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.

‘Model-making Basics’ – fine construction

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

This is the second of five instalments, looking in turn at what I consider the five defining areas within model-making; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. The only difference between ‘fine’ and ‘main’ construction is relative size. The structures involve the same methods but they are smaller, more delicate and therefore much more ‘fiddly’ to achieve. Being able to cut, shape and assemble the appropriate materials with accuracy becomes much more of an issue at this smaller size. I’m referring to such elements as window structures, stair banisters and railings, or period furniture .. including chandeliers!

A very slight difference in overall measurement may not be noticeable on a long wall but it does make a difference to the appearance of, for example, a fine window strut! However on the other hand, whereas the principle structures in a model can’t be just ‘suggested’, some aspects of the finer details can be, without losing their realism. My aim in this article is not only to suggest ways of achieving intricacy, but also to consider ways of simulating it. This article also illustrates how the choice of material can be 90% of the solution .. my own choices of ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc and stencil card tend to dominate here!

I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines.

As with the previous post I’ve divided the content into general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance and ending with a couple of more closely observed examples.

fine construction

GENERAL APPROACH

The importance of details

One has to accept the fact that these smaller things often take much longer to achieve than the elements of main construction (at least in relation to their size). Although one would never have to say this to a practiced model-maker, it’s important to reassure beginners that these will ‘take as long as they take’ and that one shouldn’t feel they’re less important just because they seem like small details of the visual concept. In fact it’s usually quite the opposite!  For example in a theatre design concept the ‘details’ in terms of furniture style and small elements of decoration may constitute most of ‘the design’ if the budget is minimal or if a minimalist approach has been chosen. Moreover, even if a setting is lavish or architecturally bold, when the play’s action is underway and the lighting settles to focus on the actors, it is the furniture and other elements of detail that stay within that small area of focus rather than the set as a whole. These details of the setting, especially furniture, have a more intimate and ‘telling’ relationship with actors and their characters in the way that they’re used. For example broader playing areas, entrance and exit points, and different levels don’t necessarily need to be understood in terms of real architecture but furniture usually demands more. It’s rare that furniture can be rendered ‘abstract’.

Often the defining elements of a ‘look’, or a period style, or a social status, are contained as much in the details as in the more general proportions, materials and colours of the set. In particular historical periods furniture and interior decoration styles develop their distinctiveness side-by-side .. they are designed to fit .. and one can see the same decorative motifs, basic shapes or general proportions in both. When working through a design in the model, spending what may seem like a very disproportionate amount of time on a single chair (it could easily take the best part of a day) can be a very important step in discovering and defining that ‘look’. It took me a while to appreciate what was meant when as theatre design students we were often advised to start with one well chosen and closely observed chair, but I think now that this was part of it.

The demands of scale

I think the underlying point of this whole area of model-making (and of this article) which I’ve termed ‘fine construction’ is.. ‘What are the best materials and methods to help with the challenge of achieving a reasonable and convincing scale with delicate structures at this small-size level and in the time available?’ It should be clear that getting the scale right is of fundamental importance, but of course it gets harder the smaller you go .. as I have said, a fraction of a millimetre out can make a big difference! But I’ve underlined ‘reasonable’ because there’s a limit to how fine one can and should work; compromises need to be made, and one of the most interesting and creative journeys a designer will make in terms of their model-making throughout their career is developing a sense for the right ones. Models in this context should always be convincing that is, they should keep us thinking about the real thing rather than the model itself, but there’s a big difference between this and fooling the eye. There’s a lot that we can forgive, and forget, when looking at a model as long as enough essentials are there to ‘suspend our disbelief’.

It’s not just size than determines delicacy .. i.e. it’s not that the thinnest will automatically give the most delicate or elegant look .. it’s also what happens on the surface, how the light falling on it is manipulated or broken up. This is the reason why, traditionally, wall mouldings and window frames are composed of ‘stepped’ or shaped strips of wood, not flat and block-like, so that the light forms shadows that are soft or varied.

I think this is illustrated, coincidentally, by the photo below which I took just to show stages in building up a window structure. Each of the successive stages has the same underlying basis cut from stencil card and shown on the far left, so each has the same ‘silhouette’ but the ones progressing to the right look finer and somehow thinner (despite the addition of white!). It is because the flat planes are broken up, the edges are softened, and the shadows give more contrast.

windows

Continued practise with cutting always improves one’s ability, even if the improvements take a while and are too small to appreciate .. as long as one perseveres, and as long as one has understood and accepted the value of it! But if cutting material to make a structure of the required scale intricacy proves too arduous, it’s good to know that one can fall back on the ‘shadow principle’ and that, if need be, this can be faked i.e. by carefully drawing or penning lines on the surface instead of having to apply yet more intricate strips.

The value of proper visual research

I must have encountered this hundreds of times as a teacher .. when someone is having difficulties at the model-making stage, which are easy to attribute to the challenges of model-making in general, but are actually because they haven’t got a clear enough picture of what they’re trying to do. I don’t imagine that anyone would try to make a convincing model version of a Louis XV chair without finding visual reference first (at least I would hope not), but I know that a lot of people might assume they can get by without checking on the concept of ‘a simple, basic, nondescript chair’. The fact is there’s no such thing, and although it sounds like a paradox one first has to choose what particular type of ‘nondescript chair’! Unless you’re an expert on the history of furniture, you’ll have to look at chairs to get some help. At the very least you need to have, preferably already absorbed, certain facts about the standard dimensions of chairs, such as the average seat height and size, or the common height for chair backs etc.

Nowadays there’s really no excuse for not knowing even the detailed particulars of real objects or settings because so much can be accessed quickly over the internet. For example, there are countless antique dealer websites and the good ones offer all-round views of pieces of furniture including close-ups on details and lists of principle measurements. Even the less specialist, more style-led outlets can be quite informative, as below. For more on this, including suggestions for the best sources, see my article Common sizes of things in the Methods section.

chair measurements

So here below is a Louis XV chair! You would need to look at a lot of pictures of Louis XV chairs to decide whether this is an average or representative one. In the days before the internet it could take a long time for designers and artists to acquire a true sense of what was common or representative. These expert notions needed to be culled from books, or the work of other designers, or visits to museums, or by browsing in antique shops. Now it’s easy to get an instant and fairly reliable notion of what’s average, or representative, or popular, by examining the results of an image search.

But it’s also fair and balanced to say that the regular internet won’t provide the full picture .. for a start there’s a vast amount in the form of specialist image databases that the search engines can’t penetrate. You won’t get much like the following on the internet .. not only the Louis XV chair but a full measured drawing!

Louis XV armchair

armchair drawing

These can be found in a book by Verna Cook Salomonsky entitled Masterpieces of Furniture published in 1931. It was re-published by Dover in 1953, even so it is not so easy to find. It’s an ironic counterpoint that, although books (and especially older ones) will often provide more specific, detailed and reliable information than the internet, with many of the older books which have been archived the most efficient way of accessing their information is .. on the internet!

My point in all this is that the internet can often provide you with all the information you can carry, and somewhere within that mass may be all the information that you need .. but it puts the responsibility on you of becoming the expert. You have to search thoroughly and responsibly, you have to filter and organize (i.e. rather like an academic might in recording sources, questioning and checking information).

Where can compromises be made?

It’s clear that compromises do need to be made in the model, because the time the designer has for making it is not unlimited. It’s mainly about available time, so if ways are found to speed up the making process, to make it easier or less involved, without altering the resultant appearance of the model … this is not compromise, this is advancement! Getting into the habit of thinking in this way, of continually keeping an eye open for possible improvements to the process, is beneficial in more than just practical ways. It exercises inventive or creative thinking!

But if those ways of saving time cannot not found, however hard one tries, what simplifications in appearance are acceptable? This is a difficult question to answer, because it .. just depends! I’ve mentioned one possibility already, with the case of drawing in highlights or shadow lines on window struts to make them appear finer. I would say this is on the whole perfectly acceptable, because the fine additions that are being feigned are not going to cause anyone to misunderstand the real appearance, structure or space intended. It’s not altering the most significant proportions of the whole. To illustrate another example I was drawn to thinking about the craft of paper-cuts which was developed to quite a ‘high art’ in the Victorian era. This one below is from the 1840s, courtesy of the Columbus Museum in Ohio, US.

Victorian era paper-cut

What’s so significant about this and many others like it is that it’s so convincing .. in spite of being so artificial! What I mean is that although we’re very familiar with shadows, or seeing silhouettes of real things when lit from behind, as a real occurrence in daily life (and this certainly helps with our acceptance of this form) .. there’s really nothing more unreal than forms reduced to 2 dimensions with no hint of colour or volume. Yet I for one feel totally drawn into accepting this as the representation of a real moment .. I’m transported to the place in my imagination where I’m more conscious of what is being represented than how it is represented.

How is this accomplished .. when the only means used to convince me is the simplest line? It is achieved through a very exact understanding of overall and believable proportions, together with a clever choice of which details will count!

PRACTICAL GUIDANCE

Building up on ‘cut-outs’

When I was training as a theatre designer and had to tackle making model chairs I can’t remember specifics of the guidance we were given but I think it was assumed, like most people do, that one approaches it much as a carpenter would except 25-times too small to do proper joints. That is, that one starts with cutting very thin strips of wood which are cut to specific lengths and glued together to make the construction. I’m sure we were encouraged to make scale drawings first so that we at least had guides for placing these minute pieces while gluing and I’m sure it was also common to make the whole of the back of the chair including the legs as a flat piece against the drawing. It was incredibly fiddly, virtually impossible not to glue these pieces firmly to the drawing instead and difficult to coax these tiny components into lying straight and level. Even if one could get a reasonable result, it would remain very fragile. Also, one of the main reasons for using wood was that it would convey the ‘real’ material, with a pleasing suggestion of grain which could be stained to any shade. But any vestige of glue visible around the joints would not stain, and given the size this was impossible to avoid so often much of the painstaking effort could be negated by ugly patches.

After a while I gave up on this and looked around for other methods. About the same time a friend introduced me to a soft sheet plastic called foamed Pvc which came in thicknesses of 1mm upwards. It offered the possibility of cutting small and intricate shapes easily with a scalpel. Although soft to cut the material is resilient, retains its straightness and is easy to paint especially if primed. The brand I use is Palight which seems to be softer than the others.

making model chairs

Foamed Pvc can be drawn on with a pencil but I usually prefer to spraymount a printed drawing and cut through that, because it saves time if I need more. It’s also much easier to draw up the original at a larger scale such as 1:10 (shown below) and reduce to 1:25 (40%). I use a very minimal amount of repositionable spraymount (3M blue can) so that in the end the paper can be peeled off the plastic. The photo above shows the three chair parts .. back, seat and front legs .. being cut out. It is worthwhile to note that I am cutting the inside parts of the form out first i.e. working from the centre outwards. Keeping the form in the sheet until the last cut means that you always have more to hold onto while cutting. One drawback perhaps is that Pvc can only be glued with superglue, which is not everyone’s favourite and doesn’t allow much repositioning.

The chair assembled above may serve quite well as a good mock-up, after all the overall dimensions and proportions are exact, and it can look much more convincing if properly painted. I left the paper drawing on for this photo but normally I would peel it off before gluing the parts together. Palight foamed Pvc can even be scraped with coarse sandpaper to create a fake ‘grain’ which looks very like real wood when washed with colour (this will be illustrated in the later post on ‘Painting’). But it’s certainly lacking in the proper visual weight because parts of it, particularly the legs, don’t have a believable thickness if left at 1mm (which is 2.5cm, or 1 inch at 1:25 scale). What I usually do is

model chairs with drawing

apply further strips to these cut-outs, sanding the joins as flush as possible, before gluing the chair pieces together. These strips can either be more Pvc  or thin wood such as obeche. For these chairs, enlarged below for more detail, I’ve applied 0.8mm sheet obeche strips to the chair-back surround, the legs and the whole of the seat. The grain is visible, even though the whole chair needs to be painted to unify wood with plastic. The joins between the layers are just about visible in the photo, but I think this hardly matters.

chairs detail

I’ve also tried this ‘add on’ or layer method just using stencil card. The chairs below are actually pretty strong, even though only a thin card is being used. A double layer of stencil card would itself be quite tough to cut through, so I’ve made these by cutting out pieces in one layer, gluing those down on another piece (as shown in the bottom left corner), and then cutting out again around them. For more on these methods look at my article Working with stencil card in the Materials section.

stencil card chairs

Gluing on paper templates

Another method, particularly if you prefer to use real wood, is to build up structures by purposely gluing down to the drawn paper template. I thought of this because of the difficulty of separating glued work from the drawn guide in the past .. why not glue it all down to the paper? This can work for furniture, but it can be especially ideal for building up window frames because in this case the back surface is not usually seen.

building windows on drawn template

Here thin obeche wood (0.8mm thickness) has been glued completely to the paper using Pva wood glue, with further strips built up on the outer frame. After gluing is finished the structure should ideally be left for a couple of hours for the glue to strengthen and paper to dry. Then using a sharp blade-point the paper can be cut away, leaving just the wood form visible at the front but still backed with a thin layer of glued paper. This makes it surprisingly stable. The technique is most suited to working with wood and Pva glue, because the glue can be thinly applied and leaves little residue (Pva glue contracts to almost nothing around the edges).

windows

Some general tips for cutting

See the section on cutting in the previous post ‘Main construction’ because all of that applies equally here .. especially the choice of knife and general approach to cutting .. but there are some additional tips to remember when it comes to working at a finer level.

Small curves may be the trickiest to manage, even with a fine blade and a relatively soft material such as foamed Pvc. Something which makes this a lot easier is making a rough-cut around the shape very close to the intended line before starting to cut it. The reason this helps is that as the intended line is cut the friction on the blade is lessened because the surplus material (often referred to as the waste ) now has somewhere to move to, as illustrated below. One can make it even easier sometimes by ‘shaving down’ to the line in small stages, more like carving than cutting. Although this is of more help when cutting a pliable material such as plastic, the difference is noticeable when cutting cardboard or even thin wood.

rough cutting technique

But extra care needs to be taken when cutting fine pieces out of wood for two main reasons. Firstly the wood may be a little brittle, meaning that it has a tendency to split along the grain when the scalpel blade is forced too firmly into it. Secondly the grain will often divert the scalpel blade, particularly when trying to cut straight lines along its direction. In each case cutting needs to proceed in gentle, successive strokes. But there are other precautions that can be taken. Although not shown in the next-but-one photo, I have covered the underside of a piece of wood with masking tape before cutting a circular table-top. This will help in preventing the wood from splitting.

working with obeche wood

As for cutting the line, I have traced it carefully with the scalpel first to establish a more definite guiding line but then (as in the previous example in plastic) I am shaving down to the line first. When close to the line the rest can be smoothed off using a sanding block (cardboard nail-files, shown above, can also be useful for very small work).

cutting a circle in wood

It is very easy when cutting a grid of window struts to accidently cut through them. Often this is a momentary lack of concentration .. the work is repetitive and can feel pretty mindless, so one goes into ‘coasting mode’. But it isn’t helped by the fact that whereas we can always see where to begin a line, it’s more difficult to see where to end because the scalpel blade is in the way. The method of avoiding this is to cut each line only so far, stopping purposely near to but not quite to the end, turn the work around and complete the line from the other direction. I always cut lines like these in groups, for example, cutting all the lines along the same edge for each square first, then completing all of them, then doing the same for the next edge etc.

cutting a window

Lastly, I always find I can be more accurate if I keep to the same orientation of drawn line, guiding ruler and scalpel each time. This is a bit difficult to describe, but what I mean by the ‘same orientation’ is, for example .. always cutting against the far side of the ruler, always placing the ruler over the part that’s going to be kept (as opposed to the ‘waste’), etc. This means that my physical relationship to the line I’m trying to get  is, as far as possible, always the same and that helps greatly in terms of control!

Setting up for gluing

As I’ve said, the methods for ‘main construction’ and making the finer constructions here are pretty much the same, so it is worth referring back to the examples looked at in the previous post. Even though small, it is still sometimes necessary to construct a special support structure to glue them together. Below is one that I made quickly to help gluing a small park bench together.

construction jig

The leg units are meant to appear free-standing without an obvious connecting structure. In full-size reality there would be a metal connecting structure underneath the wooden planks and these would be bolted to the wrought-iron units. The problem here was just setting up the three leg units so that they were already in the right position and perpendicular (90degrees upright) and this cardboard ‘construction jig’ was the most reliable way I could think of for doing that. Above I’ve secured the legs (cut from 1mm foamed Pvc) to cardboard uprights with thin strips of masking tape. I decided to paint after assembly in this case so that nothing would interfere with the glue. The planks can then be glued in place on top individually and again, I decided to stain these after assembly (not yet done in the photo below).

As I said, this was my preferred method but one of the RADA students suggested that it could work just by drawing groundplan positions on a piece of paper and propping the leg units into position using Blu tack (or possibly plasticine) which I think is also a good solution. My method would perhaps be preferable if one had to assemble a number of benches rather than just one.

park bench

It’s worth saying a few things about superglue at this point, because it can be fairly indispensable, even if you’re not working with plastic. The first thing is of course that one usually needs very little at a time ( meaning, per making session) but superglue starts to set in the tube or bottle as soon as it is opened for the first time. The moisture in the air acts as a catalyst. So buying a ‘large’ bottle is senseless unless you’re working with it 24/7 for a number of days in a row! What remains in the bottle, even if you seal it tightly, may only last for another few weeks before thickening and setting solid. Partly for this reason I prefer to use the small tubes, because any wastage doesn’t matter so much. I’ve found that the small tubes or bottles from Poundland work better than many other more expensive brands I’ve tried i.e. some superglues tend to work well with certain materials and not so well with others, and the Poundland brand works very well with foamed Pvc, stencil card, obeche wood or Super Sculpey (as examples of the main materials I want it to work on).

superglue

One of the challenges that people have with superglue is being able to dose it, or apply it delicately without squeezing out too much .. which can often result in a mess and glued fingers, as most people who’ve tried will know! I often squeeze out a little puddle of superglue onto a piece of plastic and apply it using the end of a cocktail stick. The puddle will remain fluid for quite a while before it starts gelling. Incidentally, I work almost totally with thin superglue rather than the gel type, because I usually rely a lot on being able to introduce superglue into a joint ‘from the outside’ where it can travel into the joint and set. This can’t be done with the gel type. An alternative to help with controlled dosing is attaching an even finer tube to the nozzle supplied. Poundland sell packs of superglue bottles in which a few tapered tubes are included. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous or dedicated (and if you have a hot-air gun), you can make your own fine-dosing tubes by finding some transparent ‘shrink-wrap’ tubing in Maplin or another electronics outlet. This is tubing that shrinks when heated to fit tightly around wires. The end of this needs to be heated and pulled to create a minute nozzle, similar to those above.

I’ve said that atmospheric moisture causes superglue to set. This also means that it is more effective if the materials being glued together also have a bit of that atmospheric moisture, and one of the reasons incidentally why fingers glue so well! There may be occasions when superglue appears not to take, and one remedy is to brush surfaces with the fingers beforehand or even breathe on them, to introduce a bit more moisture. There are also accelerator liquids available for superglue to make it set even faster (so called ‘zip-kicker’ and a sure way of gluing two parts together instantly is to put superglue on one part as one normally would but apply not glue but accelerator to the other before bringing them together.

One last tip here is that if you’re using the thin type of superglue but you want to make it both more gap-filling and quick setting, the joint can be sprinkled with common baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) either before or after applying the glue. This solidifies on contact and forms a very strong bond. I’ve demonstrated the uses of this in my post Modelling small-scale figures from March 2013.

Is it worth knowing how to solder?

I’d like to say yes, because the work and the results can be very satisfying when all is going well and proper scale can be achieved with thin brass wire as opposed to some other options, but to be honest I prefer to avoid it unless it’s the only practical solution. Consider this challenge, for example. Imagine that you have planned an elegantly curving staircase and that you would like to create a balustrade for it that is suitably delicate in keeping with the style, perhaps just composed of thin uprights joining a simple, curving handrail. Years ago when the world was still largely ‘traditionalist’ and the material options for model-making seemed to begin and end with .. cardboard, wood or metal (with perhaps some plaster, and some organza thrown in) .. those ‘in the know’ would certainly have suggested soldering with thin brass rod. But now consider what you have to do to achieve that! You can’t solder your pieces of brass onto your cardboard construction and you can’t really glue metal to it with any security either. So in order to secure the uprights to the construction you’d have to drill tiny holes in the right place at the edge of every step. Those holes would have to be deep enough to hold the uprights in position and of course they’d all have to be perfectly perpendicular. This may just about be possible if your construction were made of solid wood but doubtful with cardboard. Now there’s the question of how all those uprights, even if one did manage to fix them and they are all exactly the right height, join with the handrail. It would be most logical to make the handrail also out of brass rod so that the uprights could be soldered to it. But this would mean that the piece of rod would firstly need to be bent to exactly the right smooth curve with no allowance for even slight departures from it. I don’t think I need to go on! I’ve seen these marvels of craftsmanship and dedication in the past, but I pale to think how much time they must have taken or what specialist skills they involved. I have very mixed feelings about these things .. for me they’re reminiscences of a different age when craftspeople could dedicate a whole year of their lives to the meticulous decoration of an egg!

Even though I actually love soldering I’m presenting it in this cautionary way because I think the alternatives should perhaps be considered first. For example, I feel the way I’ve chosen to make the scaffolding structure in the previous post is better .. it’s cheaper, quicker, more achievable and, actually, stronger because it’s not labouring under its own weight, as brass of this thickness would do. But on the other hand I don’t think I would be able to get the clean, precise and properly scaled result I wanted for this brass bed frame if I hadn’t taken the trouble to solder it in brass.

brass bed

In particular the curved elements wouldn’t have worked using plastic because only metal keeps that kind of shape. Below are balustrades being made as cut-outs from 1mm Pvc with strips of wood added to give them some dimension. I would think that this is the quickest way if one can cut the Pvc uprights thinly and cleanly enough and if square-section uprights are acceptable. But if round-section and more delicate rods are necessary for the look, brass is perhaps a better option especially if the structure is staying flat.

balustrade in Pvc

stair balustrades in Pvc and wood strip

I would probably have solved the curving balustrade problem we began with here by cutting the whole thing on-the-flat in Pvc (or even stencil card) and then wrapping and gluing it to the curved surface, as in the example of the spiral staircase below and featured in the previous post.

completed stair portion

railings in stencil card

It is certainly not my intention to put you off soldering, and if you want to know more about exactly how its done look at my article A quick guide to soldering in the Methods section.

Shaving legs or modelling legs

This is bound to get me a lot of search engine hits!  But I’m referring to two fairly easy ways of creating a ‘turned’ (i.e. done on a lathe) look which is such a common feature of period furniture, particularly table legs and balusters. This is the kind of thing that strongly defines or greatly enhances the ‘look’ by fairly achievable means.

tables in progress

For the first method thin wooden dowel, wooden skewers or cocktail sticks .. any forms of thin, round, smooth wood .. are most suitable, but it can also be done with round-section styrene strip, as in the close-up below. Divisions are made on the dowel surface by rolling and pressing the scalpel blade to make a significant but small cut. These divisions correspond to the intervals in the decoration intended. Then the scalpel blade is used at a fairly oblique (flat) angle to shave or carve slivers of wood down to the cut keeping the dowel turning between the fingers. Although it needs care and control, the method can be surprisingly quick.

shaving legs

Below are chairs made from styrene strip, ready to be painted.

styrene chairs

The other method of achieving the same shapes involves applying a modelling material over strong metal rod, such as brass, and shaping it by pressing with formers such as a cocktail stick or even a comb. The ideal material to use is Milliput, which is a very fine 2-part epoxy putty. Milliput is very sticky, so it will stay put on the metal while being modelled, and it sets very hard. Once set it can also be shaved or sanded to improve the look without crumbling off as some softer modelling compounds might.

modelling balusters in Milliput

WORKING EXAMPLES

Constructing a chandelier

When making this test subject I was thinking of the heavy brass chandeliers which look as if they’re made from brass piping, full of curves and arabesques. I didn’t have a particular one in mind, just the sense or essence of the type.

chandelier

I felt it was far more important to get the overall symmetry and balance of the shape, together with the sense of fine, tight and flowing curves, rather than worry too much about the sleekness of round brass in the originals. If I’d wanted that I would have to have used brass wire bent into shapes, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to bend wire finely enough to achieve all these matching segments!

The first task was to design it, by drawing up a segment shape that was sufficiently curvaceous and full-looking but also kept as simple as possible beyond that. I could have made it simpler still, but every element of the drawing below is chosen to convey not only the desired look but also something which will stay together structurally when made.

chandelier drawing

I then made a scan of the drawing (which I’d drawn at 1:10 for convenience), reduced the image file to 40% to make it 1:25 scale, and printed out a sheet of copies. Incidentally, it’s generally harder for people to wrap their heads round percentages or conversions than I’d imagined! If you need help on the subject read my post Working in Scale from June 9 2013.

cutting chandelier sections

In this case I used Photo Mount, which is the permanent type of spraymount from 3M, to fix the drawings to stencil card since it would not be necessary to remove the paper from the cut forms. This type of intricate cutting does take practise, and a lot of patience, but if successful it is still a great deal easier than by any other hand-making method.

central support

A central support was needed because this is always a feature of the real chandelier designs and it also helps in spacing the segments evenly. The central rod here is styrene plastic, shaved with the scalpel to suggest a turned element. The cut-outs were glued on with superglue and I used a gold Edding marker pen to paint once assembled. The sequins used as candle saucers were a final touch, also quite effective in introducing a bit more ‘bling’ to the whole thing.

chandelier with cutout pieces

Making ‘ironwork’ arches

This is also something I’ve featured elsewhere, in ‘Working with Palight foamed Pvc’ in the ‘Materials’ section, but I have to appropriate it because it’s so relevant here.

finished piece

Although it’s much easier to draw on foamed Pvc with a pencil (unlike styrene or ABS) I prefer to work out a design on paper and spraymount a copy on the plastic. In the photo below I have started cutting out the ironwork shape through the paper. Curves are much easier with Pvc than cardboard because the composition is much smoother, with no particles or fibres to affect the passage of the blade. Cutting is easier also because it is more porous (foamed) on the inside and will ‘give’ a little under the blade causing much less friction.

starting with a cutout

If the paper cutting template is lightly fixed with spraymount (especially the repositionable type) it can be easily peeled off the form once cut.

removing paper

In this case the Pvc cut-out serves as a firm, cleanly cut basis upon which more detail, profiling or strengthening can be added on top. It’s a constructional principle of ‘building in layers’ which I’ve developed for myself over the years and try to follow most of the time. Below I’m adding a strip of styrene (a harder plastic which can be bought in a wide variety of pre-made strip formats) to make a thicker top rail. The easiest way to glue this on in exactly the right place first time is to position a guide-block (in this case a metal block) against the top, press the cut length of styrene against it and run a little thin superglue (using a plastic gluing brush or cocktail stick if preferred) along the join. The thin type of superglue will travel into the join and set immediately.

assembling against metal block

Below, I am doing similar but this time with a very thin (c. 1mm) cut strip of the same Pvc to give the arches more substance. Pvc is nicely bendable, especially in thin strips. The trick with bonding a strip in an exact curve is to fix the strip with a spot of glue at one end first, then curve and position the rest, spot-gluing at intervals to the other end. I’ve cut the strip a little longer, to be trimmed off when the end is reached.

adding curved detail

The columns were completed by adding half-round styrene strips, which can also be bought in various thicknesses.

ironwork in progress

‘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