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All Posts, Seaforth

3 D-printed vs metal cast ship models

Guest post from author Robert K Liu.

1. 3 D-PRINTED NMQ FR-023 VILLE DE ORAN, FRENCH AMC 1940 11.7 cm OAL VS NORDZEE Z80 KOTA GEDE, AP AS OF 1942 11.5 cm OAL, when the former Dutch ship was serving with the US War Service Administration. Both models are stock, with minor repairs to Kota Gede. Model enhancements and photographs by Robert K. Liu.

In this blog I compare early and recent 3 D-printed ship models vs metal cast naval ship models produced by various methods: an early 3 D-printed DD Winslow by Paper Lab (2, 11), a recent 3 D-printed Ville de Oran by Nanomaquettes (1-2, 8-11); a centrifugually cast WW II recognition model of a Mogami class CA by Comet Metals (12), a slightly improved centrifugually cast Mogami by Superior (12), a silicone mold cast Neptun Maya (12, 14), a classic silicone mold cast soft metal Nordzee Kota Gede produced in 2002 (1, 3-8) and a diecast zinc/lost wax brass cast Maya (12-13, 16-17) by Konishi, date of production unknown. The two Mogami are a later class of heavy cruisers, with merged funnels, compared to separate funnels for the Mayas.

2. 3 D-PRINTED PAPERLAB TH 002 USS WINSLOW, DD 359, as in early 1945 VS NANOMAQUETTES NMQ FR-023, VILLE DE ORAN, FRENCH AMC, as in 1940. The US DD was obtained in 2007, the French AMC in 2021, respectively $40. and $155. In overall length (OAL), they are 9.4 cm and 11.7 cm, both stock. Besides the 5 turreted guns, the AMC has two handbuilt 37mm slightly aft of the funnel.

3. NZ80 KOTA GEDE, with copper wire replacement booms and lifeboat covers painted slightly lighter grey, showing the excellent master, fine casting and addons to model, such as detailed forward mast, scale booms, and detailed cranes abreast funnel, as well as delicate, detailed liferafts. Thus, it is both the casting and the additional work on these models that make them so desirable. This used model cost $119. in 2020, from 1250ships.

If the WW II Mogami were cast about 1944, and the Ville de Oran printed in 2021, this would represent about 77 years of naval ship model production methods and technologies. For 3D-printed models, the two models represents 14 years difference, with the Winslow purchased in 2007 and the French AMC in 2021. While the two models differ greatly in size, the AMC is proportionately much heavier than the DD, most likely due to a different, denser resin now used for printing.

4. UNDERSIDE OF KOTA GEDE, hollow cast and showing the clear and excellent identification of this model, with only the production date of 2002 not indicated by raised lettering.

5. NORDZEE Z80 KOTA GEDE, as an AP serving with the US War Service Administration in WW II, 1942. Besides detailing his silicone mold cast models, de Vlam also issued detailed histories of the ship models he made, as well as detailed specifications of the ship class, that I obtained from Mr. Velterop. Upon close examination, one can see many add ons after the model was cast, including detailed masts, booms, lifeboat hoists and especially the photo-etched cranes abreast the funnel. The liferafts may also be add ons, although it is not possible to determine in a painted model. I replaced a few cargo booms that came loose after cleaning, as well as parts of the cranes that broke off, like the uprights. The lifeboat covers were also painted with a slightly lighter gray.

While 3D-printing was developed in the 1980s, and is now a mature technology, there is very little information on how this technology has improved for modelmaking, if you are not actually a producer using such devices. It is obvious that the CAD software is better, the resins are better and there are fewer artifacts from the print process to result in much smoother finishes. I suspect, like metal castings, the better 3D-printed models are still multi-parts, although I am not really certain about this. One can see the lack of 3D-printing artifacts like stair stepping on the French AMC, vs those on the US DD, although I do not know if there was additional cleanup of the AMC that results in a smoother finish. My attempt to ask how current 3D-printed models are made and finished met with some replies by Joerg Niehage, the maker of Nanomaquettes, who produces excellent 3D-printed ship models. He utilizes professional printing services, with high end, professional Envisiontec Perfactory printers, that can use over 190 different materials. The printers range from about $4,000 to $125,000. These printers use DLP, an additive manufacturing process employing a digital light projector as a light source for curing the photo-reactive polymers. DLP reduces stair- stepping and produces a smoother surface finish by pixel tuning. Thus, it probably also eliminates post-processing, possibly procedures like sanding. These machines use Envision One RP software.

6. KOTA GEDE STERN VIEW, showing the stern 4 inch gun, besides the 4 -20mm she carried. The stern has a bit of rough casting, the only defect I could see on this model. Note the ladders on the mast, as well as on the ventilators. Unfortunately, as the light AA were cast with the hull, they do not allow for any improvement, as evident on almost all Allied shipbourne 20mm, which are almost always too thick and short, and susceptible to breakage if the model is grasped along the side where the 20mm barrel protrudes.
7. KOTA GEDE BOW VIEW, showing copper wire replacements for cargo booms that fell off. The casting is very clean, and all the thin deck supports are intact, often not the case. Most of the scuttles are open to the inner hull, as seen by the white spaces on the starboard side. Winches and other deck fixtures have fine details.

Joerg casts the hull and most likely superstructure in one piece, but smaller and fragile parts are printed separately. Thus there is still assembly and painting, both dependent on good hand skills for fine results. However, due to the small size of structures in 1250 scale, that may approach 0.1 mm in size, the limits of even professional printers may not permit objects this small to be printed successfully for all models.

8. FRENCH AMC MADE IN 2021 VS NORDZEE MODEL cast in 2002, a difference of 19 years, yet the quality of the two models are very similar, with perhaps the 3D-printed model being cleaner and having only one small defect, where a bridge support of less than 1 mm had a minute gap. It would be interesting to know the respective build times of the models.
9. NMQ FR-023 VILLE DE ORAN BOW DETAIL, almost lateral view, showing the very fine detail and finish of this vessel, although I cannot determine which parts are addons, possibly the cranes, and definitely portions of the mast details. At this magnification, there are no visible artifacts of the print process, like stair stepping.

In these almost eight decades of naval ship models, it is interesting to see how prices have changed. Although I do not remember prices of WW II recognition models like Comets and Framburgs from the late 1940 to the 1950s, about 72 years ago my late friend and collector Alex White bought a Comet Richelieu BB for $3.50 in a local Los Angeles hobby store (Liu 2021: 75). Of the seven models discussed in this blog, bought between 2007 to 2021, prices ranged from $4.50 for the Comet Mogami on a wooden plinth to $155. for the NMQ Ville de Oran. The used Konishi Maya was only $29. vs. $35. in 2010 for the Superior Mogami (12), which was from the famed ex-Pattee collection, in storage at that time for 50 years. These prices show which producers were valued, held or increased in their worth and how much less used models cost vs. new ones, although often there is little difference in their conditions or only required minor repairs. One can also see from this price comparison that WW II recognition models still did not cost much in 2011 but if the heritage of the model was famous, it sold for much more, almost ten times as much in the case of the ex-Patee Superior Mogami, which has now been extensively enhanced by me. Normally, I leave real WW II recognition models intact, except to remove them from their wooden plinths, to prevent the wood acid from attacking the metal alloys of the ship model.

10. MORE ELEVATED VIEW OF THE BOW, displaying the fine details of the chains, winches and even tiedown ropes for the canvas covers of the lifeboats, as well as the covered/detailed crow’s nest. Many parts of this model may have been separately printed parts, added to the model, but carefully assembled and painted.
11. ENLARGED VIEW OF PAPERLAB DD WINSLOW, a late war US destroyer with heavy AA armament. While detail is very good, the anchor chains, five inch and 40mm gun barrels are slightly too thick for scale accuracy. At higher magnifications, one can see artifacts of the layer by layer print process, known as stair stepping.The wire mast details are obviously assembled with glue, with a photo-etched radar. Given that this model was most likely made 15 years ago, it is still an excellent addition to any naval model collection. While Paperlab now only makes 3D-printed masters for casting metal models, it has almost revolutionized the small scale naval model industry by printing an extensive and fine series of weapons and other ship parts for those who customize or scratch-build, making their task much easier and more accurate.

I have not previously owned a Nordzee, but I bought NZ 80 in 2020, but did not really study it until now, due to family deaths. I now understand why Robert de Vlam’s models are so highly valued. Their masters are beautifully made, with fine attention to all aspects of the model; details like identification of the model (4) and the life rafts surpass that of any other maker. I did not realize the Kota Gede AP was only cast in 2002, so its photo-etched components, like the twin deck cranes abreast the funnel, are not that surprising. Many structures are add ons, like the scale cargo booms of brass wire, with missing ones replaced by me with copper ones. I learned much about Nordzee through the generous help of Rick Rudofsky and his friend, Edwin Velterop, a close friend of de Vlam and owner of a complete set of his models, as well as some masters, extremely well-detailed.

12. COMPARISON OF JAPANESE CA COMET METALS MOGAMI, SUPERIOR MOGAMI, KONISHI MAYA AND NEPTUN MAYA, purchased between 2010 and 2020. These four models show well the differences between the Takao and Mogami classes, notably the merged funnels of the newer Mogamis. The Comet Mogami is an actual WW II recognition model, held onto a blue stained wood plinth by two screws at bow/stern and bought in 2011 for $4.50. Having the model on a wood plinth probably protected from the rough handling while in use; otherwise the projecting 5 inch guns might have been bent or broken if the model were grasped in that area. It appears to lack any masts and does not show any scars where they might have been broken off. The loose crane probably fit in the hole in the deckhouse at the rear of the aft superstructure. Besides the 4 twin 5 inch guns, there are no light AA. B turret is canted to starboard because there is not enough space for it to fit inline with the hull. Most recognition models had trainable turrets. Note that the Superior Mogami added 25mm AA, improved the 5 inch gun turrets and added a lifeboat, launch and masts, although these have been enhanced by author, as well as installation of antenna towers on the C and X main turrets.
Besides the funnel differences, Maya had her damaged C turret removed, a deckhouse installed, with 3 multi-barreled 25mm emplaced, as well as twin 5 inch turrets placed abreast this structure. Thus she became an anti-aircraft heavy cruiser, the only such ship in WW II, with 12-5 inch secondary AA. The IJN had also CLAA Isuzu, with only 6-4.5 inch AA guns, besides 25mm. All Allied AA cruisers were CLs, armed with 5 to 16 secondary AA of 4-5 inch (Liu 2014). The Superior Mogami has been detailed by that firm, adding 25mm AA, ship’s boats, masts, which were than considerably enhanced by author. Wire antenna towers have been added to C and X turrets, a detailed Pete floatplane placed on the catapult, and a triangular space pierced and sawn out beneath the merged funnels. The stripped Konishi Maya shows its detailed die-cast zinc hull, an unusual feature as it is very expensive to make the dies for casting zinc, unless large numbers are produced. The very detailed lost-wax cast brass superstructure and armament consist of many parts. It has been repaired, slightly enhanced, with added Type 13 radar, yards and Paperlab single 25mm AA aft, seen as black resin guns. The Neptun Maya has slight repairs and enhancements with copper wire.

Another unique feature of Nordzee models is de Vlam’s practice of portraying various vessels in both civilian and warship guises, ranging from tugs to conversions of tankers to escort carriers, but especially numerous mercantiles. This philosophy essentially adds much historical value to his models and it would be beneficial to the collecting community if more producers followed his example.

13. ENLARGED VIEW OF USED AND DAMAGED KONISHI MAYA, before repair and stripping of paint. Bent main mast, aircraft crane and bending of radar, tip of mast, as well as a few barrels of the 5 inch guns consisted of the damage, fairly easily corrected with the use of narrow flatnose pliers. Brass is much stronger than the soft alloy of cast ships but it takes a practised hand to straighten without further damage. Note painted blast bags on AA and searchlight, as well as lifeboat interior.
14. NEPTUN MAYA ENLARGED TO APPROXIMATE SAME SIZE AS ABOVE, showing casting artifacts not removed from square foremast. Lifeboat interiors and launch uppers have been painted, but starboard running light is very sloppy. Note the numerous small differences of these two models, by a Japanese and a German producer, with the latter showing more detail and thinner structures due to different metal properties and casting methods. The German model is produced by a silicone mold that may be re-used, while the Japanese model’s superstructure and parts are cast in a plaster-like mold that is destroyed with each cast, although the hull is die-cast in a mold capable of producing large numbers of models for a long period.

Except possibly for recent metal models based on 3D printed masters, like those of Spider Navy, or the exceptional Sea Vee models that have a large amount of photoetch and other unknown methods of production, Nordzee’s models can still be considered among the best of metal cast naval ship models. Unfortunately, I did not have the Nordzee model when I completed my book on naval ship models of WW II, so I could not comment on their admirable traits, produced by one person who both made the master and did the actual castings also (Liu 2021).

15. ENLARGED VIEW OF KONISHI MAYA, stripped of most paint and with 3 twin 5 inch AA placed in foreground; note hole in aft circular shield, so that the AA turret can be trained. All bent parts have been straightened. In lifeboat well, one ship’s launch is missing and needs to be fabricated. Note the overscale cable for the aircraft crane. Masts and 5 inch turrets are only separate parts.
16. ENLARGED VIEW OF BRASS SUPERSTRUCTURE AND ZINC HULL OF KONISHI MAYA, cleaned up, repaired and enhanced with copper Type 13 radar and navigation loop on bridge, although top of mainmast still needs additional straightening. Radar room has been placed within the foremast. Note the open spaces by funnels, made possible with lost-wax casts, since the mold is destroyed with each cast and problems of removing castings with undercuts no longer obtain. The sides of the superstructure extend beyond openings for torpedo tubes and thus hold the superstructure in place on the die-cast hull. Except for the masts and the 5 inch turrets, the superstructure is a one piece cast.

The future of small scale naval ship models may follow two paths: detailed 3D printed masters used for casting soft metal alloy models with silicone molds, with smaller parts cast separately along with the use of photo-etching for delicate parts that need both detail and strength. The other is using CAD software and high-end 3D printers, with separately cast small, detail parts and a degree of careful assembly and finishing by the producer. However, the added cost of such labor may push prices beyond that affordable to most collectors.

17. ENLARGED VIEW OF KONISHI MAYA, to show the additional PaperLab 3 D-printed 25mm single AA, although due to breakage, I had to adapt one gun of a triple 25mm to a single, as seen in foreground. Not all the paint has been removed, but it is easy to distinguish the lost-wax cast brass superstructure and main battery from the grey of the die-cast zinc hull. The actual Maya before she was sunk had many more 25mm single AA, but I did not have enough printed guns nor patience. A Jake floatplane is on the aircraft handling deck, with raised rails for moving the planes on their trollies. 


Naval Ship Models of World War II is available to order here.

Robert K. Liu 2014 Naval Anti-aircraft in World War II. San Marcos, CA, Robert K. Liu: 32 p.

Robert K. Liu 2021 Naval Ship Models of World War II in 1/1250 and 1/1200 scale. Enhancements, Conversions & Scratch Building. Barnsley, Seaforth Publishing: 160 p.