Sailmaking for Lego-Style Ships
By Steve Jackson -- Updated 11-12-98
When I started customizing Lego ships and scratch-building new ones, I soon needed more and different sails. Merchant ships shouldn't fly the skull and crossbones!
A trip to the fabric store yielded light canvas, intended for lawn chairs, in natural brown and a variety of patterns . . . including solid red and red-and-white stripes. It's a bit heavier than the real Lego sails, but it's basically perfect. The patterned canvas is painted rather than dyed, so it has a "right" and "wrong" side.
Although it's historically inaccurate to have striped or colored sails on ships of this size and period (it was just too much trouble to paint that much canvas), I wanted the new sails to look like something Lego might have made. Therefore, I made new pirate sails, for the most part, from red or red-and-white (and when I find a black-and-white cloth that I like, I'll use that too). Sails for merchants and Imperials are made out of natural brown or white-bleached canvas. I don't feel any urge to duplicate the skinny-stripe blue-and-white Armada sails, but your tastes may differ.
I made sail patterns by tracing the real sails onto light, glossy white cardboard. Some of the original sails were only available with "battle damage," but by tracing the good part and then flipping over the sail and tracing the other side onto the same pattern, I was able to get a pattern of the undamaged shape.
I cut the patterns out with sharp scissors (cutting inside the tracing lines to preserve the same size) and used a leatherworking hole punch to punch out the holes.
I was surprised at how many different sails there were in the original sets! I have 11 patterns now, not bothering with the badly tattered rectangular sails from a couple of the later sets. I have three triangular jibs, three asymmetrically quadrilateral gaffs, and five assorted "square" sails, from the monster mainsail on the big pirate ships to the tiny sail used, for instance, in 6261 (Raft Raiders).
If you are only making a couple of sails, you could skip the pattern step and trace directly from an original sail to the canvas, but I found it worthwhile to have patterns.
When none of the three authentic Lego gaff patterns would fit a new mast design I liked, I just put the smallest one (which had the right proportions) on the photocopier and blew it up until it was the right size. That worked just fine.
I traced the patterns onto the canvas using a ball-point pen (because the ink is not water-soluble; this will become important). When the canvas was painted, I traced onto the "wrong" side. Trace the holes carefully.
If the canvas is striped, watch where you place your patterns, so the stripes will lie in a pleasing fashion. And remember to make all of a ship's sails at once, so you don't accidentally face one the "wrong way." You want to make sure that there is at least one angle from which all your sails will show their colored sides.
Painting the Edges
Now make up a bottle-cap full of thinned Elmer's white glue. The proportions don't seem critical as long as it's thin enough to brush; I usually thin it about 1 or 2 parts water to 1 part glue. Using a model-maker's paintbrush (an old, crummy one), paint this solution over all the ballpoint lines. (On my first attempt, I traced with a fine-line marker, and the glue solution promptly took up the ink, giving me a sail with a light green border.) Don't forget to brush glue over the spots where you will be punching your holes!
The glue should dry in less than an hour, and then you can cut and punch.
Cutting the Sails
This should be no challenge, but use good, sharp scissors. Remember to cut inside your tracing lines, to keep the new sail the same size as the original.
Punching the Holes
Be careful; here's where you can ruin a lot of work very quickly. Even with the holes marked on your sail, you may find it useful to have an original to look at, to help you eyeball the exact right place to punch.
If you find this is giving you a lot of trouble, you may want to cut out the sails very roughly, THEN punch the holes, and THEN finish cutting the ones where you get the holes right.
Decorating Your New Sails
If you have artistic talent, or can dragoon a friend who does, then obviously you can put designs on the sails. Again, this isn't "period," but it is in keeping with the original Lego ships and similar ones proced by other companies (and large sails look very blank with nothing on them, compared to the patterned ones). You can follow the original designs, or come up with new ones.
I saw a rec.toys.lego posting which said that the Tektronics wax-based printer would print on canvas. This is a specialty printer that might be found at a print shop or service bureau. One of these days I shall call around and see if I can find one locally. That will let me work from graphics files, which -- since I am not an artist -- will give me better results.
I expect it will be necessary to print before the sail is cut out. If you're going the printer route, it would make sense to scan in your sail patterns so they, too, print on the canvas. That will save you some tracing, and insure that the printed design is exactly where you want it on the finished sail.
Depending on how color-accurate the Tektronix turns out to be, it might be possible to duplicate the original Lego colors exactly, and even copy the designs. If so, remember that Lego graphic designs are copyrighted by The Lego Group, and the designs on other companys' sails likewise copyrighted. The "fair use" provision of copyright law lets you duplicate such material for your own use, but you can't distribute it. So if you find you can exactly clone, for instance, the mainsail from the Lego Armada Flagship, it would be all right to make them for your own use . . . but technically, you are in violation of copyright if you sell them, trade them or even give them away. Courtesy to the people who make our favorite toys requires that you keep that in mind.
All the same techniques can be used to make new cloth flags (which ARE, of course, authentic for the period). I used scraps of red canvas to make some small "no quarter" flags. (Historically, the Jolly Roger was a warning signal. A target vessel seeing the skull-and-crossbones knew that it was being invited to surrender, with the implication that the crew would be treated well. If a ship didn't surrender, the pirates might run up a solid red flag. That meant the option to surrender had been lost, and the pirates would give no quarter.)
Of course, if you happen to have a few red two-clip "flag" pieces to spare, you can use those instead, but this is a rare element. And as far as I know, the large flag has never been available in red at all. So my pirates fly cloth flags and like it.
Thanks go to Austin David, who has his own sailmaking operation . . . and who has offered to make sails for any Lego ship fan, dirt cheap or free. He has been very generous with advice and background information about sails and rigging. Austin is more interested in historical accuracy and less in having his sails "look like Lego." There's a lot of technical information to be gained from his pages -- take a look at them!
Now you're done! Re-rig your ships and gloat. Arrrrrrr!