Getting started in ship modeling
You might get started in ship modeling as a young child with your first plastic bathtub boat. Who knows where that can lead?
Plastic model kits
Many members of WSMS got their start in ship modeling with a plastic model kit. Once very popular, they are getting harder to find. A typical crafts and hobby store such as Jo-Ann or Michaels may only have part of an aisle for plastic model kits--most of which will be 1/25 scale cars and a few airplane kits.
As for ships, you'll be lucky to find anything more than a Revell 1/570 RMS Titanic kit and a Revell 1/426 scale battleship USS Arizona. Other ships and other brands may be hard to find in stores.
In the Washington, DC area there are a few hobby stores that carry plastic ship models--but the selection may still be limited:
Hobby Works in Federal Plaza on Rockville Pike, the Laurel Shopping Center, and Main Street in Fairfax
Hobby Lobby on Little River Turnpike in Alexandria
Star Hobby on Whitehall Road (Bay Bridge approach) in Annapolis: mostly model railroad
The Toy Exchange in the Twin Arch shopping center in Mt Airy, MD: many vintage plastic models and toys
Many manufacturers made ship model kits. While RMS Titanic models can be obtained in many different scales, most plastic ship models are warships. The accuracy and quality of these kits varies widely--check http://www.modelerjoe.net/shipmodellist.html, where reviews of most of the plastic model ship kits issued since the 1950's can be found.
More advanced plastic steamship modelers will gravitate to larger scale models--typically 1/350 scale warships such as the USS Missouri, Yamato and Bismarck battleships, by companies such as Academy, Hasegawa, Revell of Germany, Tamiya, and Trumpeter. These models can easily reach prices of $100 and up. There is a more limited range of merchant ship models available.
The 1:350 and 1:400 scale models can be enhanced by substituting custom details such as photo-etched brass railings, cannon barrels and other details for the original plastic parts. There are many online sites devoted to building and detailing these models.
Plastic sailing ship models are harder to find. Airfix, Pyro and Lindberg are among the companies that once made models of popular sailing ships--see the choices still to be found at HobbyLinc at https://www.hobbylinc.com/cgi-bin/s8.cgi?cat_s=SBA&p=3.
A once-popular sailing ship model was Revell's 1/196 scale USS Constitution. Unfortunately, the molded plastic ratlines make the model look more like a toy. Advanced modelers would graduate to larger scale models such as Revell's 1/96 scale USS Constitution or Cutty Sark, which can still be found online.
The most important things that can be done to make your plastic model ship look its best are to:
use an X-acto (hobby) knife to cut the plastic pieces off their sprues and cut away any "flash";
use a fine-tipped glue applicator (not a tube of cement) to glue pieces together; and
give it a proper paint job. The cost of the paints--both spray and brushed--can easily approach the cost of the kit!
Paper model kits
Some WSMS members have specialized in paper model kits. These have the advantage of savings in cost, quicker assembly, fewer tools needed, and a smaller workspace required--as well as models of many ships that have never appeared in plastic or wood.
Some of these models can rival the best plastic or wood model kits. A wide selection of paper models can be found at https://www.papermodel.com/papermodels/ships.
Wooden model kits
There are very few wooden ship models that can be seen in stores--you are much better off looking online. The best place to find reasonably priced ship models--either plastic or wood--is on eBay.
There are three types of wooden ship models: those with
a solid wood hull (that may be built up in layers) that is carved to shape--typically your smaller-scale models
a hull made from planks (strips of wood) on an eggcrate-like framework of widely spaced solid bulkheads; and
a hull made of planks on curved frames that model the ribs of the actual ship.
1/100 scale plank-on-bulkhead wooden model kits from China, with no detailed parts or metal fittings, can cost as little as $13.00. Vintage solid-hull models vary in quality (from basic Sterling and Scientific brands to more advanced Model Shipways) and detail but can be obtained for $50 or less.
Beginning sailing ship modelers should understand that the fewer the number of masts, the easier it will be to rig the ship. Also, fore-and-aft rigged ships (schooners) will have much simpler rigging than square-rigged ships. Start with something simple before working your way up to a full-rigged Napoleonic ship of the line or a China tea clipper ship!
More advanced wooden ship modelers may look for large-scale (1/96 or larger) kits from overseas companies such as Artesiana Latina or Mamoli. These kits can cost hundreds of dollars. They normally come with a greater quantity of detailed carved hardwood and cast metal parts, such as blocks (deadeyes and pulleys), cannons, anchors, windlasses, and ship's wheels. The accuracy of kits--all of which are made in other countries--their instructions, and rigging plans will vary.
Professional ship modelers will sometimes start with a kit for the basic hull form, but then "scratch-build" the superstructure and detail parts to match historical drawings and photos more accurately. These parts may be cast in resin or metal, machined from brass, or build up using a 3D printer. Experts will use a variety of wood species best suited to different parts of their models.