The Kon-Tiki raft made huge headlines when it completed its journey from Callao, Peru, to Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia in 1947. The ‘Kon-Tiki’ brand was used extensively in popular culture. However, in the small world of scale-model building, very few kits have been made of the Kon-Tiki raft. Here is a short history of these scale-model kits, although there are much we don’t know.
Scale models of the Kon-Tiki raft
The Kon-Tiki Expedition was practically insolvent when the raft was towed out of Callao harbor on April 28th, 1947. Consequently, Thor Heyerdahl and the crew turned their attention to ways they could make money and pay back some of the $ 15.000 debt they had incurred.
Thor Heyerdahl intended to make his share on a lecture tour, and writing a book about the expedition that was entitled Kon-Tiki. On raft across the South Seas. A documentary about the voyage was also filmed, which they believed had economical potential. Kon-Tiki. On raft across the South Seas was already a bestseller when it was published in the USA in 1950, and it spent52 weeks on New York Times list of most sold non-fiction books. The film won an Oscar for best documentary, and became widely popular on the big screen.
Knut M. Haugland had two suggestions. One, that the raft should be brought back and put on display in a small museum, and idea that was championed by the expedition’s liason on land, Gerd Vold Hurum. Second, that they could make small scale-models of the raft, preferably sets for people to build their own balsa-wood raft. To show the others, Haugland made a perfect replica of the raft in 1:50 scale during the voyage. Today this is on display in the Kon-Tiki Museum as a gift from his family.
The Kon-Tiki Expedition became a spectacle all around the world and many companies began to sell merchandise labeled Kon-Tiki, and hotels, restaurants, and bars frequently borrowed the name. The Kon-Tiki raft was not only reproduced in logos, but a French manufacturer sold rafts made out of plastic tubes, and in 1950 the Swedish manufacturer of traditional items, Trä- & Konsthantverk in Rättvik, wrote to Knut M. Haugland to get license to produce Kon-Tiki raft models.
Haugland responded that the Kon-Tiki Expedition could not give or deny anyone rights to produce rafts and sell to children. Indeed, he encouraged the project, but they just could not call the model “Kon-Tiki”. He even suggested alternatives: “Tiki-raft” or “Ancient Peruvian raft”. Needless to say, this raft model was never produced.
Knut M. Haugland wrote to several of the publishers of Kon-Tiki. On raft across the South Seas, and suggested the idea about a raft model set, but they deemed the set as both too costly to develop and too complex to build. Haugland decided to try himself, based on experience he gained in 1949 when he and two of his brothers made eight raft-models for Syncron Film A/B to be used in the launch of the Kon-Tiki Expedition for movie theaters.
He made a complete set of drawings for a model-set in the scale 1:50 and aimed at starting production himself with the help of Oddvar Sandersen, a friend from his army days (Company Linge). However, Knut M. Haugland was busy earning his stars and becoming an officer.
On advice from Thor Heyerdahl, he contacted Arne Tjomsland, a young art director who was starting a business of designing and producing souvenirs, and they met during Easter 1952.
An official Kon-Tiki raft scale-model set of balsa-wood made in Norway
During the following winter production began. New, professional line-drawings were made by architect B. Marlow at Platou, at the expense of NOK 400,-. Whether that is the fee for the drawings or if it also includes the print for the first set of scale-model kits we don’t know.
Arne Tjomsland later became well known for his ability to design souvenir figures. The Kon-Tiki raft scale-model set, which had a ready-made design and finished drawings, did not need much work, so Tjomsland put his creativity into designing the box and other contents of the set. The box was beautifully designed in Azur-blue, white, and black.
You may download a scan of all sides of the 1954-box here.
You may download the entire english-version of the construction pamphlet here.
You may download the photos accopanying the scale-model set from 1954 here.
The first production set had a short text in 12 languages, although 16 was suggested: Norwegian (counting for Swedish and Danish as well); English; French; German; Italian; Portuguese; Irish; Dutch; Greek; Finnish; Spanish; Esperanto; Icelandic; Hebrew; Japanese; Turkish. It read (in Norwegian):
“Complete constructional kit. KON-TIKI in genuine balsa.
The only authentic model on the market of the KON-TIKI raft. Authorised by the KON-TIKI expedition. Model and name covered by patents. Scale 1:50.”
The Kon-Tiki raft, scale-model set in balsa-wood was manufactured by Ottar Lilleengen, a company in Gjøvik, and sold by The Kon-Tiki Museum and by the warehouse Sten & Strøm in Oslo. International sales were handled directly by Arne Tjomsland’s company. Sales was good all summer and autumn of 1953, but Arne Tjomsland could not provide enough sets with a marked decline in sales during the winter months as a result. The Kon-Tiki Museum had run out of model-sets and only got a small batch of new sets in January of 1954. Problems persisted despite the fact that the Kon-Tiki Museum invested NOK 5.000,- in production, and on October 18th, Knut M. Haugland and the museum started their own production, still through Ottar Lilleengen’s carpenter shop in Gjøvik.
In 1954, Ottar Lilleengen also introduced a small 1:150-152 scale raft model with the same box-art as the 1:50 model sets. These were apparently sold as both complete models and as model-sets. Production kept on in Gjøvik until at least 1962.
Two different model-sets, very much simpler than the 1953-54 original 1:50 scale set, were sold up until the 1990s at the Kon-Tiki Museum. However, the exact history and manufacturers are not established. They were sold in two different scales. One, probably manufactured on Ottar Lilleengen’s simplified 1:150 scale version of the original set. It is even possible that these sets were mainly produced with parts originally made by Ottar Lilleengen’s carpenter shop in Gjøvik. Some of the machines used for this production still exist on Lilleengen’s farm. The other is in scale 1:114 and was also sold as a simple construction set. Sales of these models were discontinued after 1992 because of frequent complaints that the set was very difficult to assemble. Evidently, these model-sets were sold without instructions and may have had problems with the parts. Both sets had main logs made of balsa-wood.
Currently, the Kon-Tiki Museum only sells assembled models of the Kon-Tiki raft for visitors. One is hand-made in Bolivia from balsa-wood, and the other (1:95 scale) is made in Vietnam.
The Hegi-Modellbau model from 1978
The Kon-Tiki Museum archive has 3 Kon-Tiki scale-model sets made by commercial manufacturers. We would like to know if there is more models and model sets out there, so please send us information if you have a model or scale-model kit and know about its history.
In 1978 Hegi-Modellbau, in Bünde, Germany copyrighted a 1:31 scale-model set of the Kon-Tiki raft with the number B-3301. The base consists of 7 logs made out of one piece of balsa-wood, which makes it easy to put together but also quite inaccurate.
The Mantua Model
For many years the best, and possibly only, scale-model kit of the Kon-Tiki raft available was the Italian producer Mantua’s kit 708. This is a kit in scale 1:18 and is 590 mm long. (If we want to nitpick this is actually 1:23 scale.) It is a high-quality set with the main logs made out of balsa-wood. The preprinted leafs of coconut palm, which is thatching for the roof, is of exquisite make. There are some inaccuracies in the set, like a non-existent window in the hut.
A Mantua 703 build by Adam Polinski
Here are some photos from an awesome scale-model build of the Kon-Tiki raft, based on the Mantua 703 kit. The builder is Adam Polinski, from Mount Prospect, Illinois, USA. He builds just about any genre, from figures and military to automotive and aviation. The Kon-Tiki raft was inspired by the need to add Pacific Islands decor to a Tiki bar Polinski build for a family member in Northern Wisconsin. The oportunity to build a wooden ship type of build could not be resisted.
The build itself, based upon the Mantua 703 kit, was done between January and April of 2022, working mostly weekends and an hour or two a day in between. Although the build is based upon the 703, a good portion of the raft is scratch built. The bamboo flooring is actual bamboo shish-kebab skewers stained to look like bamboo poles. The flags are blue painters masking tape that was masked off to represent the different flags flown on the raft.
Here are some photos of the beautiful finished model.
The relative new Shicheng Model kit
A few years ago, the Chinese company Shicheng Model issued a new scale-model kit of the Kon-Tiki raft, no. W021. It is supposedly in 1:16 scale, but the model seems closer to 1:45 scale. It is a nice wooden kit (not balsa) with some nice features like a small rubber dingy and some box features.