Making the Ironclads

On March 9, 1862, CSS Virginia (Merrimack) and USS Monitor met as the first ironclads to fight ironclads. Today, we take a look at the process of making our diorama of the two ships, “The Horrid Creation of a Nightmare vs. the Little Pygmy.” We hope you enjoy our trip down Memory Lane 2012!


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACSS Virginia in dry-dock. Ordinarily, we would have built the ships entirely of cardboard, but since Rebecca had just “inherited” some light wood from a fellow model-builder, she decided to experiment with making the hulls out of wood. Virginia’s bow and stern are made of wood that was shaped to the bulkheads, while the middle section is cardboard. The casemate (the “barn-roof” part) is all cardboard. Note the missing section of the casemate—this is so that part is removable to allow you to see inside. Removing the entire side is impractical since the curve of the ends of the casemate require them to be securely anchored to the side panels.


“The Foundry” — painting Virginia‘s gun carriages, gun barrels, and propeller


The bow pivot gun in place. Due to the design, we had to install the pivot guns and their crews before enclosing the ends of the casemate.


The hatches and the iron on the casemate have been painted, and the propeller is installed. The aft pivot gun is visible as well. The removable panel of the casemate has been made and set in place.


The photos above were taken just before the ends of the casemate were glued into place, and are the only record of what these cat crews look like—aside from the tops of their heads as seen through the grating above them!



Virginia is nearly finished. Only six inches of the “eaves” of the armored casemate extended below the surface of the water. Otherwise, under the water, Virginia was the unarmored, wooden, copper-plated hull of USS Merrimack.


Gun crews are installed—Virginia is finished!


On to USS Monitor!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere, a few of the future crew are inspecting the work on the upside-down hull. (You can also see that Civil War cats drive Ford Mustangs!)


Peeking out of a gun port on the turret

The process of making the turret. Since the real turret has been raised from the ocean floor, one can find photos online of the turret and its structure. We were thrilled to be able to build our model so accurately!

2019-03-09 Mon turret process

The inside of the turret is finished—port lids, supports, turning mechanism, lanterns, cannonballs, guns, and gun crew are installed.

Monitor’s only gun crew was inside the turret. If one of Virginia’s shells entered an open gun port, it could destroy the crew and leave Monitor with no one to work her guns. Fortunately for Monitor, this did not happen.

Since they have also salvaged at least one lantern from Monitor‘s wreck, we just had to include the lanterns in the turret. These are about 3/16 inch tall!




The roof is installed, finishing the turret. We made it removable, and the ladder (made of black thread) that leads up the side of the turret serves as a hinge.



Left: Monitor‘s steering wheel, installed before the pilothouse. Right: a view into the pilothouse.

Lt. Worden is at the top of the picture, the helmsman in the middle, and the pilot at the bottom. You can just barely see the steering wheel in front of the cats. Given the dimensions of the real pilothouse, it’s amazing three men fit inside! Fitting three (chunky) cats is even more interesting—don’t ask how they don’t fall down the hatch! But then, they are cats…



Monitor‘s rudder and unique 4-bladed propeller


Monitor‘s anchor with windlass

John Ericsson designed a new way to raise and lower an anchor underwater, just one of Monitor’s unique features. You may ask to see the anchor if you come into the museum. Since raising the deck of Monitor is risky for the anchor, which can catch itself on the anchor well, we rarely show it—but we would be happy to, if you ask!



Some of Monitor‘s crew–painted and ready…or, almost ready. (Lt. John Lorimer Worden, commanding Monitor, is on the left of the bottom row)



To be finished, both ship’s crews needed to be “blackened by powder.” We have a teabag of an unknown type of tea which is very black–and perfect for smudging cats to get them dirty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMonitor finished! Note the gap between her black upper deck and her red hull. This is for the plexiglass “water,” since the ship is made in two parts. The hull glues to the underside of the plexiglass, and then the deck rests on top and remains removable. In designing the ship, we had to make sure to remember to factor in the thickness of the plexiglass and the gap, so Monitor did not end up an extra 1/8 inch thick.



Installed and waiting for waves!


2019-03-09 Mer port bow before-after

2019-03-09 Mer bow before-after



2019-03-09 IMG_0126

2019-03-09 IMG_0067



2 thoughts on “Making the Ironclads

  1. Pingback: Don’t Forget Your “Cabin Fever Emergency Kit”! | Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum – Gettysburg miniatures

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