Build a Cardboard Pirate Ship

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Diagram of cardboard pirate ship.
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Store-bought toys aren't nearly as much fun as the ones you and your children make together!

Build a cardboard pirate ship with your child and you’ll discover how fun homemade toys can be. (See the pirate ship diagram in the image gallery.)

How to Build a Cardboard Pirate Ship

When your young’uns are housebound on a rainy Saturday
morning and near to bursting with ( mostly )
suppressed youthful energy — or, say, when the
children are invited to a birthday party but there’s not
even a bit of extra room in your budget to buy a gift for
them to give — that’s the time to put on
your very best Long John Silver-like “aye, me hearties”
accent and call all hands on deck to help build the finest
little cardboard pirate ship ever to sail the Sea of

First, keeping in mind the fact that young crew members
tend to have relatively short attention spans, quickly
gather together a few basic supplies — a utility
knife, scissors, white glue, masking tape, and some flat
sheets of cardboard cut from an old carton or two —
then hurry back to your fledgling shipbuilders, before they
begin to plan a mutiny, and establish yourself firmly as
the skipper on this project. (Of course, an adult should
always supervise when youngsters are using


First, obviously, you need to manufacture the
parts for your man-of-wars. The accompanying
illustration in the image gallery shows all the components on a scale of one
square per inch . . . so in order to draw the pieces to
true size, just count the squares along any given dimension
and — using a ruler — pencil the actual
measurement directly onto the cardboard. Or make a
traceable pattern for each component by sketching the parts
to full size on graph paper that’s divided into one-inch
blocks . . . then cut out and draw around the templates to
transfer the outlines to the corrugated panels.

With that task accomplished, you can put your crew to work
snipping out the vessel’s various elements. [EDITOR’S
NOTE: Corrugated carton sides are very difficult to cut
with scissors, so you may need to carve out the components
yourself, using a utility knife. If you have young children
who are determined to do more than watch, however, you
might want to score (cut partly through) the outlines
first, then let the youngsters go at the parts with their
scissors. Or you could try constructing the ship from
lighter cardboard (posterboard, the salvaged backs of
drawing tablets, or what have you) to make the job easier
on small fingers . . . although the finished toy will, of
course, be less sturdy.]

Make two main body sections and planks, and a pair of each
kind of sail (including the mainmast/mainsail unit). Then
trim out one of each of the remaining components.
Now glue the matching sail pieces, and the two planks, back
to back . . . so that they’re double-thick and therefore
double-strong. (Do NOT fasten the body sections together.)

Next, cut out a pair of 1/4 inch-wide, 1 inch-long strips of
cardboard, and affix one to each end of what will be the
bottom side of the plank (the raised tips will serve as
stops to keep the board from sliding all the way into or
out of the ship). While the adhesive dries, make a one-inch
incision in the mainmast as shown . . . insert the little
saddlelike support piece into the opening, with the tabs
facing down . . . and glue it in place.

As you can see from the diagram in the image gallery, slots must also be cut in
several other parts of the ship — to accommodate
sails and sail supports — and a 1/2 inch-deep by 1 inch-wide
notch must be carved out of the port side of the hull to
receive the plank. (All of these jobs require a sharp
knife, and therefore should likely be considered the
skipper’s duty.)


At this point you’re ready to begin putting your cardboard
craft together. Before you start taping and gluing, though,
consider that you’ll want to remove the masking
material once the adhesive has dried sufficiently to hold
the pieces fast . . . so it’s best to avoid gluing over the
paper tape. And, since you’ll be applying paste mostly to
the inside surfaces of the ship, try to place the
tape on the outside whenever possible.

Remember, too, that you may very well have to trim the
components somewhat to make them all fit properly. Don’t be
afraid to do some custom tailoring . . . but do be careful
not to get carried away with the operation, or you’ll
change the finished shape of the schooner.

Now, tape the bottom section to the main body pieces . . .
and then fit the front and back strips in place (you’ll
have to bend the aft component somewhat, as shown by the
dotted lines on the pattern). When all is positioned
correctly, you’ll have what is essentially a narrow boat
without a deck or sails . . . but don’t glue the parts
together just yet!

Next, try fitting the main deck into the hull. At first the
floor will likely seem much too large, but by carefully
stretching and bending the sides of the boat, you should be
able to convince the assembly to go together. If you must
trim the deck to make it compatible with the hull, though,
try shortening — rather than narrowing — the
piece first, because the width of the deck establishes the
craft’s pleasingly rounded “shipshape” contour.

Once you’ve managed to persuade the parts to behave, set
the deck aside for a moment and apply glue along all the
interior seams where the main body pieces meet the front
and back strips and bottom. Then lay the plank in its
notch, bottom side down, so that the stopper strips will
engage on either end.

Now, carefully position the deck in the hull and on top of
the plank and-once you’ve made sure the “execution board”
will slide in and out freely-tape and glue the floor
securely (be careful not to slop any adhesive on or around
the moving part). Next, take the front and rear top-deck
sections, and — after folding down a 1/2 inch supporting
panel on each, as shown by the dotted lines — fasten
them in place, too.

The ship’s body is complete . . . it’s time to hoist your
sails! Fit each mast into its respective slot on the main,
front, or rear deck and cement the double-thick parts in
place (be sure to add a dab of glue on the back sail, too,
where the cardboard canvas fits into its stabilizer on the
port side). Finally, let the entire assembly dry thoroughly
. . . and remove the masking tape wherever possible.


Yo ho ho . . . you and your young swash-bucklers have done
it! All your ship needs now is a good paint job. I prefer
nontoxic acrylic colors, because they’re permanent and easy
to clean . . . but crayons or felt-tip markers are fine to
use, too. As far as design goes . . . well, I copied the
decorations on our ship from a children’s
storybook, but I’ll bet your own imagination (or the
creative energies of your pint-sized buccaneers) can come
up with something good.

In any event, the end result is sure to be superior to
those flimsy paper punch-out toys that are found in many
children’s books these days. You can’t beat the low cost,
either (after all, there’s no price like free!) . . . and
you and your children will have had a great time sharing
the construction experience.

And let’s see: If you can make a pirate ship out
of cardboard, why not a biplane . . . or a castle, or a . .
. hmmm . . .