A scale model of the H.M.S. Beagle

Feb 12, 2012 is the 203rd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.


On Dec 27, 1831, the survey ship HMS Beagle sailed from Plymouth, England, on her second world voyage of exploration, under Captain Robert FitzRoy. Aboard was 22-year-old Charles Darwin, recently graduated and no doubt pleased with the dream job he had secured as the ship's naturalist, charged with recording the geology, flora and fauna of the locations visited during the survey mission.

This model of the Beagle was completed Feb 10, 2009, in time for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (Feb 12,1809 – April 19,1882), one of the most influential scientists in history. (Full size image available here)


On Feb 15 evening (Wednesday), we will have a fairly informal birthday gathering to cheer Charles Darwin, and the continuing positive effects of his ideas for science, and for the good of humanity. We will display the winning posters, have birthday cake and other snackes, chat about Darwin-related things, and watch "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life", by David Attenborough (BBC), and "The Genius of Charles Darwin", by Richard Dawkins. We do not have a speaker - we are meeting for birthday cake, to show the winning posters, and to see a video, if people are interested.

Free. All are welcome (but the space is a bit limited; we can hold 80 or so in a pinch).

Location: Galileo's Lounge, 2nd floor, on the north side, Student Union Building, University of Lethbridge

More information: http://people.uleth.ca/~dan.johnson/



(photo above by Bernie Wirzba; model by Dan Johnson, University of Lethbridge)



The Beagle was 242 tons and 90 feet long (this model is about 18 inches in length, making the scale about 1/64). It started as one of many two-masted brigs, designed as a small military vessel. It was later given the job of hydrographic survey (mapping the oceans, including locating and describing islands, shorelines, etc.).

After 1825, the Beagle had three masts, with the added mizzenmast rigged "fore-and-aft", meaning the last sail (called the spanker) sat approximately parallel to the length of the Beagle. If all three masts had been square-rigged, the Beagle would be a "ship". If it had only two masts, and if the second mast had been rigged fore-and-aft, this would make her a brig. The three masts and final arrangement make the Beagle a barque (often called bark in English). I don't know whether I am the only one who thinks that it is funny that the Beagle was actually a bark.

The first photo above has only the single gaff and boom, to carry the spanker on the aftmost mast. This was the 1817-1820 configuration, as far as I can tell, and the one that comes with model plans. I added the two forward gaffs (and add the extra top sails), to follow the 1831-1837 configuration.

Charles Darwin and the Beagle are on the Bank of England 10-pound note. The image of the Beagle is only 9 mm in height. They did a nice job of reproducing it, as you can see from the enlarged image below left (I used a microscope to photograph it).



The Beagle was one of many ships that were equipped with additional sails called studdingsails, usually pronounced stuns'ls. These were supported on extra booms that ran out from the yards on the square-rigged masts (the first two masts). The stuns'ls allowed a ship to move in light wind, and to increase speed in moderate wind.

The black-and-white image is from a figure entitled "Homeward bound", in one of the last chapters in Darwin's book "The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle" (volumes published during 1839-1845).

The deck layout of the Beagle, as depicted in a figure in "The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle", Charles Darwin.


Capt. FitzRoy also added a higher deck, which I tried to replicate in the model. (My top deck is made from wooden coffee stir sticks with the round ends cut off.)

Some historical drawings exist in Darwin's books, or from drawings made by crew members. The ship itself is lost, except for some portions of the hull. It sank in the Thames, years after the five survey expeditions were completed, and was then stripped of timber and material of value.

The H.M.S. Beagle, near Tierra del Fuego. The painting is by Conrad Martens, on board during the second voyage.


For other marvelous views of the Beagle, see some of the art on the website of "The Beagle Project".



The Beagle underwent some changes over her five major voyages, receiving extra masts, sails, boats, decks, and changes in configuration and rigging. Historical drawings from different years show some of the changes and additions.


An image from "The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle", Vol. 2, Charles Darwin.


If you are interested in the Beagle, you will be amazed to see:
The HMS Beagle Project

National Center for Science Education (NCSE)

The Voyage of the Beagle (The Online Literature Library)

Information about the Galapagos Islands:

More background, from articles in the Lethbridge Herald:

"Darwin's theory stands the test of time" (Dec 27, 2008)

"2009, the Year of Science" (Jan 3, 2009)


For those who are interested in building a model:


I relied on the excellent book "HMS Beagle, Survey ship extraordinary", by Karl Marquardt, in the "Anatomy of the Ship" series.


(Thanks to Shelley Ross and the University library for bringing this book in on loan.)



I started with a model in December, 2008, with kit from Mamoli (marketed by Cast Your Anchor, in Canada), which represents the Beagle as it may have been in 1817-1820, when it was launched.

Because I chose to adhere to later versions of the Beagle, and because aspects of this model appeared to be more similar to certain other sailing ships than the Beagle, I regretted using a kit hull. The double-plank-on-bulkhead method is commonly used in model-building.

The additional small pieces such as cannon, wheel, bell, belaying pins, etc., proved very useful, and their drawings gave some good views of the 187 rigging. But if I were to build it again, I would make my own hull from solid wood. Also, I ended up modifying the model to reflect what I saw in Marquardt's book.



Lathe is nailed and glued on to form the hull. In future, I will certainly do this in another way, probably with solid wood and a bandsaw, followed by sanding with a drum-mounted sander.

The lathe can be bent with hot water. I used a teapot.


The hull is sanded to remove the imperfections in shape that result from bulkhead irregularities.


(Held here by Dexter Johnson, who is testing the HMS Beagle with a gecko.)


I redesigned the hull and decks so that they matched (more or less) the construction of the Beagle, after being refit for the second and subsequent voyages. This meant cutting and filling the model hull, adding gunports, changing positions and heights of the upper deck and entries.


I think the model plans put the main mast too far back - something to correct if I ever build a better one.


Again, it might have been easier to start from scratch, since I have a workshop.

The standing rigging (the parts that hold up the masts and bowsprit) is added first. This includes the shrouds (the sections that look like ladders), which can be easily made with thread. The running rigging (which holds the spars, and later the sails) is added after the standing rigging is completed.

I added extra yardarms at the top for the additional sails that were added (it started with three per mast). Spars, and some pulleys and lines, are moveable.

I painted the hull copper to simulate the sheathing that protected Royal Navy ships from marine invertebrates, but copper foil would be an improvement.


(The model here is held by Scott Johnson.)


The shrouds are made from sturdy thread from the sewing section of Walmart, and painted black later.


(Watch the movies "Master and Commander", or "Horatio Hornblower" - these are inspirational and also show how rigging should look.)


Deadeyes are the adjustable block-and-tackle assemblages that hold up the shrouds, which support the masts and also allow access to sails and rigging on a real ship. They can be made by turning a piece on the end of a dowel, adding ridges and then parting (meaning cutting) the deadeye off. The holes are drilled with a needle or other fine bit.


After making a few of these, I went with the commercial ones.


I found that clothespins make great threading jigs for the deadeyes. If your eyes are as bad as mine, this helps enormously, by holding them in place while you thread them.

Anatomy of the Ship: HMS Beagle, Survey ship extraordinary (by Karl Marquardt)

Marquardt's book indicates that the figurehead may have been a beagle...


... so I carved one with the tip of a razor blade (actually an inexpensive Exacto knife from Princess Auto), from a splinter of wood.


I made a little shipping container for the poopdeck, with Darwin's home address on the lid. It is fantasy, but meant to be a symbol of his collecting.

The crate is next to one of Captain FitzRoy's inventions, a special barometric weather forecaster. The ship's compass is on the deck below. I used old jewelry parts for these items, and for all the chain on various parts of the ship.


The compass made from necklace links is only about 2 mm wide, and a bit rough, but it serves the purpose. FitzRoy had numerous compasses on board, and I once read that he had over 20 clocks (mainly for determining latitude precisely enough for mapping).


The lines tied over-and-under on the belaying pins are meant to appear as they might on a ship.


Some items on the deck are from model parts available on-line or in kits, and some are made from scratch based on historical drawings, etc. Model kits come with hulls for smaller boats, and the rest is up to you. Or, you can carve it all from wood. The wheel, pump, doors and cannons are from the Mamoli kit of small parts. During redesign and outfittings, t he Beagle went from 12 cannons to 6, for most of the survey work, to save weight and space. The Beagle had up to 4 anchors, on some of the expeditions, but the model has only two.


Darwin's cabin was at the back of the Beagle, in the previous maproom next to the Captain's quarters. David Galbraith (Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, Ontario) has constructed a digital 3-D Beagle waterline model of HMS Beagle, including an inside view of Darwin's cabin. I saw an image of his current version - it was inspirational to see where Darwin lived and worked at sea for 4 years.

A museum display reproduction of this cabin can be seen at Darwin's home (Down House, Kent), which is now open to the public.


One example that I tried to follow whereever possible was a model shown in Marquardt's book, although the images are small and not detailed.


The best modern model of the Beagle that I am aware of is this beauty, produced by Michael Bass of Cutting Edge Models, Narara, NSW, Australia (shown at left). He recently made it for the Australian National Maritime Museum, and was kind enough to send me this photo.

(His model was also completed in January, in time for Darwin Day).

Cutting Edge Models


Books about the Beagle, from a bibliography available from the Australian National Maritime Museum (I wish I would have seen these prior to my try at making a model): ANMM


Mine is a bit different, but I will try to refine some small points.

I regret using the large commercial pulleys in the rigging, and next time (if there is a next time) I will produce smaller ones myself. I may re-think some of the rigging, as it was not entirely true to the later configurations, and included some aspects of the original 1820 plans. After this photo was taken, I added two gaffs on the main and fore masts to match the configuration shown in Marquardt.



By the way, the flags can be made to look like they are moving in the wind, by heating them over a toaster or other heat source while they are twisted.

I used #3 insect pins for the flagpoles.

I plan to add some turned water barrels and a winch, as shown in Marquardt's book. By the way, (for those who asked about trying this sort of thing) woodturning is a hobby that gives nice-looking results in about 1/100 as much time as model ship building. I recommend both, though. Here are some of my turning projects:




There are many books available to show general conventions and past standards, but much of the methods and best ways of doing things can be discovered as you go.


The journal Model Ship Builder is available on-line, and very helpful.







Final size and appearance. (The shirt is from The Beagle Project - a really marvelous undertaking; we wish them success.)

2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On The Origin of Species".


Year of Science, 2009

Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS)


Other news:

Is anyone interested in the Burgess Shale?

(100 year anniversary!)



Winners of the Darwin Day Poster Competition:

He Li and Adam Sarjeant



Our location

University of Lethbridge




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