Paper Wings – Making Sails for B&P

No game of pirates is complete without ships, and no ship is complete without sails – and yet, Firelock does not include sails with any of their ‘Blood & Plunder’ offerings. There was a brief moment where it looked like the new 18th Century Sloop might come with sails made from plastic or Lego-style cotton paper, but that was not to be. Thus, the influx of new players have been canvassing the community, unable to make heads or tales of the sails for their vessels. Hopefully this post will help you navigate those gloomy doldrums, and make some realistic sails of your own, which look great, and don’t cost much at all.

A Brief History in Scale

For a game about sailing, most of the B&P community are a little confused about sails, their construction, and how they are used. As a result, when people go out looking for “realistic” sails, they usually settle on stitched cloth, and leave it at that. But have a look at the photograph below, and notice the “lines” on the sails:

This is the Kalmar Nyckel – or at least, a modern recreation based in Delaware. She’s a very beautiful ship, and the only one in the United States that dates to the B&P period (her guns are cast from molds dated 1627)

What you are seeing in that photo is not stitching; it’s the seams.
The width of a piece of cloth is dictated by the width of its loom. You can weave cloth to an infinite length, but it will always be constrained by the frame of the loom. Before industrialization, looms were not wide enough to produce fabric large enough for an entire sail. Therefore, sails had to be constructed by stitching several of these long, narrow lengths together. The seams – 3 or more times thicker than the surrounding fabric – are also very strong, like ripstop reinforcing in motorcycle pants.

So consider your own sails. In scale, how will you represent the fabric? Even the finest silk is going to have a much lower thread-count “in scale.” An inch of thickness in scale is down to a few hundredths of an inch on the model. So what fabric are you going to use? And how are you going to fasten it, when the common sewing thread is the diameter of a man’s finger in scale?

A member of the Picton Castle‘s Bosun School makes a sail by hand in the traditional way. Notice how small the stitching is on all of the seams. Even in this picture it’s difficult to see!

I settled on using cotton-paper for my sails. Most of you might know this as “resume paper” or “archival paper.” It’s made with linen fibers, and is a bit more textured than plain writing paper, but not as textured as fabric. Paper is also suitably thin for representing fabric in scale. Furthermore, paper is cheap, easy to work with, will not fray, and will hold its shape better than fabric.

Not the most perfect rigging, but a good example of these sails in the light. They look like fabric.


To make a basic sail, you’ll need some fairly simple materials

Pedantic, owns a slide-rule… guess my day job 😉
  • Resume Paper – make sure that this does not come watermarked. The exact brand that I used from Amazon has gone MIA, but I bought a pack of 100 sheets and I’m sure it will last me a lifetime. I recommend starting with something like this.
  • White Glue (PVA) – this glue dries flat and clear, and it’s more than sturdy enough to hold paper. I would recommend glue sticks as well, but I’ve found that they often don’t give quite as good a hold as carefully applied PVA.
  • Scissors – another advantage to paper is that you can cut it without borrowing gran-gran’s sewing scissors.
  • (Optional) Paper Cutter – scissors are great, but let’s be honest: is anybody totally straight? I mean, have you SEEN Ryan Reynolds? …anyway, a papercutter has a built-in straight edge to keep your cuts as straight as Ryan’s finely chiseled jawline…
  • Ruler – Despite my comments about Mr. Reynolds, I stand by my decision to use Imperial measurements and not bend to the “Librul Agenda” of metric measurements. Us, and all 2 other countries with us.
  • Wax Paper – This is imperative. You’re about to glue things to other things, and wax paper makes sure that things don’t stick to things you don’t want them stuck to.
  • Firelock Sail Templates – Firelock has sail templates for all of their ships in their Downloads section.
This is my last resort…

Step 1 – Cut Paper

For the first step, we need to replicate the long, narrow panels of cloth used to make the sails. To do this, we need to cut some paper into strips. My strips are 5/8 inch strips. I picked this because I measure the lines on my Firelock sails and they’re roughly 1/2 inch apart. I then left 1/8 inch for the overlapping seam. This creates “lines” every 1/2 inch.

Be wary of paper orientation – Firelock’s printable templates don’t always have the seams of the sails running the same way, so you may need to trial-fit your sails on a sheet of paper to figure out the best way to minimize waste. Remember: you’re going to lose a lot of length or width from your paper once you glue the strips back together with overlap. You might need to cut more than 1 sheet of paper to make a full “page” for your templates.

With your lines measured, use your papercutter, scissors, or a straightedge and X-acto knife to cut your strips. Stack them to one side. A downside to the 5/8 inch strips is that they won’t fit evenly across a sheet. So, you’ll always have a little extra paper. Save this excess and set it aside for later.

Step 2 – Paper Cuts

The second step is to glue your paper back together into a sheet. Your edges don’t need to be perfect for this, because we cut our sails from the middle. You should try to keep your seams straight, but I don’t fret about this overmuch. I also don’t meticulously measure every overlap; “eyeballing it” is good enough. Just make sure that all of your strips are overlapping in the same direction.

I have so many jokes, but they’re all basic and tasteless, like whitebread.

Do this work on a sheet of wax paper so that nothing sticks anywhere that you don’t want it to. You don’t want to have to rip your finished sail off the table.

Apply a thin bead of glue to the edge of one strip, and glue the next strip to it. If you use a papercutter to trim your strips, you’ll probably find that one edge of your paper has a slightly raised edge. Glue your strips so that this is stuck down to the previous strip and your fingers will thank me later. You can use something flat and solid to burnish down the edges where you’ve glued your strips together – I use the back of my pin vise, just because it’s heavy and flat.

When working on this step, resist the urge to lift the glued strips off your wax paper! There’s a good chance that you’ve got excess glue on the wax paper, where it squeezed out around your seams. This is fine, it will dry clear and be hidden by the visual “noise” of the seam. But if you lift your paper, you’ll probably end up laying it down in a drop of glue and getting a big mark right in the center of one of your panels.


You’ll likely find during this step that your paper wants to warp and bow where it’s glued. I don’t mind this effect, as it gives a nice rippling look to the sail. Usually, the paper will only curl in the direction of the glue, since PVA shrinks as it dries. This is fine – we’ll be adding a curl to the sail later anyway to represent it filling with wind. Just make sure to use this natural bend when stenciling your sails.

Step 3 – Cutting the Sail

Cut out your templates and lay them onto your dried sail paper to trace.

You’ll notice that I’m not using the “finished edge” of my sail paper, because there is no finished edge. With everything cut and glued, there’s hardly a straight edge along the sides any more.

This is the template that I made for my Bermuda Sloop. Since I modified the location of the boom, the Firelock templates will not work for me any more.

If you find it difficult to orient the sail and have the panels all be straight, then it helps to draw some guidelines on your sail. Straight, vertical lines that you can line up with the edge of a panel and make sure that everything is nicely lined up.

Try to make sure that your corners line up “sensibly” on the sail paper. With the 1/2 inch width sections, they will rarely line up perfectly, and you might need to shift the sail a few 16ths to either side. Try to have equal “overhang” on each end, but don’t worry too much – very small overhangs will be covered when we add reinforcements in the next step.

Make sure to keep your sails consistent! If your mainsail has the panels overlapping from left to right, then all of your sails should overlap from left to right. When you’re tracing your sail, you can flip or rotate the paper to facilitate this. This is also a good time to be mindful of any curve developing in your sail, so that you can work with it and incorporate it into your sails rather than fighting to “uncurl” it later.

Step 4 – Add Detail

In this step, we’re going to add some important details to our sail. Firstly, we add all of the edge reinforcement. Depending on the period, this would likely have been an exposed bolt rope. The boltrope is a length of rope that is sewn around the perimeter of the sail to both reinforce it, and to provide attachment points. If you want to do this, you can glue some scale rope to the sides of your sail – a bolt rope was usually pretty hefty, something that is “in scale” the diameter of a human finger would be perfectly suitable. It’s just finnicky, I won’t do it.

Instead, I opt for a folded over seam. This wasn’t unheard of – it’s just fabric sewn over the bolt rope to give a more finished look, add further reinforcement, and to protect the rope. There’s still a bolt rope inside these seams, but you don’t see it.

That’s my Army Painter Pin Vise, it’s a very versatile tool. I highly recommend you buy one. Can I please have a sponsorship now?

On our sails, these seams help to finish off the edges of our sails. To make them, I cut paper into 3/16 inch strips. Then, using my ruler and pencil over a soft surface, I drew a straight line down the middle of each strip. You don’t need to press very hard, but this line will create a nice indention in the paper to guide you when you fold each strip in half down its length.

Now fold each strip in half, down its length.

Cutting that to length was a problem left for Future Me.

With all your strips folded, you can measure them up against the edges of your sails and cut them to length. You can be as fancy as you like – you can angle the corners so that they join up very neatly, or just use straight cuts. I use straight cuts, to be honest. One thing you don’t want to do, is have the edging overlap itself. This makes very thick corners in your sail which look wrong, and are a pain to jab holes into later when you’re bending the sail to the yard (that means attaching it to the yardarm, by the way).

Step 5 – Reefbands

This article was twice as long, because I wanted to educate the community on reefing. I think it’s critical to explain a lot of misconceptions evident in the photos that I see on the B&P facebook page. Alas, the editor told me that I had to save it for another article [you’re welcome – ed] For now, I want to lay down some basic ground rules for where reefbands go.

The Firelock templates show reef points – reinforced grommets through which the reef ties are run. What we’re going to show on our sails are the reef bands, strips of fabric reinforcement sewn along the whole sail. It is generally safe to glue the reefband along where the reefpoints are shown in the Firelock templates.

An excerpt from the inventively titled ‘Sail Making Vol. 1’ and no, I’m not joking. This sail is a bit later than the B&P era, but it’s a good example of detail and of reefing.

Reefing would appear on mainsails and the main course (lowermost main sail) of ships in the period of Blood & Plunder. Because reefing is a method of reducing sail to protect the ship in high winds, it was not usually applied to the topsails, topgallant sails (3rd sail from the deck) or on the jibs or stays (the triangular sails pointing forward). These sails would be lowered entirely whenever the wind got up.

On fore and aft rigged sails, and on square sails prior to ca.1700, you would find reefbands along the bottom half of the sail. Square sails only had reefbands on the course, and not on the topsail or topgallants.

After 1700, square sails had their reefbands moved to the top of the sail, and were reefed up to the yardarm above. After 1700, you’ll see reefbands more commonly on the topsail. You might also see sails with multiple reefbands for even more adjustability.

On lateen sails following the Firelock template, there are no reefbands at all.

Reef band glued down along the bottom of the sail. There’s no weathering done in this photo, this is just the effect of the paper. It’s very subtle until held up the light, when the opacity kicks in and you can see the seams.

For our sails, I cut the reefbands as half the width of the strips we used for reinforcing the edges of our sail (aka 3/32 or about 1/16) and glued them on.

At this point, you have a totally serviceable sail, ready to be rigged onto your mast. If you want, you can add some corner reinforcement using squares of paper. I would cut these to about 1/4 inch square, and glue them against your reinforced edging (but don’t overlap).

These reef ties are entirely too long. On the third profanity of the fifth day, look to the East – there I will be with my X-Acto knife, trying to unmuck this mess.

There are still many more details that you can add if you feel inclined. One popular addition is the inclusion of the reef lines, by piercing holes along the reefband and running some lengths of thread through them. A word of caution though: this is not how the reefing would appear on the square sails prior to 1700. In those cases, there is actually some clever sewing involved, which I might show you in a later article.

In Conclusion

I will cover the attachment of these sails later, in a rigging article. In short however, just poke holes through the paper with a needle, and then use dark thread to tie the sail to your yardarm. To add curvature to the sail, just massage it over the corner of a deck or table – the paper will hold its shape quite nicely, especially thanks to the glue.

Another demonstration of the opacity of my sails. They match the look of the Kalmar Nyckel sails quite nicely

I don’t treat my sails, varnish them, or apply any sort of fixative. This archival paper is pretty sturdy stuff as-is, but if you want, you can add a layer of matt mod-podge to the finish product to lock everything down and make your sails more weatherly. This will give your sails a sheen though, and they won’t look quite a much like fabric. For the low cost of a sail, I would rather just remake a damaged sail rather than have them permanently encased and protected.

I might do a bonus article at some point to discuss some of the more elaborate details that you can add to these sails, like the reef ties, 17th century reef “bonnets,” cringles, grommets, and heavier weathering effects with pigment powders.

From left to right: drawn & painted sails from Steamkraken Studio, foam sails (I believe) and my Brigantine with bleached paneled sails.

I hope that you found this article helpful. This article is by no means intended to denigrate anyone who wants sewn sails, or any of the awesome community members who sell sails to gamers. This is just a way for players to make nice looking sails with a high level of accuracy-in-scale, out of cheap and common materials, without having to sew. As usual, you can post any questions in the comments section below, and I’ll be sure to answer you!

One thought on “Paper Wings – Making Sails for B&P

  1. Since writing this article, I have been reminded that the Nyckel is not the only 17th century vessel here in America. There is also the small ketch ‘Adventure’ in Charlsetown, SC as well two versions of ‘The Maryland Dove’ located in St. Mary’s City, MD.


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