printer to print the pattern directly onto the sheet of plastic.  I had to let it dry for a long while, so the ink wouldn’t smear.  Once dry, I pulled out my big magnifying glass and two fresh hobby knives.  This was a new technique for me, so it was a challenge.  My first tries were not very successful, until I figured out that by using really small cuts, just barely using the tip of the knife, I could slowly work my way around the pattern. Success! (Fig. 6)  It was a bit rough, but then the casting on the historic cannon was not precise either, and if necessary I could smooth it a bit once it was glued into place.  To give it depth, I would use thick, gel-type superglue and microballoons.  Using a very fine gluing tip, I would ‘draw’ details into the pattern with the cyano, and then sprinkle microballoons on top of it. Then I could use needle files to clean up the detail.  For additional detail on the cannon I used fine styrene rod to create some fretwork over the trunnions. Once the glue is dry it will be ready for final cleanup and a coat of sandable primer to get it ready for the first color coat.

Cutting the pattern

Cutting the pattern

Modifying the cannon

Modifying the cannon

As it’s dark outside, I moved back to the carriage, which has been painted with a basecoat of black; I used Model Master ‘Tar’ acrylic, as it looked good in scale with just the right amount of semi-gloss. Using a wire brush, I distressed the wear areas on the carriage and added some scrapes and chips.  I used basswood to build the carriage, and it’s a very light-colored wood. The difference between the black paint and the bright, new wood was too stark, so I used some cherry stain to darken the wood. The wheels were weathered with flat black and dry-brushed with steel, and once they were dry they were installed onto the carriage.

Next, the trunnion caps were fabricated from sheet aluminum, and the axle stays were made from brass sheet. (Fig. 9) These would be the largest pieces of hardware on the carriage; the remaining parts are pins, rings, nuts, and bolts. The small parts would be fabricated using a variety of sources. The pins and rings are made from brass wire; Bolts are either styrene rod or watch screws, and the nuts are made from square styrene rod drilled out to accept some round stock. Washers are made using a MicroMark punch.  All the hardware is given a primer coat and then painted Flat Black and given a dry brushing of steel for weathering. The last bit of hardware is adding the trunnion pin chain to the trunnion caps.  With this final step, the carriage is complete and ready to accept the cannon! (Fig. 10)

The cannon has been primed, sanded, and primed again, and is ready for the first color coat. These cannons were made from bronze, and as they are really old, the bronze would not be bright and shiny. Old bronze is almost brown, so I used a mix of Tamiya Gold and Metallic Brown. I just ‘eyeballed’ the proportions until it looked right, about a 50/50 mix. After spraying it still looked a bit too bright, but that’s OK because the base coat won’t really show up much; I just want to make the layers as realistic as possible. This is also the only color coat on the cannon where I’ll use the airbrush.  The patina is all brushwork.

Now I’m finally to the point that started this project.  The patina. Bronze cannon if left unpainted over time develop a very nice blue-green patina.  It’s actually pretty easy to do. I use five colors: Model Master Verdigris and French Blue, and an intermediate color made from a 50/50 mix (almost a turquoise); Tamiya Smoke, and the leftover Bronze mix from the initial color coat on the cannon. Lastly, a soft brush that you don’t mind ruining.

The first couple passes are just rough blots of paint. Start with the Verdigris and blot it all over the barrel. Do the same with the intermediate color and finally with the French Blue.  I found on this cannon, because of the embellished detail, I had to get a fine brush to get the paint into some of the details. Now it will all start to come together – start blending the colors by lightly dry-brushing with each color, always gently brushing around the barrel, never lengthwise if it can be avoided. Think about how the weather would attack a cannon, the rain would always run around and drip off the bottom; as you layer the paint try to keep that in mind. Once the colors start looking right, back off and lightly stipple the paint here and there – the idea is to fleck or speckle the finish with the different colors.  Keep layering until you think it looks just right.  It will be bright, but we’ll take care of that in the next step.

Take the Tamiya Smoke and thin it down to a loose wash. Apply the wash the same as the paint – brush around the barrel, adding a thicker coat where detail needs to be visible.  Keep working it until you’re happy with the degree of weathering.  For a final touch, use the Bronze mix from the initial color coat and dab highlights here or there, where the cannon might have wear spots or damage that might have scraped off the patina. Depending on how much wash was used, it may be necessary to hit it with some flat clear; otherwise, the cannon is done!

Painting the Patina on the Cannon

Bronze base

Bronze base

First color coat

First color coat

Second coat

Second coat

Adding some blue

Adding some blue

Almost done

Almost done

Add weathering

Add weathering

The final step is to swirl in some flat black to darken the open mouth of the barrel, and to mount the finished cannon on the completed carriage. The cannon drops into the trunnions and the trunnion caps are glued down. That completes the cannon, but for me it’s not really done until I have a nice base to display it on.

Cannon_Fin14The base is a 9 x 12 wood square from the craft store that has been stained and varnished. On top of that I’ve added a Plastruct plastic sheet that is molded to look like polished stone, and a ‘wall’ made from carved basswood. This was primed and painted (and what a tedious job that was, trying to give the stone enough variation to look realistic!), and the cannon was mounted on the base using pins in each wheel. The cannon looked a bit lonely on the base, so I added a stack of cannonballs made from 6mm beads, and a full set of tools.

The tools were a fun challenge, as my trip to the craft store didn’t net me anything small enough to be the handles. The solution was some bamboo skewers in the pantry, cut down to about five inches.  I cut aluminum tube to make small bands around the head of each tool. I made a paper pattern for the powder ladle and transferred it onto some brass sheet, cut it out and bent it around the aluminum. The ram was simply a larger tube fit over the aluminum and filled with putty, which would have been sanded concave, but as it dried it naturally contracted, so no sanding was needed! A pipe cleaner was wrapped around the opposite end and trimmed down to replicate the sponge. The worm tool was just a brass wire formed by wrapping it around a tube, trimmed, and glued into a hole drilled into the end of the handle. (Figs. 17, 18, & 19) With these final touches, I can call it finished. Ready for the next club meeting and model show!

Powder scoop

Powder scoop

Sponge and worm

Sponge and worm

Completed tools

Completed tools

This has been a really fun, interesting, and educational project. It certainly stretched my modeling muscles, but the final result looks great and I can brag that it’s almost entirely scratch-built. I hope I’ve been able to explain how to do the patina; if you need any clarification please don’t hesitate to email me at mike@tesoritos.com. One nice side effect was a weekend trip to St. Augustine with the family for ‘research!’  There are some cool-looking Spanish mortars there, too. Next project, maybe? Happy Modeling!

Cannon_Fin8

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