Follow the Sea

Explore the heritage of sailing with professional ship model maker Carlos Montalvao.

What Inspired You To Start Making These Miniature Ship Models? How Did Your Interest In Ships Begin?

My rst contact with a ship model was when I was 6 years old and my father took me to the Lisbon Maritime Museum. There had been several sailors in our family and, as I viewed the ship models, I imagined my ancestors on board and they were brought back to life again. It was a magic moment that paved the way for my lifelong love for ships and ship models.

I went to university and pursued a 4-year degree and 2-year post-graduate course in Philosophy, during which time I build ship models as a hobby. After graduating I started working as a professional in academic and science administration at the University of Lisbon, and by then my hobby had become a passion. A local maritime museum asked me to build a model of a famous XIX century ship that had wrecked on its shores, which was the rst step to start a career as a professional model maker.

In order to enhance my manual skills with maritime and boat building expertise, I went back to university to take a Master’s degree in maritime history and shipbuilding traditions. I also started to lecture, giving training courses on ship modeling and acting as a museum consultant for ship models’ policy and maritime history issues. I was planning my PhD when I was commissioned to build the models which are currently on display at the National Museum of Oman.

Academics often tend to focus on treatises on naval architecture and stay away from raw materials, tools and workshops. At the same time, many manual workers tend to consider academic analysis to be a waste of time. However, I believe that both aspects have great value, as erudition complements manual and technical skills.

Your Models Are Based On Real Ships. Where Do You Find The Information About The Ships, Such As Dimensions And Materials Used?

The construction process always starts with reading everything available on the vessel or its typology. If there are no plans or other documents available, I study ship building traditions from the place where and the period when the vessel was built.

The Portuguese Caravel and Nau from the XVI were based upon research I conducted for my master thesis about Iberian naval architecture and ship building in the Discoveries. For the XV Chinese junk I had to read everything I could about the traditions of oriental ship construction. There are no technical documents from that period and the model is widely based on what we know about early XIX junks, which were built in the same way as the Ming Dynasty ones. With “Sultanah”, a 14 gun sailing ship from 1833, I was lucky to nd a painting and an engraving of her on the Illustrated London News while I was doing research work in the National Maritime Museum library in London. I was also able to find a technical reference to her tonnage and rigging typology from the ship builder in India.

As for the materials, they are chosen for aesthetic and technical reasons. For multiple reasons (such as the scale of grain size), the chosen woods are not usually of the same kind as the real ship. Instead we choose materials and woods that are precious and stabilized ones, without colour variation or grain. I like to show the junctions between planks as an artistic representation of the art of naval carpenters and I use different tonalities of wood to represent the original colours.

It Takes You One Year To Five Years To Build A Model, Which Can Cost As Much As An Expensive Car. What Makes The Process So Time Consuming?

The budget for a model depends on the time required to complete it, the quality of the tools used and the nobility of the materials.

Even though I’ve used other woods in the past, currently I only work with Swiss steamed pear wood and certi ed African ebony. I take great care choosing each plank from a wood supplier that specializes in noble woods. Only the best parts of the planks can be used for a model and each piece must be cut to highlight the best of the plank. Other raw materials used for the model include premium quality brass, bronze and light metals for turned, hand shaped or cast ttings like anchors, bells, and cannons as well as cotton or linen for the rigging ropes and sails.

Digital, power and manual tools need to be of very good quality and from the best manufacturers of precision tools, mainly from Germany and Japan. My workshop is equipped like a lab and enables me to work with wood, metals and tissues in every stage of the manufacturing process.

The ship modelling process is an activity that requires multiple areas of expertise and a special personality and disposition of mind that enables one to spend long hours, days or months on a single task. In case you are not totally satis ed with the results, you must also be able to throw away what you have done and resume it all over again, regardless of the time and money you’ve spent on it.

It took me one and a half years to build the XV Chinese junk and four years to build Sultanah. My next project may be a 3.5m long and 2.5m high 74-gun ship from 1830, which may take more than 6 years to be completed.

Bahrain Is Currently Investing A Lot In Financial Technology (fintech). What Impact Do You Think Fintech Will Have On Banking In The Kingdom?

Bahrain is fast becoming a recognized global FinTech hub. Earlier last year, the Central Bank of Bahrain launched a regulatory sandbox for FinTech start-ups with the Bahrain Economic Development Board and Singaporean Fintech Consortium, announcing the launch of Bahrain Fintech Bay, the largest dedicated ntech hub in the Middle East and Africa. Al Baraka signed a partnership agreement with BFB, and along with two other banks, established ALGO Bahrain, which is the world’s rst ntech consortium with a mandate to accelerate the launch of Sharia compliant FinTech solutions. Eight more banks are expected to join the consortium in Phase 2. ALGO Bahrain is positioned to launch 15 banking industry platforms by 2022 across the GCC and emerging markets. Through a collaborative approach, ALGO Bahrain will enable Islamic banks to research, innovate and operationalize ntech solutions in a cost effective and accelerated way. It will have complete strategic, operational and nancial independence to innovate nancial solutions that are suited for the digital economic ecosystem. The ALGO era is set to revive the growth of the global Islamic banking industry by promoting nancial inclusion, creating new employment opportunities, and channeling fresh investment to critical economic sectors across the GCC and emerging markets.

What Is The Most Difficult Aspect Of Creating A Model?

Carvings and sculptures are the most difficult task in a model because any small error is automatically ampli ed by scale. This is particularly relevant when you are working with anthropomorphic or natural forms because going out of scale means creating something grotesque.

So far, coppering the hull of “Sultanah” was the most dif cult task I’ve done. It took me 6 months of full time work to do it according to the techniques used in the XIX, whereby 1350 small plates of copper were af xed to the hull, one by one, overlapping each other like sh scales.

Rigging a period ship model is also challenging not only because of the hundreds and hundreds of small items for xing and working with the ropes that have to be made, but also because the ropes themselves need to be of the same colour, size, direction of twist and number of strands as the original vessel at scale. To be sure that the ropes were of proper form, I had to make them myself, using a process that I developed. Finally, when xing everything together one must follow the rules de ned for each typology of boat by the rigging treatises of the period.

Do You Take Commissions From Private Collectors, Or Is All Your Work Targeted At Museums?

Some years ago, I built a Morocco Xebec from the XVIII, which was donated by a military institution in Europe to the King of Morocco. However, most of my work has been commissioned by museums, so I presume my models will be appreciated by future generations, which is a privilege I’m deeply grateful for.

Which Is Your Favorite Works You Have Done So Far? What Makes It So Special?

I usually say that my favourite work is the one to come, as each model represents a signi cant challenge in relation to the previous one. Nevertheless, I must confess I am very fond of “Sultanah”. She spent 4 years on my workbench and even though she has been in the museum for almost a year, I’m still working on her auxiliary boats. We have a long-term relationship and I got used to describing her as “my Sultanah”.

Can You Tell Us More About Your Book?

I wrote the book O Xaveco Marroquino/ Le Chébec Marrocain about the model itself, as a step-by-step manual clearly outlining each stage of the ship’s construction, with photographs. It was published by the Portuguese Army and received an award from the Navy Academy—for the Army and the Navy to come together through a book on ship modelling is quite an unusual and interesting situation.

You Have Stated That Ship Models Are Objects Of Knowledge. In What Way Do You Believe These Models Can Help Society Understand Itself?

As a society, we are at risk of losing our memories of our maritime heritage, which is also part of our personal and collective identity. Ship models built at scale become a miniature representation of a bygone reality, reminding us of the thrill of going far beyond the shores of our imagination.

Bahrain, like Portugal, is a territory closely linked to the sea and for centuries depended on ships and navigation to stand as a nation among other maritime powers. The sea brought us adventure and richness, enabling us to interchange ideas and merchandise worldwide. If we lose contact with the sea and our maritime traditions we will go on living, but our future will have lost the inspiration of the dreams and the courage of our ancestors. To preserve this legacy in terms of maritime heritage, ship models are of great value.

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