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.

Freelance model-makers in the UK

To those of you who’ve contributed to my list of freelance model-makers .. many thanks for your exceptional patience! It’s taken me an eternity to put together what I have been given so far .. not because it’s that much, but because of so many other commitments. I’ve now put it up under Model-makers in the main menu. It’s a small beginning .. and I hope that a range of other makers will offer their details in time .. but there is already some fine work to see there!

It’s not my intention to compete with other valuable resources, such as 4D modelshop’s list of freelancers http://modelshop.co.uk/Static/Freelancers This is well-known, long- established and effective .. I usually get a few calls a month on the basis of this .. but here I just wanted to give beginners or devotees a chance alongside more experienced makers.

I’ve chosen to list everyone very simply .. giving their location, telephone and email contact, and their portfolio website for more of their work. I’ve selected just one representative image per person, in agreement with them.

Here are a few examples, such as Zepur Agopyan’s 1:6 scale violin and case ..

Zepur Agopyan

.. or Machiko Weston’s 1:50 scale house for The Rocky Horror Show tour designed by David Farley

Machiko Weston

.. or the Lamb Burger from Jessica Dance, photographed by David Sykes.

Jessica Dance

If you’d like to be included in this list, you’re welcome to send me your details so that I can look at your work. My main purpose in putting this list together was so that I could refer clients to a range of makers who may be able to help them .. I get many offers of work which I am unable to manage .. and I have already been able to forward a number of opportunities.

 

Basic architectural models in ‘Kraft board’

I am about to do some sessions in basic model-making for 3rd year architecture students at London South Bank University. What follows is a version of the session notes together with photos of the practical examples, and some step-by-step demonstrations of how to work with the material. This is intended as a point of reference for the students afterwards and it may repeat information given elsewhere on this site.

Models are by default ‘looked down upon’ because of their size! They can provide an instant overview, with the precision of a groundplan in three dimensions .. they flatter us with a ‘god’s eye view’, and one needs to be reminded that this viewpoint is an artificial one. For example in theatre design this is can lead to design problems .. at normal table height the designer working on the model has an Upper Circle view of the stage most of the time. But in architecture one could argue that viewpoint is less of a consideration anyway, because in this context models are never meant to be realistic simulations and it would in any case require an impossibly huge model to reproduce anything like a pedestrian’s experience of the building. For reproducing these impressions, and to preview and rehearse the organization of interiors, digital simulation may be far better suited. But even though our relationship with the card model is very removed from the one we would have with the real building, it’s also very direct .. because of its real physicality. It’s made of material .. just as we are. It needs to be handled with care because it’s vulnerable. It responds to changes of light through the window or to the shadows cast by people moving around it. It’s physicality can even be enhanced by imperfections, to a certain degree, because we’ve come to expect them in physical things.

For the first session I’ve chosen to focus on working almost entirely with ‘Kraft board’, which I feel is a very honest, unpretentious and direct material. As I’ve implied my emphasis is also on small-scale ‘massing’ models, concentrating on essential form rather than detail, serving as preliminary or idea-development models within the process. These models are more than private sketches .. they are meant to present the status of ideas so far, to communicate them to others in a clear, controlled and deliberate way. The keyword here is deliberate! Although the work may still be in progress and not yet finalised, the statements made by the model should look valued, cared for, sufficiently thought about .. in other words, deliberated. On the other hand, there should still be a feeling of ‘sketch’ .. using a fine material for this would impose a false sense of finality. So the object is to achieve a model which looks presentable and reasonably sure of itself, but also still open to discussion and without having cost a lot of time, money or effort. ‘Kraft board’ lends itself very well in this respect, because although it is structurally very strong and easy to cut cleanly, surfaces and edges retain a typically raw and recycled look. Cut edges cannot be made to look 100% smooth and detail is difficult beyond a certain level .. both of which can actually support the general aim.

architectural model

I’m assuming you probably don’t know what I mean by ‘Kraft board’. It’s unlikely that you do, because it’s the name given by the one supplier I know, Seawhite of Brighton, to a very thin form of brown, recycled cardboard which is made up of thin layers and corrugated on the inside. The outside is smooth and firm, but matt and untreated (different from the usual, thicker form of corrugated cardboard used universally, which has a very slight sheen). In the packaging industry card which is composed of one corrugated layer enclosed within a surface layer on both sides is known as single wall board and one of the thinnest is made to a 1/16th of an inch. I’m guessing this is the ‘Kraft board’ that’s available from Seawhite because this is, as close as I can measure, a little under 2mm. I had thought that the name was just a quaint variation on ‘craft’ implying that the board was for general-purpose creative uses, but it turns out that the ‘Kraft process’ is the name of an established method of wood-pulping which produces a particularly tough paper and ‘Kraft’, given by the German inventor of the process, denotes ‘strength’.

Kraft board

The main characteristics of ‘Kraft board’

In the first place it is one of the cheapest forms of card I’ve found. At University of the Arts London shops it costs £1.15 for an A1 sheet. Seawhite only normally supplies wholesale but they have a selling website www.artesaver.co.uk where a box of 25 A1 sheets will cost £24.80. Seawhite also supplies Cass Arts in London so it’s possible that it can also be found at those stores.

As I’ve said, the surface is typical for recycled card .. very matt, even slightly dusty in look, and grainy, with the odd larger speck here and there. The overall colour, a light coffee-brown, is very uniform (not mottled or patchy) and consistent from one sheet to another. There is no visible distinction between ‘front’ and ‘back’ of a sheet. Against the light the surface shows a slight roughness, like ‘sugar paper’, but surprisingly the internal corrugations aren’t visible even under glancing light. The surface picks up grease from the fingers quickly and visibly, because it’s unsealed and very absorbent. It may be a matter of opinion as to whether this matters, but if you want to keep the material as clean-looking as possible while working you’ll need to wear cotton gloves.

No exact thickness is provided by the supplier, but 10 pieces tightly pressed together come to 18.5mm thick, so for structural and scale purposes one can take the thickness to be c.1.85mm. Being hollow it is easy to cut through cleanly, though as one would expect cutting is much easier and smoother along the direction of the corrugations. Contrary to what one would expect though, the card seems to stay just as rigid in both directions so one doesn’t necessarily have to choose to cut in a particular direction for stability. It’s also very firmly bonded internally, so for example even very thin strips stay straight and intact. In fact, for something that’s basically just a hollow construction of heavy paper, ‘Kraft board’ maintains both its rigidity and coherence incredibly well!

kraft board

How to work with it

Because the surface is speckled it can be easy to lose pencil marks made for cutting, so I would recommend circling them lightly, as shown below. After cutting, these can be removed with a soft eraser.

marking out for cutting

Despite appearing soft and easy to cut with a scalpel, ‘Kraft board’ is deceptive. The paper itself is very tough and needs a sharp point to cut it cleanly. The hard fibres in it will also blunt the tip of the blade very quickly. It would be senseless, and expensive, to replace the blade that often .. but sharpening just the tip on a piece of 800-1,000 grit wet/dry paper as shown will help.

sharpening a scalpel

I always recommend patient cutting, i.e. starting with gentle passes and not trying to cut through in one go, but this is particularly important with ‘Kraft board’ otherwise the edge will compress or parts of the paper might tear. For more advice on marking out and cutting generally, see ‘Main construction’ in Methods /- Making realistic models.

The following sequence of photos shows the steps, techniques and additional tools recommended for making a simple ‘box’ form, i.e. a building block comprising roof and walls. Although this is the simplest possible exercise, it illustrates many of the basics of effective construction with this material. The first advice is that, since the model is mostly viewed from above, roofs assume more significance so the overall look will be cleaner if these are complete and without seams (i.e. walls stuck underneath them rather than around). I’ve found that generally the cleaner way to build this type of model is the opposite of real construction .. building from the top downwards.

simple blocks

I’d also recommend that the walls should be cut with the corrugation running from top to bottom, so that the corner seams are less obtrusive. The distinctive ‘zigzag’ patterned edge that occurs when cutting in the other direction cannot be completely avoided in the model .. and can sometimes be used to good effect! .. but it can at least be controlled with a little thought.

In the photo below, the top piece has been cut together with a much longer piece for the sides, long enough for all four. This ensures that all four walls will be exactly the same height and that the box will stand well when reversed. The next ‘trick’ is to measure from the cut roof and divide up the strip only as-and-when each piece is needed, rather than measuring/cutting all pieces out beforehand. This avoids many of the slight discrepancies that are bound to occur.

longer strip for sides

I use solid metal blocks as supports for gluing. These ensure that the wall, shown below, can be positioned correctly on the edge and maintains a right-angle. Steel blocks like these are not available in D.I.Y stores but can be bought online at, for example, www.metalmaniauk.com The best glue to use when working with any card is Pva wood-glue because it’s strong, clean and allows for some repositioning. But better still are good quality wood-glues from Evo-Stik or Loctite rather than the weaker ‘school’ Pva. These make the work easier because they grab and set more quickly.

DSC06724_sm

measuring insert

Above, I’ve glued the two parallel walls first and waited a little for them to become firmer. Then I’m marking the length of wall which needs to be cut and inserted between them. Usually this results in the best fit. Below, the glue needs to be applied to this piece rather than the insert so that the glue isn’t squeezed out onto the surface when it’s pushed into place. Pva glue need only be used very sparingly with this type of card.

applying wood glue

Below, once the piece is inserted the work can be turned around and a flat surface used to level the wall into position. A good Pva glue will hold absorbent cardboard firmly enough for handling after a few minutes though it will take longer for the glue to fully harden.

using work surface

Essential and recommended tools

I’ve written more about these tools in other articles such as ‘Main construction’ which can be found in the Methods /- Making realistic models section, but I’ll repeat the main points here.

Scale ruler There are two types in common use for metric measurements .. flat, 2-sided and triangular, 3-sided. The flat ones may look more elegant and sophisticated, but my preference is for the triangular because they are often clearer, with bolder calibration. They are also a little harder to lose amongst the clutter of a work table. The one shown in the foreground below is actually more for interior or theatre design, the smallest scale included being 1:125. Architects’ scale rulers have a greater range, usually down to 1:2500. Because of this the scales are paired on each of the six edges i.e. 1:1250 with 1:2500 etc. If you want to read more on working with scale rulers see the article ‘Working in scale’ in the Methods section.

scale rulers

Mechanical pencil It is essential to use one of these, shown in the photos above, to make a consistent, fine line when marking up for cutting etc. But this doesn’t need to be an expensive one .. the cut-price ones from any supermarket will do almost as well. I personally prefer to use a special type though which takes a 0.3mm ‘H’ lead, finer and harder than the usual ones, which gives better accuracy.

Scalpel or fine cutting knife I prefer a surgical scalpel, far left below, because it cuts better, is easier to control, and the blades can be more easily re-sharpened. These are made by Swann-Morton, the best handle size is No.3 and the best general-purpose blades to use are ’10A’. The more common type of fine cutting knife to the far right has a round barrel which is more difficult to keep steady and the blade wobbles more because it is less supported. There is one drawback in choosing the scalpel type, and this has started happening only in recent years. For some reason, perhaps because of cheaper manufacture, blades are almost impossible to slide onto new scalpel handles without the help of pliers. One should be able to do this comfortably by hand, but the fit is just too tight.

fine cutting knives

Small try square The one in machined steel shown below is more properly termed an ‘engineer’s try square’ but other, usually 25-30cm ones can be found for general D.I.Y or woodwork. It’s possible to survive without one, but being able to check and mark out right-angles, especially repeated ones, like this can safe a vast amount of time.

try square

Cutting mat The size depends on the size of models you are likely to make but usually an A2 cutting mat is more than enough. It’s best to opt for the cheapest deal you can find if you need to save money because the ‘quality’ doesn’t really make any difference. What matters more is that it’s kept clean .. put aside while painting or especially supergluing because these will quickly make the surface less effective. Whichever brand or source, I would recommend one with a prominent centimetre grid as shown below, because this can help a lot when cutting parallels.

masking tape on metal ruler

Flat metal ruler A metal straight-edge is essential for cutting against and in my experience the best for this purpose are the cheaper, flat steel ones. These are normally available in four lengths .. 15cm, 30cm, 60cm and 1 metre. As with the cutting mat it may be difficult to determine which size will be needed most, but I would recommend that if you opt for a 60cm you really have to get an additional 15cm because it’s a pain having to manoeuvre the long ruler around for small cutting. A strip of masking tape on the back of the ruler, shown above, is essential to make it grip better.

The advantages of making ‘slotted’ forms

The special rigidity of ‘Kraft board’ makes it an ideal material for trying slotted, interlocking forms. This was how I put together the structure shown in the first photo and below, also in close-up.

slotted construction

slotted form close-up

It is just a series of identical floor shapes and identical upright supports with slots cut so that they can interlock, and dependent on the stability this might not even need to be glued. It is by far the easiest way of achieving multiple storeys and uprights which are all reasonably aligned and straight! To achieve identical cut-outs I made Pvc templates first, around which each form is traced in pencil on the cardboard. I had to make the slots on the template a little wider to compensate for the extra width of the pencil line.

slotted storeys with template

This might be a little clearer from the following photos showing a similar, earlier construction.

components for hexagonal building

hexagonal building

It is common practice to indicate slopes or variations of the terrain in layers corresponding to the height levels on a contour map, as shown in some of the photos above. Once again this is easier from the top downwards, cutting out the smallest shapes first and using these as templates for the larger. I prefer to fix these together using evenly spaced pieces of strong double-sided tape, but Pva glue can also be used. This should be applied in small, fairly widely spaced spots (spreading too much glue will cause the cardboard to warp) and ideally the layers should be weighted down while gluing. UHU can also be used for this in a similar way but this needs to be done quickly before any of the glue spots dry out too much.

While working on these landscape layers I looked at another interesting way of creating a smooth gradient by constructing the building blocks first, cutting holes in the card and positioning this around them at an angle, as shown in the photos below. With a relatively simple model this would be a lot easier than sloping the bases of the buildings.

buildings inserted

angled for slope

‘Model-making Basics’ – main construction

Please note before you start reading this older post that I have long since included a version in my Methods pages, under Making realistic models, which can be accessed above. That version may have been updated or expanded since.

I will be teaching five 3-hour sessions in model-making for the theatre design students at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London throughout this month. The fact that I’m given five, short time-slots is convenient, I think, because it fits in with the way I usually divide up model-making, at least in practical terms, into five areas; .. main construction, fine construction, modelling and shaping, creating surfaces and painting. I’ve delivered these sessions many times before but I’m always driven to ‘re-evaluate’, so this time I’m using that as an opportunity to write up my preparation for those sessions here. The next five posts are therefore geared towards the specialities of making theatre set design models, but many of the points apply in general terms to work in other disciplines

I find the last four areas relatively easy to advise on, perhaps because they can be more easily illustrated, but I’ve always had some difficulty sorting out what I should say for the first. It’s not that there aren’t a whole many detailed practical tips to give .. the ‘hands-on’ part of construction is a methodical, step-by-step process which can be easily broken down into handy points .. but I think the difficulty has come from my suspicion that constructional ability in this case may rely more on ‘ways of thinking’ than ways of doing and that these may be harder to help with!

Model-making is a very practical subject, in that it involves the handling of materials to produce a physical outcome. It could be taught purely from that practical standpoint .. focusing on the materials and tools needed, and the methods or techniques employed to make specific things. But model-making is also part of the act of designing .. a means of assisting the designer’s ability to pre-visualize. It’s not just the necessary visual embodiment of ‘worked out’ intentions (necessary because others have to see them) .. it’s a major part of that process of ‘working out’! Because of this the ‘materials and tools’ for effective model-making are not just those which can be conveniently placed on the table; they include the more fundamental attitudes, areas of acquired knowledge, and ways of thinking/or seeing/or organizing which underly the whole process of work.

For this reason I’ve arranged these notes .. going from the general to the specific .. firstly under the heading ‘General approach’, which is more about ways of thinking; followed by ‘Practical guidance’ which turns more towards ways of doing; ending with more specific ‘Working examples’ which aim to illustrate how these ways of thinking and ways of doing combine ‘at the worktable level’.

What do I mean by ‘main construction’?

I mean the ‘big things’, starting for example with the theatre model-box and then the main structures of the set .. the ‘principle architecture’ in other words. This includes elements such as walls, platforms, seating banks and staircases, but also curved set elements, raked floors and open frameworks such as scaffolding. Although many are quite simple shapes, just to look at them, it is not often obvious how to make them .. or perhaps more correctly, how to start on them.

GENERAL APPROACH

Leading with the head

It’s a favourite catch-thought of mine that success in model-making lies ‘more with the head than the hands’, meaning that it rests upon thorough planning or ‘thinking through’; that nothing reliable can be achieved without researching the right information; that problems are solved by a mixture of focused and divergent thinking; that one can only be as good as the materials one knows about. Against this though, one has to weigh up the fact that a great deal can only be learned by doing; that there’s a limit to what can be visualized beforehand; that being ‘hands on’ with materials will suggest and inspire different and unforeseen ideas!

The ability to ‘see’ ahead .. to actually ‘work’ in a very practical and realistic way, but ‘in one’s mind’ .. is the first and most important tool that the designer reaches for! Everyone has it, because otherwise none of us would be able to rehearse a difficult conversation, write a shopping list or plan a journey! Undoubtedly some would seem to be ‘better’ at it than others .. but it’s more a case of some being better at aspects of it. Some can let their imagination roam further than others; some may not wander so far but can ‘see’ what they have in more detail; some are good at shutting out what they don’t want or need to see in order to focus. My point here is that it’s important to recognise which of these you are, acknowledge your strengths and question whether you can improve. Although the second point on this list is the accepted way of dealing with any deficiency, or safeguarding against being misled, there is still a great deal that we either don’t have time to test or don’t realize there’s a need to.

Probably model-making taxes one’s ability to plan ahead in this way more than most other things I can think of, because there are so many variables! The materials chosen need to be reasonably durable (though not to last forever); affordable; obtainable when needed; ideally within one’s ‘comfort zone’ in terms of familiarity or technical ability; but perhaps not so familiar or comfortable that they engender predictable results i.e. better if they’re a little challenging or even inspiring!. Similarly one’s methods of working with them need to accord with the above; they must be affordable timewise; they must be flexible enough to give freedom to the development of the design; they must keep the sense of discovery alive! The builder’s mantra ‘strongest, neatest, quickest and cheapest’ already gives many things to juggle with, but ideally ‘most creative’ should also be added.

Can one’s ability to visualize be strengthened? Is it possible to ‘see’ or to foresee more? Absolutely! .. by feeding the mind with better information for a start! The quality of what comes out depends on the quality of what goes in. But it doesn’t start with ‘quality’ necessarily .. it starts with quantity. The more we’ve seen in our lives, whatever the sources, the more we’ll be able to visualize. Then, the move towards ‘quality’ begins simply with questioning; the act of interrogating what it is we’re seeing, where it might come from, how good those sources are and what visual assumptions we might have been making.

For example, it’s hard to visualize the concept of a ‘circus’ on stage (i.e. to shape it in our minds in terms of what general actions are going on, what sort of background the performers are seen against and what they look like) if we’ve never seen one before. And yet we are all required to do that in an instant, just to establish where we are even very vaguely, as we read a novel or a play text. I’m willing to bet that although probably very few people nowadays have actually been to a circus, we will all have some kind of scene-setting image which is pieced together from various sources .. storybook images seen as a child, related scenes from other plays or performances we might have been to, scenes from films or television. When we are reading a novel for enjoyment we just need to set the scene for ourselves vaguely, without even being really conscious of it, just to get through the story and unless the writer refines or directs our vision with a more specific description, that image of ours has to serve. It probably doesn’t matter how incomplete that image is or how silly the sources are, as long as the writer is doing their job properly in directing our attention to what’s important. Now, compare that to reading a play text with the view to designing it. Ideally, our first experience of the material should be exactly the same! Ideally our initial reading should be just as free, ‘unselfconscious’ or unbiased .. initially that is. It’s a subject for another discussion whether that’s at all possible for us of course, but then afterwards .. our reading has to become very selfconscious, biased and critical. We do then have to examine that scene-setting image we’ve formed of the circus and subject it to questioning .. what are we really seeing; how complete is it; where have those visual impressions come from; which of those are coming from the text; what more do we need (whether in terms of quantity or quality) to start ‘building’ that image for real?

The process is similar in many respects when planning the making of something. We may be able to visualize the whole process in some detail, if we’ve done it or something very similar before. Again, the more we’ve made the more we’ll be able to realistically visualize making. If not, we can still piece together a ‘provisional’ visualization from general things we know about materials and ways of making, mixed with some more specific ‘snap-shots’ of things we’ve experienced which could be related. So for example we may have the general ‘circus’ image, but then we have to start ‘making it real’ by questioning .. can we trust what we think we know; what bits don’t we know, and which can only be found by starting or experimenting; what more do we need to start that?

Sketch model-making

Sketch model-making .. in other words making quick, rough mock-ups to get a better idea of how something is truthfully likely to look .. is a standard and, I believe, indispensable practice in theatre design! One could say that the less you’re confident in your powers of visualization the more you should do this. But because the sketch model has the other function, more a communicative than a freely exploratory one, when working with the director for example, its uses can get a bit confused. You, as the designer, may view the sketch model properly as the closest approximation of ‘something yet to be properly defined’, whereas it is difficult for the director to look at it as ‘blurred’ in the same way you do. You have to be prepared for the sketch model being judged on exact face value and you need to be clear about what you consider purposely vague and what isn’t. The other thing is, ‘sketch’ or ‘rough’ in this context should be understood more in terms of ‘quickly made’ or ‘not precious’ rather than necessarily ‘inexact’. Scale for example needs to be as exact as you can manage, even in a sketch model, otherwise nothing specific can be learnt from it.

Defining with ‘measured’ drawing

After basic structures have been tested in the sketch model and are ‘approved’ they often need to be further refined in terms of exact dimensions or, more understandably, the method of making them, and it is better to work these out on paper first. An example of the first might be a flight of steps which it might be acceptable to generalise roughly in the sketch model but which need to be checked on paper (see ‘Working Examples’ below). An example of the second is a raked floor, which could be improvised in the sketch model just by propping a piece of card over an object. To make the rake properly the height at the highest point needs to be measured together with the length along the floor from the lowest point and drawn up on paper (as a long, thin triangle) to get the gradient. The gradient (the slope) is the amount the rake rises compared to its length, so for example a gradient of 1:8 (as it’s normally written) rises one unit of measurement for every 8 of those units along. The best way to make a stable rake is to cut a number of those triangles and glue them at regular intervals to the underside of a sheet.

Knowing when the planning should pause

Models can easily go too far into unnecessary or gratuitous detail and it is the same with planning. It’s not entirely true that ‘There is no such thing as too much planning’. There are dangers, both in terms of scrutinising the present in too much detail or trying to look too far into the distance.

For example, some people take refuge in planning for much longer than necessary because the part that follows either involves more effort or it involves more ‘unprotected’ engagement with the unknown .. exactly what one should be doing in fact! Some people are such good visualizers (those who can see quite far ahead in detail, ‘rehearsing’ doing things in their minds and even mentally picturing the outcomes) that they’ve worked everything out from start to finish, leaving themselves seemingly nothing more to discover. Planning is supposed to be logical and rational, but it can also become paradoxically unrealistic! It often delivers the ‘ideal’, based on a string of assumptions
about what one thinks one can achieve and when, setting up an end-goal that is
often as far removed from reality as it can get! That kind of planning usually only
results in frustration and disappointment!

Instead, the kind of planning I’m advocating is ‘episodic’ rather than ‘epic’! Make sure that you’re always planning enough in hard practical terms (i.e. that you have the basic materials, tools and information) to get you through the next few practical steps. Of course it’s important to have a notion of the bigger picture, why it is you’re doing things and where it could all lead, but don’t allow this picture to overwhelm the present or close your mind to the changes that each step could generate. It may not work for everybody, but I seriously believe from my own experience that if you keep the conscious mind reasonably focused on the practical/immediate, the subconscious mind is left to work calmly on the ‘bigger ideas’ and deliver them when needed.

Knowledge of materials and where to get them

As I’ve said, as a maker you’ll only be as good as the materials you know about! But, as with everything seemingly, there are points and counterpoints .. to accommodate the innate differences in people and their situations. I still hold that the key to solving most model-making challenges is to at least know of the existence of a wide variety of material options. Thinking purely of my own experience, I can’t imagine what quagmire I’d still be in now if I hadn’t found out about and played around with Kapa-line foamboard or foamed Pvc sheet! It’s not just that I am enabled to do things with these materials which would either be impossible or impractical with others. It actually needs far less technical expertise to get results with them than with the others, and they suggest new ways of working that I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. I’ve got to the stage where I can comfortably make almost anything imaginable from either foamed Pvc, Kapa-line foamboard, blue Styrofoam, strip styrene, obeche wood sheet and Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ polyfilla. This is my point though .. I’ve made my selection from exploring many! It pays to be divergent and explore all sorts of different options but after a while it also pays to converge upon a chosen few that one ‘knows’ particularly well.

Learning about new materials isn’t difficult or particularly time-consuming! You can dip into the articles here, or browse through the ‘Lexicon’ for example .. or countless other websites .. not to mention books! But probably an even better, more memorable starting point is just to go and see what an outlet like the 4D modelshop in London has to offer.

4D modelshop London

Just spending the time to look systematically at the range they have, including many options for ‘preformed’ structures as above, can be quite an education in itself and it means much more because you are actually seeing and handling things.

Thinking in terms of ‘base layers’ and ‘add ons’

Structures, particularly architectural ones, often have a defining shape which I call the ‘base layer’ meaning the most significant outline, although this may not be located literally at its base. This is usually the place to start when sorting out how to construct the structure. For example the proscenium wall i.e. the front of this theatre model-box is a relatively simple structure which can be put together in layers.

theatre model-box

That is, the ‘base layer’ is a cut-out following the exact dimensions of the proscenium window with a thick strip built upon the front of it and another strip fixed to the back of it to complete the proscenium arch depth. It needn’t be more complicated than this and if you don’t like the visible join (indicated by the shaded strip on the drawing below) this can be faced with black paper. Most wall structures turn out to be just a base layer with additions one side or the other (speaking in terms of making them in a model! They may be built differently in reality).

model-box pros detail

I made the wall pieces below to illustrate how seemingly involved wall surfaces can just be a collection of boxes on a base layer. For example with the simpler one on the right it’s easier to cut a main wall piece as a continuous strip and stick the protruding part over it as a box if the construction isn’t going to be seen. It’s stronger anyway, it’s actually quicker, and the extra material hardly makes a difference in cost. It also means that, if need be, individual sections can be more easily kept separate for painting.

wall add-ons

Keeping built elements as separate as possible until they’re textured or painted is quite an important general consideration in model-making .. one of the important points on the ‘planning ahead’ checklist. How separate, or rather where exactly to draw the line in terms of having a lot of separate bits, is something one can only learn by doing. Similarly, the way one chooses to create a surface may add a lot to the thickness, so it also needs to be thought about at an early stage .. unfortunately far too early in many respects!

If you’re not good with measurements .. do something about it!

My theory is that it’s the creatively divergent thinkers that make the best theatre designers, and quite a few of those that I know or have taught have difficulty with the ‘number processing’ aspects of the work (although I’m sure it doesn’t follow that if you’re good with numbers you’re neither creatively divergent nor a good theatre designer!). I also suspect that this difficulty arises, not because those people are unable to think logically or systematically enough or that they’re not mentally organized, but rather it’s something to do with not being able to retain information that has almost no emotional or visual reference.

Many people get by without undue stress, but if you feel you are not or if this is damaging your work, you have to take positive, compensatory action because otherwise it will always stand between you and your confidence! First of all you need to focus on what exactly it is that you find difficult, and it could be just one, a few or a number of things. Is it that you find it difficult to retain numbers in your head long enough to work with them or that you can’t ‘see’ them in your head sufficiently as quantities for adding together? Or might it partly be the way measurements are written, for example?

I know for a fact that my problems with numbers are because I don’t retain them, they’re not ‘memorable’ in my head for more than an instant if they remain as just numbers. I’ve found some ways which have helped .. I write numbers down fairly bold on pieces of paper so that there’s also the sense of the movement I’m making with the pen; I say the numbers out loud and often retain the sound of my voice saying them etc. I think I’ve also assigned some kind of ‘character’ to each of the 9 single digits, in a very vague way, to help with both differentiating and remembering them. I always try to transfer a group of measurements I might need (ideally no more at one time than can be fitted with large writing on a post-it) to lie directly in my field of vision while working, as below. This has helped a lot, because at times it’s felt as if they can disappear somewhere within the 2metre journey from drawing-board to worktable!

keeping track of measurements

Cutting needs to be learned and practised!

In my experience a standard surgical-type scalpel (i.e. Swann-Morton No.3 handle, on the left below) is by far the best knife to use for model-making work. The best blade to use with it is the ’10A’. It’s the most general-purpose but also the most precise. The scalpel in the centre has been fitted with a rubber cover, which is much more comfortable and makes the knife much easier to control. Unfortunately I have only seen these on sale in Sweden! The knife on the far right is not a ‘scalpel’, but is another very common type (especially with hobby or ‘craft’ shops) and is not as good in a number of respects. In the first place the flat orientation of the scalpel helps with controlling it, compared to the round barrel. Secondly the scalpel blade is more firmly supported and this support extends further towards the fine tip, as you can see. The blade in the other knife will tend to flex and wobble too much, especially when pressing hard. Lastly the blades for this knife are more cheaply made, not as sharp and .. I think .. not as easy to find. Often the blades are a little thicker than scalpel blades and this can make a noticeable difference when cutting because they produce more friction! These knives are not necessarily cheaper than scalpels (at least they shouldn’t be if the shop prices fairly) and in any case .. why should one think about saving just £1 or so on a tool which will last and which one’s using all the time?

fine cutting knives

I’m sure I must have said many times that there’s a whole little book to be written just on cutting with the scalpel, hence the devotion of space to it here! At the very least, anyone not practised in cutting needs to consider it a subject in itself which needs to be rehearsed, explored and ‘made peace with’ as far as possible before being able to do anything else. Scale model-making of this kind is so dependent on being able to cut a straight line in the right place. It sounds so simple .. but it’s not! It can’t just be taken for granted that everyone will be able to do this with just a little practise and often people who could otherwise become excellent makers are put off the whole idea of model-making just because this one aspect is never really ‘conquered’. Here are a few guidelines:

If you’re using a material for the first time you should take a while just to get a sense of how it cuts i.e. starting with how steady the metal ruler will lie on it, how resilient or giving the surface is to the initial pass with the blade, how many passes are needed to cut through cleanly without excessive pressure. If you don’t feel confident that the ruler will stay where you’ve put it, you either need a better ruler or you need to do something so that it will grip better. Flat steel rulers will certainly need a strip of masking tape on the back at the very least but sometimes this isn’t enough so pieces of double-sided tape could be added provided they won’t damage the material. If left on permanently they will lose their tack over time but will still improve the ruler’s grip.

You should also rehearse what it feels like to run the tip of the blade steadily along the metal edge, without necessarily cutting at all. It should feel locked there, able to run freely along but not to depart from the edge. The scalpel blade is slightly flexible and it should be pressed hard enough into the metal edge so that it flexes just a little.

There are no special prizes for being able to cut through in one go! The first pass with the knife should simply be to establish a guiding ‘scratch-line’ which only has to be deep enough to be found again with the tip of the blade. One’s focus at this stage should be more on the edge of the ruler than the material to be cut. Pressure comes afterwards, once one’s established this line and it shouldn’t matter how many passes it takes to cut through. If you’re having to press so hard to get through the material that you can’t control the straightness of the cut anymore it means one or more of the following:- the material is too tough or thick to be cut with a scalpel and you will have to try with a Stanley knife or failing that a saw; you can turn the sheet over and try cutting in exactly the same place on the other side (when cutting thick materials it’s the friction on the blade that becomes the problem and starting ‘new’ from the other side often works); or you need to build up some more strength in your hand and arm through practise.

If, for whatever reason, the ruler moves while cutting, don’t try repositioning it by eye. Put the tip of the scalpel in the beginning of the line you’ve started and slide the ruler up against it. Holding onto that position put the tip of the scalpel in the end of the line and move that end of the ruler against it. You might need to adjust, beginning and end, a couple of times.

It’s worth asking yourself consciously whether you’re working under the best conditions or whether they can be very simply improved? For example .. is the cutting matt flat and smooth or is it more like a Jackson Pollock? Can much of this be scraped off? Is the cutting matt really flat on the table or are there small bits of scrap under it? Have you really got enough proper light to work by? .. in particular, can you see your marked line clearly enough or is the edge of the ruler casting a shadow over it?

Usually with thin materials (i.e. up to 1mm) the angle of the cut edge, in other words whether it’s at a right-angle to its surface or not, doesn’t matter so much. Generally, if one’s holding the scalpel normally it will be fine. But if over 1mm thick it can matter, especially if the edge is to be glued on something else at a right-angle. If using foamed Pvc or wood it would be normal practice to straighten the cut edge using a sanding block and this will even work with foamboard or some types of cardboard. Even so it’s best if one gets used to holding the scalpel upright in the first place. It’s much easier to maintain the knife upright if you can actually see the angle while cutting, i.e. by cutting the line in the direction straight ahead of you rather than side to side. Especially when cutting longer lines it’s usually better to stand up for this so that you can reach over the work properly and use your own body as a ‘measure of uprightness’.

Changing the scalpel blade (i.e. when it gets blunt) should be the easiest thing in the world (if the world were fair) but unfortunately it can be a bit of a nightmare with a new scalpel handle, because the fixing is often too tight at first, making it hard to slide the blade either off or on without fear of injury. The only way to solve this (until it wears down a little with use!) is either to use pliers to get the blade off and on, or to file into the blade channels a little. Below is not intended as a solution to this, but it does help to know that blunted blades needn’t always be replaced. They can quite easily be sharpened on a piece of ‘wet and dry’ or Emery paper (usually best 600-800 grit) by stroking the blade firmly at a shallow angle, a few times each side. It’s usually only the very tip of the blade that gets blunt so it’s best to focus on sharpening just this small part, flexing it a little into the paper.

sharpening a scalpel

PRACTICAL GUIDANCE

Keeping track of what is being glued to where

A common exercise for beginners is making a complete 6-sided cube using flat card. All sides and all edges of a cube need to be perfectly equal. Does this mean that the first task is to cut out six perfectly identical squares? If your answer was ‘No, of course not! Some need to be a little smaller’ you’re ok and on your way, but if it was ‘Yes’ and you really can’t see why this could be wrong you’re going to be challenged!

The fact is that when pieces of card are glued ‘edge to face’ for things like this the thickness of card becomes part of the measurement, so some pieces of card need to be cut shorter to allow for this. Working out the measurements needed and best method of assembly for a simple cube can be challenging enough, so one gets an idea of the forethought involved in making more complicated constructions. The only way to keep a mental grip on this is by drawing up and noting clearly on the drawing what goes on where .. or at least what you plan to do at that stage. Consider the drawing a master-plan .. take time over it, treat it with respect, put it up on the wall if you can, update it immediately if you make changes. Don’t be afraid of making it multi-coloured if that helps .. this is not prissy!

Labelling cut pieces

It’s an annoyance I used to experience countless times! .. looking at a mass of cut pieces on the cutting mat having lost track of which of them were ‘pieces’ and which were off-cuts. There was often one that I never managed to find again, probably because I’d mistakenly cut it up to make something else. These pieces need to be labelled as soon as cut, including the record of where the top or bottom is etc. You can use bright post-its as below; these are cheerful and important looking, but they could come off. Another way is writing on a piece of masking tape.

labelling pieces

Getting and ‘keeping’ right-angles

In the first place, never assume that a sheet of card (or especially an off-cut of card) has perfect right-angles even if it’s straight out of the shop. These need to be checked first. Laying a set-square over the corner is often the way that people check but because set-squares are usually transparent one has to strain the eyes a bit to see this and it may not be sufficiently accurate. Using a try square is a clearer way of checking, not least because one only has to look at one edge rather than two.

using a try square

‘Setting up’ for gluing

Almost all glues are meant to be used as sparingly as possible, because bonds between things are always stronger the tighter they can be pressed together, regardless of how thick or ‘gap-filling’ the glue may seem.

Whichever materials are being used and whatever the properties of the glue (i.e. whether fast or slow), gluing needs to be prepared for. If the glue is slow-setting such as Pva wood glue, pieces need to be held (ideally fairly tightly) in position until the glue ‘grabs’ sufficiently. With a good quality wood-glue and normally-absorbent card this will not be long, perhaps just a number of seconds. The glue takes longer to set completely but the piece will stay together in the meantime and can be moved .. it just shouldn’t be put under any pressure for a while.

If on the other hand a fast-setting glue such as superglue is used this will not offer the same margin for repositioning so the ‘set-up’ is important in this case as a means of making sure that pieces can be positioned ‘right first time’. I use metal blocks (steel offcuts) to glue pieces against. For example, below I placed the edge of the base piece up against the block, put some glue on the edge of the upright piece and just had to slide it down the block surface into position. This ensured that the upright piece was glued in the right position along the edge of the base piece. Metal blocks like these can be bought from metal retailers such as www.metalmaniauk.com for just a few pounds (see Lexicon entry ‘metal construction blocks’).

using a right-angle block

Another way of setting things up, involving a different technique of gluing, is offered by the fact that thin liquids will be drawn into tight gaps (what’s known as capillary action). This means that difficult-to-glue pieces such as the curving sheet below can be set up in the correct position and the glue is introduced along the joint afterwards. Here a thin plastic solvent is being used to glue styrene plastic, but thin superglue can also be used and this can also work with card.

gluing from outside

The scaffolding construction below needed a bit more preparation to set up the pieces for gluing.

scaffolding model

The scaffolding was made from 2mm acrylic rod, superglued together and then painted to look like metal. The individual pieces of rod needed to be taped onto card to hold them in position while glue was introduced into the joints.

scaffolding before painting

Because the structure was three-dimensional I had to make the special foamboard construction below to glue it on. I needed to be careful not to apply too much superglue to the joints otherwise it would have glued the scaffolding to the card. After gluing I just needed to remove the pieces of masking tape and slide the scaffolding construction off the supporting form. Specially made supporting forms like this are known as ‘construction jigs’.

gluing jig for scaffolding

Below, some of the side poles needed to be glued afterwards and these also needed small temporary supports to assist gluing them in the right place.

detail of jig for scaffolding

Faking surfaces

This is not a sudden jump forward to talking about how to create surfaces although, as I’ve mentioned, one does have to include certain decisions about them from the beginning especially if they’ll add to the thickness of structures. What I mean here is that if for example I need to make a structure that looks like real wood it often makes sense to use real wood (if the scale looks right), but it doesn’t make sense for me to construct in wood because I’m not familiar with working with it in a constructional way. I have confidence in being able to construct whatever I want in Pvc plastic, so the best answer for me is to construct in plastic and thinly clad with wood. This has many advantages; it cuts down on cost, it gives more control over the appearance (type of wood, staining, direction of grain), and it doesn’t require special tools or woodworking methods.

cladding in wood

Dealing with curves

By this I mean two different tasks .. firstly being able to cut circles or regular curves in a flat sheet, and secondly building structures such as curved walls. As for the first, I could just say that, really, cutting out a nice, smooth circle which you have drawn with a compass is just a matter of practise! One really does have to have a feeling of ‘steady flow’ to do it properly and it usually doesn’t work if you’re agitated. You need the practise to get an idea of how your hand behaves in that situation; how much you can rest it on the material but still slide it along smoothly; whether it’s easier holding the blade upright or more oblique; whether it goes more smoothly using a sharp blade or a slightly blunted one; whether you need to be sitting down or standing up over it. All of these, and more, are considerations and only you can discover what works best for you.

But I can suggest other things that are likely to help in any case, and these are: if you can, find a lead for your compass that’s slightly harder than the standard supplied i.e. ‘H’ rather than ‘HB’ to give a sharper pencil line or, failing that, sharpen the end to a fine point using a nail-file; as with most other cutting, make your first pass just a gentle guiding cut on the surface to be able to move more freely without having to press down too much; if possible use a different, i.e. softer or less fibrous card for these circles than you’ve used for the rest of the model and don’t even attempt to cut circles from the thick, dense, hard recycled type!

But if you’ve tried and tried again, and you’re still not getting anything like a circle, there are other things that could help. There are so-called ‘cutting compasses’ like the one below which usually don’t cost too much. They have a very small blade in place of a pencil lead. I can guarantee that you won’t be able to cut anything like mountboard right through with them (it’s impossible to press down enough while moving round) but you will be able to make a good, precise guiding cut. You will then need to trace this with the scalpel. Another way of making a good guiding mark is if you can rig up your compass with another metal point (in place of the lead). Art or graphics shops often sell spare points.

cutting compass

The photo below illustrates how one would normally approach building any curved structures in the model, whether concave (curving inwards) or convex (curving outwards). If card is being used it needs to be a relatively soft one, such as mountboard, and .. this is important .. not too thin, i.e. 1.5mm mountboard is usually fine. You may think that it’s going to be easier to curve thinner card, but it may not keep its shape well enough. After getting a reasonably good idea of the length of card you need to complete the curve, cut a piece to size but with some extra length (I’ve used ‘foamed Pvc’ plastic below, because I wanted these demonstration samples to last and I prefer foamed Pvc over card anyway). Make repeated and regular-spaced ‘half-cuts’ (i.e. not all the way through) from top to bottom. The closer these lines are to each other the better, and the smoother the curve, but it depends how much patience you think you’re going to have. Ideally each cut should have the same depth (or rather they’re cut with the same pressure) but this is very difficult to regulate. If all goes well the scored card should bend easily and evenly, and the strips act as reinforcement keeping it straight vertically.

making curved walls

Curves almost always need a support behind them to keep them in shape. This can vary according to what you’re prepared to do or the amount of space there is behind, from just bending a piece of wire and attaching it to the back, to the supporting construction I’ve made here.

fixing a curved wall in place

Here I am gluing it into position against the top and bottom support curves in stages, starting by fixing one end firmly, pressing it tight and then introducing thin superglue into the seam from outside (the technique of ‘gluing from outside’ illustrated earlier). I’ve made the curved piece longer than necessary because it’s easier to handle it this way and it’s easy enough to trim the end off once it’s firmly in place. With this method the score lines are always visible, whichever side you’re facing, but the way to eliminate this completely is to cover the curve with another surface of strong paper (or thin plastic), preferably using spraymount to glue it evenly.

There are other sheet materials which can be used for creating curved surfaces without the need for scoring. Thin (i.e. 0.5mm) white styrene sheet is very bendable (available from model shops such as 4D). Also available from 4D is a special form of soft cardboard called ‘Finnboard’. This is made from pure wood pulp and if it is soaked thoroughly in water it can be bent into a curve without creasing. It needs to be kept in that curve while drying though i.e. by securing it around a bottle or similar former.

Finnboard bent into a curve

WORKING EXAMPLES

Steps and staircases

I often use the example of making a unit or run of steps to illustrate many of the issues of ‘main construction’, and in any case the question of making stairs is always coming up. I’ve adapted this account from my book ‘Model-making: Materials and Methods’ but I’ve also extended it to include a method for open steps and a basic approach to making a spiral staircase.

Even with a simple staircase unit it will become clear after a bit of thought that certain things need to be found out before starting .. firstly the standard acceptable proportion (i.e. height and depth) for a step, the height you want your staircase to go to and the distance along that’s going to be needed to get there. See ‘Common sizes of things’ in the ‘Methods‘ section for more on standard step measurements, but let’s say that each step needs to be 200mm high (known as the rise or riser) and 250mm deep (or along, known as the tread). If you want the flight of stairs to reach 4 metres you could use something similar to the ‘counting on fingers’ method for working out what length on the ground this will come to i.e. dividing 200mm into 4 metres to give 20 and multiplying that by 250mm to give 5 metres length. It might have been simpler and perhaps quicker though to think of the step proportion 200:250 (which is the same overall) reduced to 1:1.25 and simply multiply 4 metres by 1.25.

Once the dimensions are sorted, two identical profiles (side views) need to be drawn up and cut out. These will become the sides of a freestanding stair ‘box’. Believe me, it’s best and easiest to make it this way, even if the stair itself is going to be enclosed between other walls. There’s nothing harder than trying to construct something in mid-air! A lot of construction challenges are solved simply by taking the time to rig up a support to glue upon. This can be left if it’s not going to be visible, and if it has to go it can usually be easily cut away afterwards.

Drawing up steps

The best thing to do is to draw up a complete grid (above), composed in this case of 200cm x 250cm rectangles. The try square comes in handy for this, or the card can be taped to a drawing board. The grid helps in keeping lines straight and spacing regular, and the extended lines will help when positioning the ruler to cut against later (it’s hard to keep to parallels when all you’ve got is thumbnail sized lines). Maybe it’s the only way of doing it anyway, it’s just that I’ve seen attempts at steps that appear to be more ‘organically improvised’ shall we say! In the past I often drew up a larger grid so that I could make use of the cut zig-zag for both profile pieces. But I have to say, they rarely matched completely. The following three photos were taken for the book by Astrid Baerndal.

first stage of step construction

After checking for a reasonable match, the profile pieces need to be fixed in a position where they’re upright, the right distance apart, parallel and ‘in sync’. The easiest way to do this is to stick them on a base cut to the proper size. This will add a little extra height though, so to compensate the same needs to be taken off the base of each profile. The right-angle supports glued inside are essential to make sure that the profiles remain properly upright.

adding risers

For the next stage above I’ve used coloured mountboard to make it clearer how I’ve chosen to fill in the steps because there could be a number of ways. Here I cut a strip of card exactly the right width for gluing between the uprights and cut all the riser pieces from it. I then inserted these in the right positions using Pva wood glue to allow for some repositioning. In this case the flat of a small metal ruler was useful for pressing them level.

completed step unit

In this example I’ve finished the unit by cutting another strip of card, this time the full width between the outer edges of the uprights, so that the treads can be cut and applied on top. It only remains to give the steps the required surface, whether that’s concrete, wood or carpet etc. Whatever goes on top needs to be kept reasonably thin, because it will change the dimensions slightly (but this difference will only be noticeable on the top and bottom steps of course because if the steps get an even treatment the proportions of the others will remain unchanged).

Speaking of that, you might have noticed that whereas I was careful before to adjust the height of the two profile pieces to allow for the extra card base, I didn’t say anything about the extra thickness of card which has been added to make the treads. Doesn’t this mean that the steps are slightly .. i.e. 1.5mm .. higher than they should be? In fact they’re not because in making this I fortunately anticipated that and sliced a total of 3mm off the bottoms of the profiles before gluing to the base piece. I left that fact out to make this point .. does it really matter? The answer is .. no, it’s not a major error if levels don’t quite match up in the model but it’s generally better if they do. Pride in getting the model right, i.e. in making it look exactly as you want the real set to be built, should extend to all details. Things like miss-matched joins, warped surfaces, ragged areas or spots of glue are only human, but even these little things can prevent a good model from being fully convincing, rather like tiny errors of continuity in a film which are enough to wake us up from the illusion.

But what if one needs a run of steps which are not boxed in, for example if they’re clear underneath or as part of a metal fire-escape? The general method is fairly similar. For example the first stage is to draw up the necessary grid as before to get the right proportions and spacing.

making an open flight of steps

But then instead of cutting out a profile wall one needs to cut a profile strip, as above.

setting up for gluing

The two of these then need to be temporarily secured to something so that they stay ‘upright, parallel, synced’ etc. Above, I cut a strip of 5mm foamboard to the right width, checked that this was straight, and secured the profiles to it using small strips of double-sided tape. Below this is the strip for the treads waiting to be cut. I’ve used 1mm ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc for this construction, using superglue. After all the treads are glued in place the piece can be easily loosened from the foamboard support.

completed steps

I’m asked a surprising number of times, mainly by theatre or film design students, how to go about making a spiral staircase in a model. Maybe it’s not so surprising because it’s a beautiful form, and is often the only attractive solution within a confined space. But having to build it in model form with at least a semblance of its grace will tax ingenuity and patience to the limit! I’ve been quoting the spiral staircase from the beginning of my teaching, as an example of instances where model-making interferes with design. So often spiral staircases are ditched in favour of something easier to make!

What follows is a very basic ‘schema’ for a generalised look .. it doesn’t answer every detail or for every type but may provide a framework method to build upon or adjust.

spiral staircase plan

The drawing above represents what one has to do first, that is, to draw up a groundplan view to scale, establishing the size of the staircase and the shape of the treads. As for the question of size, and especially if this is a design intended to be built and used, one must take into account the building regulations which, in the case of spiral staircases, advise that treads must be at least 26inches (c. 66cm) in width. The same regulations advise on how deep (horizontally) the treads should be at their middle point and I won’t go into detail here but good advice can be found on sites such as

http://www.accentironwork.com/building%20code.html

This drawing can form the template for cutting out the individual treads later (if copied and tacked on with repositionable spraymount), but it is also essential for working out how many steps will be needed for the height required. For example if the staircase needs to reach an upper level of 3 metres, 14 steps will be required assuming that (as I have done here) that each step rises 200mm and that the last step is to the platform. By starting at the top step (aligned as it will be with the platform edge) and counting the progresssion of steps downwards on this plan you can find out how the spiral ends (or rather how the staircase begins). The direction of entry onto a staircase is something that can’t just be left to chance (it has to be appropriate to the way it’s going to be used)and if it needs changing there are two things that can be done. The penultimate step (i.e. the last tread of the staircase itself, before the step up to the platform) can be extended if there’s a gap and usually it won’t be noticeable. Alternatively (although not so usual) the rise of all the steps can be adjusted, because there’s a reasonable leeway from 15cm minimum to 23cm maximum.

marking up spiral staircase

marking up a spiral staircase

What staircases of this more contemporary type have in common (i.e. those usually made of metal, often with open steps) is a round central pole, as above, and this is the starting point for construction. This needs to be found first, so that its diameter can be entered on the drawing. If you’re fortunate enough to live within reasonable distance of a materials shop such as 4D modelshop in London there is such a range of dowels and tubes that one can usually find exactly the diameter one wants either in styrene, acrylic or wood. Otherwise you might have to make do with the more limited choice of wooden dowel from the nearest timber merchant or hardware store, or failing that really ‘making do’ with something you have around such as a thin cardboard tube. It’s important though that whatever you use has a firm surface and that superglue sets well on it i.e. a balsawood dowel may not be strong enough.

cutting treads

I am, as always, using 1mm Palight foamed Pvc to solve the problem of needing something that is thin and easy to cut with accuracy, but still having a firm surface, straightness and resilience. Above, I’ve started to cut out some of the treads. I’ve been careful to give each a little bit of the curve of the pole diameter at the centre so that they glue better to it, but the outer edge could either be curved or straight.

cutting risers

Above I am dividing up a strip measured the full length of the steps to make the risers. Since each riser will be glued along the underside of each tread but the preceding tread glued against the bottom of its face, each riser is the proper height i.e. in this case 200mm in scale.

assembling steps

The best way to start constructing is, as I say, to superglue pairs of tread and riser together first, trying to keep to right-angles. Here I haven’t cut all the treads out yet but have fixed the pole (with a spot of glue) in the centre so that the sheet serves as a base and helps to check the positions of the steps as they’re added upwards. This can easily be sliced off later (I haven’t glued the bottom step to the base!).

assembled steps

If this positioning is followed it shouldn’t be necessary to mark the correct heights of steps on the pole itself. In any case there will be some slight variation however exact one tries to be; the overall effect will look right!

balustrade drawing

Often it’s not the steps that present so much of a problem, it’s the balustrade. One solution for achieving this is to cut it as a flat piece which can then be glued and wrapped around in one piece. Again, foamed Pvc is ideal for this because it is flexible but thin styrene sheet or even stencil card would also be suitable.

cutting balustrade

attaching balustrade

The positioning needs to be checked and then fixed in stages since this is not possible in one go. I’ve only made a portion here to show the principle.

completed stair portion