ANN/THE STAR – Azhar Kamaruddin, 57, has carved a reputation for himself as one of the few miniature shipbuilders in Malaysia. In the last 25 years, the passionate woodworker has crafted 60 scale models of classic ships, including British warships, sampans, carracks, junk ships, and clippers.
His replicas range in size – from the smaller ones that measure about 30.5 centimetres to ships that are about 1.5 metres in length.
“I am a history buff and I have always been interested in ancient ships. I love woodworking and carpentry,” said Azhar who is from Kampung Bakap Baru, a village in Batu Gajah, Perak.
He fell in love with shipbuilding in 1997 after reading the book, An Illustrated History of Transport.
So passionate is he about shipbuilding that he gave up his job as a visual merchandiser at a departmental store in Ipoh to launch his career making miniature ships.
“The book was very interesting and that fuelled my passion to learn the art of ship building.
I fell in love with carpentry and I was willing to give up my full time job to pursue the art of making replicas of ships,” shared Azhar, fondly known as Captain Jack. “Many people thought I was crazy to give up a stable job to build ships.”
He found work at a timber and steel factory in Ipoh. For five years, he built his shipbuilding skills by working in factories specialising in woodworking, clay, steel fabrication, and cabinets. He also worked in a welding shop and a graphic house in Ipoh.
“The first five years were tough. It was a time of trial and error. I struggled a lot but I never gave up on my dream to be an artisan. Today, I consider myself as a self-taught artist who makes ship replicas,” said Azhar, who studied fashion design at Universiti Teknologi Mara in Shah Alam.
He further honed his skills by reading books on carpentry and by watching videos on social media platforms like YouTube and Pinterest.
Azhar is glad he made the decision to pursue his passion as it has enabled him to devote his time to a job that brings him much happiness and satisfaction.
“We must be passionate about our career. You will enjoy working if you love your job and can treat it as a hobby. I am lucky my wife and family have supported my choices even though I struggled in the initial stages of my business.
“My advice for people is to keep on going and never give up on your dreams. Never surrender no matter how hard things get. Read many books, be humble and share your knowledge with others. You have nothing to lose but so much to gain.
“What’s most important is to have a good heart and God will guide you every step of your journey,” said the father of three.
His only son works as a graphic designer and musician, while his two daughters are university students.
As to his nickname Captain Jack, the Perakian shared, “It has nothing to do with the movie, Pirates of the Caribbeans. And I don’t look like Jack Sparrow (played by actor Johnny Depp). I grew up in Balun Bidai near Kampung Gajah in Perak.
“When I was younger, my parents used to call me Ajik. In secondary school, some of my Chinese classmates had difficulties in pronouncing Ajik. So they started calling me Jack instead of Ajik. And that’s how I became Jack,” he said, laughing.
“Captain Jack is synonymous with pirates during the olden days. I call myself the captain because I specialise in building ancient ship replicas. I am not a naval officer nor naval architect. I’m just an artist who enjoys building ships. In fact, I’ve never been on a cruise liner. The biggest boat I’ve been on is the ferry to Pangkor Island,” said the humble man with a warm smile.
Azhar operates his business from a workshop, measuring seven metres by five metres, on a piece of land belonging to his mother-in-law. The wooden shack is a stone’s throw away from his home.
“My workshop is small. It’s nothing much to shout about but I’m grateful that I have a place to build my handmade ships. Even though there’s limited space, I’ve managed to build many ships here,” he said proudly.
In his work space, he has several workbenches, his tools and stacks of wood in different sizes. He also has a small library where he keeps a collection of books, magazines, DVDs, videos and articles about ancient ships.
For the ships he builds, he opts for meranti woods because it is readily available at local hardware shops.
“I don’t need expensive wood like cengal or merbau to build model ships. What matters most is the wood grain.”
Azhar is currently working on three miniature carracks – a three or four-masted shipping vessel – commissioned by an art gallery in Melaka. “Carracks were developed in 14th and 15th centuries in Europe. They were used by Portuguese admiral Alfonso De’ Albuquerque during the invasion of Melaka in 1511. So I think this project has to do with an exhibition on Melaka’s history.”
Whenever he accepts a new project, Azhar researches the historical and technical background of the subject matter first.
“It takes about a month to research the history of that particular era. I must put myself in the ancient ship builders’ shoes and think like them. For example, if I’m building a Chinese ship, I must study ancient Chinese culture, costumes, superstitions, architecture and engineering.
“To further enhance my knowledge, I also watch Chinese medieval movies to observe the props, standard of living and buildings. The same goes for a European ship. I always imagine walking and wandering around their dry-dock while they were building ships. One must have a good imagination to be a shipbuilder.”
He starts by doing a manual drawing of the ship he wants to replicate. Next, he will create a template, using cardboard, before he starts with his woodworking.
“I am ‘old school’, and I’m not an Information Technology (IT) expert. I don’t know how to use AutoCAD (a computer-aided design and drafting software application) or any other IT related medium. So the technical drawing is only for the hull of the ship. The rest of the ideas and structures come from my imagination. Once the woodworking is done, I fix the sails and rigging. The last stage is varnishing,” he explained.
The craft is intricate and painstaking and as he operates his business alone, Azhar only accepts two or three commission works a year.
“I do all the processes myself, from A to Z. I’m building a replica, not a model ship. Model ships are much easier to build, and one can finish them in less than two weeks. Building a replica is different because the crafter must make it exactly like the original ship.
“Each ship is about three to five feet in length. The most requested ships are European ships and Chinese Ming Dynasty baochuan (treasure ship),” said Azhar.
He has built the replica of ships like the 1812 Baltimore Clipper, 1571 Mediterranean Galley, and HMS Victory 1775 British Royal Navy ship. His customers are Malaysians, who are willing to pay between MYR15,000 and MYR20,000 for his unique creations.
His replica of the Nao Victoria carrack has been displayed in Singapore and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. This creation is currently displayed together with contemporary artist Ahmad Fuad Osman’s The Trinidad project at Balai Seni Negara in Kuala Lumpur.
Azhar dreams of someday visiting the HMS Victory, best known for her role as Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which has been preserved as a museum ship in Portsmouth, England. It is the world’s oldest naval ship, with 244 years of service.
“Even though I completed the replica of HMS Victory 1775 over two decades years ago, I can’t afford to travel to England to see the actual ship. I don’t earn much but it’s enough to survive. I achieved whatever I wished for (in model making) and I am happy. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people happy to receive my work.”