‘Contemporary Living’ at Christie’s South Kensington – Part 1

 

Miniature exhibits and 'push tools' from the interactive model 'The Patron's House' exhibited at Christie's during 'First Open' April 2017

I have just finished work on a particularly interesting, rewarding .. and of course demanding! .. piece commissioned by the London gallery The New Craftsmen for a showing of their artists’ work in conjunction with pieces from the Johannesburg based Southern Guild and items from Christie’s contemporary collection. The ‘exhibition’ .. along with my miniature, interactive version of it .. will be briefly open to the public at Christie’s South Kensington under the title ‘Contemporary Living’  from April 1-4 before the auction process starts. So yes, it opened already yesterday .. but it’s public tomorrow from 9.00 – 17.00 and on Tuesday 9.00 – 17.00, continuing 18.00 – 20.30 .. admission free!

The idea was to include a playful, dollshouse-related, interactive model within a showing of applied craftsmanship and artist/designer furniture .. so that visitors can actually rearrange the exhibits according to their own preferences. ‘The Patron’s House’, as it’s titled in the show, is really a more simplified, ‘toyed with’ version of the exhibition space, but opened out to allow more access.

'The Patron's House' Contemporary Living at Christies, April 2017

'The Patron's House' David Neat, Contemporary Living at Christie's, April 2017

The work had to be done relatively quickly .. there were more than forty individual objects and, within the realm of the model, each piece had to have its own plinth. This was mainly for practical reasons, so that the pieces can be moved around without harming the delicate models. From the beginning we felt that the plinths should be somehow decorated .. stark white plinths may often be the safest option in real-space, but the model needed something more playful. In the end I opted for a mixture of patterned, plain white and veneer-clad plinths. Another thing that was clear to us from the beginning was that there needed to be some juggling with the scale of the objects themselves .. so that the smaller objects could retain enough presence in competition with the larger. This is a feature of traditional dollshouses .. whether intentional or not. I chanced upon the idea of making ‘positional rakes’ similar to those used by a croupier, because participants needed to be given more ‘reach’ .. we couldn’t do away with the three main walls because the ‘paintings’ would need them, so the model could only be comfortably accessed from one end.

'The Patron's House' David Neat, Contemporary Living at Christie's, April 2017

'The Patron's House' David Neat, Contemporary Living at Christie's, April 2017

I had the chance to take photos of the individual model pieces while they were still in my studio, so I’m presenting them here followed by the photos of the real-life pieces I’d been using as reference. I often only had one publicity photo to work from plus outline dimensions, though The New Craftsmen provided a thorough series including details and good ‘white balance’, which helped a lot when trying to assess true colours or identifying materials. Nevertheless with many of the objects I had to settle for a reasonable ‘overall suggestion’ or sometimes even a ‘playful variation’ on the essential look. This was just as well because it was perhaps inevitable that the galleries had to make some mid-term changes to the exhibits, meaning that what arrived was a different version of what I’d been working on. For each object I’ve also included some notes on the materials and the processes I used, some of which I developed specially for this work.

Conrad Hicks

Conrad Hicks 'Implement Table' and 'Copper Chaise', Southern Guild, models by David Neat

Conrad Hicks 'Implement Table', Southern Guild, model by David Neat

South African Conrad Hicks works principally with forged metals, in these cases copper and iron. I had to use real copper sheet to achieve the look but the verdigris is just an acrylic paint job. After experimenting with a few different scaled thicknesses of copper before it would behave, I finally spraymounted two of the thinnest together to combine the right strength with easy bending. I didn’t have to beat it! .. the texture was easily done with an embossing tool. Deciding what to use for the iron frameworks was difficult at first, but in the end cutting out shapes in 3mm black Palight ( foamed Pvc ) proved the best solution. Below are the photos I was referencing for Conrad Hicks Copper Chaise and Implement Table, both forged copper and iron, courtesy of Southern Guild.

Conrad Hicks 'Copper Chaise', Southern Guild

Conrad Hicks 'Implement Table', Southern Guild

I wanted the plinth decoration throughout the range of objects to be as noticeable but also as subtle as possible .. and I wanted it to last, and not get dirty from handling. I wanted colour and pattern to ’emerge’ from the surface .. so neither direct painting nor pasting paper prints would do! I also wanted the pattern to fade out smoothly at the top, otherwise it would clash too much with the objects. In the end I found that inkjet printing 100micron clear transparency film with found pattern images and gluing inked side down to the plinth Pvc with strong spraymount ( Photomount or Craftmount ) did a perfect job! To be safe I let the printed sheets dry for a day before using (the ink takes much longer to dry on acetate). I also needed to prepare special strip portions of the pattern images first, using the Graduated Filter in Paint Shop Pro to fade each strip at the top. Once applied and trimmed, I ‘silked’ the surface of the film to take away the gloss with fine abrasive cloth.

Sebastian Cox

Sebastian Cox 'Scorched Shake Sideboard', model by David Neat

Sebastian Cox 'Scorched Table', model by David Neat

The British furniture maker Sebastian Cox, represented by The New Craftsman, uses traditional woods .. specialising in coppiced timber and self-managed woodland .. but often subjects them to a very controlled surface scorching resulting in a deep black. For both his sideboard and large table I found again that black Palight worked best of all because I could vary the surface effects from a slight-sheen sanding for the sideboard to a deeper matte graining on the table. For the front doors of the sideboard, which in reality are composed of cleft ‘shakes’ .. a form of shingle traditional to Japan .. I had to texturise thin strips of 1mm white Palight, apply them, then paint them with matte black Humbrol enamel. I dry-brushed with a slightly lighter acrylic to further emphasize the texture. I felt that the table needed a simpler, veneered plinth .. in this case oak sealed with water-based ‘satin’ varnish. Below is the real-life Scorched Shake Sideboard, but since the table was a new work there is no proper photo as yet ( courtesy The New Craftsmen and Gareth Hacker Photography ).

Sebastian Cox 'Scorched Shake Sideboard', courtesy The New Craftsmen and Gareth Hacker Photography

Dokter and Misses

Dokter and Misses 'Kassena Isibheque', model by David Neat

Dokter and Misses are not a married couple in spite of what the name might imply, but a multi-disciplinary Johannesburg design company of more than two. One of their special ‘Editions’ .. as different from their ‘Products’ .. is their ‘Kassena’ collection, a unique looking range of robust wooden cabinets which are all hand-painted, inspired by the painted adobe structures of the Kassena people from the border region of Ghana. These cabinets contain drawers which are almost hidden apart from tell-tale hand slots .. because my time was limited I had to sacrifice this feature. For the same reason and also because of the minuteness of the scale I had to simplify the geometric patterning (which does actually represent texts in an indigenous writing system) and resort to Letraset to create an effect. Below is the original, hand-painted solid beech wood Kassena Isibheqe, courtesy of Southern Guild.

Dokter and Misses 'Kassena Isibheqe', Southern Guild

Bristol Weaving Mill

Bristol Weaving Mill, Rag Rugs ('Blue Ombre' and 'Yellow & grey'), models by David Neat

Also represented here by The New Craftsmen, BWM had two rag rugs in the show made by Juliet Bailey, one of the directors. In the model I mounted these either side of a freestanding plinthed wall piece. For the first time I felt I was using my usual recommendation to use painted sandpaper for carpets to good effect! I painted a very coarse sandpaper white first then detailed the colours in matte acrylic. Below is one of the two originals, the Yellow & grey courtesy of The New Craftsmen.

Bristol Weaving Mill, rag rug 'Yellow & grey', The New Craftsmen

Mock Mock

Mock Mock (Pieter Henning) 'Stone Tables', model by David Neat

Pieter Henning’s design label Mock Mock produces, amongst other things, simple combinations of copper and stone of which these ‘tables’ are an example. Henning comes from the Klein Karoo valley in South Africa. I didn’t stand a hope of bending and soldering flat metal strips at this scale so I cut the slender shapes from thin styrene sheet, combining with discs of thicker Pvc.

Detail of Pieter Henning's 'Stone Tables' for Mock Mock, models by David Neat

To suggest the coloured stone or marble patterns I started with a generalised base colour, then stippled spots of lighter acrylic using a piece of reticulated foam. Tissuing this before the paint was properly dry created a more natural and varied effect. The copper is simulated with Humbrol metallic enamel. Below are the items Southern Guild originally intended to send .. the ones which arrived were significantly different, not as colourful though of the same type. In a sense this didn’t matter .. it became part of the models separate and playful existence.

Pieter Henning 'Stone Tables' for Mock Mock, Southern Guild

Gareth Neal and Kevin Gauld

Gareth Neal & Kevin Gauld 'Brodgar Bench', model by David Neat

The ‘Brodgar Bench’ featured on the left above was designed by London-based designer Gareth Neal and made by Orkney chair maker Kevin Gauld. The model needed to be mainly wood, nothing else would have been right .. in the end I used a combination of obeche, limewood and bamboo for strength. For the woven straw back I resisted trying any woven fabric, fearing a fibrous mess .. so ended up engraving the weave pattern in 1mm Palight (to the right is a day-bed from Louisa Loakes & William Waterhouse which will feature separately in Part 2). Below, the original Brodgar Bench, oak with woven straw back. Courtesy of The New Craftsmen

Gareth Neal and Kevin Gauld 'The Brodgar Bench', The New Craftsmen

Jesse Ede

Jesse Ede 'Lunar Bench', model by David Neat

Lastly for this part, another very different form of bench from the South African Jesse Ede. Most of the original was cast in recycled aluminium, making use of the rough, pitted texture .. so Humbrol ‘silver’ enamel with a little sand mixed in simulated this perfectly. The distinctive slate shard was easiest to model in polymer clay then paint using my ‘open foam print’ technique. The photo of the Lunar Bench in recycled aluminium and Malmesbury slate is courtesy of Southern Guild. The photos illustrate how one needs to be wary of foreshortening when judging photos .. my proportions are fairly accurate!

Jesse Ede 'Lunar Bench', Southern Guild

 



 

 

 

Where to look for ready-made forms

I’ve compiled a new page List of sources for ready-made forms which I’ve put in the Materials section under ‘shaping’. If you’ve ever searched for something just the right size for puppet eyeballs, wondered whether you can get mini ‘taxidermy’ domes or whether there’s maybe a ‘magic’ way of making model bottles, you may appreciate this list and some of the tips included. I’ve copied the introduction and a short extract from the list here.

inside 4D modelshop, London

There are many instances where being able to take advantage of a pre-formed shape could not only save a lot of time but also opens up exciting possibilities .. promoting the work beyond one’s technical means. But often the thought of having to take the ‘time out’ to hunt down the right something is a dissuader, as is the notion that somehow using something ready-made is a bit of a cheat! I started this list originally to encourage myself to make more use of the ‘ready-made’ by having a quicker overview, but also because whenever I came across useful ‘things’ I never knew where to note them down for the future.

I’ve tried to divide the list into categories as far as possible, so here is the ‘Table of Contents’:

Discs especially small, in various materials; Domes flattened or semi-circular, whether thin/hollow or solid, including taller display domes; Spheres or balls whether hollow or solid; Ovals in 3D; Wheels and cogs; Teardrop shapes; Cones mainly solid; Straight dowels, rods, cylinders i.e. solid, circular in cross-section; Small rigid tube mainly plastics and metals; Larger round tubes including cardboard and plumbing supplies; Patterned rod or tubing because there are some; Curved or bendable rods, flexible tubing to include foams, Pvc and silicone, cable supplies; Rings; Trumpets, funnels etc; Eggs wooden or polystyrene; Blocks  ‘off the shelf’ and lastly Other forms for the rest.

Each section is organised by supplier and the underlined product titles are from the online catalogues so you can find them more easily in searches. The fact that this wording is sometimes specific and unpredictable is the reason why I’ve bothered to make a separate list in the first place .. after all, one could just do a Google search as/when needed .. but unless one uses many different search words some possibilities would always be missed! Prices were last updated in May 2016, all adjusted to include VAT. I haven’t just listed the cheapest, rather those suppliers who seem to offer the most useful range. If you have anything to add to the list your suggestions will be welcome!

 

Trumpets, funnels, ‘bottle’ shapes and superglue dosers

Heatshrink tubing or ‘sleeving’ is made from polyolefin plastic ( i.e. polyethylene, polypropylene ) and commonly used in electronics/electrics for wire insulation or bundling. It shrinks uniformly when heated with a heat gun, usually in the ratio 2:1 meaning it becomes half as small. It comes in different diameters and the clear versions are ideal for making small-scale ‘bottles’. Finer heatshrink tubing also makes very good ‘dosers’ for superglue work, to attach around the existing nozzle if more precision is needed (Poundland includes a few already in their packs of superglue bottles). I should note though that you will need a heat gun (preferably a small one) to shrink the tube uniformly as shown below.

clear-heat-shrink

www.cablecraft.co.uk

Easi-Shrink’ Heatshrink Sleeving available in small diameters 1.2 – 6.4mm, and bigger sizes up to 100mm. 3.2mm diameter is ideal for 1:25 scale bottles (since these are commonly 8-9cm wide). Price for clear 3.2mm £0.83 per metre.

heat-shrink tubing

www.e-deala.co.uk

1ml or 3ml pipettes e.g £10.99 for 500 3ml pipettes

1ml and 3ml pipettes

I’ve included these because there are sections that can be cut to make reasonably good model bottles (from the thinner 1ml) or glasses depending on the scale you need. Bear in mind that this polyethylene plastic is never ‘glass’ clear, it has a slight frosting.

www.modelshop.co.uk

Plastic funnel set 50, 75, 100 and 120mm diameter £1.85

plastic funnel set

www.partypacks.co.uk

Plastic party glasses are a good source of shapes, but online suppliers don’t usually list measurements except capacity in ml.

Clear Brights Plastic Champagne Flutes’ 148ml (like image but clear, uncoloured) £4.14 pack of 10

plastic flutes

 

New Blades 2015

For another year running I was so thankful that I didn’t miss the single, ever-so-brief chance last Thursday 11th to see New Blades 2015 the annual model makers recruitment fair at the Holborn Studios in London. In actual fact this was amazingly the 23rd year running and this unique event is organised each year by 4D modelshop on behalf of the colleges, featuring the work of graduating students from model making or special effects courses throughout the UK ( go to the end for more info on the colleges and courses ).

I have rather ambivalent feelings towards the terms ‘model’ and even more so ‘model maker’. Personally I cringe inwardly when I’m referred to as a ‘model maker’ because I feel it instantly reduces me to a fraction of what I am or what I’m involved with .. and judging by the quality, depth and variety of much of the work on show at New Blades 2015 I think the graduates deserve to feel the same! But however much I might dislike the term because of how little it’s understood ..seeing the show makes me very proud to be considered a ‘model maker’ too!

I’ve tried to include photos here of the work that most impressed or interested me this year, but I’ve also included work from past years which I felt was indicative of New Blades as a whole. Unfortunately, since there are no catalogues or online records of the exhibits, I was limited in the choice of photos and only had the names of the exhibitors, but no work titles or other info..

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015

From this year’s show above work from Thomas Hughes and below from Alex Brooker

Alex Brooker, New Blades 2015

This is not really a ‘review’ of New Blades 2015, just some thoughts on what I saw and on the regular institution the show has become over the years, because I feel that something so special deserves wider attention. The students, their tutors, the colleges and the organisers could do with more feedback, in spite of the show being very well attended during the brief time it was on.

But wider publicity is more for the benefit of the public than the contributors. There is work here that would not be seen anywhere else .. at least not so close and personal. Each year the chance comes along to focus on the type of painstaking, practical work that contributes so much to our media experiences .. if actors are venerated, almost worshipped by some, for igniting our imaginations why not the objects created too?

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015. Tiger mask

Also from this year above from Imogen Nagle and below from David Patterson

David Patterson, New Blades 2015

This is a great deal more than a ‘model making’ show .. it is a roller-coaster ride through some of the finest, most entertaining, most inspiring examples of physical making! It is a show about passion, dedication .. and breathtaking skill! At times it’s very difficult to connect the works on view with the young, hopeful people standing next to them during the ‘Industry Night’. The quality of many of the objects suggests more years of experience .. many years of practise and an ‘old school’ attention to detail. What comes across from the show as a whole is that the passion and dedication are so obviously shared by everyone involved with it .. the organisers, the tutors, the industry professionals and the commercial sponsors.

How can this rather diminutive word ‘model’ begin to do justice to the serious quality and vast range of the work produced. In this context the word has to embrace prosthetics, costumes, ‘cosplay’ artifacts, theatre and film props, puppets, animation sets, automatons, animatronics, character portraiture, creature design, architectural models, product design, museum and exhibition displays, sculpture, fine engineering and bespoke furniture.

Stephanie Bolduc, New Blades 2015. Still from 'Manoman'

Above still from Stephanie Bolduc’s short film ‘Manoman’ and below work from Alexandra Poulson, both from this year’s show

Alexandra Poulson, New Blades 2015

Below work from Matthew Cooper 2014

Matthew Cooper, New Blades 2014

Joanne Harvey, New Blades 2014

Above costume work from Joanne Harvey 2014 and below Ollie Knights from the same year

Ollie Knights, New Blades 2014

Perhaps the general tag of ‘model’ is not so bad in some respects though .. it is like a little signpost pointing to the ‘hands-on’, the physical and practical. Unlike some Degree shows objects are always centre-stage here, and partly because of that each show is packed with immediate focuses of interest .. but never feels cluttered!

'please touch' New Blades 2013

The roller-coaster experience may be a little unkind to the architectural or product models exhibited .. I always feel a bit sorry for them! They need a quiet zone of contemplation. They are often beautifully made, faultless, and they certainly have their devotees amongst the audience .. I would say the same for the custom vehicles .. but they’re not so likely to get the ‘popular wow’ vote.

Henry Welch, New Blades 2015

Above Henry Welch from this year and below Petre Craciun from 2014

Petre Craciun, New Blades 2014

Below Ollie Knights 2014

Ollie Knights, New Blades 2014

There are however prizes awarded in a number of categories, including ‘Best Architectural Model’ ( awarded in 2014 to Petre Craciun, above ). We all like being acknowledged ourselves and it’s difficult not to be moved when we witness the acknowledgement of someone we believe deserves it, but I feel that the prize-givings are more just a part of the entertainment. With so much variety, so much choice .. it can never be completely ‘fair’ .. I’d estimate a good 25% of the achievements in New Blades deserve the same accolade each year!

Speaking of choice .. in terms of subjects and treatments I’m guessing that students don’t have a completely free choice as to where or how to focus their efforts. If they want to get work these choices are conditioned by the market and tutors would be failing the students if they didn’t equip them to satisfy it and guide them towards it. So bearing this mind there’s always a surprising measure of individuality and innovation .. I’m just not sure that I want to see another Incredible Hulk, Elephant Man or Dobby the House Elf. I feel that no matter what skill or sensitivity is shown it’s getting hard to remain inspired by them.

Skilled makers don’t necessarily have to be innovators, or have great or original ideas, but in New Blades 2015 as in previous years there was no shortage of ‘special’!

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015

Above another piece from Thomas Hughes this year and below from ‘S.B’ 2013

S.B, New Blades 2013

Below another piece this year from Imogen Nagle, ‘Herman the merman’

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015 'Herman the merman'

The show also offers the unique opportunity to learn something about the making processes. As one comes to expect from design/practical Degree shows there are many portfolios to browse through which include detailed records of the designing and making process. What distinguishes New Blades in this respect compared to other Degree shows I visit is that many of the students really do take this aspect of ‘record keeping’ seriously .. as an integral part of their work. Often the work-in-progress photos are not merely snapshots, but carefully balanced and crafted works in themselves! I think this reflects the increasing importance of Internet presence, but also perhaps the increasing popularity of ‘making ofs’ as part of the entertainment.

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015 'Herman the merman' sculpt

Above ‘Herman’ sculpt from Imogen Nagle and below the ‘space bulldog’ maquette in progress from Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015. Space bulldog maquette in progress

But I feel one of the most important inspirations from this exhibition within the current climate is that much of the best work emphasizes the value of ‘fusion’ .. the discerning use of digital help and the perfect fusion of traditional hand-work and machine-enabled. Faced nowadays with a greatly expanded toolbox, ‘model-makers’ have to become expert ‘choosers’.

Rujie Li, New Blades 2015

Also from this year above Rujie Li and below Jack White

Jack White, New Blades 2015

It may be wrong to take perfection or absolute realism as benchmarks for judging the physical work .. one has to accept that if the work is destined for the screen it could undergo further transformation. Considering the fusion of practical and digital methods currently prevailing it may not make economic sense for a physical object to contain every nuance .. it may be quicker, easier and cheaper to add refinements digitally. On the other hand I’m guessing that the students are nevertheless encouraged to put as much as possible into the physical rendition. I was very glad that the exhibition gave the physical objects centre-stage, and that there seemed to be very few monitors or laptops around!

This year’s students haven’t exactly been ‘quick off the mark’ in getting their portfolios online, part of the reason why I’ve used examples from past years as much as from the present to illustrate the range and standards achieved. If you like what you see, you can see more work from this year’s or previous exhibitions at

https://www.flickr.com/photos/newblades/albums/

.. and go to the 4D modelshop website from May onwards next year to see when the next New Blades will take place.

There’s only one single and major fault with this show .. that it’s not on for longer, at least long enough for more of the public at large to appreciate what it offers! It’s always brief, but this year was extremely so. It’s a big ask in London though! It must cost a lot to stage it even for a couple of days and all money made goes towards the costs.

University of Hertfordshire, Character and creative effects

Above work from the University of Hertfordshire website

The colleges and courses

If you’re not a film/tv industry insider you may struggle to understand what is meant by ‘visual effects’ as opposed to ‘special effects’ .. and it’s even a little more complicated when it comes to courses! Course options are changing in accordance with constantly evolving territories. For example University of Hertfordshire offers three ‘Model Design’ BA choices .. ‘Character and Creative Effects’, ‘Model Effects’ and ‘Special Effects’. Arts University Bournemouth offers one comprehensive BA in ‘Modelmaking’. University of Bolton runs a BDes in ‘Special Effects for Film & TV’. University for the Creative Arts entitles their BA ‘Creative Arts for Theatre and Film’ and City of Glasgow College offers an HND in ‘3D Design: Model Making for the Creative Industries’.

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A quick guide to soldering brass

materials and tools for soldering

I’ve finally managed to update my guide to soldering in the Methods section and I’ve now included photos. Some of these come from my book Model-making: Materials and Methods from 2008 and were taken by Astrid Baerndal. This guide focuses on soldering small constructions, rather than the more common electrical soldering which almost all of the info you’ll find on the subject deals with. As you will see, ‘constructional’ soldering involves some differences in method; the materials are different and quite often stronger tools are needed. For the moment I’ve confined this guide to simple soldering ‘on the flat’ and more advanced methods of assembling 3D constructions will follow.

What is soldering useful for?

For model forms which are too thin to make to proper scale in other materials such as card, wood or plastic .. for example metal bed frames or railings. Occasionally, for bendable metal armatures ..e.g. for figures or trees .. allowing for some careful repositioning. Soldering does not give nearly as strong a bond as welding, and the joints can’t be put under much stress, but there is no reason why properly soldered items shouldn’t last for a long time if cared for.

Most of my teaching work focuses on making 1:25 scale models .. so 0.8mm round brass rod is a convenient thickness for representing slender railings or special items such as the brass bed frame shown below. This bed frame is mainly 0.8mm, but with 1mm at the corners. Most of the 40W soldering irons I’ve tried have had just enough heat output to manage thicker rods .. up to 2mm, the size of standard scaffolding at 1:25 scale.

soldered brass bed frame on drawing

What metals can be soldered?

One of the reasons why I’m updating my soldering info now is that I’ve discovered some new things which call into question what I’ve always been told .. that brass is the only easy option, or at least the most reliable one. I still agree that brass could be the most consistent and the least complicated .. followed by copper, if it’s thin. These are also the two most available from craft or hobby shops in wire, rod or thin sheet form. But I have found ‘gold’ paperclips  to be just as easy and I always assumed this was due to a brass coating ..now I’m not so sure that’s the reason. For example I recently tried silver paperclips, with the same results! I’m looking into other possibilities at the moment and I will update the info here once I’m sure of it. I also found that the ‘welded wire mesh’ commonly available nowadays solders very well .. when I know I tried it years ago with little success! This common mesh is galvanised steel i.e. steel which has been coated with zinc. Apparently paperclips are also made of galvanised steel as a rule, so there may be a connection here.

The simple answer for the moment is that brass is guaranteed to work well, it’s available and reasonably cheap. Other metals such as aluminium or regular steel can be soldered, but require special solder and flux and may need stronger equipment. But if you really want to know what else is possible, just give it a go ..and let me know what you find out!

How soldering works

The metal parts to be joined are heated with the tip of the iron so that they will be hot enough to melt the soft metal solder applied to them. It is important for a lasting joint that the metal itself melts the solder in this way rather than melting solder onto the iron tip and transferring to the joint because this will achieve only a very weak attachment. One could think of it as a form of ‘hot-melt’ gluing, but using a low-melt metal in place of glue sticks and where the material itself has to melt the glue.

soldering in progress

In the photo above I’ve placed the tip of the soldering iron so that it’s touching both pieces of brass rod and as close to the joint as possible. Once this area is hot enough the end of the solder wire just needs to be touched into the joint and a little of it should instantly melt. The iron should be kept in place just long enough to allow the now liquid solder to infiltrate the joint properly .. i.e. not just covering the top but also running to the other side.

If you’re familiar with ‘constructional’ soldering you may ask why there’s something important missing from the above setup .. there’s no sign of any flux applied to the joint. This was purely a demonstration setup and the iron wasn’t even on .. I wanted the joints and the position of the soldering tip to show as clearly as possible. I’ll explain the importance of flux a little further on.

What is needed to do it?

See the end section for recommendations on specific makes, suppliers and price-guidance for the following list:

A soldering iron of at least 30W strength .. 40W better! .. preferably with a flat ‘chisel’ like tip, known as the bit. This means one can press down for maximum contact with the metal surfaces. However, the majority of soldering irons available are supplied with round ‘pencil’ like bits. As some of the older photos here will show, a standard ‘pencil’ bit will work if the iron has a strong enough wattage to generate enough heat, but over the years I’ve found that a flat bit can help a lot more especially when soldering thicker rods! You will also find that the majority of soldering irons on offer are too weak to tackle metal of any thickness beyond a small fraction of a millimetre .. because most are designed for soldering fine circuit connections. These don’t need to be strong .. they’re commonly around 18-25W. A higher wattage such as 40W doesn’t necessarily mean that the iron will reach higher temperatures .. just that it will have more strength to sustain the heat needed for longer. This is important since thicker pieces of metal will conduct the heat away very quickly.

All this makes the search for the right soldering iron and the price options just a little more involved .. but unfortunately there are further things to look out for. Look at the three irons compared below:

At the top is my old Draper model K40P .. 40W/240V .. which came with a ‘chisel’ bit and has worked very reliably for many years now. Notice the screw head at the end of the shaft which means that the soldering bit can be easily extended or removed just by loosening it. The bit supplied with the Draper is about twice as long as what you can see sticking out, which means that there’s plenty to extend as it wears away. Underneath is the iron from the ‘Parkside Soldering Station’, a cheap offer from Lidl a couple of years ago and a peculiar 48W! This iron works reasonably well in terms of heat output and the integrated stand makes it comfortable to use .. but .. the soldering bit is the ‘screw in’ type, and very short .. so short that it’s impossible to press the bit flat against metal without the shaft getting in the way. Unfortunately a rather careless design .. making it useless if you need any control! The third iron shown is a 40W/220V from Silverline, who make fairly inexpensive but often reliable tools. This comes with a ‘pencil’ bit, which is not the best to have .. but the heat output is good, the shaft is slender, and the bit supplied can be extended (the locking screw is not visible in this photo) for more control. This has worked reasonably well so far during our soldering workshops.

soldering bits compared

The type below could also be a good option .. although angled bits are not very common. I found this ‘unbranded’ iron in a £-shop and it has worked very well for a number of years. Perhaps it goes without saying though .. one does need to be extra cautious when using cheap, unbranded electrical goods! Really, if you don’t know how to test the electrical safety or know someone who can, it’s safer to leave well alone!

unbranded soldering iron from a pound-shop

To sum up .. get a recognised brand 40W iron with a relatively slender shaft, a ‘chisel’ bit and/or the option of changing easily by means of a simple screw-locking mechanism, and you can’t go wrong! If possible check that the bit provided is long enough to be extended if need be.

A stand (sometimes supplied with the iron) is essential, both to hold the hot point off the work surface when not in use and to secure the tool in one position on the table. Unfortunately the flimsy sheet-metal ‘stands’ most often supplied never manage the latter! There seems to have been a fairly universal agreement that soldering irons should all have just a little over 1.3 metres of rather inflexible cord . This is not long enough to allow the soldering iron to stay on a work-table without some pull from the cord, unless one has a handy power socket ‘kitchen style’ at worktop height. In short .. the iron will move around a lot, independent of one’s awareness or control, which is worrying considering it can inflict a lot of pain! There’s a cheap solution, shown below, which is to tape whatever ‘stand’ you have to the table. Here I’ve improvised a perfectly adequate stand out of welded wire mesh.

improvised soldering iron stand made from welded wire mesh

Or a more elegant solution is to buy a separate stand unit. This one below is from Antex and costs around £6 .. more on prices later. These stands are weighted, and usually have a sponge attached which must be dampened if used for wiping the iron while working.

Antex soldering iron stand

Solder A soft metal alloy wire which melts on contact with heat to form the ‘glue’ which makes the bond. Up to recent times the standard type was 60%tin-40%lead but now there are many lead-free alloys available. Also common now are ‘multicore’ solders with built-in flux. But I have to say honestly that I’ve had consistently better results over the years using an old-fashioned tin/lead solder and a separate flux.

Flux A liquid or paste which is applied to the joint just prior to soldering and which assists the solder to fuse properly with the metal by preventing the metal surface from oxidising. The flux evaporates as soon as the metal gets hot.

Steel wool or fine emery paper/cloth to clean the metal before soldering. It will be easier to wipe rods clean with fine-gauge steel wool but emery or ‘wet/dry’ paper will also work.

A damp sponge, steel wool or metal files to clean the soldering bit while working. This needs to be done once the iron is hot, but it is not enough just to do it once at the beginning of a session. The hot bit of the iron will blacken again within a minute, so to prevent build-up of this oxidation the cleaning needs to be repeated at least each time the iron is picked up again. This has nothing to do with cleanliness! .. a thick layer of oxidation will prevent much of the heat transferring from the bit to the brass.

Kapa-line foamboard or heavy card on which to mount the template drawing

Caution note: Kapa-line (polyurethane) foamboard is suggested because it is a perfect insulator (will not conduct heat away from the metal) and polyurethane foam resists heat to an extent. Standard (polystyrene) foamboard is not suitable .. this melts too easily! If soldering is done properly the paper covering on the Kapa-line foamboard will scorch but there is little danger of fire or burning of the foam. However, proper care must always be taken! Over almost 10 years of conducting workshops we have experienced nothing more than routine paper scorching .. but this is partly because we, and the people taking part, have always been vigilant! Soldering irons must never be left on when not in use for long periods and must be kept well away from flammable materials.

Spraymount for mounting the drawn template onto the foamboard. I normally use the permanent ‘PhotoMount’ version from 3M.

Masking tape for fixing cut metal to template. The tape will normally resist the heat sufficiently to secure pieces while soldering but the glue softens and in cases where extra time is taken or areas redone these fixings can become very loose and may need to be replaced. Understandably ‘Sellotape’ is not an option because it will melt!

Scalpel (adequate to nick a groove thin brass) or hacksaw for thicker rods. I keep some old scalpel blades for this and I’ve found nicking/snapping brass rod up to 2mm diameter fairly easy.

Also pliers, wire snippers and metal files .. as/when needed.

A workplace with good ventilation! This is essential if you are using a traditional tin/lead solder. In addition, flux will burn off in the process and the fumes can be harmful if allowed to build up or stay around.

Detergent to thoroughly clean work afterwards. The flux component is corrosive and it will continue to eat the metal away if left.

Step-by-step

Draw up the form to be soldered on paper ( I recommend drawing 1:10 first then reducing 40% for 1:25 if working in this small scale ). Copy this and spraymount to foamboard or flat card. This will be the soldering template. I’ve designed the one below so that I can make use of the curved parts of paper clips.

copy of drawing spraymounted to foamboard as soldering template

Clean metal thoroughly with steel wool before cutting small lengths, even if the rod is newly-bought. Brass rod is given a coating to stop it tarnishing too quickly, and this will interfere with the adhesion of the solder if it’s left on. Rubbing with a fine steel wool is the most convenient method, though ‘wet/dry’ or emery cloth will also work.

cleaning brass rod with steel wool

Cut metal pieces to fit and use thin strips of masking tape to secure them in place on the template. Metal edges must fit to touch, so that heat travels. Luckily thin brass rod is surprisingly easy to cut with a scalpel .. just by carefully rolling the blade across it to make a fine groove and then snapping! With this method one can be very precise as to where one cuts. A small metal file such as the one below will be useful for making fine adjustments to the lengths if need be.

pieces of brass being assembled on a railing template

Usually, and especially in the case of railings, quite a number of pieces are needed which have to be precisely the same length .. because most often they have to fit between two horizontals. The best method of achieving this is to make a ‘cutting jig’ .. an ‘L’ shaped piece of card or plastic which serves as a guide for the scalpel blade as shown below.

using a guide to help cutting pieces of brass the same length

Switch the iron on and allow to heat up for a few minutes. Make sure that the iron ‘bit’ (the tip that gets hot) is clean. If not, wipe on damp sponge or steel wool, or use metal file. Some model-makers recommend ‘tinning’ the iron at this point (dipping the very end of the bit in flux and then applying a little solder to it). This may help the heat-flow to the metal if there are problems, but it may not be necessary.

applying flux to a joint

I use a small, old paintbrush to put a little of the flux (whether paste or liquid) onto the joint. I prefer to do this one joint at a time, because if more are fluxed in close proximity the flux on these will evaporate as the first joint is being heated. It may not matter .. it’s just become a habit.

After applying the flux touch the soldering iron bit as near as possible next to the joint, trying to touch both (or at least more than one) of the metal parts. Hold there for a few seconds .. a good initial sign is if the flux immediately start to smoke, meaning that the brass is getting hot enough. If nothing appears to happen try adjusting the angle of the iron for better contact but don’t take the iron away! With the other hand gently touch the solder wire to the joint. A little solder should melt fairly instantly and hopefully run into the joint. Use as little as possible ..though this will take some practise! Some patience may be needed to hold the iron relentlessly in place, or fine-tune the angle, until the solder decides to melt. It’s actually very difficult to describe exactly what leads to a ‘successful’ soldered joint in every case. It has to be tried, and if something works, looks right and feels strong ..you’ll establish a ‘feeling’ for what you did to achieve it after some trial-and-error and a lot of repetition!

soldering in progress

When all joints are done the work can be removed from the template almost immediately .. fine-gauge pieces like this will cool very quickly. The work should then be cleaned carefully ( either with warm running water, toothbrush and detergent .. or the dry method, using steel wool ) to remove remaining flux. If left on this will continue to eat away at the metal.

portion of soldered brass railing cleaned up

I was fairly happy with this result .. I’d managed to keep the bits of brass rod reasonably straight while soldering them. I did have to work on this piece a bit though, apart from thoroughly cleaning up with steel wool. It can often be very difficult to be as minimal as one would like with the solder, and a number of the joints were far too ‘swollen’ looking. Solder is so soft that it can be shaved away with the tip of a scalpel blade, or one can use needle files like the one above to remove the excess. Soldering ‘kits’ often have a desoldering pump thrown in, which is like a spring-loaded syringe. The idea is that excess solder can be quickly sucked away while it is still liquid. I’ve yet to try one of these myself ..mainly because at that point I don’t want to risk knocking the brass pieces out of alignment!

Why is brass the easiest to work with?

Brass is an alloy ..in this case a mixture of copper and zinc. The zinc gives brass a tougher surface and more rigidity than copper, but also makes it less malleable, more brittle. Brass rod is strong enough to maintain its shape and straightness well, but soft enough to be easily cut with hand-tools. For these reasons it is one of the most available metals in a wide variety of fine-scale forms. Copper is softer and can be worked even more easily, but rods of around 1mm thickness would deform too easily and have much less structural rigidity. In addition, copper is an excellent conductor, which means that standard soldering irons would struggle to keep up with the constant heat loss from the joint area.

closeup of different soldering joints

Above is a close-up showing three common types of joint. .. spot, lap and butt..! Underneath are two small pieces of very thin ..0.1mm.. brass sheet which have been attached by melting spots of solder. To the right is the simple form which I have illustrated so far, where two straight pieces just ‘butt’ against each other. Below to the left is the strongest form of joint, where a small length of one piece runs against or ‘overlaps’ the other.

Troubleshooting

If the solder is not melting freely on contact with the heated joint or running off in little beads it can mean that either: ..it may be the wrong kind of solder; the joint is not fluxed or there is not enough; the iron may not be hot enough yet, or strong enough for the work; the bit may need cleaning; the tip shape is not making enough contact or close enough to both pieces of metal …

If all else fails assist the heat-flow either by ‘tinning’ the iron as some recommend or touching the iron tip practically over the joint, melting solder directly on the tip to fall on the joint.

An alternative method

As I’ve suggested, it can be very difficult to keep the pieces of brass exactly where they should be because the masking tape loosens a little as the metal gets hot. If the solder melts and fills the joint quickly this is no problem, but for the various reasons listed this often takes longer. The photo below illustrates a method which I’m far happier with, and which produces far better looking results .. but it’s only worth spending the extra time if the set-up is to be used more than once.

a soldering jig created for a ladder form in brass

For this soldering jig I’ve used some tough ‘greyboard’, a recycled cardboard, of the same thickness as the 1mm rod chosen for the ladder form. I’ve cut and glued a complete template of it onto another cardboard base so that the individual brass pieces lie snuggly in these slots.  I’ve used this jig about 4 times so far and I don’t see why it shouldn’t last for more.

 

Selected suppliers and prices

Brass rod always in straight lengths, never as roll. Cheaper in 1m lengths rather than 300mm. e.g. 4D prices for 1m lengths (April 2015) 0.8mm £0.79, 1mm £0.98, 2mm £1.25

An alternative source is EMA Model Supplies .. for 91cm lengths 0.8mm £0.67, 1.6mm £1.27 .. but choice of thicknesses is very limited.

Solder Silverline 60:40 Tin/Lead Solder (4D £1.80 per 20g, available £4.00 per 100g) works very well! Melting point 183-190C.

Flux

The ‘grease’ type flux I always provide when teaching has always worked well, but I’ve had it for so long that the original container started to disintegrate .. so I don’t know the brand anymore! But one I’ve heard as good is La-Co Regular Soldering Flux Paste available from Screwfix £5.39 per 125g .. for use with copper, brass, lead and zinc.

http://www.screwfix.com/p/la-co-lac-22195-flux-paste-with-brush-in-cap-125g/61072#product_additional_details_container

Another one recognised as reliable is Fluxite Soldering Paste, suitable for copper and brass .. actually most metals other than aluminium (although other metals would require different solders) and can be used with either lead or lead-free solders.

http://www.fernox.com/products/traditional+plumbing+products/solder+and+fluxes/fluxite

On Amazon c.£10 for 100g tin and about the same from Jewson’s. Maplin just stocks the 450g tins for some reason, enough to last a few lifetimes!

Soldering Iron

SolderCraft 40W-230V (supplied with 5mm diameter chisel bit, stand and manual. 4D £20.99) Separate bits available £3.80. Around £18 on Amazon (with chisel bit) ..

From AllElectricRC http://www.allelectricrc.co.uk/ this will cost £13.59 but supplied with a pencil bit .. still worth it ordering an additional chisel bit (AllElectric doesn’t have them)

Draper 71417 40W-230V on Amazon £15.95 (picture shows chisel bit, so I hope it is)

Draper K40P 40W-240V soldering iron

B&Q stocks a 40W soldering iron for £12.85 which looks almost identical to the old Draper model I have, above, and has a ‘chisel’ bit according to the product photos. This should be fine if it has been assembled with enough care.

Bench Stand Silverline brand, 4D £3.65 well worth getting (Antex shown in photo around £6) £5 from Maplin ..

 

See also

David Neat Model-making: Materials and Methods Chapter 4: Working with Metals

C+L Finescale. – go to the ‘Knowledge Centre’ for concise notes on materials and methods, including a chart advising on what solder and flux to use for different metals

http://www.finescale.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=27&Itemid=2

4D Modelshop – a basic guide to soft soldering

http://modelshop.co.uk/Content/DynamicMedia/cms-uploaded/files/4D_guide-soldering.pdf

The Basic Soldering Guide http://www.epemag.wimborne.co.uk/solderfaq.htm – this is written for its specific use in electronics but much of the advice applies.

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.

Does foamed PVC have a grain?

Although this question will not be of much value to most people, it is certainly of interest to those few .. like myself .. who work with this material. The answer is .. yes, it does .. and this has a significant bearing on how one can get the best out of it! I have to confess that even though I’ve been using it for years, I’ve never properly realised this until now. There’s hardly any visible indication and although I had noticed at times that cutting in one direction seemed slightly harder than another I didn’t attribute a cause. I’d always assumed that sheet plastics just don’t have a ‘grain’, or rather a directional difference, because of the way they’re made and this would be especially so with foamed materials. In all these years I’ve never noticed any reference to a ‘grain’ in any of the product information available .. until now.

I should point out that I’m going on the basis of the tests I’ve made with the brand I use, which is Palight and Palfoam foamed Pvc manufactured by Palram. But I’m assuming that the manufacturing process for foamed Pvc will differ very little between the various brands even though there is often a difference in hardness. After looking more closely at the manufacturer’s documents available for download, I found this tucked away in some notes entitled ‘Installation’:

‘Palight is manufactured as an extruded foam PVC product with a directional grain running the entire length of the sheet. This manufacturing process gives Palight greater flexural strength in the direction of the extrusion. The grain of the Palight should always be installed perpendicular to the fastening point.’

In other words if a thin strip is cut along the direction of the grain this will have more rigidity than the same strip cut at a right-angle to it or ‘against’ the grain .. just like wood! To test this, amongst other things, I first had to find a way of recognising the grain direction, because as I’ve said .. it’s hardly noticeable when looking at the surface or the cut edges! If you hold a piece of Palight up to the light (better still a light that’s glancing the surface) and look at it closely, then rotate the piece 90° and look again, you may just about discern a faint direction of surface texture in one of these views. Another test involves making an indented line with a metal point, such as an embossing tool, a nail or a compass. Along the grain progress will be fairly smooth and hardly make any sound, whereas against the grain there will be a higher, scratchy sound and the surface will resist a bit more. A third test just involves cutting a strip, and is perhaps more noticeable in the thicker versions of Palight. I tested with squares of 1mm, 2mm and 5mm Palight, cutting strips just 5mm wide, first along one edge of the square and then the other. I made sure to keep my exertion with the knife roughly the same, and I found that I consistently needed a couple more strokes to cut against the grain. These strips were also noticeably more bendable than those cut along the grain.

So, I’ve already implied the possible advantages of utilising the grain direction and I’m guessing that the following will apply to all thicknesses .. having tested 1mm, 2mm and 5mm with the same results.  Thin structures will be stronger if the grain follows their length, and they will also be easier to cut! If strips are intended to be bent, this will be easier if they’re cut at a right-angle to or ‘against’ the grain. Finally, and as I’ve illustrated in my page ‘Palight’ brand foamed Pvc under constructing in the Materials section, Palight can be scraped with sandpaper to simulate a wood-grain surface and this will be easier following the actual grain of the plastic. Pvc can also be embossed, ideally using a smooth-pointed embossing tool, and a slightly different quality of line is produced either with or against the grain. You’ll have to try it out, to see which you prefer.

How to refurbish a cutting mat

A cutting mat should only be used to cut on and not as a general work-surface for all sorts of other things such as gluing and painting. I try to say this to everyone I’m teaching .. and I try to remind myself of it whenever I’m working. Even the slightest spots of paint can contribute to diminishing the purpose of the cutting mat, because it’s not just table surfaces that cutting mats are supposed to protect .. it’s also us! The surface of the cutting mat is designed to grip, so that when for example one’s pressing down firmly on something while cutting it, it’s less likely to slip around. If that happens it not only makes it difficult to cut cleanly .. it also makes it dangerous!

But the practical fact is that it’s often a real bother to take the cutting mat away every time one’s finished cutting something. Few of us have the luxury of large workspaces where separate ‘stations’ can be reserved for separate tasks. Usually everything gets done in the same tight table space, the one where the light is best .. and the cutting mat gradually becomes a playing-field for just about everything involved. If we accept that the cutting mat needs to stay put, a better way of cleaning needs to be found.

I’ve tried various ways of cleaning cutting mats in the past .. scrubbing with detergent, scraping with paint scrapers or razor blades .. but none have been that effective. There is certainly no way of removing superglue from the rubber with a knife-blade without damaging the surface. But recently I tried a different approach, and it worked surprisingly well!

cutting mat with superglue

Above is a portion of a cutting mat with a dribbling of superglue .. very common! Unless it is wiped immediately from the surface superglue will set to a rock-hard mass. But superglue is brittle .. one reason why it never lasts if it has to fill even the slightest gap .. and although near impossible to carve into, the surface can be easily broken down by abrasion. It only takes a couple of minutes .. below is the same portion of cutting mat sanded, using first a coarse (60 grit) sandpaper to break down the raised parts and then a finer (120 grit) one to finish the surface.

cutting mat sanded

This will only work properly if the sandpaper is mounted on blocks, such as the ones I make shown below, which will give the abrasive surface maximum strength and also ensure that sanding remains flat and even. If careful, even most of the printed grid can be preserved and the slightly roughened surface actually enhances the cutting mat’s grip.

sanding blocks 60 and 120 grit

Another thing that can very easily happen to a cutting mat is that it can warp .. but only with heat! I can remember, when we used to get a consistent run of hot days, if a cutting mat had been left on a studio window-sill it would end up permanently warped .. no amount of bending or leaving flattened down under heavy books would alter this. Unfortunately this is the end of the story! I’ve tried laying cutting mats in hot water, or laying newspaper on top and ironing them .. they can’t be flattened again. I’m assuming this is because cutting mats are composed of bonded layers, with a tougher interior layer. Heat causes the top layer to expand but the interior layer is less affected, and the top layer does not contract properly again on cooling. On the other hand cutting mats can take a lot of physical bending without any permanent harm i.e. if bending them makes transportation easier I’ve always found that they’ll lie completely flat after about half an hour.

But here’s an alternative idea for making the working situation easier! When I first started out I remember that I invested in the largest cutting mat I could find .. A1 size .. thinking that I would then be prepared for any eventuality. On the diagonal the maximum cutting length is a little over a metre. But I rarely had the free space to use this without a time-consuming clearup! Over the years I’ve acquired at least one of every size of cutting mat, starting with A5, and by default now I use the smallest one I can get away with for the job I’m doing. If I’m suddenly faced with having to cut a much longer line I’ve found it more practical just to place two A3 cutting mats on end, giving a maximum reach of up to 940mm on the diagonal with a little margin. I also keep one very small, A5, cutting mat purely for fine or intricate cutting. Even after a lot of use the surface looks hardly touched, because it’s not subjected to much pressure, so I can rely on it to remain the best support for delicate work.