There’s something about a scale model that brings out the child in grown men, especially men old enough to remember simpler times when every boy went through a model-making phase. As a 9-year-old, my own bedroom was festooned with Airfix models of wartime planes suspended from the ceiling by lengths of fishing line. My favorite was a Spitfire Mk V with camouflaged topsides and an eggshell blue underbelly chasing down a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109.
But my childhood efforts pale into insignificance compared with the miniature masterpieces that Model Maker Group (MMG) is creating. Based in the small Italian town of Itri, halfway between Rome and Naples, the company is the brainchild of Giuseppe Capobianco. He turned a passion for making model ships into a full-time profession 18 years ago. He now has 22 specialist employees working on up to 350 model projects a year for an annual turnover of around $1.7 million.
“When I started making models for private collectors, everything was hand-sculpted out of wood, but the commercial market requires speed,” says Capobianco, whose clients include some of the world’s top yacht designers and shipyards. “We combine rapid prototyping techniques with artisanal skills, but like a good designer who’s able to sketch as well as use 3D modeling programs, it helps to know how things were done before the technology became available.”
Visiting MMG is not unlike touring a miniature shipyard. The production procedures are similar, and clients demand the same level of confidentiality. Technical issues that may emerge while making the models—such as insufficient structural support for a hardtop—can even lead to modifications in the full-size designs. And like a real shipyard, the company devotes a good portion of its workload to the refit and repair of existing models that have suffered damage or are in need of design updates.
Multi-axis milling machines create the hull and deck structures out of blocks of plastic resin of varying densities. Working to miniscule tolerances and programmed using the same Rhino 3D software employed by yacht designers and naval architects, the numerically controlled machines gradually shave away excess material with progressively finer tools to reveal details such as staircases, anchor pockets and window frames.
More delicate parts are made by 3D printing machines that use rapid prototyping techniques such as selective laser sintering and fused deposition modeling, depending on the structural properties required.
“No single technology suits every application, and combining the right materials with the most appropriate methods only comes with experimentation and experience,” Capobianco says. “For the roll bar on the model of the new Azimut 78 Fly, for example, we made prototypes with FDM technology using carbon-reinforced thermoplastic filaments for optimal strength and lightness.”
The bare hulls and superstructures are faired by hand and receive coats of primer in preparation for final spray painting. The topcoat can be a generic color or exactly the same as the actual yacht. For one project, the team researched a custom pigment that matched the glitter paint on a Benetti. Simply using the original product would have meant out-of-scale flecks of glitter, so a metallic alternative was developed with special metal particles.
The final assembly and finishing—from soldering stanchions to the installation of tiny accessories such as steering wheels, radar domes, scatter cushions and potted plants—is all painstakingly done by hand.
MMG generally receives three kinds of requests. Serial boatbuilders need commercial models to distribute to their dealers around the world; designers and shipyards request models of new projects or concepts to exhibit at boat shows; and owners want replicas of their yachts.
The scale of the models varies enormously, as does their cost. The largest model MMG has delivered, at more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) long, was of a 183-foot (56-meter) Perini Navi sailing yacht. Prices for basic dealer models start around $3,000, and the most expensive can easily run into the tens of thousands.
“More important than size is the complexity of the design and the materials used,” Capobianco says. “A few years ago, we built a model of Bannenberg & Rowell’s 295-foot [90-meter] Muse concept for Nobiskrug that was beautifully sculpted but relatively simple, as the purpose was to showcase the exterior lines. A model of the 107-meter [351-foot] Benetti Zoza, on the other hand, was expensive because they wanted transparent decks that had to be milled from Plexiglas and mirror-polished.”
An example of MMG’s determination to satisfy its clients’ requests is a model of the new 165 Wallypower. The yacht’s designer, Espen Øino, wanted the 20-pound replica to be mounted on a single pivoting joint instead of the customary pair of fixed pins. The problem was that such a joint wasn’t commercially available. MMG engineered its own from solid aluminum with a pawl and ratchet mechanism that could be adjusted by hand, but was strong enough to hold the model in any position.
A constant challenge, especially during the busy buildup to the international boat show season, is collating all the necessary data to start the construction process and avoid production hiccups.
“If a 3D diagram or color code is missing, it can cause delays further down the line,” says Mario Moses, who is responsible for project development. “In the case of older yachts, the CAD files usually don’t exist, so for the model of 344-foot (105-meter) Lady Moura launched by Blohm+Voss in 1990, we had to create our own 3D files from whatever 2D plans were available.”
MMG is constantly looking for new ways to improve its products and streamline production. One area of research and development is water transfer printing, a method of applying printed designs to 3D surfaces. Once perfected, the technique will allow simulated wood or carbon-fiber textures to be transferred to items such as caprails that can have oval, round or rectangular sections. The method is already in use by the automotive industry to create faux burl dashboards; the challenge for model makers is how to scale the grain or weave to the size of the model.
Once a model yacht is delivered, it is rarely the last time MMG will see it. In addition to repair and refit, customer support is provided throughout the life cycle of the model, especially during the all-important boat shows when the company transports new models to the European events (a white-glove delivery service is used for shows in the United States and Middle East). MMG also oversees the installation of the models and makes final adjustments to ensure they’re perfect. Capobianco estimates that he had more than 100 models on display during last year’s Monaco Yacht Show alone.
“Not everyone is able to go aboard the boats at the shows, and when they’re moored stern-to, you don’t see much of the outside either,” he says. “So you could say that the models on the stands get more attention than the yachts on the water.” ◊
For more information: modelmakergroup.com
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Yachts International.