Building Cortes’ Conquistador Fleet

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire is the story of how  Hernan Cortes and his Conquistadores built a ragtag fleet of small brigantines to seize control of Lake Texcoco. This body of water – (located then where Mexico City is now) – in the 16th Century surrounded the Aztec island capital of Tenochtitlan. To defeat the Aztecs, Cortes knew that he must control that lake as well as the lands around it. But how?

Cortes realized that he needed to build a fleet.  To accomplish this, Cortes used scavenged lumber from his previously-scuttled seafaring vessels to build small brigantines in pieces in the safe haven of his native allies in Tlaxcala.  The ships’ prefabricated pieces were then man-portaged by the Tlaxcalans to the shore of Lake Texcoco.  Here they were assembled, and made ready for combat on the lake in the spring of 1521.  Then, Cortes simultaneously sent land-based conquistadores to attack Tenochtitlan’s causeways while launching his brigantines to attack Tenochtitlan.  These ships were manned by conquistador infantry and had significant firepower – to include lombards and falconets with their crews. In Cortes’ way were swarms of Aztecs in hundreds of war canoes waiting to swarm over the Spanish vessels.

To me, this sounded like an incredible scenario for tabletop wargaming. As covered numerous times in this blog, I have been developing tabletop wargaming scenarios for games of Feudal PatrolTM  using my supplement for Civilizations Collide. I had previously amassed and painted the war canoes…but I needed a fleet for the Spanish. Of course, there were no “dedicated” models for the types of ships the conquistadores would have manned. After seeing an image from the Mexican Naval Museum of a diorama of the battle by Alejandro Linares Garcia via Wikimedia Commons I was inspired.

A photo of the diorama of the Battle of Lake Texcoco at the Mexican Naval Museum. This photo inspired me!

Looking at this image, I had a good concept for the war canoes – and I decided to that the Spanish would likely would have used simple designs for their prefab brigantines – like medieval cogs.

I decided that for a game I would need 5 brigantines to go up against my 21 war canoes. Sourcing these ships became a challenge but help arrived from Buck Surdu and Greg Priebe who kindly offered to assist me in the way of two different 28mm scale medieval cog models that were 3D printed! Meanwhile, I found that Sarissa had a medieval cog kit (#L031), and I ordered two. By early March of 2022, I had all four ships in the building queue, and I had decided as well to scratch-build one as well so that I would have a varied fleet of five. Naming them became the next step – so the 3D models became (for obvious reasons) El Dólar (The Buck) & El Gregorio (The Greg). I named the Sarissa models El Perro de Guerra (The War Dog), & El Conquistador (The Conquistador of course). Lastly, for totally self-aggrandizing reasons that escape me now, I decided that my yet-to-be-designed scratch-build would be El Marcos (The Mark).

I will go through each ship’s build and share some photos and my processes of both building and painting them. Building these and painting these (and building the last one) were FAR more work than I had imagined at the start. Still, I think the MANY pics below will tell the story (it was a big project).

El Dólar & El Gregorio

These two had similar hulls, but different forecastles and stern castles. They came in bags that Buck and Greg had put together – and I needed to figure out how to assemble them by looking at photos from the 3D printer file. I decided that I would double-prime them then paint them with a series of airbrush browns. I also would modify all of the brigantines to have rowers as well as sails as historically that was the case.

Lots of 3D printed pieces to figure out!! It turned out I would use most – but not all of them. On the left is El Gregorio with the half-purple half- gray plastic hull, with the black El Dólar hull at top. There were multiple stern and forecastle options.
El Gregorio showing sanding after washing the plastic.
El Gregorio mock up. I had already glued the mast pieces together and used green stuff to secure the different pieces. I also had drilled out holes for neodymium magnets in the main mast and the hull, and inserted these as you see here.

I ended up needing to do a lot of drilling, pinning, and sculpting with green stuff to create the masts, and yards/spars. By the way, if I misname any parts here my defense is that I am a graduate of West Point, and NOT Annapolis! Though if you feel the need to correct me that’s all good – and GO ARMY BEAT NAVY! Ok, back to the builds…click on the pics for a better view.

The magnets I had inserted into the mast bases and the decks were insufficiently strong to suitably secure the masts to each hull. While I wanted to be able to remove the masts for transport, the situation was such that the masts would just easily fall over. My solution came in the form of some excess vinyl/rubber tubing I had lying around and hobby matchsticks I had purchased while stationed in West Germany in 1987! Real Cold War era matchsticks REALLY absorb PVA!

Nothing like 35 year old matchsticks!

By using the cotton twine fibers and PVA, I was able to custom fit the masts into each support. Importantly, as these two had two hull pieces, I used some styrene sheets to affix them together. This way there was more strength than just gluing together the hull halves. – and I could paint them to look like they were moving through the water. As a side note, I did not give the other three a water base so that I could use them for an Aztec raid scenario where they are in assembly on land and the Spanish are surprised.

I also mocked up the oars and put some together to see how they would go together.

I masked up the twine sections with painters masking tape and double-primed the components outside on the first day that was warm enough in March to use a rattle can. I had separated the pieces so I could more easily paint all of them and then assemble everything afterwards. It proved to be a good call.

Rattle can priming

These were now all brown. I wanted to add some styrene on El Dólar so that its forecastle supports would mount better. I also prepped all of the oar locks by drilling out holes for 1/8″ wooden dowels. This caused some unwanted damage to the brittle plastic, so I then fixed/strengthened each hole with green stuff and brush-primed the oarlocks. Then I serially applied different browns via airbrush in a zenithal fashion until I was happy with the base color on both ships.

At some point in the past I had bought some Pebeo Studio Acrylics “Auxiliaries Modeling Paste HD. I added some in a wavy pattern to the water bases.

Regarding the color of the ropes, I was unhappy with the look of the ropes. I had used “Apothecary White” and hated the look. I redid them (thanks to a suggestion from Chris Palmer) with “Skeleton Horde” – and I liked them much better.

The old rigging color – no good. I would adjust this.

It was then time to work on the sails, more rigging, and the water base. I made the sails with dowels and card stock and PVA. Binder clips helped immensely with the shape. I mounted the sails with tiny metal jewelry rings through holes I drilled in the dowels . I also made ladders for El Dólar., and dry brushed everything on the ships wood – then shaded as needed. The water was dry brushed as well

I then thought that the sails were too pristine. As I was drinking some Darjeeling tea, I used the tea bag to stain up the sails – and I would do this for all 5 ships eventually.

Good thing I’m a tea drinker.

Lastly, I want to show the completed 3D printed ships:

I was pretty happy with these – but now it was time for the Sarissa MDF kits!

El Conquistador & El Perro de Guerra

These two models were a bit smaller than the 3D ones. Unsurprisingly, these took a lot of gluing and patience. I did need to modify some damage to one of the tillers as well when a rubber band snapped it off of one. Still, the kits were fun and well-made – I just needed to try to match the colors (relatively) of the 3D versions. For this I relied more on washes than paint. I also needed to modify these with oars and sails. Here are the photos:

Then LOTS of gluing…

I mocked up one to see how the figures might fit inside.

Mock up of a Sarissa model – I had yet to work on the masts or sails.

In the above photo you can see the two-man falconet crew are looking less than ideal size-wise. At that point I ordered more falconets, lombards, and crew to better suit the brigantines – but that’s another upcoming post!

Then it was washing time – lots of washing…Army Painter must be happy…

Hull washing.

Then I moved on to sails and rigging.

Sails, oars, and rigging done – though the sails and rigging need work yet here with paint and Darjeeling.

Now let’s see El Conquistador and El Perro de Guerra as completed:

El Marcos

I decided to give scratch-building a brigantine a go – if only because I wanted the challenge. Luckily, I had learned a bit from the previous models, though as you will see below there was overlap during my builds. Also, I was able to repurpose some leftover MDF as a template for a new hull and keel!

Unlike the Sarissa models, where the hull glued to the ribs of the cogs, I glued the deck to the square dowels and then added the hull by gluing it to the combination of deck and keel. Then I inserted 1/8″ dowels as ribs into the slots – gluing them to the inner hull and keel.

At this point, I had the hull basically constructed.

For the stern and forecastles, I used basswood. I was not happy with the look as the basswood was too smooth. I decided to glue a bazillion (I think) custom-cut matchsticks inside and out of the castles to give them a more rustic look.

The next step was to mount the castles – which I did by drilling out holes for dowel supports. Then I adjusted the heights of the supports with 1/4″ steel washers to get the right look. I also made the mast and yard.

Once again during this project, I had to wait for the glue to dry. On a side note, that need alone dragged the duration time out every time I needed to glue something – which seemed unending. I then started the washing and painting of the brigantine as I found that easier to do before adding the castles.

I also needed oars and oar locks.

After some work on El Marcos‘ rigging, she was done.

So now I had the five brigantines – and only two were exactly alike (the Sarissa models). I hoped to outfit them all with different lombards and falconets (both early cannon) plus crew. As I built these just before HAVOC 2022, this post had to wait, as after HAVOC was my vacation trip. And as mentioned – I had 5 cannon and 15 cannon crew to build for these brigantines – plus game aids for the battle. I hope to post about that project next. But first let me share a couple of group shots.

The fleet!
All assembled.

Thanks for checking out this post – it was a lot to build and if PVA was toxic I’d already be dead after this. Let me know which of these you liked best (or liked least) I’d love to read any thoughts you have on this project. More to come!

Miscellaneous details and references for those interested in that sort of thing:

For all of my previous posts on games, units, and other projects for my 16th Century Spanish Conquest supplement for Feudal Patrol™ – “Civilizations Collide” – please see this page.

PAINTS, INKS, GLAZES, SHADES, WASHES, PIGMENTS, FLOCKING, GLUES AND MORE THAT I USED ON THESE SHIPS:

On the 3D-Printed Brigantines (El Dólar & El Gregorio):

  1. 3D printed Medieval Cog ship kits from Buck Surdu and Greg Priebe
  2. Gorilla Glue
  3. Hobby matchsticks (from West Germany in 1987!)
  4. ½” rubber tubing
  5. Rustoleum black spray primer
  6. Army Painter “Dark Leather” primer
  7. Vallejo Surface Primer “German Green Brown”
  8. Cotton twine
  9. Wooden popsicle sticks
  10. Wooden dowels (3/8″ and 1/8″)
  11. Small (tiny) nails
  12. 1/8″ neodymium magnets
  13. Paper clip wire
  14. Jewelry/bead wire rings
  15. Green stuff
  16. White card stock
  17. Elmer’s PVA Glue
  18. Plastruct 1.5mm styrene sheets
  19. Plastruct Bondene cement
  20. SCI Grip Fast Set solvent cement
  21. Pebeo Studio Acrylics “Auxiliaries Modeling Paste HD”
  22. Vallejo Model Air “Armour Brown”
  23. Vallejo Model Air “First Light”
  24. Vallejo Model Air “Brown”
  25. Vallejo Model Air “Wood”
  26. Army Painter “Mid-Brown” (shade)
  27. Citadel “Contrast Paint – Apothecary White”
  28. Citadel “Contrast Paint – Skeleton Horde”
  29. Citadel “Agrax Earthshade” (wash)
  30. Citadel “Contrast Paint – Talassar Blue”
  31. Citadel “Chronus Blue”
  32. Craftsmart “White”
  33. Darjeeling tea bags

On the Sarissa MDF Kit Brigantines (EL CONQUISTADOR & El Perro de Guerra):

  1. Sarissa Medieval Cog ship kits #L031
  2. Elmer’s PVA Glue
  3. Gorilla Glue
  4. Hobby matchsticks (from West Germany in 1987!)
  5. Wooden popsicle sticks
  6. Army Painter “Mid-Brown” (shade)
  7. Jewelry/bead wire rings
  8. White card stock
  9. Citadel “Contrast Paint – Skeleton Horde”
  10. Citadel “Agrax Earthshade” (wash)
  11. Darjeeling tea bags

On the Scratch-built Brigantine (El Marcos):

  1. Recycled MDF from the Sarissa #L031 leftover MDF
  2. Elmer’s PVA Glue
  3. 3/16″ balsa wood
  4. Revell 1/8″ Basswood
  5. Gorilla Glue
  6. Hobby matchsticks (from West Germany in 1987!)
  7. Wooden popsicle sticks
  8. Vallejo Surface Primer “German Green Brown”
  9. Cotton twine
  10. Wooden popsicle sticks
  11. Wooden dowels (,1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/8″)
  12. 1/4″ steel washers
  13. Small (tiny) nails
  14. 1/8″ neodymium magnets
  15. Paper clip wire
  16. Jewelry/bead wire rings
  17. White card stock
  18. Vallejo Model Air “Armour Brown”
  19. Vallejo Model Air “First Light”
  20. Vallejo Model Air “Brown”
  21. Vallejo Model Air “Wood”
  22. Army Painter “Mid-Brown” (shade)
  23. Citadel “Contrast Paint – Skeleton Horde”
  24. Citadel “Agrax Earthshade” (wash)
  25. Darjeeling tea bags

Aztec War Canoes for the Spanish Conquest

During the 16th Century Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica, much of the combat occurred on and around the capital city of Tenochtitlan. That city was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco – effectively making it a fortress city connected to the mainland by multiple causeways. Those causeways had removable bridge sections to hinder any enemy from using the causeways to take the city.

The Aztecs built roads around the lake for trading and military purposes. But also the surrounding lake provided a great opportunity to use war canoes as means to deploy their warriors either on the lake or onto the shoreline. This allowed the Aztecs to dominate Lake Texcoco and its environs for centuries.

In researching possible scenarios to game the period, I found that the need for war canoes (and other aspects) kept coming up. So first, I needed rules for their use – so I wrote them! And now you can have your own free copy of the new and updated 2nd Edition of the Civilizations Collide supplement for games of Feudal PatrolTM  just by clicking here and going to the Sally4th website. Again THIS IS FREE!!

I have identified at least 4 scenarios where war canoes would be needed:

  • July 1, 1520 – La Noche Triste – Bloodbath on the Tacuba Causeway (the final breakout attempt by the Spanish continues on the Tacuba causeway out of Tenochtitlan as he is harried on all sides to include by war canoes).
  • Early 1521 – Aztec Raid on the Conquistadores’ Brigantines (The Aztecs attempt to burn Cortes’ assembling fleet before it can set sail on Lake Texcoco).
  • May 22, 1521 – The Battle of Tlacopan (The Aztecs counterattack an attempt by Olid and Alvarado to seize and destroy the aqueduct at Chapultepec which supplies much of Tenochtitlan’s water.  The battle takes place on a causeway with the Aztecs able to use war canoes on both sides of the Spanish and the Spanish have brigantines).
  • June 1, 1521 – The Battle of Lake Texcoco (Cortes leads his brigantines and allied war canoes against the massed Aztec war canoe fleet to seize naval control of Lake Texcoco and begin the siege of Tenochtitlan).

There easily could be other scenarios involving war canoes.

However, finding and sourcing reasonably-priced war canoes was problematic. As readers of this blog know – I was lucky to be able to trade 19 painted Viking figures to my friend Greg Priebe in Maryland for 19 3D-printed canoes. I also got a Blood and Plunder one from Firelock Games at their Historicon booth (for $20 – yikes), as well as a single scratch-built balsa wood one (for $3) from a table at Wally’s Basement at Historicon. Lastly, I got a canoe from Dave Stone of Wargames Terrain Workshop (priced at 2 pounds). That made 23 canoes for me to paint up of four different types.

Luckily, Dave Stone is also running a “Paint What You Got” painting challenge over on his page – for stuff you had unpainted from December 26th to the end of January. So these (and some other cool stuff from Dave I’ll hopefully put in a future post coming shortly). But back to the canoes and how I completed them all.

Greg’s stuff arrived safely just before Christmas, as did the one from Dave. I sized up Greg’s – and it looks like they will fit 4 figures well – but 5 was too many as you see below on the left. I gave the Greg canoes a good washing and tried to get as many of the little strings off as I could.

Next, I looked at the other three types. The Blood and Plunder resin one can handle 5 or 6 figures, while the scratch-built balsa wood one would need some seat removal to handle 4 figures. The resin one from Wargames Terrain Workshop is really nice – but was too small to accommodate my 1″-based figures. I can use it as additional nice eye candy on the tabletop, so I put it into the painting queue.

In mocking up the possible transport capabilities of each war canoe model, it became clear that they needed magnets inserted to hold the figures in place during game movement. Otherwise I would risk having figures get damaged or just not be aesthetically pleasing.

I worked out a template plan and drilled out 9/64″ inch holes for 1/8″ neodymium magnets as you see below. Note that I mark the top of the magnets with a red sharpie so that all of the magnets have the same direction of polarization. I also used a similarly-oriented stack of magnets on the underside of the war canoes to properly seat each one on the drilled side in its Gorilla Glue-imbued hole. Otherwise it is VERY easy to have magnets go onto other unwanted ones in other holes. Generally, I stacked two magnets in each of four holes in the war canoes.

Checking to see how the figures would be held in the canoe by the magnets underneath – concept did work!

The next step was to do the same with the other types.

Checking the hold on the balsa wood model – also worked.

Then it was on to priming. In order to really protect the models and to fill in as much of the 3D printed lines, I double-primed these. First, with a brushed on MSP “Black”, then after that dried with an airbrushed application of Vallejo “German Green Brown”. As is my custom, I listed all of the paints that I used at the end of this post for those interested.

The 23 ready for priming.
After the black priming but before adding the brown green primer.

I wanted to make a nice wooden appearance to these – so I decided to serially airbrush a somewhat zenithal series of applications of sequentially-lighter colors on the canoes. Then I would add a sepia wash and see if I needed a darker one inside the canoes (I did).

I went left to right with these colors – followed by a wash. It was a bit tedious as I had two sides to do – and I had to allow enough drying time before reversing the models in order to paint the other sides.

I think I achieved my goal with regards to the wood tones. The balsa wood and B&P models ended up a but darker, but I think that is fine as complete uniformity would not be great. With that said, let’s see how they look on the tabletop with some Aztec Warriors as passengers!

Eye Candy

Flotilla from the starboard side
Close up looking at the bows
Top view, port side
The Blood and Plunder war canoe version with a commander and some warrior priests inside.
The balsa wood war canoe will serve as a command canoe in most scenarios I run, as will the B&P model.
Here they come!
Close up of the front of one of the 3D models.
Aztecs on the move
Jaguar Warriors in a war canoe.
Cuachicque (“Shorn Ones”) and a warrior priest in a war canoe. Normally I will have a designated paddler, likely a novice warrior, in the back of each canoe.
A view of the side of the Jaguar Warriors’ canoe – this shows the wood tone nicely – not too streaky, but naturally not uniform. It also shows that the magnets are holding the figures well.
I was able to fit all 23 of them in a 3-liter Really Useful box with some room to spare. You can see the little Wargames Terrain Workshop canoe nestled in the larger Blood and Plunder model.

I hope that you enjoyed this post. Let me know your thoughts and feedback – always appreciated. And more is to come for sure.

Hint: more Wargames Terrain Workshop terrain coming very shortly!

Miscellaneous details and references for those interested in that sort of thing:

For all of my previous posts on games, units, and other projects for my 16th Century Spanish Conquest supplement for Feudal Patrol™ – “Civilizations Collide” – please see this page.

PAINTS, INKS, GLAZES, SHADES, WASHES, PIGMENTS, FLOCKING, GLUES AND MORE THAT I USED ON THESE WAR CANOE FIGURES:

  1. Gorilla Glue
  2. 1/8″ x 1″ Everbilt Fender Washers
  3. Neodymium magnets
  4. MSP “Black Primer”
  5. Vallejo Surface Primer “German Green Brown”
  6. Vallejo “Flow Improver”
  7. Vallejo “Airbrush Thinner”
  8. Vallejo Model Air “Berman Green Brown”
  9. Vallejo Model Air “Desert Yellow”
  10. Vallejo Model Air “Light”
  11. Vallejo Model Air “Sand/Ivory”
  12. Vallejo Model Air “Ivory”
  13. Vallejo Mecha Color “Sand Yellow”
  14. Citadel “Seraphim Sepia” (wash)
  15. Citadel “Agrax Earthshade” (wash)
  16. Vallejo Mecha Varnish “Matt Varnish”

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