Freehand Dreams
Kenji Yamada
Text | Richard Kelley
Photos | Setsuko Nishikawa
Design | Franco Au-Yeung

In Takasaki, a city about 120 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, stands a house-museum dedicated to all things Ferrari. While there are other more formidable structures housing examples of this legendary marque, none are more personal nor unique. It is the fulfilment of the dream of Kenji Yamada, who is not only the collector, but also the creator of this special world made entirely of wood.

Yamada, who fell in love at first sight with all things Ferrari as a young child in Takasaki, has channeled his incredible abilities as a craftsman and wood model maker to carve over 500 different models, including 21 models of grand scale, from solid wood in great detail featuring several hundred components. Oh yes, and one more qualification: they are all made freehand from scratch.

Whether it’s Michele Alboreto’s magnificently detailed 1985 Ferrari 156/85 F1 car, a 1955 F500 F2, a rare GTO or other racing and road-going Maranello masterpieces, Yamada’s home is a testament of how one man’s creativity and passion combined to produce a stunning collection of a deeply personal nature.

Blackbird Auto-Journal was recently able to learn the details of Yamada’s continuing journey towards creating one of the most unique Ferrari collections in the world.

“It was around 40 years ago when I fell in love with Ferrari, and from that time I always wanted my own Ferrari, in some form,” said Yamada. “At that time in Japan, there was a boom for supercars, and collector models. Of course, there were a lot of plastic supercar models in the market and I did purchase them and built them, but for me, they were not interesting at all mostly because I were not created them from me.”

Model making for Yamada had been a hobby for 30 years ago until his retirement.

“As a hobby before my retirement, I used to build models of yachts,” says Yamada. “Those models were not built from scratch. They were supplied with instructions so all it took was time. It was just not that fulfilling.”

Seeking a higher plane of personal involvement with his hobby, Yamada began to realise his approach to model making also presented a journey toward creating his dream of his very own Ferrari’s.

“After retirement there was a lot of free time for myself, so I stared thinking of making my Ferraris. Generally, most people use materials like plastics or metals, but the cost of those materials is expensive and the equipment needed to form the pieces takes up too much space.That’s when it occurred to me I could try building a Ferrari model with wood as it was easier to acquire, and easier to build from scratch. The target for me was to see how detailed it could be by using wood.”

He chose balsa tree wood. It was light and easy to carve and relatively inexpensive.

“I could try building a Ferrari model with wood as it was easier to acquire, and easier to build from scratch. The target for me was to see how detailed it could be by using wood.”

“I ended up giving it a try with balsa wood because it was cheap and it offered me a chance to quickly see how detailed it could be carved. I made my first balsa wood prototype with just a utility knife and sandpaper.

As he progressed from his prototype to the final form, he stayed with his original woodworking tools and his original approach.

“Basically, I just continued to use the knives that could be found at a Home Depot,” says Yamada. “Out of my passion for cars, I kept learning the techniques by myself, as there was no one else doing wooden sculpture cars in such detailed form.”

Yamada-san had found his personal approach and his artistic niche. “I decided, he says, “to dedicate all my time to making wooden car models for the last chapter of my life.”

We asked if he finds any limitations in using wood as his material.

“Even if there are limitations,” said Yamada, “I tend to think of them as challenges that are interesting and provide a chance to enhance my skills. But, apart from wood, the limitations of creating models, especially the older models would be to find enough detailed information for the cars I want to build. Some famous cars would have a lot of information that could easily be found but some of the not so famous ones will require more time to get the actual information required as I am not able to see the real cars myself.”

His procedure for creating his wooden masterpieces always follows his perfected path.

“I always finish the body first,” stresses Yamada-san. “Until it is up to my standard, I will not move on to other parts. Then I will do the engine and followed by other parts. Usually I give myself a 6 month timeframe per car. It seems like a lot of time, but I like to perfect each and every detail. Even if there is a tiny mistake, I would rather start again than regret it late

“Until it is up to my standard, I will not move on to other parts. Then I will do the engine and followed by other parts.”

After creating such singularly exquisite models, does he still maintain a list of dream cars to create in the future?

“I usually think about the next car when I am around 1 month away from finishing the current one,” says Yamada-san. “At the moment I am working on a 1955 F500 F2 and it really gets me excited because I like old race cars very much. So I think I will work on another old race car for the next one as well. But this time, of course, it will be a famous model since it will be easier to find the information about the car.”

His woodcraft and creations have allowed Yamada to discover other additional benefits as well as a confirmation of his devotion to his art instead of commerce.

“My model building has given me a chance to meet a lot of new people, especially people from all around the world,” remarks Yamada. “A lot of them I still keep in contact with via Facebook. Some of them are car model makers/retailers, but unlike me, they build 1/12 and 1/43 scale examples. Still, I very much enjoy having the connection with people throughout the world with the same love for model cars.

“When I attend exhibitions around the world, a lot of people ask me if sell my models or whether I accept custom-made orders. I tell them no. Although the original cars were designed and created by Enzo Ferrari, when I build my models, I put all my emotions into that effort. To me, each of them are a part of me and could not be bought by a price. I also think that if I were to go commercial, I will not be able to maintain the standard of the models as I have made them. Because they couldn’t attain that level of perfection, my commercial models would become a totally different thing.”

Now that he devoted his days to creating his own homage to his Ferraris, does Kenji Yamada have any remaining unfulfilled dreams?

“I dream that some day, my models might be displayed at the Ferrari Museum,” remarks Yamada. “If that were to ever happen, it would be a great honour.”


Featured in Blackbird Automotive Journal Vol.7 – ENDURANCE –


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