The art of alternative staining

This was meant to be just another short ‘hidden treasures of the pound-shop’ piece recommending the value of cheap liquid polishes such as these below as alternatives to more expensive wood stains. I’ve used similar bottled shoe polishes many times in the past, particularly for staining model floorboards .. with very good results!

Poundland liquid shoe polish

But these ones currently in 99p Store are, as you can see below, unusually weak in terms of colour. I’ve made these tests on pieces of 0.8mm sheet obeche wood, which normally accepts stain very well. Each of the sample pieces featured in this post was made with a fixed procedure! Firstly I ruled three faint pencil lines and applied the first coat up to the top pencil line, leaving a little of the wood bare above. I then waited a minimum of 2 hours before applying the second coat up to the line below and then another 2 hours before applying the third. I chose 2 hours in between because this was the time it took for the pieces of wood to return to almost complete flatness after warping .. so I figured these were sufficiently dry for the next coat. As you may know, warping doesn’t occur with oil or spirit-based media, and with spirits the ‘drying’ is a lot quicker .. but I gave these the same intervals anyway.

Poundland liquid shoe polish samples

The polite word for these is ‘subtle’ .. the ‘Neutral’ had so little visible effect on the wood, even after three coats, that I didn’t even notice that I’d photographed the piece upside down! The brown and black did impart some even colouring as you can see, but even after three coats and rubbing afterwards there was only slightly more ‘sheen’ than the obeche wood has on its own.

But there are much better ones! The lighter brown sample on the left below is brown liquid polish from Tiger, the one in the middle is brown Cherry Blossom Readiwax    brand found in Poundland and the last is Kiwi Wax Rich Colour Shine also from Poundland but a while ago. I’ve overdone the photo exposure a little .. the colours are richer and deeper in reality. All of these gave a visible, regular sheen to the wood surface on the second coat, and more pronounced on the third.

liquid shoe polish samples on wood

Here are just two more, but also showing how best to apply the liquid polish. The sample to the left is the brown Kiwi Colour Shine shown in the photo, also found in Poundland, and next to it is one made with Clarks brown polishing cream, which is thin enough to brush on easily and infiltrate the fibres. The Kiwi polish gave a good sheen after three coats but the polishing cream remained matt. If you intend to cover large areas you could use the sponge applicator attached, but for these small ones it was easier to press out a small amount of polish on a tile and use a rigid synthetic brush.

Applying liquid shoe polish as a stain

All of the polish types I’ve featured so far are ‘water-carried’ including the polishing cream .. suspensions of pigment and wax in water. So one has to deal with the fact that the water will make thin wood warp! It can look rather alarming .. especially if as here the wood grain is perpendicular to the length of the strip. But as the piece slowly dries it returns to almost complete flatness again. As I’ve said, if using 0.8mm obeche wood this will take at least 2 hours .. but it will differ according to wood thickness and type.

thin sheet obeche warping with water-based polish

Although it might be an annoying way to work, I would recommend if you want to treat wood with anything water-based (including water-based commercial wood stains) that the pieces are treated like this i.e. stained and left to dry before sticking down. It may be logical to assume, when making a floorboard floor for example, that sticking all the boards securely on a base first will prevent the whole thing from warping when painted. It doesn’t .. in fact it can make it worse! I think what happens is that if something absorbent like cardboard is used as the base, when the wood on top is painted some of the moisture reaches the cardboard so it will also warp .. this is clear. But as both dry out the moisture which has reached the cardboard is trapped so that whereas the wood layer will dry the cardboard will take longer. The drying wood will therefore ‘set’ in this position. When this happens it is impossible to get the ‘composite’ flat again.

It can be a bit dangerous if one gets hooked on the satisfaction of making illustrative samples .. one looks around for more things to test! Samples don’t have to have any other meaning, and one isn’t going to be judged on their aesthetic value. Breaking free of both the conceptual and the aesthetic actually does have positive advantages sometimes.. it opens the door wide for serendipity! Otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of trying two other media I just happened to have around at the time .. GlasArt transparent glass paints from Marabu and Letraset ProMarkers. As it happened both worked far better than I expected, with the big advantage that neither of them cause warping because they’re spirit-based. The other significant advantage is the cost of them. If one only wants to stain a relatively small area it’s quite an expense to buy commercial spirit-based wood stain, or a combination stain/varnish. The smallest tins or bottles available are generally somewhere over £6.00. The smaller 15ml jars of Marabu GlasArt can be found for between £2.00 – £2.60 and Letraset ProMarkers are on average £2.00 each.

Marabu GlasArt paint as wood stain

The GlasArt paints work like a dream on wood! They can either be applied straight from the jar, as I’ve done with the sample to the far left above, or thinned with white spirit as I have with the other two. I used Bartoline Low Odour White Spirit and mixed roughly equal amounts of spirit and paint together on a tile. As before, the best brush to use is a flat one, with soft but rigid synthetic hairs. The first coat penetrates readily but dries relatively matt; the second has more noticeable sheen, and the third gives a regular satin finish. Whether thinned or used straight, the GlasArt paint penetrated the wood fibres better than I expected. For an even stronger shine I would recommend applying some neutral Kiwi solid shoe polish such as the one shown later. This has to be thinly brushed or rubbed in, left for about half an hour, then buffed with either a clean shoe brush or soft rag. I would recommend using a polish like this every time for scale model work, rather than using any kind of gloss varnish. Varnish is too ‘full on’ for miniature work, and it will emphasis every little imperfection. Often the sheen that the wood already receives is enough to suggest a polished look, but if one has to have more, polish can be far better controlled. It means for example that a floorboard floor stays more matt where it is difficult to buff i.e. along wall edges or in corners, which makes more realistic sense!

Marabu GlasArt used as varnish on wood

Letraset’s ProMarkers come in a wide range of colours .. 148 in total. Below I’ve used a few I had which were suitable as wood colours, but there are many more. In addition they can be easily ‘mixed’ .. that is, overlaid .. so the colour range is infinite! The ink is alcohol-based and it penetrates the wood fibres very well. But it is also ‘self-sealing’ .. there must be a fixative in addition to the alcohol, though there is no info on what this is .. so transparent layers can be built up and colours deepened. Here I’ve used, from left to right; ‘Ice Grey 1′, ‘Sandstone’, ‘Spice’, ‘Walnut’ and ‘Warm Grey 5′. Although the ink is thin, a build-up of layers will produce a sheen, though not as much as the GlasArt paint or the better polishes. Another advantage for small-scale work is that the ProMarkers come with both a broad and a fine felt nib. Because it penetrates so well I expected it to be difficult to draw a hard edge on the wood, at least for the first coat, but as you can see from the top edges it didn’t ‘bleed’ as much as regular wood stains.

Letraset ProMarkers used as wood stains

This could make it easier to ‘fake’ a more complicated parquet flooring pattern, just by using different tones or hues of marker. It can be fairly tightly controlled even on balsa wood, which is one of the most absorbent woods. Below I’ve compared the same colours on balsa, to the right, with obeche to the left. Balsa generally stains more evenly than obeche, especially when layers are built up, but obeche will give a richer and deeper colour.

Staining wood with Letraset ProMarkers. Difference between obeche and balsa

One last option .. let’s say, if you don’t want to get anything special at all for staining wood .. is just to use whatever transparent paints you’ve got such as watercolours. If you do use watercolours I would recommend painting before gluing down, as before. Don’t use either acrylics or gouache because these will not be sufficiently transparent .. they will obscure the natural grain of the wood, and the effect will be rather lifeless and artificial.

In place of watercolour though, I prefer to use regular colour pencils or pastels ‘dissolved’ using white spirit. This avoids the problem of warping, but I’ve also found that the colours are richer using spirit, and it means that so many more things can be turned into paints or stains. These small floor samples were made by firstly shading some pencil colour on the bare wood, then dissolving it with low odour white spirit and a synthetic brush. The dry pencil pigment dissolves readily and can be worked over and into the wood, but the ‘paint’ produced remains workable for much longer than watercolour or acrylic. It is basically a straight ‘watercolour’ technique .. just not using water .. and with the added control of adding the colour, not solely with a brush but also with the pencil-point .. a combination of painting and drawing. I’ve preferred to keep these samples subtle to show the nuances achievable, but one can go much richer and darker with the colours.

Staining wood by rubbing with coloured pencils and dissolving pigment with white spirit

I’ve used Karismacolor pencils here because these were my favourite and I still have them, but sadly Berol discontinued them long ago. Others who use colour pencils in their work say that Prismacolor or Polychromos are comparable .. rich colours, soft but not chalky-fragile! These are all oil-based pencils, which definitely work better for this technique, though I have found that any kind of colour pencil will work to some extent.

Old oak floorboard model sample

For the sample floorboard piece above, and below, I wanted to simulate the distinctive markings of old oak, but using obeche. I cut the planks and sanded the edges a little first, then ‘distressed’ them variously using a heavy-duty wire brush .. either pressing and pulling for deep scratches or just pressing and rocking for pockmarks. I then glued them in place, inscribing the floorboard ends with a sharp tool afterwards. I used the pencils to shade or cross-hatch on the wood in various browns, but defining some differences between the floorboards. When dissolving the shading with white spirit I made sure that most of the colour collected in the scratches .. conventional wood stain would most likely colour too uniformly, not differentiating enough. Much more variation could be achieved than I’ve shown here, by shading parts with pencil again and fixing with very minimal spirit.

Wood staining sample including old oak floorboard effect and solid shoe polish rub

But the pencil/white spirit technique doesn’t create much shine, so after I’d given the sample a few hours to dry I applied a thin coat of the solid shoe polish shown .. a ‘Dark Tan’ to give it a bit more warmth. One needs to wait for it to ‘set’ before polishing .. between 30-50mins. As one final test I tried the polish on an untreated piece of obeche and got a deep, satisfying shine .. though adding further layers of this polish did not deepen the colour.

Staining and polishing wood with standard shoe polish

 

5 favorited in February – Lost Art Press, Prop Agenda, The Lonely Crafter’s Guide to London, Geffrye Museum of the Home, The Wood Database

 

Lost Art Press

from Lost Art Press blog

http://lostartpress.com/

The thought of a woodwork-related site might conjure up visions from the bad end of ‘retro’ .. fuzzy snaps and hideous neon text! On the contrary, the site alone is worth looking at as an example of a sleek, classic/modernist jewel .. clear and simple on the eye, but seriously rewarding if you have the time to delve!

Christopher Schwarz and John Hoffman introduce themselves as ‘two woodworkers with laptops .. trying to restore the balance between hand and machine work by unearthing the so-called ‘lost arts’ of hand skills’ and by publishing a small selection of woodworking books .. including reprints of antique works, some new ones and some fiction. There is also a WordPress blog attached, furthering the same cause, with a lot of info and good photos.

hand-made wooden vise

 

Eric Hart’s Prop Agenda

Prop Agenda header logo

http://www.props.eric-hart.com/

Eric is a prop maker from North Carolina and author of The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theatre, Film and TV. His site is a must for any prop-maker working in theatre or film who wants to keep in touch with what’s going on, or anyone considering the profession. There are scores of interviews with ‘Prop Masters’ .. a good balance from theatre and film .. and a wealth of useful links under the ‘Useful Sites’ category, worth taking the time to browse through! This will keep you busy for a few months. Eric is pretty modest when it comes to pushing his own work on us though. Some of it can be found there, but buried within the ‘How-to’ category .. if you’re able to find that! Alternatively some of it can be found here:

http://www.portfolio.eric-hart.com/

Eric Hart shaving fake rabbits

 

The Lonely Crafter’s Guide to London

http://cargocultcraft.com/knowledge/lonely-crafters-guide-to-london/

This is the best little guide to fabric shops in London that I know of. Unfortunately the compiler, Susannah, signed off in 2011 and went back to the States promising that someone else would ‘take up the torch’, but that didn’t happen. Nevertheless you’ll see it still popping up everywhere to this day because it’s still very useful. Almost all of the links still work and the maps are still valuable, because most of the fabric or haberdashery shops recommended are long-established.

Locations of Central London fabric shops

 

The Geffrye Museum of the Home

Geffrye Museum 1790 parlour

http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/

Although I’ve visited the Geffrye Museum countless times in the past as a theatre designer, I don’t remember their website being quite this good! For those who don’t know, the museum comprises 11 recreated period rooms, from the late 17th-century to the present day .. and is an essential visit for anyone interested in period interiors. But their website is also packed with value for designers, or researchers of anything domestic!

If one can’t get to London to see the rooms there are some good photos and 360degree views of each .. but move the viewer slowly, otherwise it may make you nauseous! But the Geffrye also maintains a collection of objects and images relating to ‘the material culture’ of the English home from the 17th C to present day, and much of this has been made available online. Although much smaller than the V&A collection, in many respects it’s more useful for period research. A search for ‘chair’ will produce 346 entries arranged chronologically .. so for example if you’re looking for images relating to chairs around 1780 they will be grouped together. Each chair is photographed clearly in multiple views and some details and the ‘Detailed Description’ includes basic measurements. Elsewhere on the Geffrye site the ‘Documenting Homes’ collection concentrates on current domestic life and the previous century with lots of photographs of homes submitted by the public, starting from 1910. In the ‘Collections’ section are links to complete copies of a number of household catalogues dating from 1885 to the late 1930s.

Geffrye Museum 1965 living room

Photos courtesy of the Geffrye Museum. Photographers: John Hammond, Chris Ridley

 

The Wood Database

Wood Database image

http://www.wood-database.com/

I didn’t know that there are almost 30 different types of ‘oak’ in use! Anyone who’s interested in wood will like this site, but I’d imagine most would know of it already. It’s also very useful for anyone who wants to identify a wood or just find out the basics of a particular one. It’s a very long list, and each entry contains clear sample photos ..comparing the appearance sanded with ‘sealed’ .. together with information on origin, common uses, working properties and sustainability. Eric Meier started his database in 2007 and has developed it with help from other wood professionals and enthusiasts.

Handy containers for small amounts of paint

One of my favourite paints is Rosco ‘Super Saturated’ scenic paint .. I like it because it has a more liquid consistency than most other acrylics, thins and mixes easily, adheres better than most to non-absorbent surfaces, covers incredibly well and dries almost completely matt! However, a major disadvantage is that it is only available in 1litre tubs .. really rather prohibitive in cost if you’re not a scenic painter and if you want a full range of colours! Added to that, the paint doesn’t keep very well once opened .. after about a year on average some of the colours start to smell, curdle or later still develop a thick skin of mould (but see postscript with solutions below). A couple of years ago I seriously splashed out on a number of 1litre tubs, partly because I intended to provide this paint to be used on my courses. Rosco has put together a sample box with small amounts of each colour .. costing around £50 if you can get hold of one .. but these sample pots don’t hold very much and once the seal is broken the lids aren’t quite tight enough to keep the paint inside from drying out.

Rosco SuperSaturated range

I needed to find better and more secure containers to transport portioned amounts. I’ve tried the smallest available food containers and for a while these worked quite well, but even these are a little bit bulky to transport in large numbers, if one wants to provide an interesting range. In any case none that I tried were truly ‘watertight’ so I had to bind them for transit with electrical tape. It also meant that the paint could only be properly dispensed from them with a spoon. What it did seem to solve fairly well was the problem of the paint ‘going off’ because I could fill a number of these to the top and thereby reduce the air contact. Nevertheless, I just didn’t like working with them .. too messy!

using food containers for paint

Another of my favourite forms of paint are the bottled acrylics from DecoArt, shown below. These are certainly not the richest colours but in all other respects the paint behaves surprisingly well for an inexpensive hobby-paint! Like the Rosco these acrylics are dense but liquid. But in this context it’s perhaps the bottles that have impressed me most of all .. they keep the paint completely where it’s supposed to be and allow it to be dosed in the smallest droplets needed. I’ve never had any leaks from these when carrying them around and when I’ve refilled empty ones with Rosco paint its appeared to keep for much longer.

DecoArt bottle acrylics

I tried to find identical ones online a while ago but couldn’t. But then, once ‘pound shops’ really started to get corporate and become a feature of almost every High Street I came across these in 99p Store, in packs of four as ‘travelling beauty bags’ .. or something like that .. containing shampoo, shower gel etc. They’re the same size as the DecoArt bottles, which hold a little more than 60ml of paint, but always square and made from a slightly harder plastic. I’ve never had the courage to use the contents!

travelling wash bag

But the bottles are almost perfect for paint! .. at least any paint that is liquid enough to be poured into them. Because they’re not quite as squeezable as the DecoArt bottles it’s best if the paint is cut with a small amount of water and .. if you’re familiar with the ‘ketchup bottle jab’, it will help at times! But their squareness is convenient when packing and, I suppose most of all, at 99p for four they’re cheaper than any options I’ve seen online unless you want to buy them in the hundreds.

using 'travelling bag' bottles for paint

As a postscript to this little piece celebrating small plastic bottles! .. I started trying to find out the best ways of preserving the Rosco paint and others that are predisposed to deteriorate and develop mould over time. It may not be simply a case of having to scrape off the mould layer .. the whole consistency of the paint or medium underneath may have altered and become useless. In addition the mould itself may be harmful to health, so it seems to me that prevention from the outset would be far wiser than making do with scraping the mould off as/when it occurs. What for example is it in the paint or medium that ‘goes bad’ in the first place? Is it simply solved by eliminating air contact? .. packing a layer of cling-film down on the paint surface when storing, or pouring a thin layer of distilled water, or even oil, over it? I was given these and other helpful suggestions when I posted the question on the Society of British Theatre Designers facebook page. A little later I received a very helpful confirmation from Jenny Knott, Paint Product Manager for Rosco Laboratories, which is worth quoting in full:

“Most mold/bacteria growth in paint is caused by introducing it into the paint.  Always use a clean, dry utensil to take paint out of the container.  If you use a wet stir stick to scoop the paint out, the water has bacteria in it so it will introduce bacteria into your paint.
If you have mold/bacteria on the paint, scrap all of it off then you can either put a couple of drops of pine oil floated on the top or plastic wrap over the top of the paint surface to seal it from the air.
Another thing you can do is to float distilled water on the top surface of the paint to protect the surface.”
…………………………………………………………………………………………..
In addition I would imagine that the colder the paint can be stored the better .. apart from freezing! I guess that these safeguards work best from the outset and that probably once the medium has become contaminated there’s really nothing that can be done to purify it again and that whatever can be salvaged probably has a short life, if it still works at all. I’d also imagine that all of the above applies to any water-based medium .. I know that it also happens with Idenden texture medium for example. I’ve just added one suggestion of my own which has worked for me so far .. decanting into smaller, separate, sealed containers.

 

Making a simple all-purpose modelling tool

I’ve seen these coloured ‘lolly sticks’ in the past in places like The Works but recently I saw that Poundland also has them. I’ve found these very useful for making quick, all-purpose modelling tools when I have been teaching large groups. I don’t know exactly what the wood is but even though soft it can take a fair amount of pressure while working because it is pliable .. best though with fairly yielding modelling materials such as fresh natural clay, properly conditioned Super Sculpey, soft modelling wax or warmed plasticine.

Poundland wooden lolly sticks

Basically, what one needs from a single tool for fine modelling are the following .. a fine blade-like point and edge; a more rounded point and edge; a flat spatula-like end with rounded edges. With this combination one can achieve a lot .. but of course not all! This tool is for pushing, impressing and dragging, but it’s not designed for scooping i.e. removing clay. A separate type of tool is needed for this, shown later.

Here below are the simple stages in making, shown from top to bottom. First a pointed end is made by slicing off at an angle, to a little less than half-way along the stick. As said, the wood is soft and easy to cut, not brittle, with a fairly fine grain. The cut edge then needs chamfering down (sanding at an angle) on both sides, to make the blade-like cutting or scoring edge .. any sandpaper would work but I used a fairly coarse one, i.e. P80 first . I’ve also rounded all other edges, especially giving the opposite end a smoother shape. All that was then needed was a careful rub-over with fine sandpaper or sanding-pad, shown below, until completely smooth. I didn’t find it necessary to oil or varnish the surface to seal it .. at least, if one mainly works with polymer clays or waxes the bare wood will quickly get a protective patina, as shown by the slightly darker tone of the used tool below.

stages in making an all-purpose modelling tool

It’s a funny thing .. I must have almost a hundred different modelling tools, bought over many years, but I often end up just using this one, partly because of the range of marks it can make but also maybe because, having designed and made it myself .. I feel I truly ‘own’ it.

variety of toolmarks made in Sculpey

Here are some other self-made tools for fine modelling .. using standard dowel from model shops, which I’m guessing is probably birch for the thinner, pine or ramin for the thicker. I’ve carefully drilled most of these at both ends (Dremel, 0.5-1mm drill bits) so that metal can be inserted. Shown at the top, I’ve fixed a slightly bent pin in one end and an ‘L’ of ‘piano wire’ in the other. Piano wire is very hard spring steel, available down to 0.4mm thickness from 4D modelshop. As with all of these shown, I’ve used a 2-part epoxy glue to secure the metal inserts. For the next down I’ve inserted the ends of a plastic cocktail stick.

Next is a collection of fine ‘scoopers’ made by bending 0.4mm piano wire into various shapes and inserting into the wood. I found that they needed to be strengthened by mounding the epoxy glue over the insertion point. Only piano wire will work, as ordinary wire will not be rigid enough under pressure. This type of tool is important because one can only achieve so much by displacing the modelling material .. one will often need to cleanly remove it. Last of all here, I found that LEDs make perfectly round and smooth impressions and they also come in a variety of sizes.

a selection of self-made modelling tools

 

5 favorited in January – VandA Collections, Nikon Microscopy, CGTextures, Nick Cave, Anatomy For Sculptors

V&A Collections

VandA Collections Search

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/

The Victoria and Albert Museum is Britain’s flagship museum of historical and contemporary art and design, and one of the world’s largest collections of its kind. Its online database contains almost half a million images which can be searched by keyword. If you’re looking for something very specific it’s best to enter general keywords first .. i.e. ‘armchair’, which will bring up thousands .. and then refine from the drop-down choices given. Medium-size images can be easily saved by right-clicking, but high resolution versions are also available for personal or academic use on signing up. Although the choice has its limits, the main advantage of using this first over Google is that one will receive accurate and often detailed background information including provenance, dimensions, makers and materials. It is particularly useful for furniture or prop research as many of the entries include multiple views and detail close-ups.

18thc side table

Above and below  Decorative side table, mid 18th c, originally from Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire. England/Italy (base designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft 1734-1743, table top made in Italy 1726). Photos © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

18thc side table detail

 

Nikon Microscopy

Ralph Grimm 'Chrysopa (lacewing)'

http://www.microscopyu.com/

Nikon’s Small World Competition was established in 1977 and has taken place every year since, featuring the best and often the most beautiful examples of photography through the microscope. The Small World image gallery contains all the prize-winning and commended entries for each competition since it began.

Stephen Nagy 'Section of diseased ivory'

Apart from this the site is a textbook resource for those involved with microscopy and contains a huge amount of technical information which will be far beyond the casual visitor. However, the brief summaries of the different imaging techniques employed are clearly written and well worth looking at. The site is a must for anyone interested in the subject, whether professionally or otherwise.

Jacek Myslowski 'Acari (arachnid)'

Photos are from Top Ralph Grimm ‘Chrysopa (lacewing) head’ 130x reflected light, image stacking Middle Dr Stephen Nagy ‘Section of diseased ivory’ 15x polarized light Bottom Jacek Myslowski ‘Acari (arachnid)’ 100x polarized and oblique light

 

CGTextures

CGTextures homescreen

http://www.cgtextures.com/

This is a huge, free database of photographed textures, in its own words ‘striving to be the world’s best texture site’ and in my opinion succeeding! It is founded/managed by Marcel Vijfwinkel and Wojtek Starak in the Netherlands and has been conscientiously maintained and added to for a number of years now.  What characterizes the site .. apart from its vast range! .. is its simplicity and fairness. Basically it allows any form of private or commercial use unless the texture image itself is just being re-sold unmodified or bundled with a product as it is .. but you need to read the ‘Conditions of Use’ because it can get complicated! You have to register for free membership which allows up to 15mb per day or paid membership starts at 100mb. There are more than 100,000 real surfaces to choose from, organized into clear categories, and most are available in resolutions up to around 3,000 x 2,000 for free. It’s well worth a look in the ‘Showcase’ section to see how CG artists utilize these textures. During its development CGTextures accepted masses of photo contributions from enthusiasts (and these are dutifully still credited on the site) but now it has a select team of photographers which include the founders. There are also some useful tutorials, including tips on how to take one’s own surface photos properly.

CGTextures 'rust' album

 

Nick Cave

sd_nickcave_0309

http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/nick-cave/

Why should the fashion and performance designer Nick Cave adjust his name just because there’s a famous musician with the same one? That was the second thing that impressed me about Nick Cave .. for the first I just had to get a glimpse of his truly extraordinary work! He’s one of these artists that makes you sit up and wonder what else you might be missing .. I’m dumbfounded that I hadn’t heard of his work until last year although he has been exhibiting his ‘Soundsuits’ since 1999. These are costumes designed to be performed in, but are often exhibited as sculptures. Nick Cave spent some time as a dancer before turning to the visual/design aspect and is currently a Professor of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photos courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

NickCave4

 

Anatomy For Sculptors

Anatomy For Sculptors 'Main landmarks of back of the torso'

https://www.anatomy4sculptors.com/

There are a great many figure reference sites out there, most having similar names, but this one struck me as one of the most organized and .. there’s no better word .. sensible! It concentrates on the fundamentals one needs to know rather than merely re-trawling from the vast sea of figure photos like the others do and it instructs mainly through diagrams, keeping text to the minimum. Because of this you need to study the visuals to understand what is being said, but that’s a great deal of the point .. and it’s well worth it! Some may find it a bit simplistic, and some may disagree with the choice of priorities, but I can say that these visuals have been useful for me and they have stuck in my memory while working.

Anatomy For Sculptors '3D scan of middle-aged woman'

I’ve always found 3D figure scans a particularly valuable source of reference and the site makes good use of these for some of its illustrations.

Technical Drawing for theatre designers

This is a new course which I plan to run for the first time in July 2015 at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and has been developed with the help of my old friend Gary Thorne, who is Head of Design there. As far as I know it’s the only course of its kind focusing on theatre design, and one of very few short courses dealing with technical drawing at all.

Here is my extended version of the course description for the ‘Courses’ section above, the original of which can be found on the booking page of the RADA website:

https://www.rada.ac.uk/courses/summer-courses/production-design/technical-drawing/course-overview

An intensive, practical, week-long course for those practicing or interested in theatre set design July 13-17 2015 Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Gower St, London WC1E 6ED

Technical drawing is a graphic ‘language’ which enables the clear and completely measurable description of three-dimensional structures in flat, printed form. Good, clear technical drawings are essential in the theatre design process. Not only are they necessary for the practical development of the design even in the early stages, and useful for costing at the ‘sketch’ model stage, but the workshops require them at the final stage for clarification of the model and proper realisation of the set. Good technical drawings are an asset within any designer’s portfolio and the practice of drawing stimulates and refines one’s ability to solve problems.

Technical drawing is much like driving a car .. fundamentally it involves more knowledge than skill, though it can be taken to skilful levels. It needs practise, but it can all be learnt! However, there are those who drive well and those who do it badly! Technical drawing is not difficult to do well .. you just have to know how and to continue practising it. The course is a thorough introduction to ‘how’, and we start with an understanding of the fundamentals including:

.. thinking and working in scale; planning and laying-out a drawing; the principles behind ‘orthographic projection’ i.e. choosing multiple viewpoints; using a drawing board and other tools

In the process we look at many of the details of good practice including:

.. labelling or annotating elements in the drawing; styles of lettering, writing measurements; what to include on ground-plans and sections; using recognized symbols and types of line; how to indicate moving parts; tips on easy geometry etc.

The course is aimed at those who come as novices and need a ‘jump start’ in the journey of learning or those already ‘en route’ but in need of a refresher. The week is intensive ..10.00 to 5.00 each day .. involving a lot of concentration, but each day balances the receiving of knowledge through prepared examples and demonstrations, with more hands-on practical exercises. Particular advantage is taken of the fact that RADA has three working theatre spaces to look at and compare with their technical ground-plans and sections. We also make use of RADA’s stock of student models to draw from, illustrating the close collaboration of drawing and model-making within the process.

Another special feature of the course is that you will practise using plain drawing boards and T-squares as opposed to parallel-motion boards. There are a number of good reasons for this: it gives a more effective training in the manual dexterity and mental organization required; it involves less ‘hardware’ maintenance; drawings are easier to keep clean; and finally, once managed, the drawing process can often become easier and more fluid.

All equipment and tools are provided by RADA, but participants are asked to bring their own 0.5mm mechanical pencils (HB and 3H) and a means of taking notes.

Making ‘white card models’ for film or television design

I have fully updated this article, which was originally written a few years ago, and I have added some more illustrations. This form of model-making is, I think, still proving itself invaluable despite increasing competition from the likes of SketchUp. I’m keeping it in the Methods section for the time being, though not sure whether it shouldn’t go with Technical Drawing.

The following aims to serve as an introduction to the purposes of the so-called ‘white card model’ in film/tv design work, what it should include, and the materials one can choose to make it. In the case of the materials and techniques recommended, it is really just an overview of possibilities and doesn’t go into full, step-by-step instruction on how to build. It is important to make the distinction right now between the ‘white card model’ meant in this case and the other case .. the exploratory, often rough and inexact, sometimes coloured, ‘sketch’ model which is often referred to by the same name, especially in the theatre. The ‘white card model’ of the present context is, in many ways, anything but rough and inexact and most often, due to its usual place in the chronology of design steps, it is no longer exploratory.

‘White card models’ explained

Although the film/tv production designer is free to use a wide variety of visual means in developing and recording a set design concept, including rough or ‘sketch’ models during the early stages, the so-called ‘white card model’ produced for the final stages conforms to very specific requirements. It is usually made once the design has been finalised, most often incorporating the detailed technical drawings created for the construction of the set. It is therefore quite literally a three-dimensional ‘blueprint’ of the intended design.

white card model

It is usually not a realistic, atmospheric rendition of what the set will look like, let alone how it will appear in the film. It may offer no information on colour, little on texture and materials, but all the most essential information on space, structure, movable elements and their practical implications. The designer may build a version earlier in the design process to test the design’s three-dimensionality ( to check general proportions, to better visualise filming possibilities etc.) but these things have usually all been worked out by the final stage and here the model made is more of a communicative device than a ‘testing’ tool. It serves as a communication to the whole film crew. It tells the director and the cinematographer exactly how much space there is for whatever action is required for a scene but also gives a summary idea of what will be seen behind it (this supports the value of creating technical drawings/model with some graphic indication of surface textures etc.). In addition it tells the cinematographer, and camera, sound or lighting crews, how much space there will be for equipment and whether any obstacles such as pillars, steps or levels need to be planned for. It gives an overview for the technical crew responsible for building and furnishing a set (or modifying an existing one) of how much work is required. It furnishes the financial administrators with the same overview to help them assess the costs.

The most common scale for this model is 1:50 (or the equivalent 1:48 if Imperial ..feet and inches.. is used). This is usually the scale in which the main technical ground-plans are drafted, and it is generally accepted that this is neither too small to show a significant amount of graphic detail nor to appreciate proportion in relation to the human figure. In any case models in a larger scale i.e.1:25 simply become too big to be manageable. Common types of card can be used, with the drawings spraymounted to them. These are then cut out and assembled to form 3D structures. The ‘rule’ is that anything which has a significant physical bearing on the set space (such as a pillar, steps, changes in floor level, opening doors, railings etc.) needs to be represented in 3D whereas anything which can be ignored from the point of view of space (such as shallow decoration or panelling, light curtains etc.) can be left flat as drawing. I always recommend that, at 1:50 scale at least, one can safely represent most things under 5cm deep (in reality) as flat drawing. 5cm amounts to a thickness of 1mm in a 1:50 scale model. On the other hand, anything protruding 5cm or more should be given that physical thickness in the model! For example a thin modern radiator could be just drawn whereas an older, more ‘bulky’ type really needs to be represented more physically in 3D (at the very least as a separate cutout which is stuck at the correct distance from the wall to convey the object’s total depth). Another common example is bookshelves, which also really do need to be shown in their proper depth however ‘fiddly’ this might seem. This is to ensure that there can be no misunderstandings about the exact spatial limitations of the set, which is of vital importance considering the amount of money in filming-time which such misunderstandings might cost.

One exception to the ‘5cm rule’ may be the floor area .. and this calls for the personal judgement of the designer/maker. In the case of the floor, even differences under 5cm could have a huge physical impact in terms of moving things around, so it would make sense to emphasize these physically in the model. It helps even more if the height indications included on the drawn ground-plan are kept visible .. another good reason for using the actual ground-plan, pasted to the baseboard.

There is always a margin left for personal judgement! Just as there is always room for the personal touch, to be a little bit more personal, creative or even .. aesthetic! .. in how one renders one’s own technical drawings (better still if it actually enhances rather than detracts from the communicative clarity of them!) the same should apply to the white card model. Showmanship may not be strictly necessary in practical terms .. but it can inspire!  Even this kind of model can be stylish as well as functional and, dependant on individual taste, ability and.. most importantly.. time, it can be embellished with graphic detail, structural finesse or effects designed to ‘sell’ the visual concept. Even at the later stages of design development it pays to be truly creative with the model, to be inventive with methods of representation or ‘simulation’. Such experimentation can directly pool into what I call our general ‘creative matrix’ as designers. I wouldn’t say that elements of colour are totally ‘banned’, but particularly here it is important not to upset the overall balance. Colour can become a distraction, giving visual weight to some elements to the detriment of a balanced overall view.

Edwina Camm white card model

Above is part of a white card model made by Edwina Camm for ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ an MA Production Design film project at Kingston. Edwina drew her original technical drawings this way .. little needed to be added to create this rich, convincing effect when used for the white card model.

There is another form of ‘white card model’ often used in film which I’d call ‘virtual’ or imaginary .. where a building, structure or even a whole landscape is constructed in precise dimensions even though it will never be physically built in its entirety. These are just as important to the production process because they make sense of how the various embodiments of the ‘set’ (whether CGI, built interiors, realistic physical models made for filming) are meant to fit together. I will be coming back to these later, but for the moment we are still concentrating on white card models for physically built sets.

There now follows a short list of the most significant individual points worth noting:

The base on which the model is mounted should be flat and stable i.e. secure enough to be a good support, not only when transporting the model but also for resting it down even where there are no totally free table-tops available. Production offices are often like this, and certainly studios or locations with sets in progress. Mountboard on its own is never enough! Generally 5mm foamboard will suffice for an A2 size model and 10mm foamboard for A1 and is often a better option than choosing heavier plywood or MDF! However if the foamboard is warped (and the cheaper polystyrene core foamboards often are) this must be first corrected by firm bracing on the underside. Another important extra precaution is protecting the baseboard corners against knocks (perhaps just by gluing triangles of mountboard on the top side). There’s nothing that transmits an impression of carelessness more than a lot of bashed corners! These may well become inevitable with a ‘working’, much-carried cardboard model, but just a little bit of extra strengthening can limit the damage. One needs a balanced attitude with respect to all this .. on the one hand caring about one’s professional appearance but on the other accepting that in a heavily populated working environment one can’t remain too ‘precious’!

White card model for 'Moon' 2009

Model in preparation for the build of the Sarang moon-station for the film ‘Moon’ 2009 on Shepperton Studios K-Stage. Often to save time, and if changes are anticipated, the white card model is mainly held together with pins .. unfortunately these models are always falling apart! Photo courtesy of Gavin Rothery.

The ground level (at least the visible set floor) should also be represented in white rather than bare wood if this is used. There should be a unity .. or rather, the word is homogeneity .. of colour and treatment throughout the model. But it should show very clearly where the floor is ‘the set’ and where it is not, so sometimes it makes sense for the ‘offstage’ to be differently coloured. Most often the master groundplan is used, spraymounted to the baseboard. If this groundplan is properly done, then (sometimes overlooked) elements such as scenery seen through windows will be automatically accounted for in the model. For obvious reasons even small ground surface elements or slight level changes will have an impact on how the space can be used, so these need to be physically represented in the model rather than just drawn. If you’re lucky, slight changes in level are easy to achieve just by layering different thicknesses of card on top of the baseboard. If you’re unlucky and part of the floor sinks below the common ‘0’ level, this is another good reason for using something like 10mm Kapa-line foamboard as a base. The section that sinks can be carefully cut out (a precision job with the scalpel), the paper can be peeled from the back of it and the foam sanded to make it thinner, and the section can then be glued back where it came from .. now a little sunk.

There should always be at least one scale figure included, simply as a familiar indication of scale. In my experience, as long as the essential proportions are right this figure should be as simply conveyed as possible and flat cut-out figures often look better in this context than 3D ones.

Practicals (i.e. working or moving elements) such as doors, shutters or removable parts need to work in the model, or at least be clearly indicated as movable. This should remain within reason ..for example, it is easy enough to half-way cut through card to make a working door but it would be unreasonable to expect a working roller-blind! In cases like this the simpler shortcut would be to make the model with the blinds open and make separate inserts to convey the effect of them down if this is necessary. Even in the simpler case of practical doors it may be better just to glue them ajar to show that they’re practical. Having to flip little bits of cardboard open in the model just to show that they open seems a bit unnecessary and could even be dangerous to the model if nerves are affecting one’s motor-control! It is often necessary to make parts of the model removable so that, especially, interiors can be better seen and to take better photos of these parts. This may directly reflect how the set will be built for filming in which case the so-called ‘floating’ walls will be indicated on the groundplan. Ceilings are a bit of a ‘grey area’ (i.e. often misunderstood) when it comes to the white card model. Strictly speaking if the walls of a studio set are going to be built to a certain height, even if that extends beyond what the camera will see, they should be built to that height in the model. Similarly if a ceiling exists in a used location it should be included, to make it clear where it is, even if the camera is going to avoid it. This would then need to be made detachable. When the ceiling becomes a feature of the design it should definitely be included, but again detachable.

Windows which are meant to be seen through (or any transparent surfaces) need to allow just that in the model, and need to be cut out, and also surfaced on the back with thin acetate to make it clear if they are going to be glazed (this for example is something both the lighting and sound crews will need to consider).

It is a common mistake to forget that something will be seen through a window, or an open door. If the set design has been conceived and developed largely on the drawing board it may be only at the ‘white card model’ stage that this is even considered! By then it may be too late for major alterations or to create more space for backdrops etc. Digital insertion via blue or green screen, or even old-style back projection, may solve a number of problems .. but these also should be planned for earlier in the design process. This is yet another solid argument for starting the physical model process early on, if only as rough ‘sketch’ version.

Edwina Camm white card model

Another example of the illustrative quality of white card models from Edwina Camm, also showing the importance of including the ceiling in this context.

If slender structures just as stair balusters or metal railings (although spatially flat) are left as blocked-in drawings they can create a false impression of space and often completely obscure the effect of the stairs. These are far better represented as cut-outs where humanly possible. An effective and often easier alternative however is to draw these structures with permanent ink on acetate sheet (but the acetate should ideally be matted to differentiate it from glazing).

There should be no short-cuts taken when representing steps, even long, regular flights of them (i.e. sometimes done by representing them as a flat card incline). This can be visually confusing. It is understandable because making them can be tedious, but ‘sandwiching’ foamboard or card to form the correct ‘riser’ (meaning the height of a step) and then simply layering these is one way of making construction much easier.

Should a ‘white card model’ stay white?

I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t consider pure white card to be the right medium at all when it comes to representing, or even just mocking up spaces. I think that at the very least off-white, beige or light-grey should be used because white is far too glaring .. it bounces the light within and around it like a pinball and consequently it gives a misleading impression of interior spaces! But it’s different when copies of the technical drawings are pasted to the surfaces .. there is less glare and, dependent on the style of drawing and the copier settings, often a variety of grey tones.

As I explained earlier, the effect should be monotone, rather than particularly white. The model can even be sprayed, as long as this doesn’t obscure the definition of the drawings.

SCALES AND SIZES

Since the white card model is commonly a pasted, 3D version of the technical drawings  one would assume that these dictate the scale of it .. but this is only partly true. As I’ve said 1:50 (or 1:48) is the most practical scale and the master ground-plans are often drawn in this scale. But the elevations (meaning the vertical faces of walls, structures etc.) may have to be drawn in a larger scale, such as 1:25, if there is a lot of detail. These drawings therefore have to be converted to 1:50 .. i.e. copied half-size.

Most people with some experience of working with scales would not have to think that long to arrive at ‘half-size’, or ‘50% reduction’ when thinking of the conversion from 1:25 to 1:50 .. it seems obvious. However, what if the elevations have been drawn in 1:20 scale and need to become 1:50? Less obvious, isn’t it? To solve this little mental problem we have to go back to ‘1:25 to 1:50′ and look at what we might have done. If we divide 25 into 50 we get ‘2’ .. if we then divide 2 into 100 we get ’50’. That’s the percentage reduction. So .. 20 into 50 gives us ‘2.5’ and 2.5 into 100 gives us ’40’ .. so this time it’s 40% reduction.

A common mix-up that arises when thinking or talking about models is between ‘scale’ and ‘size’. For example, a 1:50 scale model will be ‘smaller’ both in scale and physical size than the same structure modelled at 1:25 scale but the 1:50 version might sometimes be referred to as a ‘larger’ model because it enables a ‘larger’ area of the real thing to be modelled. To avoid the confusion one should make a habit of referring to ‘smaller’ or ‘larger’ only in terms of scale, i.e. a ‘larger’ model is one that is made to a larger scale even if it ends up a physically smaller portion of the whole. The scale 1:20 is a ‘larger’ scale than 1:25 but many people also get confused because, from the way it is written, it appears a smaller value. It may be a little easier when working with Imperial (feet and inches) and referring to ‘half- inch’ or ‘quarter-inch’ scales, more obviously decreasing in size.

By the way, another misunderstanding often arises when confusing dimension and surface area. For example, when asked to double the size of an A4 drawing many might think ‘A4 to A3’ but this, although doubling the surface area, is not doubling the dimensions. To double the dimensions you need to choose the next size up, i.e. A4 to A2.

Even if one has recently completed the technical drawings, before starting a 1:50 or a quarter-inch white card model .. or any scaled model .. one should take a moment to re-acquaint oneself properly with the scale again. One should, for example, look at how small a figure is (average male actor 1.75m high), how high a door might be (average 2m high), but just as importantly how thick a piece of card is needed to represent 5 or 10cm reasonably accurately.

white card model

Above is an illustrative ‘sample’ of white card model, simply made to convey a few of the typical things mentioned above .. and not outwardly expressing any aesthetic! However, it is clean and neat .. in other words the making of it looks cared about. One should never underestimate the importance of this! On the other hand the white card model works for a living .. it gets around, it’s handled and it gets worn at the edges .. so there’s no sense in getting too precious about it.

Wyeth style house

But, there’s nothing to say that the white card model can’t be dressed with some style! The model above was created by Patrick Scalise while a student at Wimbledon College of Art.

VIRTUAL WHITE CARD MODELS

This may seem like a contradiction in modern language but you’ll understand, it’s the best way of describing actual physical scale models made of buildings, structures or landscapes that are never going to exist in their entirety in real size .. but are treated as if they will! If you visit Warner Bros. ‘The Making of Harry Potter’ you’ll see a number of these, alongside other white card models for interiors and other large ‘props’ that were physically built.

Hogwart's white card model

Hogwarts was a very clever, highly complex and meticulously planned creation which brought together CGI, real locations, realistic physical models and full-size builds. This white card model is pivotal in giving the countless people involved a clear and immediate understanding of how each part is meant to go together.

 

MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES

Foamboard

White foamboard is one of the most common materials used as a structural basis for
these models, together with the thinner mountboard. It is light and very easy to cut, though quality and properties differ widely according to brand and price. Its main advantage is in combining ease of cutting with robustness (i.e. it maintains its straightness while still being soft) but its thickness can also be a bonus when defining proper walls (e.g. 5mm at 1:50 scale represents 25cm). It is manufactured in 3, 5 and 10mm thicknesses, though often only the 5mm is stocked in shops. Cheaper foamboards are filled with a relatively coarse-celled polystyrene which doesn’t stand up to solvent glues or spray-paints, whereas the foam interior in more expensive brands may be denser, giving a cleaner, more solid cut edge and perhaps a slightly more dent-resistant surface. The better brands will usually accept even PVA wood glue quite well for bonding. This is certainly true of the superior polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard which will accept even solvent glues such as UHU and spraypaints. Kapa-line remains straight even under humidity (other foamboards are often quickly warped) and it has the added advantage that the paper layers can be carefully peeled off, either to facilitate bending into curves or to use the foam on its own as a material.

Cutting
When cutting through card with a knife a slightly angled edge is inevitable however upright one tries to keep the blade. The thicker the foamboard the more pronounced this can become. This may not always be visible or matter, but better right-angled edges are needed when gluing two pieces together to make a corner. One possible way of solving this is by cutting just half way through on one side, taking the line carefully round (i.e. with a try square) to the other side and completing the cut in exactly the same place on this side. If the foam edge is uneven this can be gently sanded using a sanding block. In fact if one can use a right-angle sanding block gently enough any foamboard edge can be sanded clean and straight. The fuzzy burr of paper which develops along both sides can be removed by carefully ‘scuffing’ with the sanding block at a 45degree angle. Extra care needs to be taken while working with foamboard not to press down too firmly while steadying the sheet as finger-dents are very easy to get.

Joining
Strong PVA glue (always better to use the ‘wood glue’ type rather than the economy-style ‘school’ glue) will bond foam-to-card well but not instantly, so joints often have to be temporarily taped together with masking tape while setting. One should usually allow at least 15 minutes for this. An alternative ‘trick’ is to insert a few short lengths of double-sided tape along an edge to be glued so that these hold the card pieces temporarily but firmly together while the slower glue (alternating in between) is taking effect. Using a solvent glue such as UHU may be quicker, but it dissolves the foam in the standard brands so clean or effective gluing is not always guaranteed. Coating any foam edges first with slightly diluted PVA will solve this and when dry, UHU or sprays can be used on these edges, but it is rather laborious to go to this trouble.

Bending
Whether curved walls need to be made in either foamboard or mountboard the method is similar. The material needs to be cut half-way through in repeated parallel lines (as little as 2mm apart for a tight curve), making it more flexible. But the grooves only work for bending one way, so for example an ‘s’ curved wall has to be grooved in alternate positions on both sides for it to bend properly into an ‘s’. The walls can be surfaced with paper to hide the grooves, but the curve must be secured (in the right curve) before this is done (if done before it will stop it from bending) and it’s better to use permanent spraymount otherwise a thin paper covering will buckle badly.

Other methods include .. if the superior Kapa-line foamboard is used, the paper layer can be peeled off (either from one or both sides) making it much more bendable without having to score the surface. Perhaps an even easier alternative for achieving curving walls is to use a dense foam sheet such as Plastazote, which is spongy and very flexible, or a thin styrene plastic (see below).

I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the use of foamboard for these models. On the one hand a good, robust, polyurethane-core foamboard is invaluable as a lightweight baseboard .. but if a cheap polystyrene-core one is used it is liable to warp badly over time and ends up showing every finger impression! This is also the problem when using foamboard for wall construction. It has to be handled very carefully, and unless one has taken the trouble to practise with the material for a while before trying to cut clean edges or door/window openings .. it just doesn’t look good! It’s true that it can be a massive time-saver in terms of representing appropriate wall thicknesses, as mentioned earlier. I would suggest you use it sparingly until you’ve mastered how to achieve perfectly clean, straight cuts.

White mountboard

It is essential to have white mountboard (or equivalent white card between 1-2mm thick) i.e white on both sides rather than white/black. Otherwise, the model can become chequered with distracting areas of black. In any case white mountboard tends to be cheaper and some brands are softer to cut. As with foamboard there are many similar brands of white card with a standard mountboard thickness (c. 1.4mm, or 1400microns as it’s sometimes written) and these will vary greatly in hardness and quality. Matte is definitely better to choose (there are some semi-glossy types), and avoid white card which has a noticeable layering inside (a bit like plywood) because this is likely to be the toughest to cut! The same is true generally of ‘greyboard’ or recycled grey or brown cardboard which is hard and full of gritty particles.  Most of the softer forms, such as the standard Daler-Rowney mountboard sold in A1 size sheets are fine for perhaps most of the work ..walls or simple cut-outs.. but unsuitable for more delicate structures such as railings for example, because they are too thick in scale and will break apart if cut too thin.

Cutting
As a general rule when cutting anything by hand with a knife it is always better to take things carefully and slowly. There is never any advantage in being able to cut right through in one go even if that is relatively easy. A straighter, more right-angled and
cleaner cut is almost always achieved by starting carefully with a very light guiding cut and following through a few times, increasing the pressure gradually. As with all straight cutting, it should be done against a flat metal ruler (non-slip, or with masking tape along
the underside to make it so) and positioned so that the main light source is falling into the cutting edge, so that the marked line is not obscured by shadow. It is surprising how many people who might in other respects be very able with their hands find it quite difficult to cut a straight, clean line. From my experience of witnessing people trying to cut a straight line (must be easily in the thousands by now!) I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem lies in not properly ‘feeling’ the straight edge of the ruler enough to stick with it. It may really be this simple! The best advice I can give (apart from the points above) is to spend a little time getting acquainted just with what it feels like to press the scalpel blade firmly against a metal edge and move along evenly. It may also help to say that the scalpel blade is ‘meant to’ bend a little with the pressure of being pushed against the ruler and that if it doesn’t its always liable to wander.

Gluing
White Pva glue is always the best and cleanest option when gluing almost anything porous, like cardboard. Strong Pva (a.k.a wood glue, such as ‘Evo-stik wood’) invariably gives stronger and cleaner joins and a good quality Pva can be surprisingly quick. When gluing edges the PVA must be used sparingly (and excess wiped off) for the quickest results on card. Especially if two larger pieces are being laminated (i.e. glued surface-to-surface) only spots of glue are needed to hold them firmly in place otherwise the water-based glue will cause warping if spread on too liberally.

If .. for whatever reasons of your own .. you prefer to use UHU, you must be able to control it! Unfortunately the UHU tube nozzle, the consistency of the glue and the way it comes out, are not designed for really precise control .. such as is needed when trying to apply the glue to a thin edge of card for example. Some practise is needed first. One tip is that if you want UHU to stick firmly more immediately .. almost as superglue does .. you have to apply the glue and position the piece down as you normally would, pressing firmly, but then lift it up again just a few millimetres. This will ‘string’ the glue slightly, and when you press the piece down again the bond will already be much firmer and will not need supporting.

Thinner white card

It is essential, if you want to keep in scale, to have recourse to something thinner than mountboard but still strong enough to stand up on its own if need be. It also helps if this card doesn’t fragment (divide into layers) so easily when finely cut. Usually the thin white card sold in art shops is not labelled by thickness but according to its weight per square metre. College shops in the UK tend to stock inexpensive thin white card from the art supply firm Seawhite in 200, 300 or 600gsm weights. The 300gsm is roughly 0.5mm thick and the 600gsm 1mm thick. These are quite strong, but also suitable for delicate cutting.

1:48 scale model for 'Boardwalk Empire' 2010

The 1/4 inch (1:48) scale white card model for ‘Boardwalk Empire’ not only fully clarified the space but also communicated much of the ‘look’ due to the inclusion of the signage. Courtesy HBO ‘Boardwalk Empire: Designing an Empire’.

Stencil card

This type of card is also known as ‘oiled manilla’ and is meant for making very fine-cut stencil shapes. The manilla card has been impregnated with linseed oil which prevents it from fraying or breaking so easily. This treatment also gives it a slightly waxy composition, making it easier to cut and ensuring a very sharp edge. Although it is by far the best for intricate work .. especially to convey repeated balusters, railings, delicate window frameworks etc .. it is not ideal for strictly ‘white card’ models because of its warm ochre colour. If used it needs to be covered, sprayed or painted .. unless the whole model becomes a similar colour! Although it contains oil it can be painted with water-based paints or glued using Pva quite easily. It will not warp as much as other types of card when painted. However, if it is used and needs to be made white I would recommend spraying it first with Simoniz white acrylic primer. This won’t eliminate all the colour, but most of it, and more importantly it will seal the surface so that once the primer is dry after a few hours, more water-based whitener such as white acrylic or gesso can be applied without the structures warping.

More about what’s achievable with oiled manilla can be found in Working with stencil card which is under ‘constructing’ in the Materials section.

Acetate

Thin acetate sheet is the most available clear plastic to use for representing window glass. At 1:50-1:20 scale this doesn’t need to be very thick and usually the slightly stiffer version of two commonly sold as A4/A3 sheets in graphics or copy shops (for writing or printing on to use for overhead projection) will remain flat enough.

Cutting
Acetate cuts easily with a scalpel but if need be thicker sheets can be scored and snapped cleanly. If scored lightly then bent on the score line it will stay together as corner, which is useful if trying to represent a glass construction without the messiness of having to glue edges. One can’t mark on acetate with a normal pencil so either the shape to be cut needs to be drawn on paper and used as a template underneath or the surface covered with masking tape and lines marked out on that.

Gluing
If gluing becomes necessary i.e. for attaching to the backs of window frames, small strips of double-sided tape are much cleaner than glue. Superglue for example will ‘fog’ acetate around the area glued while both the ‘cement’ intended for plastics and UHU tend to be difficult to control. A third alternative (but only if gluing acetate to another plastic such as styrene) is the thin plastic solvent available for melt-gluing a range of plastics (e.g. ‘Plastic Weld’ or ‘Extrufix’) which has to be brushed onto a joint from outside. This is generally much cleaner because any excess solvent will evaporate

Plastazote

This is a flexible foam (halfway between hard foam and ‘cushion’ foam) which is available in many thicknesses, densities and colours. Most people will be familiar with the similar, brightly coloured ‘hobbyfoam’ sheets for children which usually range between 1-3mm thickness. The material may also be familiar from exercise or camping mats. Although very soft it can be cut quite cleanly with a sharp scalpel though it can’t be sanded. At an appropriate thickness it can be ideal for curving walls for example, or even for building up a run of curving steps.

Gluing
Plastazote cannot be glued with Pva and even UHU may not be strong enough. A rubber contact adhesive such as ‘Evo-Stik Impact’ will be needed. This has to be lightly applied to both sides, left for a few minutes and then pressed together (UHU can sometimes be used as a contact adhesive in the same way). This has to be done carefully because there is no chance of repositioning. Some brands of this type of foam glue very readily with superglue.

Styrofoam, expanded polystyrene and PU foam

For some structures to be represented it’s easier and quicker to make solid blocks rather than having to construct boxes from a sheet material. Since white card models
don’t necessarily need to be permanent, these light, easily-worked, so-called ‘rigid’ foams may be an option. Styrofoam may be familiar as the light blue sheets (although styrofoam comes in other colours according to different grades or densities) made for wall insulation and commonly used in theatre and film workshops as a rapid carving material. Styrofoam is very finely-celled so it sands very well without crumbling .. using a sanding block it’s possible to get smooth, sharp-edged shapes fairly easily. But styrofoam is of particular benefit for achieving curved, streamlined or organic forms. Regular acrylic or acrylic gesso are best to use for painting it white, since spray paints will dissolve the surface. For more on how to shape styrofoam, including concave as well as convex forms, see my article Shaping styrofoam under ‘shaping’ in the Materials section.

Expanded polystyrene is basically the same substance but formed differently and the cells are much larger. This is made only in white and will be most familiar as hardware packaging material and ceiling tiles etc. This common ‘expanded polystyrene’ is often shortened to ‘EPS’ whereas styrofoam is officially ‘XPS’ meaning extruded polystyrene.

Polyurethane foam .. often referred to as ‘PU foam’ .. is usually found in white or beige, and is often a harder, denser rigid sheet foam than the others. It will resist the solvents in glues and spray-paints, though these will still work well to bond or cover it. Rigid PU foam is mainly available from suppliers of resins and fibreglass materials. But, nearer to home perhaps, some regular foamboards are made with a polyurethane core rather than polystyrene and the paper coverings are easy to peel off cleanly to use the smooth foam as a constructional or shaping material. Examples are Kapa-line foamboard and London Graphic Centre’s Premier Polyboard.

Cutting
These foams are very easy to cut with a knife (or hot wire cutter, except PU foam) and both styrofoam and PU foam can be sanded effortlessly to a smooth, sharp finish even for very small forms. This is not the case with polystyrene because of its much larger cell structure. These tend to break up or can’t be sanded down below a certain size. All can be cut on a band saw, but failing this the best way to ensure a straight cut right through is (as with thick foamboard) to start cutting half way through on one side, take the line round and complete from the other side. Neither a scalpel nor Stanley knife will go very deep so often a sharp penknife, fruit knife or serrated bread knife will serve better. The rough edge produced can easily be sanded smooth with coarse sandpaper on a sanding block.

Gluing
Whereas PU foam is not affected by solvents and can be glued quite effectively with UHU, contact adhesives or even superglue, styrofoam and polystyrene require special ‘foam friendly’ glues such as ‘UHU Por’ or solvent free (I recently found that Gorilla Glue will also work very well since it is polyurethane). Strong Pva wood glue should work with all though takes a lot longer to set. Often it is much easier to tack foam pieces together with double-sided tape which, if pressed together hard enough, will often hold just as well as gluing. Another form of glue which styrofoam seems to accept is spraymount, especially effective if sprayed lightly on both surfaces like a contact adhesive.

Foamed Pvc and styrene

Although foamed Pvc sheet is not so easily obtainable (at least not from art shops) it has excellent properties, being somewhat easier to cut than even some forms of card while remaining much more durable and resistant to warping. The thinnest gauge (1mm) is ideal for delicate cut-outs such as windows and railings. The best brand of foamed Pvc for this kind of work is ‘Palight’, which is one of the smoothest and softest to cut ( or the similar ‘Palfoam’ which is even softer and supposed to be cheaper). Usually the minimum quantity one can order is an 8x4ft sheet (1220x2440mm) which can be quickly delivered, but if one accepts this the price of 1mm or 2mm Palight can work out cheaper than most forms of cardboard. A good online source for ordering/delivery is Bay Plastics www.plasticstockist.com (the 1-2mm white foamed Pvc included in the online catalogue is the cheaper ‘Palfoam’ rather than Palight). Recently though the 4D modelshop in London have started stocking 1mm and 2mm Palight in small (300x600mm) pieces, ideal if you just want to try out a small amount first.

Another plastic, styrene, is also available in sheet form but much thinner (down to 0.25mm) and is also often more suitable than card for slender cut-outs but is denser and harder to cut than the foamed Pvc. Both will allow a certain amount of bending. They are both used extensively in architectural model-making in place of card or wood and are obtainable either from specialist model-making shops such as 4D modelshop or suppliers of plastics (such as Abplas in London).

Gluing
Superglue works very well on both plastics for a quick, strong bond but working with superglue is a practised art because there is no time for repositioning before the glue takes. An alternative when working with these plastics (also generally a much cleaner one) is to use a plastic solvent such as ‘Plastic Weld’. Different from the usual gluing process, the pieces to be glued have to be set up firmly in position first and the solvent is then brushed into the join. Only a little is needed, which is drawn into the joint by ‘capillary action’. There it melts the plastic surfaces and effectively fuses the two pieces
of plastic together. Any excess solvent outside the joint quickly evaporates resulting in a very clean joint. ‘Plastic Weld’ (as with other brands of dichloromethane solvent) works best on styrene plastics but in tests I found that it did work on the foamed Pvc though it took longer to set. If this doesn’t take, the ‘gluing from outside’ method will work just as easily with thin superglue.

For more information on working with Palight foamed Pvc together with illustrative examples click on ‘Palight’ brand foamed Pvc under ‘constructing’ in the Materials section.

I maintain an up-to-date record of the best or most convenient places to get these special materials in Updated sources/prices of specific materials which can be found in the Suppliers section.