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‘It’s not completely lost’: Meet the craftsman who can build a replica model of your childhood home

By George Hadgelias

When Kate Howard’s childhood home in Brisbane was sold after her mother died, it was demolished for a new development – “a loss keenly felt”.

Howard and her siblings had moved away from the post-war house in Corinda – named Wentworth by her parents after the hotel where they honeymooned – but still held cherished memories of “a loving home, filled with laughter and music” that was host to 65 years of family gatherings.

After it was gone, Howard found an unconventional way to memorialise Wentworth, by commissioning model maker Shane Donnelly to build a scale replica of the three-bedroom weatherboard house.

Donnelly, based in Stanthorpe (about 220 kilometres south-west of Brisbane) has built an online following in recent years through his Facebook page showing the handcrafted, precise models he creates of other people’s homes.

Donnelly learned his craft in the 1980s, building large display models for property developers and architects on the Sunshine Coast, but since moving back to his hometown of Stanthorpe, his focus changed to making smaller, more personalised models.

“I get so much out of it and the customer gets so much out of it too,” Donnelly says. “Every house has got a story to tell – happy times and sad times.”

Donnelly builds the miniature 3D models from simple materials: walls are cut from styrene sheets, imitation windows are of clear acrylic, and the tools Donnelly wields are “old school” – a ruler, hobby knife, tweezers and glue.

It’s getting the models precise that is the complex bit. Donnelly jokes that the work is “good for the eyes,” as some measurements are as small as a quarter of a millimetre to build an accurate model. His preferred scale is HO scale, commonly used in model railways. Each part of the original Wentworth house, then, was 87 times bigger than its model counterpart.

Donnelly says putting a model together feels like “building a house, just like a builder”, and for Wentworth, he even had the original house plans to go off, plus photographs the Howard family shared with him.

Kate Howard says she’s chuffed with how the miniature Wentworth turned out. She gave the “unique and precious gift” to her sister for her 70th birthday. “It feels like the family home is not completely lost,” she says. “The model, so accurate in every detail, is a visible reminder of all the happy memories of our growing years.”

Donnelly estimates he spent about 40 hours building the Wentworth model, and of course he’s aware that these days there are quicker ways he could do things. He gets told that all the time.

“People often say, ‘I could 3D print that’, and I say, ‘well where’s the fun in that?’” he says. “You can pinpoint the points on a computer, press a button and watch it get built … I think it’s brilliant, 3D printing, but that’s not what I’m about. I’m about the handcrafting.”

He admits he’s also “a bit pedantic”, which comes in handy for the more complex projects he’s worked on. One such task was building a model of Pikedale Homestead, a 53-room mansion near Stanthorpe that burned to the ground in 1963.

An avid history buff, Donnelly spent time at the ruins working out what the original measurements would have been, even though “there’s virtually nothing left, just a couple of old stone walls in the back”. After lots of research, which he admits “can be quite painstaking”, he completed the exquisite scale model of the homestead and donated it to a local history museum.

“That’s one of my finest – it was a labour of love for sure.”

Model making is not all serious though. Donnelly has built a whole model streetscape he nicknamed “MTown” with one vacant lot where he can insert his current project and take progress photos of the “build” for the customer – complete with miniature builders carrying out works to really set the scene.

An introvert at heart, Donnelly loves what he does – putting on some music or the radio and working away for hours with his hands, “making everything as close to perfect as possible … I can just sort of potter away and get everything right”.

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