Starship Design Guide



I have encountered many guides on the internet about designing ships for Star Trek. However, I felt like doing a more in-depth guide for those budding starship designers out there on how to create as realistic a starship design as possible by giving some more Treknical knowledge about the Ships of Star Trek.

The Ships Purpose

This is the most important part of the design process, finding out exactly what it is you want to design, its easy to create a ship and find a role for it, however, this usually ends up with people finding desrepancies in the design as well as features of the ship not adding up, the prevent this, coming up with your ships role before even placing pen to paper is the most important step to make. If you want to create a scout, then you know immediately that your ship will be small, however, if you want to create a long range explorer, you know the size will be larger, which will effect the scale of the things you draw, thus having an idea at the beginning helps allot.

Ships Systems

This is an area of the design that will alter as the ship is created, allot of the specifications will alter as the design nears completion, however, its good to have an understanding of a ships systems before drawing your actual ship to ensure you get everything on the design that you need.  Remember that most ships in Star Trek have these systems in some form or another, whether they are Starfleet, Klingon, Romulan, Cardassian etc. Just remember to think out of the box sometimes into how these systems can fit into a design. For each section I have done a small checklist you can use when looking at your design so you can ensure you haven’t made some of the common mistakes. The following are systems that are good to think about and add to your design.

Warp Drive Reactor

The warpcore of the ship generally runs vertically though the engineering section of the ship, the magnetic constriction segments carry matter and anti-matter to the core to create plasma. The Deuterium is usually stored at the top, in large tanks, which have refuelling points along the spine of the ship. The anti-matter pods are usually stored at the underside of the ship and generally have hatches near them to allow for easy jettison in the event of containment power loss, the warp core also has an ejection hatch near where the antimatter pods are. (This is so the part of the core containing antimatter is ejected first without having to travel though the rest of the ship. The PTC (power transfer conduits) that transport plasma to the warp nacelles usually have vents along the pylons in case it needs to be jettisoned (the dark grey areas such as on the Galaxy and Sovereign classes), remember when placing any objects on a ships pylon, that it doesn’t block the path of the conduits to the nacelle.

  • Is there space on the upper engineering hull for deuterium refuelling
  • Is there a clear escape path for anti-matter pods and the warpcore at the base of the ship should they be ejected?

Warp Nacelles

The warp nacelles consist of 2 main components, the warp coils and the bussard ramscoop. The warp coils (made of Vertium Cortenide), as you can imagine, are coil shaped and usually have a set of field grills either side of them (the bit that glows blue). The ramscoop (the bit that glows red) is located at the front of the nacelle ahead of the warp coils, on most ships there is a set of bussard collection coils (the yellow coils behind the bussard on Galaxy class vessels, some vessels also have Intercooler intakes (the old constitution and the nova class ’fins). ). All these components are good to remember when designing your nacelle and will result in a more believable nacelle. Generally speaking, on most federation ships the nacelles are located away from the main hull, however vessels like the Defiant do have them alot closer by not having Pylons. Below is a diagram of the main components of the Warp nacelle, remember when designing you nacelle that these parts need to fit inside it, so a paper thin nacelle may be too thin to house the coils, or a short nacelle maybe to short to house enough coils.

  • Does the nacelle have the height and width to house the Coils?
  • Does the nacelle have space at the front of the nacelle to house the bussard collection equipment?
  • Do the nacelles have an unobstructed view forward to allow for efficient bussard ramscoop operation?
  • Do the nacelles have line of sight with each other, without the hull obstructing over 50% of it?
  • Do the nacelles and pylons contain plasma vents for emergency venting of warp plasma?
  • Do the nacelles have a clear escape path away from the ship should they need to be ejected?


Impulse Engines

The ships Impulse engines provide propulsion at sub-light speeds, they require a fairly clear path behind them, so it’s important not to put obstacles behind them blocking their thrust. On most ships the Impulse engines are around 1-2 decks high. The impulse engines actually have a fair amount of equipment behind the exhaust, including fusion reactors and drive coils, so remember to ensure this equipment will fit into the ship where you decide to place your engine. Below is a diagram to show approximately how far inside a standard Impulse engine goes, there is usually workspace around them too for maintaining the fusion reactors, however, some ships (like the Intrepid class) have very small enclosed Impulse engines.

  • Are the impulse engines too small or too large? (they should be between 1-2 decks in height depending on ship size)
  • Is there space in the inside of the ship for the inner workings of the impulse engines?
  • Are the impulse engines mounted in a reasonably rigid part of the ship (the ship will be effetely ‘pushed’ by the impulse engine from this point thus putting stress on the spaceframe in that area)


RCS Thrusters

The RCS (Reaction Control System) is what allows the ship to pitch, yaw and basically change orientation when at sublight speeds, the ship has them spread over the hull at various points. Usually they are at the extremes of the ship to allow the best handling possible. Most starships seem to have 2 on the nacelles, some times 4 if its a larger ship, as well as 4 or more spread equally around the saucer section, the saucers RCS thrusters usually spread from the lower surface to the upper surface to provide the best surface area possible for thrust orientation.

  • Do the nacelles have the needed amount on RCS thrusters at the aft of the nacelles?
  • Does the saucer have the 4+ RCS thrusters spaced around its circumference?

Transporter Emitters

Transporter emitters are placed around the hull to ensure as close to a 360 degree angle of coverage of the ship as possible, this will mean that most ships will easily have around 8 emitters or so, 4 on the top and 4 on the bottom, larger ships will usually have more.

  • Is there enough emitters to give a full 360 degree line of site around the ship in both planes?
  • Is there enough emitters to allow for backup coverage, i.e., if 1 emitter fails can another emitter still cover that area?

Shield Grid

The shield grid covers the entire ship and emits the bubble like field that protects the ship from radiation and weapons fire, it also emits the navigational deflector field, which helps to protect the ships hull from particle impacts when travelling at high speeds.

Phaser Strips

Depending on the role of a ship, most vessels will have strips capable of firing phaser bursts in a 360-degree line of fire around the ship on all planes. A vessel does not need huge amounts of phaser strips, since the warp core can only produce so much energy, thus, 1 beam from 1 strip may well be as powerful as 2 beams from 2 strips, meaning ships with 100 phaser strips generally are defunct as they probably lack the power to emit energy from all the strips at the same time anyway. Also, since we have seen ships firing more than 1 burst from a single strip, the need for extra strips really is overkill. Most starships have 1 strip on the ventral side of the saucer and 1 on the dorsal side. There is also usually a main emitter on the lower engineering hull, as well as some small strips on the aft saucer areas as well as near the warp pylons.

Some small vessels also Incorporate Pulse Phaser Cannons (Such as the Defiant class), these cannons fire pulses of phaser fire in quick succession directly forward of the emitter. Since the cannons have very poor tracking abilities, Pulse Phaser Cannons are best left for smaller, more agile vessels that can point themselves in the direction of targets more easily.

  • Do the main phaser area’s have a clear firing arc, is there any hull objects blocking the phasers line of sight?
  • Does the ship have ‘too’ many phaser strips? Having multiple phasers with the same coverage is not needed
  • Do any phaser cannons on the ship have a clear line of sight forwards?

Photon Torpedo Launchers

Due to the fact that Torpedoes are capable of tracking, torpedo turrets are not really needed on starfleet vessels, however it can shave a few seconds off the flight time of a torpedo. Also, with most Starfleet launchers seemingly been capable of launching ’bursts’ of torpedoes, having huge amounts of tubes can be defunct. Back in the days of old sailing ships, there were huge amounts of cannons that would fire at enemies, this been due to inaccuracies of fire, the more canons you fire, the more chance of hitting the target. With torpedoes, their damage is so huge and so precise, that firing huge amounts can just end up being a waste of resources. This is worth thinking about when equipping your vessel with launchers to prevent it becoming overpowered and thus impractical. Most federation Starships have 1-2 Launchers facing aft, and 1-2 launchers facing forward.

  • To the forward and aft launchers have a clear line of fire?
  • Is there space behind the launcher for the inner firing mechanisms?
  • Is the launcher large enough (the exit portal should be about 1 deck high).


The ships lifeboats are used in emergencies to evacuates the ships crew and passengers, remember that when designing a ship, the lifeboats can carry anywhere between 10-20 people each approximately, depending on the individual lifeboats. This is worth taking into account when coming up with crew numbers for your ship, it is even more important when taking into account the ’emergency evacuation’ limit of the ship. There should always be more capacity of liferafts than people onboard, otherwise you risk a ’Titanic’ happening. The lifeboats should be placed fairly evenly over the entire hull to ensure they are fairly easy to reach no matter where you are on the ship. However, there should of course be more located around the living areas where concentrations of people will be higher.

  • Are there enough lifeboats to accommodate the crew, assuming lifeboats seat 10-20 people.
  • Is there space behind the lifeboat hatches for the lifeboats?
  • Do the lifeboats have a clear line of escape (ie, is the escape path unblocked or is there something like a nacelle in the way?
  • Do the accommodation areas of the ship have excess lifeboats available?
  • Are the lifeboats spread out enough so members of the crew don’t need to travel too far to get to a lifeboat?
  • The image below shows bad lifeboat placement, as you can see the lifeboats take up space where windows suggest there is rooms.[/LIST]


Shuttle and Cargo Bays

Most Starships usually carry 1-2 shuttlecraft minimum aboard, larger ships, such as the Galaxy class carry far more, therefore ships will need a shuttlebay to store the shuttles and perform maintenance on them, standard Starfleet shuttles are approximately 3 meters high, meaning that a shuttlebay will usually need to be about 2 decks high to accommodate a shuttlecraft safely. Most starships have their shuttlebays facing aftwards, this makes exiting and entering the ship far more safer for obvious reasons (the ships movement). Amongst larger ships complements of shuttles there are sometimes small Workbee groups, in ‘Scotties Guide to the Enterprise’ is shown that these have small individual bays, however, it has never been confirmed in canon. These bays are very small and have hatches that the workbee only just squeezes though. In addition to the shuttlebays, Starfleet ships have numerous large cargo bays, some of the large bays have hatches on the exterior of the hull (The Galaxy class had them on the lower aft engineering hull).

  • Is the exterior shuttlebay hatch large enough for a shuttlecraft to pass though safely?
  • Is there space in the interior of the ship for the shuttlebay maintenance area’s?
  • Is the shuttlebay large enough to house the ships shuttlecraft complement?
  • Does the shuttlebay have an unobstructed entrance, is there any hull features obstructing a clean exit for a shuttlecraft?



When a Starship is docked at a spacestation, it is practical for the ship to physically connect to the station to allow free movement from the station to the ship without needing to use transporters all the time, also, most starships have the ability to link turbolift systems to a starbase too, however, this is usually only performed on longer stops. The airlocks are also used for when the ships crew needs to get to the exterior of the ship, although this can be done via transporters, a physical doorway is always far better, since you can never know when the transporter systems will go down just when you need them not too! Most vessels have airlocks spread over the hull, usually with 2 either side of the saucer  as well as 2 either side of the engineering hull or the ships ’neck’. These airlocks can all be used for Starbase connection. There is also usually numerous small hatches over the ship for accessing the hull, however, these are very small and usually aren’t very visible on the ships surface.

  • Do the ships main airlocks have an unobstructed path to starbase connection arms?
  • Are the airlocks the correct size? (They should be around 1 deck high).

Navigational Deflector

This is an extremely important part of the ships propulsion systems as it clears particles and other small obstructions from the path of the ship, when a ship is travelling at many times the speed of light, a stationary particle in the ships path can cause catastrophic damage to the ship if they collide. The navigational deflector will always be facing forward on a starship and will usually have an unobstructed view forward (meaning there shouldn’t be anything hanging down in front of it). The inner workings of the deflector actually go quite deep inside the ship too, so when placing the deflector, remember it needs space behind it for its inner workings.

  • Does the Deflector face forwards?
  • Does the Deflector have an unobstructed view forwards?
  • Is their space behind the Deflector for the inner workings and long rang sensors?

Navigation Lights

Space is a dark place, as such starfleet ships have standard navigational lighting, much like modern day warships, these lights can be used to identify a ship visually in the pitch black (to the trained eye) as well as determine the orientation and heading of a ship in the case of sensor failure. The navigation lights are white and are usually placed at the top and bottom of the front of the saucer, on the top and bottom of each warp nacelle, on the bridge dome and on the lower engineering hull, as well as on the central top and bottom of the furthest aft part of the ship. There is also a red light placed on the top and bottom port (left) side of the ships saucer and a green light placed on the top and bottom of the starboard (right side) on the ships saucer. The easiest way to remember the colours is ’left’ has 4 letters just like ‘port’ and port is red, just like the drink. Obviously once you know that you can figure out which side is green.

  • Do the lights have the right colours? (left=red, right=green)
  • Use the diagram below for navigation light placement


Ships Markings

The one thing that really finishes off a ships outer appearance are the hull markings, be it the ships name and registry, or the warning markings on the phasers. Most starfleet vessels will have their registry on the upper and lower front of the saucer, usually in fairly large letters, it is also usually located on either side of the nacelles at the aft, as well as on the very rear of the ship itself. The name of the ship is usually near the registry, however, it is always in a smaller size, since it is the registration that is important when identifying a ship, not its name. All outer hatches on the ship should also have warning lines near them, this includes cargo bay hatches, airlocks, lifeboats, anti-matter ejection ports and warp core ejection ports. Usually there are also warning lines at the end of phaser strips as well as near the impulse engines exhaust nozzles. The Starfleet logo is almost always displayed on the vessels engineering hull (either on the bottom or one on either side) as well as on each of the warp nacelles. The text contained within the logos tail on larger vessels is ’Starship USS ’Shipname’ United Federation of Planets’, however, this text only usually appears on the logo on the side of the vessel, not in multiple places.

  • Is the ships name on the top and bottom of the saucer and at the aft of the engineering hull?
  • Is the ships Registry present on the top and bottom of the saucer, as well as on the nacelles?
  • Is there sufficient warning markings on exterior hatches? (Shuttlebays, Lifeboats, Cargo bays, Ejection Ports)
  • Is the Starfleet delta present on the nacelles and engineering hull?
  • Do the phasers and torpedo launchers have their warning markings?


Tractor Beam

Starfleet ships have quite a few emitters around the ships hull, however, they are usually small and used for unloading and offloading large cargo as well as for shuttlecraft operations. There is however, usually 1 main emitter that is usually used for ’towing’ objects. The main emitter is generally located on the lower aft surface of the ship so it can tow objects behind it safely.

Gene Roddenberrys design rules

Gene Roddenberry set aside some guidelines for designing ships, although following these rules is not strictly nessacary, I find that using them can help to keep a ship looking familiar to other Starfleet ships, instead of going off in a completely different and alien tangent. Feel free to ignore these, however, I feel the first 3 make sense with warp propulsion in mind and thus help when making a believable ship. These rules were made for ST:TNG and most starfleet ships seem to abide by them apart from a few.

  • Rule #1 Warp nacelles *must* be in pairs.
  • Rule #2 Warp nacelles must have at least 50% line-of-sight on each other across the hull.
  • Rule #3 Both warp nacelles must be fully visible from the front.
  • Rule #4 The Bridge must be located at the top centre of the primary hull.

Common mistakes to avoid

When looking at peoples ship designs, there are usually mistakes that show up time and time again, these mistakes, although small, can detract away from the ships design and cause nit-picking, thus its always a good idea to look over your ship before submitting it for common mistakes.

Size Matters: Don’t fall into the mistake of thinking a huge starship means a powerful starship. A larger ship will be less agile and a bigger target in a battle, thus making large battleships with huge armaments is actually usually not needed, more so as these ships will be defunct during times of peace. Hence why modern navies no longer make battleships anymore. They simply aren’t cost effective and as such I doubt this will change hundreds of years in the future.

Kitbashing: This is an extremely common practice, however, it should be avoided at all costs, usually as it brings together ship elements that are maybe 100-200 years apart technology wise, as well as bring parts together that do not scale well. The most believable ship is usually one with unique parts. Although some kitbashes actually don’t look to bad, they are few and far between and as such should be avoided.

Window and lifeboat sizes: Windows and lifeboats are arranged deck-wise, they usually take up anywhere between 2-4 meters. Remember that when people look at your design, its is the windows and lifeboats that they use to determine the size of your ship, therefore you should always make sure your stats match up. Also, a common mistake is that people draw windows on the side of a ship and fail to realise that the surface is a steep angle, so although the window appears only 2 meters high from the side, from a top view it would be almost 10-20 meters long. This usually only happens on the upper and lower part of the saucer. Another common mistake is placing lifeboats directly underneath an area where you just placed a window, like on the lower side of the Galaxy class saucer, without realising that the lifeboat takes up space inside the ship and thus making the existence of a room with a window impossible in that location.

Drawing your ship

When you finally decide to put pen to paper, or use some computer software, remember that usually your first attempt is rarely your last attempt, the entire purpose of this guide is to allow people to refine their designs to increase their quality, this will inevitably mean redesigning parts of your ship. When you finally submit an image of a ship, remember to ensure it is the best that you can make it. There is no excuse for doing a 30-second doodle when you can easily spend as extra 20 minute using a ruler to ensure straight lines and matching lengths and widths of other views.

If you are using paper, I’d strongly advise using graph paper, a pencil and a ruler. Set aside a scale, maybe 1 square = 3 meters (1 deck approx.), not only will this allow you to keep the lines straight, it will also allow scaling the ship and coming up with ships stats ’alot’ easier and much more accurate.

If you are using a computer package like MSpaint or PhotoShop, I’d advise either drawing a grid or turning the grids on (depending on software), again, this will allow you to keep track of the ships scale alot better and allow for more accurate stats. However, you can use pixel size as a guide too.

Remember that the best ship designs do not take 2 minutes, they can take weeks and even months to perfect. Excuses such as ’I only have MSpaint’ do not really hold much weight, since you can actually do quite alot with it if you have the patience. At the end of the day you will feel much prouder of your work if you spend a bit more time on it. Also remember that you may need to redraw your ship several times to get the desired hull shape perfected.

For those wanting to use 3d software but are unable to buy the expensive software, you can find the following free 3d software in the links, although they do not really compare to 3dsmax, Maya, Truespace or Lightwave, they are still quite capable of making good models.

Anim8or is located at

Blender is located at

POV_Ray is located at

Sketch Up is located at

Remember, when making a vessel, especially in 2D, its always a good idea to draw the vessel in more than 1 orientation, what may look amazing from one view could look absolutely awful from another. Also, try to ensure that all orientations make sense, there is nothing worse than seeing a design where 2 views of the ship contradict each other on the hull shape.

For your enjoyment, here is a palette of different colours used on Starfleet ships, these colours are the actual ones used in the series, I’ve gathered them from various sources, including Rick Sternbachs website.



I know this is rather a large document, it is not really intended for the novice ship designer, but instead for those wanting to progress their designs to a higher level. Hopefully some of the above has proved helpful. All images in this guide were created by myself, feel free to link to this guide or use images from it, however, please remember to give the appropriate credits.

Happy Designing.

– Suricata

6 thoughts on “Starship Design Guide”

  1. Hi there. I’m thankful that you took the time to do all the necessary research on Star Trek and the ship designs. I myself have done my fair share of daydreaming and created something far more intricate but I believe the next step in the star trek universe. However, I’ve been writing a storyline and trying to design my ship around the storyline and I’m excited yet overwhelmed at this tasking process. I don’t have all the time in the world to work on this, but in my mind I create the story throughout my day. I’ve designed my ship before and on paper and in material but have lost both. I know in my head what it looks like and what I’m looking for and spending time rebuilding it. Here’s the funny thing. As I’ve got back into redesigning my ship, I’ve used the only thing at my disposal that I know. Lego. I grew up with them and always made the most interesting of objects. And since I love StarTrek, and Lego, and they’ve never met, (and I’ve even written Lego suggesting that they should), they don’t make Lego sets for StarTrek. So I’ve had to be creative. I found that Lego has a design software that you can design whatever you want as long as it fits into their available colors and pieces and you can check to see if it’s purchaseable. And so far (and mine isn’t finished yet) I’ve made mine available to be purchased. I honestly don’t know alot about 3D designing programs but I’m considering on seeing if there’s a college class available that I might be able to take. Otherwise it’ll be just lego for me.

    Thanks again for your hard work.

    John Briley

  2. I am struggling with designing a spaceship, My starting place is always:
    I go by the standard platoon of 4 lateral rows: each row has 11 persons, breakdown: squadleader e-6, Alpha e-5 with 4 troops (E-0through e4), bravo e-5 with 4 troops. the troops report to their team leader (alpha or bravo), the team leader reports to the sqaud leader, the squad leader reports to the platoon SGT, and the 1st Sgt works with the platoon leader, an officer (O-1 to O-3).

    So, a single troop might man a fighter/scout.
    a team leader (alpha or bravo with four troops) might operate a small transport or fighter support vessel.
    a ship with a squad of 11 (one extra troop for each Team leader) might be a destroyer, or corvette, where as a “platoon” sized crew of 44 would be a small cruiser, but this isn’t the limit.

    it’s only the beginning. by rounding a platoon to an even 50 (platoon SGt, 1st SGT, Officer, and three warrant officers/ chiefs), we can start imagining a Ship crewed by a “COMPANY” i.e. 4 platoons in size (200 crew). then we can imagine an even bigger vessel that holds an entire “Group” 4 to 5 companies (800 to 1000 crew).
    The group sized vessel would have a “mission” to accomplish.
    The companies would divide that mission into roles to fill: operations, command, tactical, medical, science, engineering, etc.
    the platoons would subdivide the group mission and company role even further into units: for example, in medical there is pharmacy, surgery-trauma, inpatient care, out patient, Lab-pathology, imaging, public health(immunization), optical, dental, mental, First responders, and more.
    with squads comprising individual teams in a unit.

    now back to star ship deisgn, If I give each crew person a 4 meter cube, and subtract a 3 meter cube from for personal space, the remaining volume is set aside for the “stuff” essential to a journey via space ship… So now I start multiplying my cubes. if I have a ship with 200 crew, that would be an area of 4 meters tall, by 800 meters wide, by 800 meters long. this doesn’t take into account any common areas, coridors, etc. So far all I have is “living space”. with Ships having multiple “decks” if I keep the same length and width , I can add coridors and common areas. Great, if my ship is 5 decks tall, per crew person space is increased! now seeing as a rectangulaur ship is not very suitable, star trek demanding saucers for the federation, tweaking the volume into a romantic, gracefull, Aerospace vessel is going to cause me some problems.
    If we assume that there is a medium behind the fabric of space, bendable by gravity, then that medium may require a new kind of “aerodynamics”.
    Sometimes the answer I get when I try to design a sleek shark-like space vessel is to “make it bigger so this will fit”… and I have to start over…

  3. Hi Tim,

    I wanted to know what you’re process is. What steps do you follow and what programs do you use? I’ve designed my ships on paper, coming up with the floor plans, but would like to make the floor plans look more professional.

    What programs do concept artists like Rick Sternbach use to make the final blueprints for the ships they design?


    1. It’s all a matter of what tools feel best for you. Personally, I do most of my work with pen and paper. It’s the quickest way to knock out shapes and configurations that feel right. Once I have a basic shape nailed down, I start drawing close-up areas of the ship to determine more important details, such as how the RCS thrusters look, or the shape of the Bridge area. Whilst fleshing out the details obvious external features will start to dictate where componants are in the ship, such as torpedo launchers, warpcores (by the ejection hatch position), shuttle bays etc.

      Once all this is nailed down, I usually jump into 3DSmax and create a rough block model of all of the componants. At this point, I either take a pen and paper and draw an isometric ship, or I flesh out a 3D model. If I make a 3D model, I can then slice the model up to get the exact deck areas.

      For deck plans, I’d probably use illustrator or some other vector imagaing tool. all you need to do is make some room templates, then after that it is just a matter of copy pasting. Remember to old build 1 half of each deck, then mirror it afterwards (this will save you a ton of work!

      At the end of the day, the key is to not always settle on your first idea, but keep sketching out ideas all the time. If something doesn’t feel right, draw it again until it does. If you realise something doesn’t work, it’s ok to abandon the idea and go in another direction, sometimes it’s important to ‘kill your darlings’. If you look at how ships like the Defiant and Voyager started out, or even DS9, you can see that most good designs are rarely the first ship that is sketched out (The Enterprise-E been an exception to that rule!)

      Other than that, just keep at it. luckily most fans don’t have the strict timelines of the guys that worked at the series, so we can take the time to get things spot on. So be patient and don’t rush, more so in the age of the internet where something you create could be around for many years, so take that little bit of extra time to get it just right. :-)

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