Britain’s last model ship maker will never give up craft

Britain’s last model ship maker says he’ll ‘drop dead in his workshop’ rather than give up his dying craft.

Philip Reed, 76, has spent more than 50 years painstakingly recreating maritime legends from the 1600s to WWII – including the Cutty Sark, USS Constitution and HMS Hood.

While each model sells for thousands of pounds, they can take more than a year to complete because he researches every detail using original ship plans and drawings before building them entirely from scratch using wood, paper and wire.

 Working from a small workshop in Cornwall, dad-of-two Philip walked away from his job as an art teacher to pursue his passion full time in the 1980s – taking a drop in income to follow his passion, despite the high value of the models. 

He has never looked back since, although he admitted his obsession with the models has impacted on his life in many ways – including meaning Philip and his partner Julie live separately, allowing him to pursue his own work.

Pic by Mike Searle/Caters News

Philip, believed to be Britain’s last professional miniature model ship maker, said: “I was advised not to do this, but I’ve survived. If you choose to do this you will have to make sacrifices. 

“It’s a choice I’ve never ever for a second regretted. I have lived the life I wanted to live. 

“I’ve certainly had to give up a lot but it’s been my choice.

“I’ve woken up every morning thankful that I’m able to do what I love.

“My partner Julie has been supporting and encouraging me tirelessly for nearly 20 years now.

Pic by Mike Searle/Caters News

“While we still live separately, we talk on the phone twice daily and get together at weekends and for the occasional holiday.

“It gives us individual freedom and from my point of view protects her to some extent, from the vagaries and eccentricities of this old model maker.”

Philip said that he first became fixated on building the model ships after walking past a shop window and seeing a model ship in 1970s London.

He eventually left his job as an art teacher in 1980 to focus on his craft full-time, but said his marriage broke down several years later.

He said: “The ship I saw fascinated me so much that I searched all the public libraries I had access to for books on the subject.

“I eventually found ‘Plank on Frame Models’ by Harold Underhill, a book that changed my life. 

“It was a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment’.

Pic by Mike Searle/Caters News

“From here on, my life was all about ship models.”

Philip estimates since 1971 he’s built 58 models – each of which have required hours of research before building can even begin.

All the models are built totally from scratch using boxwood, paper, metal and wire for the hull and other ship details as well as airbrushed tissue paper for the sails.

Philip painstakingly adds every detail for each model by hand, using original drawings and paintings as well as photographs for more recent vessels for reference, with a model taking anything from six months to a year or more to complete.

Most of the models Philip has built over the years have been Napoleonic or from the First and Second World War. 

But in recent years he has been working on the ‘Navy Board’, ‘Admiralty’ and ‘Dockyard’ ships of the late 17th century, which captivated him so much as a child.

These models are usually built to a scale of 4 feet to the inch and were being made approximately between 1650 and 1750. 

Pic by Mike Searle/Caters News: USS CONSTITUTION

As a miniaturist, Philip’s models are built to a scale of 32 or 16 feet to the inch but retain the same amount of detail as far larger museum models.

Philip said: “Without years of practice and involvement, tackling work of this complexity can be a daunting task.

“In this age of instant gratification, the idea of spending a year or more building a miniature model is probably something of a non-starter.

“Building models isn’t easy. It looks like it is to the outsider but it’s about endlessly solving problems and being persistent.

“There are a lot of long hours sat at a workbench using small tools to do painstaking work.”