James recommends...

HMS Surprise figurehead sculpted by James Choi

I picked up model ship building as a new hobby in March 2008 as a way to quasi-immerse myself into Jack and Stephen's world, enjoying immensely the novels as well as the film, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

Being new to the craft, I did some research online, called some hobby stores, and eventually decided to purchase the HMS Surprise kit by Artesania Latina at a clearance sale from a hobby store in Canada. Incidentally, I was told (by a different hobby store) to avoid this specific kit for two reasons: 1) It's an advanced kit, recommended for modelers that have actually bent planks before, and 2) The manufacturer had a reputation for less than adequate instructions and poor historical accuracy. My take on this advice was: 1) What's a plank and how hard can it be, and 2) I was going after verisimilitude of ships of the era, to approximate the literary frigate with visual and stylistic cues from the film version - which incidentally was actually a modified replica of the HMS Rose. (More about this in my next article about the Three Surprises)

What started out as an interesting time-filler soon evolved into an intellectually stimulating, self-challenging pursuit of building as faithfully as possible, a recreation of Patrick O'Brian's celebrated man-of-war. 
In the process I learned a whole new art, made friends, and even honed my patience through the many tedious, repetitive steps involved - not to mention the interesting bumps of decyphering some really bad instructions and contradicting (or flat out incorrect) diagrams. I now have a great respect for veteran model ship builders that can construct
James Choi builds the HMS Surprisethese complex models from scratch, often with scant historic plans as basis. 
As of this writing I am at page 58 of 87 in the instruction manual, and have logged approximately 300 hours. My intent is to share a virtual gallery of the completed model on this website, hopefully by mid-summer 2009. In the meantime I have been keeping a photo build log on Picasa which you can view here. Enjoy!



Comments (43)
  • Sean  - Ship

    It's amazing how you get so creative and put a lot of effort into each piece. Keep it up!

  • sexyman5000  - eye of the tiger

    That ship looks so good it just might look better than my t-shirt, just maybe.

  • Logan Choi  - Hi! Dad

    Hi! Dad are you really going to make the chickens?

  • Logan Choi  - hi

    what part are you working on?

  • ROJO  - But will it float?

    James the boat is awsome. Great work of art.

  • mai  - wow

    That looks really good James! Nice blog too!

  • jim cameron  - hms surprise

    great article and work, I hope to start same project soon as ordered model arrives, thanks for great tips, regards JIM Cameron N Ireland

  • Jade Witte  - Wow!

    Amazing work and dedication to perserving the integrity of the original ship. Fascinating watching the whole process. Truly a masterpiece James!

  • Peter "PJ" Jackson  - HMS Surprise

    I took the plunge and recently acquired the Surprise kit!! I can't believe how expensive this was and how much more expensive new imports will be!!
    I am currently in the middle of my second "Bluenose" and some time ago finished a Columbia River Seiner......my favourite so far.
    I found your website to be extremely useful, more so your photo blog, particularly in the light of the fact that the kit instructions leave a lot to be desired.
    I love your rendition of the figurehead although I don't think I have sufficient of an artistic bent to produce something like that. It goes without saying that the casting provided in the kit would not do the model justice!!
    Any advise you could provide, before I even start, would be most appreciated although I must finish the Bluenose first.
    I sincerely hope you have no objection to my pestering you from time to time.....after all you've "bin there!"

    Peter "PJ"

  • James J. Choi

    Hi Peter - thanks for your note. Glad the build log may be useful in your build and would be happy to offer input from time to time. James

  • michel elkoubi  - Beau travail

    Hello james
    I spend two good hours to analyse your very very nice and hudge work because I will start soon same project with this kit but I will try to built the "french" version of this ship and doing all alterations necessary as soon as I have all old drawings of original building in Le Havre in france (I live near where this ship is born!!)Do you know any information about the figure head there was when the ship was french flagged? Have you done any silicon mold of your's before to glue it on bow?. You have done a semi "Arsenal" beautifull work!!!! will you allow me to advertise in our model forum your site link
    Bonjour de france et bravo

  • James J. Choi

    Merci, Michel!
    I don't have any information of the figurehead of the L'Unite. I did not make a mold of my figurehead, but that would have been a great idea in retrospect. I would be happy to offer any specific tips on sculpting it however.

    By all means feel free to share my blog and build log in your forum.

    Best regards,


  • Michel Elkoubi

    Hello james
    Thanks for so kick reply !! I have download some pictures of your work and will print them to show saturday next to a big wood model showdisplay we will have saturday next in Lorient docks!!!(famous pirate harbour)
    I find some good source there in france to find an old book written by the french architect Forfait may be Finding the old figurehead !!Possibly it was a lion !!! Similar to the catheads!!
    Are you adding more "standing ropes " around the deck to give some live to your nice creation??
    Can we exchange more info by mail for the future?

  • James J. Choi

    My pleasure. You can also reach me via email at James.j.choi@gmail.com.



  • Bill  - sTUNNING

    Hi James,

    Your Surprise is amazing. I recently got into scale plastic modeling after many years away, and was browsing looking for a Surprise model to satisfy my Aubrey cravings when I found you Picassa site. I am finishing up Far Side of the World.

    You are very talented, do you recommend such a kit for a novice? You seemed to be pretty inexperienced when you started, but WOW you would never know it looking at your product. I am local to you, by the way.



  • James J. Choi

    Thanks Bill - I also got into model ships while reading the Aubrey Maturin series. I don't think there's anything particularly difficult about the kit, but I would not recommend it unless you have a lot of free time and patience. If you do decide to start one, good luck!


  • Lance Lemke  - Love your work

    Hi James,

    I love your rendition of the Surprise, I've long been looking into getting this kit, but was but off by the advanced listing. But now with the fall coming on in my area of the state's I'm thinking it might be a good time to start.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Lance,

    Thanks - it's a big kit. Hope you have fun with it!


  • Chris Wood

    Hi James Amazing Build you have there.I am currently building this mighty ship and using your pics as refence,I am buying it in installments like a partworks.
    I don't suppose you have the instructions still. If so Could you scan them and email if you have time...

    Thanks Chris wood ... Manchester U.K

  • James

    Chris, thanks for your feedback. As a fellow modeler, I can appreciate the challenges in building this kit, especially without the instructions. The actual information you would need is much more than just scanning the instruction booklet as there are several more large size reference plans with critical details not in the manual. Thus would be a considerable undertaking for me, and I hope you can understand the major commitment of time which I don't have at the moment. I am also behind in a few other projects as well. Perhaps you can contact Artesania Latina for the information. As I've indicated in my Picasa build log, their responsiveness isn't all that great, but it's worth a try. Good luck. James

  • floria  - wonderful post

    I love your rendition of the figurehead although I don't think I have sufficient of an artistic bent to produce something like that. It goes without saying that the casting provided in the kit would not do the model justice!!
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  • James

    Thank you Floria!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Looks Great.

  • Jim McGrath  - Surprise

    Just found your site in a post by a fellow modeler on the FSM Magazine site. Fantastic build. I have built several of the Artesania Latina kits but not with the same results as you. Your choice of that beautiful piece of furniture to be a base is outstanding. Both look like they should be in a museum. Keep up the great work.


  • James

    Thanks Jim - appreciate your stopping by and the feedback. Can you share the link to the post on the FSM Magazine site?

    Best, James

  • Jim McGrath  - Surprise

    http://cs.finescale.com/FSMCS/forums/t/144771.a spx

    Here's the link to the post on the FSM Magazine site. It is in the ship Forum. You can read anything on the Forum, but, you can't post unless you sign on to be a member. The cost is FREE though. There are lots of great guys on there that are ready and willing to help anyone with questions and problems. They are very knowledgeable about all types of ships.


  • Greg Bishop  - AMAZING

    I came across your incredible build while researching the figurehead. Going through the photo documentation was jaw-dropping.

    Did you ever come to a decision on who the figurehead is? Otherwise. I can let you know if I pin it down. Great work! Greg (Southern Calif/Los Alamitos)...

    Congratulations on an exceptional creation!

  • James

    Thanks Greg! My interpretation of the figurehead is Minerva. If you find out otherwise, let me know.


  • Greg Bishop  - Athena

    I found a (Dec. 2009) photo in the March 2010 newsletter of the Maritime Museum sail crew, referring to the 'Athena Figurehead'. I didn't save that, but I could probably find it again. Looking further, I found this from the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (in San Diego) http://www.docstoc.com/docs/80688811/Reviving-Surp rise---SNAMEorg , verifying the figurehead as Athena. I see a lot of photos you could have pored over, as they changed 'Rose' (with the figurehead of 'Chester') to 'Surprise'!

    Question resolved, I believe, and I learned a few things!

  • James

    Greg - that is an awesome find! Minerva was the Roman version of Athena, so mystery solved. On a related note, a modeler from France by the name of Michel Elkoubi emailed me a while ago to tell me that as the L'Unite, the figurehead was a representation of Mariane, "a famous female warrior that helped the French to fight." I have been neglecting sculpting a Mariane for his build for almost a year now...


  • Andrew Denton  - Permission to share

    I am a member of a modellers forum and we have a number of members building the Artesina HMS Surprise. I would love to create a link page to your photo diary to assist our members but first need to obtain permission...

    Please could you let me know if I can make the link.

    Many thanks


  • James

    Hi Andy - absolutely fine with me. Be sure to reply with a link to your forum so I can check it out as well.

    Best regards,


  • Andrew Denton  - Forum links

    Hi James, many thanks for the prompt reply.

    I've created the forum link page and include it below...
    http://forum.model-space.co.uk/default.aspx?g=post s&t=5181

    Our main forum site link is also
    http://forum.model-space.co.uk/default.aspx?g=foru m

    Once again, many thanks for such an inspirational build.

    Best regards


  • Robert Hudson  - Mr

    Hope this is Not a dupliate!

    Hi James I have asked you questions before about HMS Surprise as I am building the same ship, and as you know the instructions are poor to say the least.

    Anyhow You bought the ship in one go and not as separate parts, I was wondering were your plans for the Masts and Rigging 1:1 in scale or smaller, or did the come on a disc.

    Thanks for your time.

    Robert, Bridlington UK.

  • James

    Hi Robert,

    The plans that came with the kit for the masts were 1:1 scale, but the rigging were not. The plans came in hardcopy only, no disc.

    Hope that helps,


  • Robert Hudson  - Mr

    Hi James thank you for your reply.

    I have just received a hard copy for the Masts from DeAgostini that say 1:1 I don't think they are correct, lower main mast says 435mm, but my Tape measure when put alongside says 472mm?.

    And as for the rest of the plans Rigging etc came on a disc!.

    PS I am using your build to help me build my ship, your ship looks great.


  • Robert Hudson  - Mr

    Hi James, I have wrote to before about HMS Surprise, I am building it as well, and I can not find any of them corner hatch railings Brass , the one's you got from Canada, I live in the UK, Do you have the web address for the shop you bought them from Please.

    Best Regards.


  • James

    Hi Robert - this was ages ago, and I don't think I ever wrote down the web address for the brass pieces, but I'll dig around.


  • Peter E Bradley  - Magnifique!

    Hi James,
    I don't know if your blog is still up and running, but I wished to compliment you on your incredible " Surprise". And on the interesting conversations between you and your other fans. As a keen Jack and Esteban fan myself, this blog is very worth while. I am currently building the Revell " Victory", but may try a " Surprise" next. Keep up the good work.

  • James

    Thanks Peter! Good luck with the Victory.



  • Andrew shook  - My ship

    Hi.im Andrew shook. I'm building a black pearl with a foam board keel and and with craft Sticks planking. I've always wanted to do a hms surprise. One day. Amazing ship. I'm using this and other builds , some books and plans of similar ship for reference. I've also done pure foam board and Crayola magic marker. By the way, I'm 12. Best regards,
    Andrew shook

  • James  - Awesome

    Hi Andrew - thanks for the note. Do you have any pictures of your ship? It sounds very interesting.



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