Making ‘white card models’ for film or television design

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

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

‘White card models’ explained

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

white card model

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

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

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

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

Edwina Camm white card model

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

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

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

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

White card model for 'Moon' 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwina Camm white card model

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

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

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

Should a ‘white card model’ stay white?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

white card model

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

Wyeth style house

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


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

Hogwart's white card model

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

White mountboard

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

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

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

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

Thinner white card

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

1:48 scale model for 'Boardwalk Empire' 2010

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

Stencil card

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Styrofoam, expanded polystyrene and PU foam

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

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

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

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

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

Foamed Pvc and styrene

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

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

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

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

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

‘Model-making Basics’ – creating surfaces

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 fourth of five outline accounts dealing with what I consider to be the five defining areas of model-making work; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. 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. I’ve started with the general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance on the materials and methods which can be used.

Surfaces in the model can be created by a much wider variety of means than most people realize. Although theatre design models are expected to survive the distance of their short run through the production process, they are not oppressed by the need to last forever, which opens up a much wider choice of materials than a sculptor would normally trust. There’s a huge choice therefore .. but people generally narrow it down by developing their own preferences. I think the choice is also quite personally directed from the beginning .. are you a ‘breaking down’ or a ‘building up’ kind of person, or do you prefer to let ready-made surfaces do most of the work?

If one can speak of ‘grammatical rules’ in the language of model-making, the subject of surfacing/painting taken as a whole has some of its own ones. For example, whereas structures require quite a strict attention to scale, the rules can be bent when it comes to the representation of surfaces. This is for a number of reasons .. firstly it may not be possible to represent the subtle intricacies of a surface at that scale; secondly, even if one could manage it, those intricacies might not be readable anyway, and the last, probably most important reason, has to do with the artifice of theatre itself and this needs a bit of explanation.

Theatre is artificial, but like most other art-forms one of its aims is to convey what’s ‘real’ to us in a different way to how we usually receive it. Theatre employs its own characteristic means of balancing what we recognise as real with what we are meant to distinguish as artificial. So for example when an actor moves to the front of the stage to deliver a soulful monologue we are not meant to assume that his character has just happened to notice the audience or that everyone else on the stage can hear him. These are his private thoughts but they have to be spoken, otherwise we wouldn’t get them. The monologue is a device, a theatrical convention that we are meant to accept but not take literally.

The representation of a location on stage is equally artificial and equally a balance of real and unreal. We may be presented with a fairly detailed ‘slice of life’ on stage but we accept that we can see the cut edges of this, in the same way we accept that a living-room may be missing a wall just to give us a good view. If we take what we see too literally (and sometimes, if it is depicted too literally) it may not make sense. It may break the suspension of disbelief that it is trying to maintain. A classic example of this is when live animals are used on stage. A live goat is the real thing .. what could be a more convincing goat than that? .. but it’s also curiously out of place there, and we devote too much of our attention to wondering whether it’s going to behave!

The same things apply to the representation of surfaces which are meant to signify sometime real but which we know are fake. The objective for the designer is not to fool anyone into thinking that a real wall has been transplanted onto the stage but to make such a good job of conveying the essentials that the audience can happily forget about the distinction. It may even help if it looks a little stylized, or obviously artificial, so that it sits comfortably with the rest of the artifice and so that we are not as distracted as we were by the live goat. In this context realism is achieved by design rather than exact copying, and relies as much on the power of suggestion as truthful depiction. If an impression of realism is intended the designer needs to understand all the ingredients that go together to make the look .. whether it’s a whole bar-room scene or a single brick wall .. and distill that recipe down to a more concentrated form.

Do you see how the model can help with this? .. having to make a small-scale model is an integral part of this process of concentration. It’s not possible to include every detail .. the model becomes the filter!

keeping separate for painting

I’m starting with, as I said, some general ‘themes’ behind the subject of creating surfaces .. ways of thinking, rather than ways of doing .. but then I have selected specific materials or methods which represent the different ways of approaching surfaces .. breaking down, building up, covering with ‘ready-mades’, sprinkling into glue and digital prints.

Many of the better photos used here are from my book Model-making: Materials and Methods and were taken by Astrid Baerndal.


The importance of visual research and observation

This will always be one of the foundation stones of this work, at whichever stage of the process. In one of the previous posts in this series I asked whether anyone of a right or responsible mind would try to make a believable Louis XV chair without looking at visual references. Similarly nobody would try to recreate the walls of Versailles without researching, yet we all feel a bit differently when it comes to creating a simple brick or plastered wall. The fact is that although these may not have as many specifics as the walls of Versailles, they still have some which can’t be just imagined! The way things ‘weather’, decay, or even just get a little used have specific visual characteristics according to location and these must be investigated as far as possible if one wants to keep them convincing. As I’ve already said, this doesn’t mean that ‘the look’ won’t be simplified or condensed in the end .. but only after one has a clearer idea of the true ingredients!

photo of weathered plaster

However, whereas one can usually trust that a photo which is captioned ‘Palace of Versailles’ comes from a very specific location (if not of period), one has to be more critical when looking for information on more general surfaces. Doing a Google search using the terms ‘old plaster wall’ or ‘decayed wall’ etc. will bring up a whole variety of images, some of which might well be very helpful in refining your perception of what looks convincing, but many of which could be misleading! For example the photo above comes from the (by far largest and best) free database of texture and surface photos and can be found under ‘Plaster’ in the sub-section ‘Leaking’. There is no other information provided, such as where the photo was taken, what sort of building it was or whether this is an interior or exterior wall. We have to take it on trust that this is actually ‘plaster’! We can all make certain reasonable guesses that it must be exterior and that it has a lot to do with the action of water, based on clues in the photo combined with what we might have seen before, but without more specifics we’re still guessing, making assumptions .. and the result is a stereotype! Are you happy to work within and reinforce that realm of assumptions and stereotypes, or would you rather get closer to the truth, at least in terms of how things really look?

Apart from specific visual references which may be collected as-and-when needed, a theatre designer also needs to build up a certain amount of general knowledge on the subject of common surfaces. Things like the standard size of bricks and their common patterns or bonds, usual widths for floorboards or how wood panelling is usually arranged. For example mistakes are often made when representing brickwork not only in getting the size wrong but also by not knowing the basics of the different brick patterns and the reasons for them. I explain these and provide template guides for marking out in my article brickwork patterns in the Methods section.

Making tests and keeping samples

It’s not easy to predict what a surface texture will look like until it’s sampled, and it’s harder to predict how paint will behave on it! Even using just one material to create a surface may involve a number of operations or stages, each of which could be done in a number of different ways. So it’s important to experiment .. to rehearse how to achieve the look you want and explore the variables, before you commit to doing something irrevocable to a piece of model you’ve just made. Because painting is even more unpredictable you should also paint at least a part of your surface sample before going further .. it’s best not to cover all of it so that you have the comparison of painted and unpainted for future reference. Although I try to separate ‘creating surfaces’ and painting up time-wise, as subjects for teaching, and because they involve their own materials and methods to an extent, in practice they are inseparable! Some materials chosen as surfaces need no ‘painting’ as such, just a little changing; some textures dictate how they should be painted and do most of the work for the brush i.e. when dry-brushing; sometimes it’s worth mixing colour into a texturing medium to texture and paint at the same time .. all this brings the painting stage forward in time, at least in terms of testing, which I recommend in the next post as a very good move!

Since you are spending some time on these test swatches it would be silly not to capitalise on that by collecting them in a purposed sample book. Personally, even if your memory is better than mine, I would recommend labelling each sample with basic info outlining the process i.e. which type and brand of material used, which tools used etc.

surface samples

Dealing with the problem of warping

You may have noticed from previous posts that I rarely use the word ‘problem’ preferring words like ‘challenge’ instead. This is teacher training! But I draw the line before ever looking at warping in a positive light! It is always annoying, but sometimes it can be rather devastating! So quickly .. the ways of dealing with it!

First one has to understand that all absorbent surfaces (such as paper, cardboard, wood, even foam) will warp when exposed to water, even if it’s in the minimal form of moisture, as they dry out. Surfaces which are largely non-absorbent in comparison (such as plastic or metal) will not. The second thing is that those absorbent surfaces will not warp when exposed in the same ways to a solvent other than water, such as white spirit or acetone. Why this is exactly I really don’t know, but there must be reasons. Armed with this knowledge, there are a number of things you can do. You can make your absorbent surfaces more non-absorbent by sealing them .. by spraying them with a thin coat of spray primer such as Simoniz acrylic primer, for example, or trying anything such as fixative or even hair-spray to seal the surface, as long as it dries properly, accepts texture medium or paint over it and doesn’t contain water as a solvent.

paint primers

I would recommend the Simoniz brand of spray primer above. .. it’s the best I’ve tried. A light spray will be enough to seal the surface and although it touch-dries very quickly it’s best to leave it a few hours before painting. I’ve found that if it is properly dry it will take even thin washes of acrylic without resisting them (unlike the Plasti-kote brand next to it which, true to its name, behaves more like a coating of plastic).

Another way is to spraymount surfaces onto card instead of applying polyfilla or paint to it directly. We’ll be looking at some of the options for ready-made surfaces later, but what I really mean here is that you could paint or apply texture medium on thin paper first, letting it warp freely as it dries out, then spraymount it flat onto your constructed pieces.


Scoring, breaking down or impressing foam sheet

The principle type of ‘impressionable’ foam sheet I use is the foam from the inside of Kapa-line foamboard, but there are other types almost as suitable such as the foam in various types of black foamboard, Depron sheet and Styrofoam. But Kapa-line foam is the best for this in my opinion .. softer, more yielding; takes any form of paint well, and is not affected by the solvents in spraypaints or glues. Most of the points made here and some more can be found in my article Creating surfaces with Kapa-line foamboard in the Materials /- surfacing section.

painted brickwork surface

The foam from Kapa-line foamboard is particularly suitable for brickwork at this scale. A pencil point (mechanical type) stroked along it will give a clean, fine impression .. a light, even stroke for newer, modern brickwork or pressing harder to create a more jagged line suitable for older, damaged brick. This older, more crumbled look can be further emphasized by breaking the foam surface up with a wire brush or pushing whole bricks in with a piece of wood. It’s important to get the scale just right and bricks look smaller at this 1:25 scale than one imagines, so I always use a brickwork template I’ve drawn up to transfer measurements and spacings to the foam surface.

scoring brickwork lines in foam

But foam can be used for so much more than just brickwork. Anything can be used to create an interesting pattern suggesting architectural decoration, including oddly shaped dental tools or items of jewellery as shown below.

embossing architectural decoration

As another example .. I was given a box of hard plastic cake decoration moulds and I think they’re meant to be used for moulding soft icing. I didn’t fancy using them as they were but when sawn up into small parts they make interesting impression tools. I had to hot-glue these portions onto sticks so that they could be used properly for pressing.

customised impression tools

The foam in Kapa-line foamboard (and this goes for any of these ‘soft but rigid’ foams) can only be pressed in so far before it will start to tear. I found that I could get a much better and deeper impression using these wider tools if I pressed into separate strips, allowing the foam more opportunity to move.

heavily decorated wall

This wall becomes more of a three-dimensional structure than just a surface and one could argue that it belongs more to the previous post on Modelling and shaping but I wanted to deal with these methods within the context of ‘elaborating on a plane’ and surfaces which are ‘collaged’ together.

shaping a curved edge

Kapa-line foam is one of the easiest materials to use for creating curved-profile strips, to build up wall cornices or similarly heavy wall mouldings for example. I mean, if those shapes have to be more than a few millimetres in size, because ready-made strips of styrene plastic (half or even quarter-circle in section) can be bought for the finer ones. The best way to make these is to prepare an edge of the foamboard i.e. making sure that it is clean, straight and perpendicular, and carefully cut through the top paper (trying not to cut too deeply for the moment into the foam underneath) in order to peel away a strip which is the width you want your shaped strip to be. It stands to reason that it’s going to be a lot easier to shape your strip while it’s still supported, still part of the board. I’ve found that the best sandpaper to use for easy and smooth shaping of the Kapa-line foam is a medium grit i.e. 120 and this must be backed i.e. stuck down on a small board in order to control it. It’s easy to sand the foam and it’s easy to do it smoothly and evenly with a bit of practise .. the main danger is the tendency to apply a little more pressure at either end of the piece making these more flattened.

It’s just as easy to make a strip with a concave shape, such as the curve of a cornice wall moulding between wall and ceiling, by fixing sandpaper tightly against a piece of wooden dowel and running this along the foam edge. I prepared this edge as before by first removing a strip of the paper, but then I took a long slice off the corner first to give the sander something to start on.

shaping a curved edge_2

Returning to the use of tools to break up or make impressions in the surface, two of my favourites are the small wire brush and the ‘fixative pipe’ shown below. Just pressing the wire brush into the foam will create a pitted surface ideal for weathered concrete, paving stones or tarmac, and the hollow tubes of the fixative pipe make a perfect cobblestone pattern.

texturing Kapa-line foamboard foam

Below is a convincing simulation of weathered tarmac made by a student at Rose Bruford College.

weathered tarmac effect

Even more specialised ‘impressing’ tools can be made quite easily out of Super Sculpey. I modelled the one below to create a particular kind of cobblestone and baked it for the maximum time in the oven (rather than using a hot-air gun) to ensure that it was as hard as possible. For more on this and the best ways to do it see the post Making relief patterning tools using Sculpey from January 2013.

using a modelled pressing tool

Armelle Ramage, while a 1st yr student of Design for Screen at Wimbledon College of Art, made good use of this technique to create the distinctive wall symbols for this model of an Egyptian tomb, although my quick work-in-progress photo doesn’t do it full justice.

patterns pressed in foam

Kapa-line foam compresses very well i.e. it stays put and doesn’t fill out again when it’s painted. Below, I’m using this to create the suggestion of layers of rock in this piece of foam, mainly by pressing down with a small ruler. I’ve used a sharp dental tool to slash the surface beforehand.

rock surface

Another specialised use for Kapa-line foam is the creation of curtains because, as below, it can be sanded to represent the folds of fabric. If a pattern is needed the easiest way is to print this on tissue-paper and paste it onto the surface. Printing on tissue paper is possible if this is fed through the printer attached to a regular sheet of paper (there will be more about this later).

curtains with foam and tissue paper

In his model for Paradise Lost the designer Ben Stones carved this theatre curtain in styrofoam rather than trying to make real fabric behave in a scale-friendly way. It would be difficult to arrange such purposeful folds even using a very thin fabric. curtains carved in foam

The advantages of being able to create the surfaces you want in black foamboard (as opposed to the special Kapa-line) are that it’s cheaper and obtainable almost everywhere. Another advantage is that there may be less painting involved (at least less base-coating perhaps) because the foam is dark grey to begin with. Not all black foamboard brands enable easy peeling of the paper though, so one needs to test if one can before buying. The polystyrene foam is not as fine and impressionable as the polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard but it’s good for things like the brickwork below, using the same tools and paints used on the Kapa-line foam. However, being polystyrene the foam in black foamboard will be dissolved by spraypaints and solvent glues (such as UHU and superglue) so I wouldn’t advise spraying a brickwork surface you’ve spent some time on. Spraypaint doesn’t dissolve it completely though and for some things you may find it an interesting surface in itself!

using black foamboard for brickwork

In one respect the black foam gives a better result than Kapa-line foam, when a wire brush is pressed/dragged along it to suggest heavily weathered wood! I’ve written a short article Using standard black foamboard and this can be found in the Materials /- surfacing section.

old wood with wire brush

As indicated in the previous post, styrofoam can also be broken down to create a texture, though it is not quite as yielding when making impressions. The rocky surface below was made by first slashing with the back of a scalpel blade, beating with a wire brush and then scratching away with the scalpel. I’ve used thin, matt acrylic to paint this.

texturing styrofoam

painted styrofoam

Although foams like the ones featured are the most yielding materials in this context, there are some others that can be ‘broken down’ in a similar way. ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc is soft enough to make quite an impression when scraping sandpaper along the surface. For the samples below I used a coarse (60 grit) sandpaper mounted on a sanding block and dragged firmly but repeatedly in fairly straight lines to achieve the effect of wood grain. In some places I used the edge of the block to press in a deeper groove. It has to be practised to get an idea of the pressure needed, what movement works best and the range of what’s possible. A bonus is that because the plastic is sanded it will accept paint, even in thin washes, a lot better. After a number of experiments I found that the most convincing results came from undercoating first in a light wood colour (thinned System3 yellow ochre acrylic worked well) and once this dried washing over again with a much thinner, darker colour. This was because when I tried a darker wash first, the white of the Pvc was too visible in the highlights.

Pvc wood effect samples

To make the piece of panelled wall here I prepared an A4 size sheet of Palight first with the wood grain effect so that this could then be cut up into pieces and applied. I wanted rounded borders inside the panels and around the doorframe, for which I used bought strips of styrene plastic. These also had to be lightly sanded otherwise the paint treatment would not take in the same way.

panelling in Pvc before painting

One of the most important requirements of wood panelling, in terms of the right ‘look’ and whatever material is used to create it, is that it looks ‘composited’ of separate, joined pieces even if it is not. For this example I did actually do that, piecing together lots of separate bits but for example the main framework around the inset panels could be made as just two pieces here .. as long as the surface is grained in the right directions! In real panelling, whether on walls or single doors, the grain of the wood will almost always go in the direction of the longest side of the rectangle. For the painting in this case I just used a light wash of System3 yellow ochre without a second colour.

panelling in Pvc

close-up of panelling

Stencil card (also known in the UK as ‘oiled manilla’) can also take on the appearance of wood if it’s scraped with sandpaper, although for a finer scale it’s better to use a less coarse sandpaper such as 120 grit. Once it is ‘grained’ in this way it will take stain, polish or washes of acrylic well, even acrylic rubbed over using a cloth, and the colour will emphasize the surface structure. If acrylic is used it should be one with some transparency. For the various samples below I tried woodstains, liquid shoe polishes and System3 acrylics.

stencil card wood-effect samples

An advantage of using stencil card to simulate wood panelling is that, because it is relatively thin, layers can be built up without appearing too ‘heavy’. The standard thickness is 375 microns (about a 1/3 of a millimetre).

panelling in stencil card

Sealing or strengthening foam surfaces

Most foam surfaces can be just painted with acrylic and they will survive if handled carefully. They can also, of course, be undercoated with normal acrylic gesso first if you want to start from a white base. But if you’re worried about durability or want to make the surface more resilient for handling, there are a number of further options. The simplest is to coat the foam before painting with one or more layers of Pva wood glue. If you’re using a type which is easily brushable, such as one of the cheaper ‘school glue’ types this can be used as it is. The more professional wood glues such as Evo Stik Wood may need just a touch of water to help brushing them on more easily. Since Pva contracts a lot when drying there’s little danger of losing the surface detail .. but you will notice a very slight difference. An even tougher surface can be achieved using a special medium called Paverpol which is made in the US but available here. It is marketed as a medium for painting on or soaking fabric to make it tough, rigid and permanent, for example to drape it on a figure sculpture. It won’t make the surface of Kapa-line foam or styrofoam as strong as that but it makes them much stronger than painting alone. Paverpol comes in a few different base colours but includes a transparent one which accepts acrylic or powder pigment well, so one can mix up one’s own base colour. One important thing to bear in mind, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the styrene foams i.e. expanded polystyrene, styrofoam or Depron are attacked by solvents such as acetone, present in many spraypaints, or other spirit-based paints and glues. On the other hand the polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard is resistant. It can even be coated with polyester resin, which gives it an even more durable surface.

Using polyfilla or other texturing media

I’ve tried various options over the years but none is more reliable, versatile and durable than this specific brand .. the ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla from Polycell. This is a standard type, found in most warehouses and DIY shops and it is not particularly more expensive but it is far superior to any others for this type of work because of certain special properties. It comes ready-mixed in tubs and has an almost solid, gel-like consistency but this will turn to a smooth ‘cream’ once you stir it thoroughly. I’d recommend you don’t try to do this with the whole tub but transfer a smaller portion to a mixing pot first.

textures using fine surface polyfilla

It is very sticky ..much stickier than others I’ve tried .. meaning that this polyfilla will stay on plastic and even metal if the surfaces are properly clean. It will keep much of its adhesive property even if thinned down with water. It is very fine-grained, almost like thick acrylic paint, meaning that it can be spread very smoothly without breaking up and can be sanded if need be to a glass-like smoothness. It hardly shrinks at all unless applied very thickly and this means it doesn’t usually crack. Added to this, it dries fairly quickly and remains slightly flexible. Here are some samples showing the effects of applying the polyfilla in different ways i.e. stippling with a brush, spreading with a palette-knife or wooden fork, pressing with a rag etc. I’ve given these a wash of thin acrylic and then sanded down a little to make the structure more visible.

polyfilla textures

Below, polyfilla can also be used in combination with Kapa-line foam, to sharpen the surface detail or give even more depth.

old plaster wall effect

combination foam and polyfilla

The distinctive, stone-like texture below was made by spreading on a thin layer then pressing in a sponge while still wet to imprint the pattern. The sponge needs to be damp to prevent the polyfilla from sticking too much.

imprinting texture from sponge

Covering with ‘ready-made’ papers

One of my favourites is vinyl-textured wallpaper, which I’m concentrating on here, but there are so many others including marbled writing-paper, sandpaper sheets, or special decorative papers.

First, a few general words about spraymounting since this is the most convenient method of gluing down any piece of paper over a certain size. The most reliable brand to use is 3M (this seems to be the most commonly available anyway) but there are different types from 3M. I use the word ‘spraymount’ like most people do as a blanket term for all of them but strictly speaking ‘Spraymount’ is the name 3M gives to its lower-tack, repositionable spray-glue and this is not the best for sticking securely down straight away. Better for this purpose are either ‘Photomount’ which is stronger and permanent; ‘Displaymount’, even stronger for heavier materials, or lastly ‘Craftmount’ which is the strongest of all. With all of these a fairly light spray will suffice. The surface needs to feel tacky to the touch, but if so much is sprayed on that the paper slides around a little when sticking it down you can be sure that it’s too much. It will stick firmly eventually, but it’s more a question of economy since these sprays are expensive! 3M’s lower-tack ‘Spraymount’ can be used though if you want the option of repositioning. If sprayed on one surface it will remain temporary for about 12 hours whereas if both surfaces are sprayed this will be reduced to 2 hours.

One of the perks of using vinyl-textured wallpaper is that small amounts can be had for free! For example B&Q usually includes an opened roll of each type on their shelves for people to take samples home. ‘Vinyl’ doesn’t sound like the kind of material which will welcome paint, but it paints up very well with acrylic. More interestingly, because the vinyl relief pattern doesn’t cover the whole surface but leaves much of the soft backing paper exposed, washing with very thin acrylic will create a varied pattern as shown below.

vinyl wallpapers

Here below, I have used strips of vinyl wallpaper to create a rough stone effect for the 1:6 scale fireplace model mentioned in the previous post.

fireplace model

There are many interesting relief patterns or textures to choose from in paintable white .. but there are usually just as many coloured ones and these often have a finer-scale surface.

vinyl wallpaper samples

Other options for ‘ready-made’ papers include using the marbled writing paper shown below to simulate marble. Covering with transparent film is often the easiest way to achieve a polished look. The other papers below are a selection from the firm E. Becker who make decorative papers used in packaging or bookbinding. Paperchase and Shepherds in London (see Suppliers) stock a number of these.

decorative paper samples

Hobby or craft shops often sell sheets of ‘velour’ paper, especially in their card-making section, and these can serve well as carpet. Almost equally convincing as carpet is painted sandpaper.

velours and sandpaper

Creating patterns and printing surfaces

Circumstances have changed a great deal since I was a student of theatre design in the mid 1980s! If we wanted to create something like scaled wallpaper in a theatre design model we would normally seek out a pattern in a book and, if we managed to find a suitable one which had been reproduced flat-on, it needed to be reduced on the photocopier and carefully pieced together on the model. Because colour copies had a shiny surface and were often unreliable in terms of colour anyway, it was often necessary to photocopy in black&white and hand-colour afterwards!

Now the method of printing out as much as one wants, in exactly the right scale and in perfect colour on suitably matt paper, couldn’t be much simpler .. and all at home! I have described the whole process of creating scaled wallpaper using digital images in my post Using digital images in ‘realspace’ models – Part 1 from January 2013. Part 2 was going to look at whether photos of surfaces could be used in the model in place of texture medium and paint, but as this hasn’t appeared yet I’ll preview it here. I was always schooled in the idea that texture intended for the set design needs to be at least approximated with a real texture in the model for at least two reasons .. firstly so that light will behave in a similar way in the model and secondly to make it clear to the scenic artists that a real texture is intended. Both are good reasons but I also feel that as even the way that full-size theatre sets are created is changing through new technologies it should open up new methods of representation in the model .. at least that’s part of my argument for it.

persian carpet

For the first example I’m showing here I used a digital representation of a carpet pattern, scaled to size and printed on matt-coated inkjet paper. I chose a patterned carpet as a subject because it’s one of the most difficult things to reproduce in a scale model. I spraymounted the print onto thin plastic to give it some strength and keep it flat .. then attacked it with a wire brush. Careful ‘scumbling’ (pressing down and rocking around) with the brush gradually makes the paper surface fuzzy .. not as much as velour but it definitely gives it a texture. Some of the definition of the pattern is lost, but not much if careful .. it’s probably more suited for conveying the look of an old, worn carpet though.

printed carpet

I’ve only tested the technique using one type of matt paper, shown below, and there may be even better ones but I’d recommend this from WHSmith because it’s also fairly cheap at around £7 for 50 sheets.

matt photo paper

For the second example here I’ve used the high-resolution photo of ‘leaking plaster’ shown earlier .. which, whatever the specific source, is such a rich surface! I’ve used it as a general source of pattern and colour and collaged it on the wall construction shown below (the pieces of this model are also shown at the beginning of this article).

photo of weathered plaster

covering surface

The technique of roughening the photo is very effective for simulating these peeling walls! The wire brush will break up the surface just enough to catch the light in places, taking us away from just the sense of a flat photo but keeping all the photorealistic nuances that would be difficult to achieve with a brush.

distressing surface

Textures can also be applied on top, reasserting the three-dimensionality. Here I’m building up fungus or moss with a mix of acrylic paint, Pva and sand.

modified photo

wall sample with moss

I feel it’s worth showing the following examples of printing on very thin tissue paper even though I’ve only ‘dabbled’ with the method so far and am not sure about its usefulness. It’s certainly effective for applying a pattern to curtain folds created in Kapa-line foam shown earlier. There’s more about this, and how to print on tissue paper, at the end of Using digital images on ‘realspace’ models – Part1 from January 2013.

prints on tissue paper

‘Gluing and scattering’

I haven’t been able to find a cleaner phrase yet for the technique of brushing on a layer of glue and scattering something granular into it to create a surface. I tend to use it a great deal for representing plant foliage, but otherwise only very occasionally when the right ‘look’ can’t be achieved by any other means. For example, I can’t imagine there’s a more effective way of achieving the surface of a sloping pebble beach than hunting down the right colour and size of mini-gravel (from a shop selling scenic model materials or a pet shop selling aquarium supplies) and using that to cover a surface you’ve carefully shaped. Those are the challenges .. the terrain shape has to be created first by another means, one can’t mound this stuff into shape and expect it to stay there; secondly success in achieving the look that you want is so dependant on managing to find the ‘right stuff’. For example, back in 1999 when I was working on part of the presentation model for one of the Millennium Dome exhibition spaces I managed, after days of looking, to find an aquarium gravel that was so perfect in every way to recreate the shingle of Brighton beach in 1:25 scale .. shortly afterwards the shop closed down and I’ve never found anything remotely like it again! Below is the only photo I have of that part of the ‘Living Island’ model.

Living Island

Below is a piece of hedge, shaped from a piece of open-celled foam, covered with poppy seeds to create the effect of small leaves. The other materials featured include granulated cork, railway modeller’s ‘ballast’ and crushed eggshell.

surfaces made by scattering on glue

Textures can be created by ‘gluing and scattering’ and then painted to give a different appearance. Below are fine sand, sugar and ‘ballast’ compared to their painted versions underneath. Sugar can be sprinkled onto a thin layer of glue without dissolving too much but I’ve painted it with a spirit-based undercoat.

scatter texture samples

Using thin wood for panelling and floorboards

If wood is an important part of the setting you are designing, more often the case at least with the floor and the doors, it’s natural to think of using real wood in the model to convey this, although as I’ve shown the effect can be simulated with other materials. If a tight-grained, evenly coloured wood such as obeche, bass or balsa is used it just looks so right, in spite of the fact these are strictly speaking out of scale. These woods will also accept staining or varnishing in a ‘true to life’ way. As a material wood evokes a lot of sympathy .. we’re all very familiar with it, it’s sustained and supported us for many thousands of years, we’re grateful towards it .. hopefully! .. and I do think that plays a part when people say that they just like using wood in the model for whatever purpose. However, even if the wood is thin so that we don’t have to use saws to cut it, it is not as easy to work with as cardboard or plastic. When I say ‘thin wood’ I’m referring to the small sheets most commonly found in model shops measuring 100x915mm, the thinnest (and best choice) being 0.8mm thick. I’m not speaking about either wood veneer, which is most often thinner, or fine-scale modeller’s plywood. As for veneer, I found the ones I tried in the past expensive, difficult to flatten and brittle while even the thinnest modeller’s plywood was tougher to cut with a scalpel.

panelled walls and wood floors

Below is a page from one of my sample books showing swatches of (from top to bottom) walnut, the next two of obeche, followed by the paler bass, then spruce and finally modeller’s plywood. The darker walnut may be a good option to start with if you want to create dark wood panelling or a contrasting tone as in the floor above, but it costs a bit more and can be rather brittle. My favourite is obeche because it’s the most pliable, but bass is also easy to work with. Walnut, obeche and bass all have a ‘scale-

wood samples

friendly’ appearance but spruce is different and it would be a mistake to use this for fine panelling in a 1:25 scale model.

prominent resin pattern

I set up the photo below to illustrate the main stages of building up panelling, whether for doors or walls .. the base-layer, the framework and then the edging details. Since the base layer is mainly there to show what’s in the panels it’s important that the grain of the wood should run in the right direction. It’s a characteristic of almost every panelled surface that the grain of the wood follows whichever is the longer side of the rectangle. It’s also structurally ‘unsound’ (speaking of the real-life construction) if the grain of the wood goes in any other direction than the length. So the framework which I have shown on the middle example below has to be pieced together from separate strips. Unfortunately there’s no shortcut (i.e. cutting windows out of a continuous piece) because this just wouldn’t look right!

stages in making a door

Another feature of real-life construction which the model has to copy if it is to look convincing is the mitred join, that is, when two pieces connect at a 45degree angle as shown below. This is especially common on door or window frames, often because the profiled strips (i.e. having a particular, stepped shape) can only be joined this way. I describe the best methods for doing this in the post Making walls – Part 3 from February 2013 and this applies to working in wood even though there I’m using plastic.

stages in panelling_1

In the example shown here I’m gluing thin obeche wood onto Pvc plastic. Superglue has to be used for this, and it’s important to realize how little is necessary! In the first place it’s best to put the superglue on the plastic rather than the wood because it will soak in too quickly and may even infiltrate to the other side. Secondly only miniscule spots of glue are needed to secure the wood pieces to the plastic firmly .. certainly the opposite of smearing glue all over! Think of it more like using tiny nails .. only a few are needed, at the ends or corners and perhaps in the middle.

stages in panelling_2

For this piece I’m using small portions of cocktail stick inserted between the pieces of sheet wood to create rounded profiles. An important final touch, before staining or varnishing, is to take a piece of very fine sandpaper and ‘clean’ the hard edges a bit. It wipes away any loose fibres or splinters and generally softens the look a little, making it look more ‘in scale’.

stages in panelling_3

If for any reason you prefer to make up lengths of profiled strips separately, rather than building them up bit-by-bit as above, it makes more sense to assemble these together using the edge of a sheet. Below I’m making a profile strip composed of three separate pieces but gluing the top two on the edge of the sheet first before I cut the larger bottom one. This just makes the strips easier to handle.

making profile strips_1

I’m also using the clean side of a sanding block as a guide to glue up against.

making profile strips_2

More about stains and varnishes will be included in the next post on Painting. It’s important however to be aware beforehand how certain woods will react to staining and it may affect the choice of wood you use. As an example, the lighter strips of bass wood included below have become much darker than the others when stained.

floorboards in the model

Below is a different method of creating the look of elegant wood panelling using plastic or thin card and adding thin, round brass rod. Normally it’s difficult to glue metal securely in place but it works if the rod is rubbed with fine sandpaper or Emery paper, fixed in place with Pva glue and, once this has set, given another coat of Pva glue on top to seal it in.

using brass rod for panelling

Earth, grass, plants and tree foliage

This is why the article has become so long! .. there are so many different surfaces to be catered for, let alone the variety of materials and methods that can be utilized to represent them! For example, earth alone takes so many different forms .. dry, cracked, dusty, loose, moist, chunky, caked, muddy .. and research is important because it is likely to have a special appearance according to each geographical region. Moreover, whatever physical form it takes it is rarely one material of one colour, but composed of a number of things like the sample to the right below for which I added finely crushed eggshell, crushed brick and coarse sand to the mixture. In other words earth is predominantly granular, so just mixing a lot of colour into polyfilla and spreading it onto a baseboard will just look like Nutella!

earth effects

I usually have to create a mixture of Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla, with a little water to thin it; something granular such as sand, used t-bag tea, granulated cork, coarse sawdust or those mentioned above; and enough paint .. either strong acrylic, water-based paint toner, tempera or wetted powder pigment .. to turn it the right colour. This can then be spread onto the surface and left to dry. The addition of the granular fillers also means that the mixture can be applied, even shaped, quite thickly, and it will still dry within a reasonable amount of time. Moreover if the fillers used are partly absorbent, such as t-bag tea, cork or sawdust, they will speed up the drying time more and cause a similar pattern of cracks to real earth when it dries. If I’ve used coloured fillers such as the crushed brick and want to expose the colour of these more I brush the surface carefully with water to remove some of the acrylic before the mixture has fully dried.

used tea

Above, the contents of used t-bags can make a fairly convincing soil on its own, if Pva glue is added as a binder and with some water-based stain or colourant if it needs to be darker.

There are almost as many different ways of simulating grass in the model, though it’s much more difficult to achieve a convincing appearance or a particular type of grass than earth. Below is a photo of real grass. You’ll see that it’s really very different from a Wimbledon lawn or AstroTurf .. there’s much more soil visible and it often includes many other leaf shapes.

real grass

I developed a method which I felt reflected this more, principally using dyed sisal. Sisal is a natural plant fibre, like hemp, and a convenient source can be found in garden stores. Loosely compacted sisal is used to make the liners for hanging plant baskets and luckily the sisal is usually dyed green already! I make up a soil mixture using polyfilla, colourant etc. as previously described and press clumps of this sisal into it. When the polyfilla has completely set (it’s best to wait a day or so) most of the sisal has stuck firmly but can be teased up for long grass or cut down for shorter grass. I’ve added some dyed sawdust to the pieces below to give some variety.

model grass samples

Below is a close-up, followed by a fuller looking version for which I clumped the sisal more tightly together and then enhanced the green a little using some spraypaint.

model grass detail

thick model grass

Other materials which can be used to simulate vegetation include various types of the open-celled foam already mentioned. The proper name for this is reticulated foam and it is manufactured as an industrial filter material. Green-coloured versions can often be found in model supply shops, such as the hedge strip on top of the pile below.

reticulated foams for scenic models

This makes a very useful ‘scatter material’ when pulled apart into little bits.

shredded foam mix

Below I have shaped a surface using a sheet of reticulated foam (pulling bits out or snipping with scissors), dabbed this with Pva glue, sprinkled on a mixture of poppy seeds and coarse-ground black pepper, then painted this with thinned acrylic. The advantage of using the reticulated foam as a base is that it doesn’t look too solid .. there’s some ‘see through’, some depth seen underneath .. and the mixture of granules stops the coverage from looking too regular.

painted scatter on foam

I often use reticulated foam to build up some mass on model trees (see the previous post in this series on Modelling and shaping) and another favourite for suggesting the appearance of leaves is crushed eggshell.

tree foliage

painted eggshell foliage

Making latex ‘skins’

Methods borrowed from the domain of mouldmaking&casting tend to creep in everywhere in these articles but the following one is not solely due to my special interest in it .. I was shown this a long time ago when I was studying to be a theatre designer. Liquid latex will dry as a thin and durable skin, so if it’s applied in a suitable mould, structured surfaces can easily be cast. On its own latex will dry out to a translucent pale-amber colour but because it is water-based it will accept small amounts of acrylic, tempera or powder pigment mixed in to give it a base colour. Below is the representation of a flint wall surface and the ‘skin’ casts I’ve used to piece this together. I modelled the original for this (I usually use the word ‘prototype’) as a flat rectangle in plasticine, then made the negative .. the mould .. from it using plaster.

cast latex flint surface

Once the plaster is dry the mould can be covered with latex but this is difficult using a brush (as the latex congeals very quickly on it) so it needs to be poured in, rocked around to cover the surface and then any excess drained away. This is important because latex must be allowed to dry out in thin layers, otherwise this can take a very long time. Plaster is ideal for making the mould because a good one (i.e. a fine, quick-setting, durable casting plaster) will reproduce every detail of the prototype and the plaster mould will quickly absorb much of the water from the latex, speeding up the drying process.

making latex skins

As another example .. for an animation project I needed to create the effect of a large mound of coiled chain in the model, but using that amount of fine-scale chain would have cost far too much so I decided to try faking it using latex. It was a little more involved than I’d anticipated because I had to start by making impressions of real chain in plasticine but making a plaster mould from this would just give me negative impressions again in the latex.

making fake chain surface_1

So I had to make another ‘cast’ on top of this using silicone rubber .. all the stages are shown above .. which could then be covered in plaster to make the correct mould. I wouldn’t have been able to simply cover the original plasticine with latex because it doesn’t dry on it. I then cut the latex skins up into jagged strips, which was necessary to confuse the joins, and stick them onto the base I’d made for the mound form. The only type of glue which works properly for this is a rubber contact adhesive such as Evo Stik Impact or Dunlop Thixofix.

making fake chain surface_2

Below is the finished result which I had to select just a detail from because of copyright. There are only a few strands of real chain used here .. the rest I’ve dry-brushed with enamel paint and ‘Treasure Silver’ which is a wax-based, metallic paste applied with the finger or a cloth. Latex is not easy to paint fully, which is why it’s always better to mix in colour first. Enamel paints (the small tins from Humbrol or Revell which I’ll say more about in the final post on Painting) grab onto latex very well, but standard acrylic may not stay. There is a special medium called Prosaide, used as a glue for sticking latex prosthetics to the skin, which can be mixed with standard acrylic to make it paintable on latex.

making fake chain surface_3

There is a much quicker and simpler method you can try if you’re not planning on using the mould a lot. I made the sample skins below using moulds made by directly pressing tools into Kapa-line foam.

latex 'skin' samples

These moulds are shown below, and I’ve made impressions in the foam using the ends of paintbrushes, a small metal ruler and the rounded end of a jigsaw blade. There’s little difference between this and the foam texturing described earlier .. except that this is working ‘in negative’. It’s difficult to predict exactly how the latex ‘skin’ casts will look .. but sometimes the results are very .. positive! The most important practical part to remember is that the foam surface needs to be sealed properly before latex can be applied, otherwise it will stick. Here I’ve used a grey wall emulsion paint but cheap tempera, gesso or any water-based undercoat should work. I also dusted the moulds with talc before using them.

casting latex surfaces in Kapa-line foam

Working in scale

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

For those who are new to working in scale and need some basic advice or just a simple explanation before starting, here is an overview. What I’ve often found is that although the principle of reducing an object in size is a very simple one, many people who haven’t done it before may assume it’s more complicated than it is.


If you’re new to it, you can for example decide to make a model or a drawing of something using a simple reduction that can be calculated pretty much in the head, such as ‘half the size’, which means you only have to divide each measurement of the original by 2 (or in other words ‘in half’). If that’s still way too big for your purpose, it is just as easy (if you normally use centimetres) to calculate ‘tenth of the size’ by moving the decimal point of each original measurement by one place or ‘hundredth of the size’ by moving it a further place. You can even quite easily arive at ‘twentieth of the size’ by moving first the decimal point one place then halving! So already you’ve got the choice of four possible scales .. 1:2, 1:10, 1:20 or 1:100 .. which can be done fairly easily in the head! I’ll come back to why they’re written this way (at least, when using metric) later. But what if none of these size reductions, in other words scales, give you the size of model you want or allow you to fit drawings on standard sizes of paper? What if you reckon you need something in between, such as ‘twenty-fifth of the size’ or as it’s written, 1:25 which incidentally has established itself, at least here in the UK, as a comfortable scale for theatre design models and technical drawings? Most people would have to use a calculator to divide by 25 and doing this for each and every measurement would be painfully laborious! At some point in the past someone had the bright idea that having, as it were, a miniaturised version of a long tape measure to read from would save a lot of time .. and so the scale ruler came to be. Most people who regularly have to model or draw in scale use one of these to avoid mistakes even when the reduction is a simple one.

apple sculpt_2 scales

None of us are strangers to dealing with scale, and we deal with it all the time .. everything we see, we see in scale! Unless our eyes are glued up against an object, we see that object at a distance, which makes the image we receive of it smaller than lifesize. We are so used to this that we don’t .. we can’t afford to .. think about it consciously. When we see an object at a distance we don’t question that every dimension of that image (not only height but width etc.) is reduced according to the same proportion or ratio,that is, if the image we receive is half the height that it actually is the width will also be half and the size of every detail will also be half, etc. Everything is divided by the same amount .. in this case by 2. In everyday life we don’t have to be conscious of exactly how much smaller than life-size that image is, but in a way our unconscious mind is and uses that calculation to help judge how far away that object is. Also when practised artists do life-drawings from a model at a little distance from them they usually don’t have to take a tape measure to the model, reduce all those measurements by the same proportion and map out the figure on the paper like a technical drawing. They use the natural awareness of scale we all have to gradually piece together a scale drawing freehand, relating the size of first one part of the figure to another or the general whole to the details, and so on. In other words, we all have a very natural and in-built sense of scale, which we use all the time.

So you could describe this smaller size in a number of ways i.e. you’re seeing it ‘half as big’ or ‘half-size’ or even ‘twice smaller’! That’s where one of the first problems starts, because although I’d guess that most of us understand the phrase ‘half as big’ immediately, we may have a moment’s difficulty with ‘twice smaller’ whereas ‘ten times smaller’ becomes actually easier to understand. The ‘official’ language of scale (the way it’s officially expressed) attempts to avoid the kind of language difficulties which occur between speakers of the same language, let alone between different languages! Also, when recording measurements, it is accepted that anything to do with measurements should be written, not as words, but numerals.  So ‘half-size’ would be written as 1:2 (spoken as ‘one to two’) where, in a way, the colon dots are just replacing the dash in ‘1/2’ when written as a fraction. So, as another example, 1:25 (spoken as ‘one to twenty-five’) should be more easily understood as just saying ‘1/25’ i.e. the drawing or model is ‘one twenty-fifth’ the size of the original .. or ‘twenty-five times smaller’. I find that often the insecurity that many people have when getting used to working in scale for the first time comes mainly from the way it’s written or referred to i.e. that it’s not totally clear what either the two dots or the ‘1’ (or the ‘to’ when spoken) mean here. Understanding it as just a different way of writing a fraction, ‘1/25’, may be one way of understanding it better.

In accepting exactly why it’s written then as ‘1:25’ rather than ‘1/25’ one has to understand that the colon is there to convey that it’s a ratio, in other words a fixed relationship. People who do a lot of mouldmaking and casting .. or people who do a lot of cooking! .. are used to these. For every ‘certain number’ of eggs in a pudding mix there has to be another ‘certain number’ of spoonfulls of flour. Every ‘certain number’ .. in this case a baseline 1 .. of centimetres you measure on your piece of card becomes, means or relates to 25 of the same in the real thing you’re modelling. For the moment we’re staying with metric i.e. centimetres and metres, but I will be speaking about Imperial inches and feet later.

So let’s look at a standard scale ruler suitable for working in 1:25 scale and see how it helps. Above is the most common and easiest type, a ‘triangular’ rule which is able to present six different scales for us, one on each of it’s six edges. These scale rulers usually include 1:20, 1:25, 1:50, 1:75, 1:100 and 1:125 ( the 1:100 ‘scale’ is basically just a regular centimetre rule in which the centimetres can be read as metres. In any event it’s useful to have a regular rule included ). The usual plastic type above has a different colour (green, red, black) to assist in finding the relevant face more quickly. These cost between £6 and £10 in the UK at the moment. The metal one behind it, found in a cheap DIY tool shop, costs a lot less and does its job just as well, but the calibrations wear off a lot quicker because they’re just printed on.

Both clearly show the scaled size of 1metre, 2metres and so on .. up to 7.5metres. Both clearly indicate 50cm divisions and the smaller divisions after that represent units of 10cm. The very smallest divisions within those .. this is important to remember .. represent 2cm each, not 1cm since this would be too small to display. With the right scale ruler to assist, working in scale really should be as simple as reading from a regular tape measure.

But unfortunately one might have to hunt around a bit for the right scale ruler to use. Many art or graphic supply shops stock them but there may be more demand for the type shown above (which is also available in the triangular form) which is calibrated for working in much smaller scales. The numbers along the 1:2500 scale above are the number of metres represented and the smallest divisions therefore represent 2metres. As ‘luck’ would have it this can be used for 1:25 work in place of the proper scale ruler because the calibrations work out the same .. one just has to think of it as representing centimetres rather than metres. So ‘100’ on this readout is 100cm, in other words 1metre at 1:25 scale. A lot of people find it no problem to mentally switch, but it’s certainly much easier to misread or make other mistakes using one of these and it certainly doesn’t help that there are also usually two different scales cohabiting the same edge, as you can see here. I would recommend that if you can’t get the ‘quality’ scale ruler in exactly the scale you want it’s better to go for a cheaper metal one. In the UK I’ve seen these in £shops and Maplin, sometimes Robert Dyas and B&Q.

A word about ‘describing’ scales i.e. referring to them in the correct way! Above I’ve described 1:2500 as a ‘smaller’ scale than 1:25 .. which is correct!  A 1:2500 scale model of an 8 metre long fire engine will be much smaller than a 1:25 model of the same. But the 1:2500 fire engine may be part of a modelled street which conveys a larger area than a 1:25 model can. Although people often refer to the 1:2500 model as the ‘larger’ of the two, especially if it is physically larger than a 1:25 scale portion, it is better not to because it becomes just another cause of confusion!

How to choose the best scale to work in?

Morgan Keith armature diagram

I’m often asked by people ‘What scale should I make my model? .. and I wait patiently for more information to come, i.e. the purpose, the context. Sometimes that’s it, almost as if there’s only the choice of a few acceptable scales in the world. To be fair, there are scales that are more prescribed or advantageous in certain circumstances. Theatre design models in this country are always 1:25 scale. If they were any bigger the model-boxes (representing the whole stage space) wouldn’t pass through doorways. If any smaller they would lose in terms of presence and detail. Puppets for stop-motion animation often range from 1:8 to 1:6 ( or ‘2 inches to the foot’) because generally this is the smallest one can go before losing control or sublety in their movements. Also if one’s working in a medium where colleagues or clients are used to a certain scale is it wise to work against the grain by offering up an unfamiliar one?

What I mean is that, there may be conditions imposed on the scale one chooses but otherwise one has the freedom to choose the most appropriate scale oneself. Often this is more a question of how much space one has, balanced with how much one wants to convey and, especially in the case of a model, how much ‘presence’ one wants it to have. In traditional, hand-drawn technical drawing ‘available space’ starts with the size of drawing board one has and therefore the sheet size. If for example one is drawing up a whole room (whether a theatre set or interior design) the minimum ‘kit’ of information needs to consist of a groundplan and elevations (that is, front-on views) of all walls. It’s ideal if these can all be arranged on one sheet, so that elevations can be quickly related to the groundplan. Best of all is if groundplan and elevations can be arranged on the paper like a hinged box, with the groundplan in the centre and walls folded flat around it. This also means that wall lengths and positions of windows, doors etc. can be taken directly from the groundplan when drawing up, which is important because it avoids the possible mistakes that occur when elements have to be drawn in separation. If you can fit all this on one piece of paper at 1:25 scale then that’s great because you can include quite a bit of drawn detail with it. But often it’s not possible, so for groundplans or general overviews 1:50 is often used in the theatre here (or 1:48 ‘quarter inch to the foot’ in film and television .. and I ‘comment’ on that later!). But the point here is that, although there are common practises ( tried, tested and above all familiar methods) that it is often advisable to go along with, in the end any practical solution that the one doing the work (making the drawing or the model) comes up with (including using a different scale if need be) should be acceptable if the end result communicates clearly!

Wall drawing rev

Working in feet and inches

This, I’m assuming, you’ll do without question/choice if you live in the USA, Liberia or Burma where feet and inches are still the standard units of measurement. This measurement system is known as Imperial. If you live in Germany, or most other European countries, you’ll never have had cause to think in any other way than metric. If you live in the UK, on the other hand .. well, according to Wikipedia we have ‘only partially implemented’ the metric system. That’s a very polite way of putting it!

We ‘officially’ changed from the Imperial system of measurement to the metric in the early 1970s but even school rulers still commonly include inches; many people (even those born since) still refer to people’s heights in feet, and carpenters still refer to ‘two-by-ones’ meaning standard timber measuring 2 inches by 1 inch thick! Here you need knowledge of ‘miles to the gallon’ in order to choose a car, confidence in kilometres if you want to drive it and an understanding of feet and inches if you go under a low bridge! This state of things is classic ‘Heath Robinson’ (or ‘Rube Goldberg’ if you’re Imperial), defiantly British, and what’s more there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. Whereas former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Howe spoke out in 2012 about the ‘confusing shambles’ caused by still using both Imperial and metric systems for different things and called for a complete changeover to metric, on the other hand earlier this year plans were being drawn up for a new primary school curriculum reintroducing more awareness of pints, pounds weight and miles by emphasizing ‘parts’ of the Imperial system once more. Politicians are concerned that young people are becoming increasingly confused .. but as yet there has been no unified action to prevent it!

Whether you call it a defiant ‘freedom of choice’ or just a shambolic mess, one area which illustrates both aspects in the UK is in film and television design. For reasons which I still don’t fully understand it’s still a common practice here to draw up (and therefore model up) set designs in feet and inches. When I’ve asked why, no one has given me a convincing answer! Some say it’s because of the ‘American market’ but what does that have to do with designing and building things here? Others suggested to me (a while ago now) that it made sense because structural timber and plywood sheets for building are still conceived in terms of feet and inches (i.e. the ‘two-by-ones’ I mentioned or the 8ft x 4ft standard size for many sheet materials). But, so what? By now we should all be used to reading 2440x1220mm in place of 8ftx4ft and most of the leading hardware suppliers such as Wickes don’t even put feet and inches on their websites anymore.

But returning ..finally!.. to the main point here, if you are working in feet and inches for whatever reason, you have to use a scale that makes sense with, i.e. conforms to and makes use of, the way feet are divided. Because there are 12 inches in a foot the only scales that will work smoothly will be those that are easy multiples of divisions of 12. You try dividing a measurement such as 3ft 8inches by 10, if you’re not sure what I mean! It would never have occurred to a Victorian craftsman to work in 1:10, 1:25, 1:50 or 1:100. What would have occurred quite naturally would be to make one inch, half an inch or a quarter-inch on their measuring ruler represent ‘1 foot’ giving the scales (as we might describe them now) 1:12, 1:24, 1:48 and 1:96. They would be understood and expressed, as they commonly still are now, as ‘one inch to the foot’, ‘half-inch to the foot’ or ‘quarter-inch to the foot’ and so on .. or even abbreviated to just ‘half-inch’ or ‘quarter-inch’. Scaled measurements can therefore be measured using a regular ruler, up to a point, and as long as the inches on the ruler are divided into quarters and eigths. But it’s easy to miscalculate, because for example if you want to find the length of ’27ft 6inches’ at ‘quarter-inch to the foot’ scale, of course you can do it, but you’d first have to divide the 27 by four, hold that 6inch length on the ruler remembering that it represents only 24 of those feet and then add the remaining three-quarters, and then the one-eighth! Generally only the ‘one inch to the foot’ 1:12 scale is comfortable using a regular ruler and for the others there are .. as I say .. scale rulers which make the task easier!

Converting from one scale to another

When I’m working with theatre design students I always advise them to design/plan furniture first by drawing it at a larger scale, such as 1:10, before reducing it on the photocopier to 1:25 for the model. It’s just too small to draw with any control or accuracy at 1:25! But when I ask, as a bit of a test, whether anyone can tell me what percentage of reduction is needed on the photocopier to convert a 1:10 to 1:25 I can almost hear all minds in the room turning to jelly. The answer is 40% .. but how does one get that?

If I ask what the percentage of reduction is for changing a 1:10 drawing to a 1:20 there is usually more response. Yes, it’s 50%, because 1:20 is half the size compared to 1:10. Most of us would be able to work this out using a kind of logic rather than actual division of numbers because it’s a simple relationship, but let’s see whether the numbers themselves can be used to give us the same answer? Divide the ‘destination scale’ 20 by the ‘start scale’ 10 and we get 2, which in this case represents how much smaller it is i.e. ‘twice as small’ or ‘half size. Divide 2 into 100 and we get 50, which can now be used as a percentage. So does this work for any set of numbers or is it just a lucky coincidence?

Going back to the previous question, converting 1:10 to 1:25 .. dividing 25 by 10 gives 2.5 (1:25 is more than twice smaller than 1:10). If 100 is then divided by 2.5 it gives 40, so 40% .. which is right! Does it work the other way? Enlarging a 1:25 drawing to make it 1:10 scale? .. dividing the ‘destination’ 10 by the ‘start’ 25 gives 0.4. Dividing 100 by 0.4 gives 250, which is right as 250% on the photocopier.

So the ‘formula’, i.e. trying to write it to remember better, is

destination /divided by/ start  = Y

100 /divided by/ Y = percentage

In fact, this starts off much the same as the way to calculate any enlargement or reduction using actual measurements. For example if one just wanted to change the length of something from 8cm to 13.5cm and wanted to find the percentage .. 13.5 divided by 8 gives 1.6875. But here instead of dividing this by 100 it is multiplied by 100 (just moving the decimal point) giving 169% rounded off. If you divide it by 100 instead by mistake, you get the percentage of reduction needed to convert in reverse, from 13.5cm to 8cm. Usually when doing this kind of thing I don’t analyze the process that much.. all I need to know that I have to divide the larger number by the smaller if I’m enlarging, and the smaller number by the larger if I’m reducing.

For this reason, i.e. because I know I haven’t got the kind of mind that stays in complete control of the logic or the maths in these situations, I asked my father just to check that I wasn’t missing something obvious. Before he retired he was, quite literally, a ‘rocket scientist’ and worked as an aeronautical engineer in the aerospace industry. Although I know this is nothing compared to calculating trajectories I needed his clear perspective.  He pointed out that the ‘formula’ above could be simplified even further by just rearranging it like this

start  /divided by/ destination X 100 = percentage

So make a note of this (much simpler) formula whenever you need to change the scale of something or reduce/enlarge to a specific size.

Making a scale ruler for other scales

Having the formula above, together with either a standard scale ruler (or clearly defined normal ruler) and access to a photocopier, means that one can easily create one’s own custom scale ruler no matter how ‘peculiar’ the chosen scale might be. For example, puppets for stop-motion animation are often made to the scales 1:6 or 1:8. But one can’t buy a scale ruler which deals clearly with these scales. Some might argue that since these scales are derived from ‘feet and inches’ (1:6 is just another way of writing ‘2inches to 1ft’ ) the solution is to work in inches and just utilise a standard ruler as a scale ruler. But no, this really isn’t that simple or comfortable! For example if you are thinking about a 6ft 2inch character at 1:6 scale the feet are easy enough to find .. 12inches on the standard ruler .. but the remaining 2inches can’t be marked with any accuracy because inches on a standard ruler are hardly ever divided into twelfths!

I prefer to keep things metric, and all I have to do is photocopy either the 1:10 face of my scale ruler (or the centimetres on a normal ruler) at a different percentage. So for example, if I want to make 1:10 into 1:6 it’s .. ‘start’ 10 divided by ‘destination’ 6 multiplied by 100 which gives 166.66 .. so 167% on the photocopier will be as accurate as one needs to be. I usually spraymount this onto a card or plastic strip, as below, to make it last.

custom scale rulers

Taking liberties with scale

‘Taking liberties’, by the way, applies to models .. but certainly not to technical drawings! Perhaps I should better ask ‘When is it important to keep to scale, when is it not so important and when is it actually far better not to?’. It depends on the purposes of the model i.e. the use to which it’s going to be put.

Sometimes this is integral to the medium. For example puppets, whether for stop-motion animation or traditional live performance, rarely conform to normal human proportions. If they did their heads and hands would be too small to be easily workable or have enough visual impact especially from a distance. The fact that the puppets have bigger heads and hands in relation to their bodies makes the scaling of settings and props more difficult to decide and it may even have to vary for different elements. For example the height of a doorway would have to be decided by considering the overall height of the puppet and adding a bit. In this case doorway and puppet height have a ‘realistic’ size relationship. But if the puppet uses a telephone as a prop and it’s sized according to this overall height the receiver will look oddly miniscule when held to the puppet’s ear! Scale in stop-motion animation is often a mish-mash and we don’t have a problem accepting that, perhaps because most of us grew up acting out scenarios with disproportionate toys. This fluctuation of scale and proportion is one of the things that gives stop-motion animation its charm.

Contrast this with any design model made to convey the intentions of the designer clearly and accurately, particularly those communicating the use of space. In these cases scale means nothing if it is not consistent! Unless there’s consistency, and in sufficient significant detail there’s little chance of either viewer or designer being able to judge the full effect of those intentions properly. The only freedom from scale in these cases is perhaps the choice of which details of decoration, texture or colour are really significant. For example architectural models meant for final presentation of a design are very precise in terms of measurements but ‘realistic’ colour or texture are often bypassed in favour of a more aesthetic or abstracted finish (such as blank white or wood veneer) which, it is argued, will focus the attention more on form. The case is similar with so-called ‘white card models’ in film or television set design. These models are meant to convey a very clear and accurate idea of, not only the overall amount of space a set will take up but how it can be used for specific things. These include the positioning of actors, actions within the space and the remaining space available to position cameras, lighting and sound equipment. Any obstructions such as pillars, anything jutting out from the walls and even the smallest steps or variations in the floorspace need to be faithfully rendered so that they are not overlooked when filming is being planned. The emphasis is on all the practical considerations and as long as these are served it’s less important for this type of model to look convincing in terms of texture and colour.

white card model

Finished set design models for the theatre have a similar function in that they must convey the performance space as clearly and accurately as possible so that all, especially the director, can judge what can be done in it. But traditionally they are also miniature replicas of the set, not only accurate in scale but complete in terms of colour and texture. For these, all details could be considered ‘significant’ .. the disarray of books on a central table, the crumbly matte surface of an ancient wall or the right kind of curve on a tiny rococo chair .. because a set design is the sum of many visual decisions working together. If scale is unintentionally wrong, no decision can be made as to how it’s going to work and unfortunately it can often seem like an ‘all or nothing’ task because just one out-of-scale element in the composition can upset the whole. I say more about the purposes and the benefits of models in theatre design in my post Why make models? from March 6 2012.

I’ve said it can ‘seem like’ an all-or-nothing task at times but In fact there is, and should be, freedom to mess with scale without the model losing its power to convince! I’ve always felt, and said, that clever suggestion often has more power to convince than slavish depiction .. and it can be a lot quicker!  For example, it generally works very well when real sand, or real woods such as obeche, bass or balsa are used to convey those surfaces in the model. Strictly speaking those materials are out of scale but if one were able to render them in exact scale they would hardly be readable! When trying to model trees it would be senseless to do it leaf-by-leaf .. impractical timewise, but in the end the effort would also be counter-productive. We don’t really experience the ‘look’ of real trees leaf-by-leaf, but rather through the general appearance of the ‘clustering’. Leaves are translucent anyway, so any attempt to recreate them with solid materials and paint is rather doomed from the beginning! Trees can be effectively depicted by choosing a material which ‘clusters’ in the right way, rather than read as individual leaves in exactly the right scale or shape. I’m still looking around for the ideal material in translucent greens which can be chopped or granulated but in the meantime my preference is using crushed eggshell shown below which, once applied, can be tinted with watercolours.


Below are photos taken by Marianna Szekely of her model for a film design project in 2012 at Wimbledon College of Art, London. I feel they illustrate how one can be free and ‘painterly’ in tackling the essentials of surfaces and significant detail, but still achieve a result that is as a whole unquestionably real! As in a good ‘Impressionist’ painting, scale and proportion form a disciplined framework upon which surface qualities can be played upon more suggestively.

Marianna Szekely 2012_1

Marianna Szekely 2012_2

Modelling small-scale figures – Part 1: ‘twisted wire’ armature

Please note if you’re reading this older post that this and later articles on figure modelling can now be found in the Methods section under Modelling

Here is a full, step-by-step account of making a simple twisted wire armature suitable for 1:25 scale figures. I’ve been meaning to put this together for some time, since long before WordPress, because in my book I suggest a more involved method soldering brass and there was a need for an easier alternative. A good armature is not merely the support for a soft material which would otherwise lose its shape; it should also provide guidance on where to model, in the way that a version of the human skeleton would when modelling on a larger scale. For this reason I’ve found it valuable to define torso and pelvis mass by adding thin cardboard pieces.

I also felt that I definitely needed to choose a wire that was easy for anyone to find again and, hopefully, always available. It’s not enough to say ‘use a very thin wire’ .. because the right kind of thin wire isn’t easy to find! Luckily I’ve found the perfect one for this purpose, a thin plastic-coated garden wire from B&Q called ‘B&Q Value Plant Twist Tie’ costing £1.98 for a 50metre spool. An almost identical kind of wire and spool can be found sometimes in £shops. The whole armature is made from one continuous length of wire, doubled up and twisted fairly tightly together. Although the plastic ribbon adds to the bulk, you will see from the photo below that it compresses well when twisted. If twisted firmly and evenly the final thickness is only a little more than 1mm, representing 3cm at 1:25 scale. What’s more, the twisted surface gives a much better key for modelling material than smooth wire alone. This form of coated wire is also very strong (although it doesn’t have to be so much for this purpose). For example I’ve been testing it as a possible alternative to thicker aluminium wire for animation puppets and at the last marathon ‘bending session’ I reached 100 times back and forth on a fairly fixed point until I gave up .. it seemed completely unaffected!

wire armature

Here below are the scaled templates I’ve drawn up, used as guides throughout the making process. The first is for a 175-180cm male, the second for a 160-165cm female. I’ve uploaded them at proper size (right-click and save) so they should print out at the right scale but if not they are available to download (along with some other modelling reference sheets) on an older resource site of mine:

These template drawings need a bit of explanation. The proportions are based on an ‘idealised average’, if that makes sense, i.e. male a little taller and with broader shoulders than real average and female a little more shapely. The stick figures include hands and feet, just so that it’s clear where these are .. but I usually recommend snipping the wires for arms and legs just halfway into the hand or foot symbol. That is explained below. The torso and pelvis ‘plates’ are indicated by the lighter outlines. Just about any thin (i.e. up to 1mm) strong card can be used, or even thin wood, but not plastic because this will distort with the heat of baking if Super Sculpey is to be used. The drawings also indicate where elbow and knee joints are likely to come, as reference for later modelling. The ‘high kicking’ legs drawn with a dashed line are just there to be able to measure the full length that the leg wires should be outstretched, before they’re glued to the sides of the pelvis plate.

male soft wire armature 1to25

female soft wire armature 1to25

A 70cm length of wire is needed for a 1:25 scale figure, allowing for some extra in case of mistakes. The wire needs to be folded to find the mid-point and the two strands twisted together from there forming a little loop for the head. The neck is then twisted down to the shoulder line. The head-loop should be kept small, certainly no bigger than the size indicated on the drawing. One problem with achieving realistic figures in this small scale is that the heads invariably end up too big, usually too round .. what I call the ‘Playmobil syndrome’ .. so it’s best to guard against this from the beginning. Although this wire is easy enough to twist using just the fingers it may help to use a cocktail stick as a lever, shown below.

twisting wire

The length of the ‘neck’ should then be checked against the drawing (below I’ve placed it a little underneath just so that you can see the drawing) and the two strands of wire splayed out.

checking shoulder line

Each strand will first form an arm, and this is done by making a loop which returns to the centre. To be safe make the loop extend about 1.5cm longer than the drawn arm, because the wire contracts when twisted.

forming loop for arm

Hold the two strands of wire firmly together at the bottom of the ‘neck’ and start twisting from there. Twisting is much easier, and more regular, if after a few twists you open out the loop to use as a lever.

twisting loop for arm

Keep going until the loop becomes a bit too small to manage with the fingers and then check against the drawing. The arm needs to be long enough to extend just halfway into the hand shape, not right to the fingertips.

twisting loop for arm

At this scale hands are so slight and the wire is too thick for them. This way there’s just enough wire to attach a small ‘flipper’ shape to it, to suggest a hand.

trimming to length

The wire can be cut with an old pair of scissors, but it’s much easier and more accurate to use proper wire snippers below. Actually they’re known as ‘wire nippers’, just for cutting wire, with a head like a puffin. £shops don’t tend to have them but the cheapest one’s I’ve found in London are from the Danish chain ‘Tiger’, small ones for £2 usually found in the crafts section.

wire snippers

Below, of course next comes the other arm done in exactly the same way. But make sure that you do this with the right strand of wire remaining. There are two .. take the longer one! It may seem obvious to some, but anything can happen during a lapse in concentration!

other arm

But here it’s also important to try to make the twist start as level as possible with the first arm.

keeping shoulder line straight

Next, twist the two remaining strands together to form the spine as far down as the top of the pelvis shape.

twisting down to pelvis

This is where the armature starts becoming something more identifiable .. more believable. Use the drawing as a shape template to cut thin pieces of card for the torso and pelvis (see the paragraph at top, just above the template drawings). Tack the torso piece to the drawing using UHU or double-sided tape and position the wire figure over it, pressing down so that the wire lies as flat as possible on the cardboard.

positioning for torso

Below I’m fixing the torso in place with superglue, adding baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) to accelerate and thicken the glue. It’s the quickest and strongest method. Superglue alone can’t be made to stick enough to this kind of plastic, but adding the powder seems to ‘cement’ it solidly.


Above and below, I’ve dripped thin superglue over the wire pieces, enough to run onto the cardboard, then used a plastic brush loaded with the baking soda to drop it onto the glue. It sets almost immediately into a rock-hard mass, filling gaps between the wires and the cardboard.

using baking soda

hardened superglue

Other things could be used for this such as 2-part epoxy glue, which can be fast, but this is instant and the rough surface is a good key for any modelling clay. Using baking soda as an accelerator and gap-filler with superglue has been known about for some time but as yet I’ve found no complete explanation as to why it works so well. I’ve read that superglue, apart from needing a small amount of moisture to set, also needs neutral ph conditions (i.e. not too acidic) and since baking soda is often used to create just that (i.e. used as an antacid, for example) this may have something to do with it. It may also just be physical rather than chemical. When superglue is filled with particles of a certain type the chain molecules that form as it sets don’t have so far to go perhaps, so setting is quicker?

But getting back to this, the next stage is to repeat the process for the legs …


… and cement them to the pelvis piece in the same way. The surplus strands of wire can be cut off after gluing.

gluing to pelvis shape

The legs need to be secured along the top of the pelvis piece first, then bent round the outside edge and glued in place. That’s another great advantage of superglue, to be able to glue in small instalments!

gluing to pelvis

The armature is now ready to be modelled upon! My technique of modelling, whether I’m using Super Sculpey ( a polymer clay which needs heat to harden) or Milliput ( a 2-part epoxy putty which cures on it’s own), is to build up very slight body masses first, just enough to make those parts of the wire inflexible but keeping the joints free so that the figure can still be repositioned. It’s easier to work on the general shapes of these body masses, and to keep the symmetry above all, while the figure is still a ‘spreadeagle’.

But the modelling is a separate chapter, which will follow at some point …

armatures in progress

Making walls – Part 3

In Part 1 I introduced a special method of building a model wall which involves ‘laminating’ a soft foam layer onto a cardboard (or Pvc) cut-out. This makes for a much stronger (also lighter) construction generally, as well as making it easier to work to a required thickness without the problems involved with cutting through other thick materials and keeping the edges precise. The third advantage is that the foam on one side lends itself more readily to heavily textured effects (for a possible exterior) whereas the harder layer on the other side is a suitable base for interiors.

simple interior wall drawing

This Part 3 follows directly on from Part 1 and looks at applying details to the interior side, in this case the simplest version drawn above (Part 2 had jumped ahead a bit, looking at more ambitious effects with Kapa-line foam). Drawing up .. always/however simple the task/without question .. is the first requirement! Finding the right scale of material to convey a convincing look, with an appropriate visual weight or lightness, is the next requirement. Doorway and window frames, skirting board etc. can be built up using a variety of materials .. card, wood or plastic .. as long as they can be cut cleanly and are thin enough for the scale intended. For example here the scale is 1:25, so standard mountboard (at almost 1.5mm thickness) is really far too thick. Mountboard is also too fragile when cut into very thin strips (the edges don’t stay sharp and the top layer is also likely to separate). Much better results can be achieved with either stencil card, 0.8mm obeche wood, 0.5 -1mm styrene sheet or, as I’m using here, 1mm Palight foamed Pvc.

Palight foamed Pvc doesn’t come any thinner than 1mm but it just about works for wall details in 1:25 scale especially if the edges are softened. That’s the other big advantage over card .. that it can be sanded, either to shape it or neaten up edges. It can also be given a convincing woodgrain texture, and that’s what I’m doing first below with a small piece of the Pvc. Here I’m using 120grit sandpaper on a sanding block, which needs to be pressed/dragged firmly along the plastic in one direction. Coarser sandpaper (i.e. up to 40grit) can be used for a larger scale effect.

graining Pvc

The effect doesn’t show up that much until it’s rubbed or washed with acrylic or woodstain, shown by the collection of samples below.

wood simulation

Here I wanted to build up the doorway and window frames in two layers, and position the first layer very slightly outside the edge (rather than right on it) so that there is an ‘extra’ little step visually. To keep the positioning regular I drew guidelines (i.e. the outer limits of the frames) around the openings.

marking frame outline

The art, the science and ‘sense’ of cutting

Below are the strips cut to make the first layer. 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! 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.

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); 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 few 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’.

cutting strips

If you’re using a standard surgical-type scalpel (i.e. Swann-Morton No.3, which I would always recommend) the best blade to use with it is the ’10A’. It’s the most general-purpose but also the most precise. Changing the blade (i.e. when it gets blunt) can be a nightmare with a new scalpel because the fixing is often very tight, 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 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 scalpel

Here .. back to the actual work now! .. I’ve chosen to mitre the pieces of doorway/window frame together as they would be in reality, that is, to cut the joining ends at a 45degree angle (as picture frames are also usually made). In the real-scale world this is done because the profiled strips (i.e. showing a particular ‘stepped’ shape when looked at on end) are usually manufactured as solid strips rather than pieced together in layers and joining them on a diagonal is the only way of making the profiles fit. This also becomes important if the grain of the wood is to be a visual feature; joining on a diagonal is the only way to make this look good. In the model where, as here, it’s easier to build those profiles up in separate strips .. no, often it may be easier not to have to mitre, if the join lines aren’t too visible .. but here I’ve also chosen to put a fake grain on the Pvc, so mitre joins are better in this case.

Below, the easiest way to cut a 45degree angle is to use the grid of squares which can usually be found on the cutting mat, placing the end of the strip within a square and spanning from one corner to the other with the scalpel blade. Because the Pvc is soft the end could just be chopped by pressing the blade down, but I prefer just to make a guiding mark this way but then cut by drawing the blade across in the usual way. The other reason for this is that it’s better if possible to put a slant on the cut (shown by how I’m angling the blade in the photo) which will help in getting a tighter join later.

cutting a mitre

There is little alternative to using superglue when working with Palight foamed Pvc. One of the main advantages of using superglue is ‘instant gluing’, but anyone who’s used it knows that this can also become its main drawback .. the fact that one usually can’t slide a piece carefully into place and reposition it while it’s gluing. One has to develop little strategies to compensate. For example, rather than cut both top and bottom of the strip being glued in place below, I’ve found it better just to cut the mitred top and trim the bottom off (cutting from the other side) once glued in place.

gluing in place

The cutting and gluing of the pieces follows the form round, as below. Here I have cut a mitre on the second piece (also left for the moment as a longer strip) and am checking its fit before anything else. If this is fine, the position of the mitre at the other end can be marked in pencil while the strip is held in place. This piece has to be cut to size before gluing in place, whereas the third and final length can be left long when glued (as before) and trimmed afterwards.

moving round

Almost exactly the same is done for the window, remembering that the frame is cut off along the bottom edge of the window opening because the sill protrusion needs to go there (window frame wall mouldings don’t travel right round like a picture frame as a rule).

allowing for sill

Because Palight Pvc is relatively soft the surface takes grooving or embossing very well. Extra detail can be added to the frame this way if needed. Below, I’ve used an embossing tool (the tip is smooth and ball-shaped) to make an even groove without tearing up the surface. In fact by pressing lines carefully in the soft plastic in this way one can create the suggestion of a number of steps to the moulding without actually having to layer thinner strips on top. I’ve done it here (and it can be seen better in the last photos) because I wanted heavier shadows. The process is just the same used for the first layer.

embossing detail

Often in reality the whole window sill is a thick plank of wood which juts out a few centimeters into the interior space, the edge of which is rounded or at least softened. Here it is conveyed by a thin strip applied to the surface. Below, I am using the piece of 2mm thick Pvc left from cutting the door opening, rounding one edge first using the sanding block. When suitably smooth and even this can be cut off as a shaped strip, cut to length and glued in place.

rounding edge

The final part of this stage in the interior decoration was cutting another strip of 1mm Pvc for the skirting board. Before cutting the strip off the sheet I straightened and softened the top edge with the sanding block and embossed an extra line. Here I am using the sanding block upturned as a guide for gluing the skirting board strip right on the bottom edge of the wall. The sandpaper surface helps the block to grip in place for this.

using block as a gluing guide


The doorframe is always put in first and the skirting board inserted up against it. The doorframe is also usually thicker (at least at it’s outer edge) than the skirting board. The slope of the doorframe moulding i.e. just as a picture frame is thicker on the outer edge, is meant to perform the same function of drawing our focus in on the door. The skirting board has a few functions, mostly inherited from the past. It helps to define the wall, divide it and offer a visual transition from one plane or element to another, in the way that all other wall mouldings (doorway and window frames, cornice and dado area) are meant to do. But it’s principally there to hide the ragged join between whatever the floor is made of or covered with and the walls, especially floorboards where a gap is necessary to allow for wood expanding. It also used to function as a buffer, to prevent furniture from scuffing the walls.

completed wall decoration

Priming and painting the wall or adding wallpaper, adding door and window, making a shaped cornice, painting or staining the ‘woodwork’ etc. .. all these things will follow at some point ….

Making walls – Part 2

I couldn’t resist posting these results even though they’re hardly begun, because I’m pleased with them so far and wanted to at least make a brief record before I’m (as always) sidetracked into something else! I realized that, coincidentally, it has been exactly a year since I posted Making walls – Part 1 with the promise of a follow up .. so some attempt at continuity is long overdue!

decorated wall

I started working again on the two ‘wall’ examples here because I’m due to run my next ‘Scale Model-making’ course at Central Saint Martins and wanted to show some more evidence of what can be achieved with just Kapa-line foam. The wall structure above is pure invention or ‘architectural caprice’ with no particular style or period in mind, although it has turned out vaguely ‘ancient Greek/Egyptian’. The repeated decoration is very simply achieved .. using foam impression tools which in this case I’ve sliced from a set of plastic moulds used for cake decoration. I was only interested in parts of the shapes and in any case the complete shapes were too large to press into foam easily. The sliced details needed to be fixed (with hot-melt glue) onto wooden ‘push sticks’.

foam impression tools

I started the wall with the notion of giving it a heavy concave cornice but then decided to divide that into ‘teeth’ and to reflect those divisions in the rest of the wall.

building up wall decoration

These teeth (or ‘dentils’ as they’re referred to in classical architecture) are cut from the shaped strip using a try square to score an even line round and a long-bladed craft knife, as shown, to slice.

making dentils

The sides are neatened by sanding them against a right-angled sanding block.

sanding the sides

I use superglue to bond polyurethane foam parts together. Unlike other foams such as styrofoam the superglue doesn’t dissolve the surface, but it does soak in and start setting quickly (sometimes two attempts are needed). Superglues seem to vary and not all types work well with the Kapa-line polyurethane foam, but the best one I’ve found also happens to be the cheapest .. the ‘Extra Strong’ in tubes from Poundland!

wall in progress

Both the original cornice strip and the similar strip over the doorway were shaped using a sandpaper-covered dowel and the steps for doing this are worth noting.

setting up for sanding curved cornice strip

Above, I have sanded the edge of a piece of 10mm Kapa-line foamboard straight and perpendicular using the right-angled sanding tool shown earlier. I drew a pencil line to indicate the full width of the strip (i.e. not just the curved part). I then removed a strip of covering paper (by carefully slicing through the paper only and peeling away) exposing just the area to be sanded. Below, I’ve sliced away the corner along this strip, mainly so that the round sanding dowel will have something flat to start on.

chamfering edge

The sanding dowel is then dragged carefully against the edge, gradually creating and deepening the curve as it goes. With proper care a smooth, regular shape can be made in the foam fairly quickly. The edge of the paper covering left on acts as enough of a ‘stop’ for the sanding. Once this is done the strip can be sliced off to size (it’s usually better to extend the pencil line round to the back and cut halfway from both sides).

sanding a concave edge

Below is the other piece of wall I’ve been putting together at the same time, to represent the effect of old, sea-weathered wood which is achieved by dragging a wire brush firmly across the foam.

rough-hewn wall

For this I cut up some sample pieces I’d tried earlier, piecing together something less designed, more arbitrary looking. In this case I’ve basecoated the foam with a mix of raw umber acrylic and Paverpol, which gives it a much tougher/more durable surface without filling the detailed texture that much.

wire brush effect with foam

‘Making Walls’ will continue as a series ……..

Working with ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc

Please note first of all before you start reading this older post that I have long since included an updated/expanded version in the constructing section of my Materials pages which can be accessed above.

I’m really very keen now to get a better idea of just how many people are working with this wonderful stuff or have even heard of it? I’ve been working with it for years having been introduced to it by a good model-maker friend from the US. I’ve always assumed it must be well known to architectural and product model-makers here in the UK but since I don’t mix with them (as much as I might like) I’m really not sure anymore. Another reason for my doubt is that 4D in London are now planning to stock it (partly at my suggestion) but they’ve always been very much in touch with what their customers might be looking for and obviously haven’t noted a significant enough demand up to now. Even though many established freelancers or model-making firms may be more likely to order in bulk from other sources the ‘knowledge’ does normally tend to filter through to the rest of the community. So I’d be very grateful for any feedback on this i.e. whether you’ve heard of it and from where, whether you use it and for what?

The following ‘article’ is a transcript of the guidance sheet I’ve put together especially for 4D in conjunction with their presentation of my 1:25 scale teaching kit in the shop later in May (see previous post May1st). Therefore there’s some emphasis on small-scale work but foamed Pvc is available in thicknesses up to 20mm making it applicable for virtually any scale of work! I’ve also just started to compile a directory of materials accessed from the ‘header’ menu above in which I will group information like this according to material.

Foamed Pvc is an extremely versatile sheet plastic. Of all the different brands I’ve tried over the years Palight has proved to be by far the easiest to work with by hand. In fact it’s become my own first choice as the basis for almost everything I make! It can be easily cut with a scalpel, or carved, sanded, even embossed to a certain extent. It can be painted without any danger of warping (though it will usually require priming first) is not affected by humidity or (within reason) heat from strong lights. It is also incredibly light! For example, when I use it to make larger-scale sets for stop motion animation it delivers the structural strength of Mdf at a fraction of the weight! The only caveat in all this is the fact that it can only be glued with superglue, but on the other hand this gives a very strong bond and also once one has mastered the option of ‘gluing from outside’ it all becomes much easier!

I’ve chosen and illustrated three examples of its use: firstly using 1mm Pvc (the thinnest available) for intricate forms; secondly using 2mm Pvc for general construction; thirdly using Pvc as one may not otherwise have expected, to create surface effects.

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.

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

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.

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.

The following example illustrates some of the benefits of using foamed Pvc to construct walls etc. Even thin Pvc will retain its rigidity well. For example 1mm Pvc can be used to represent walls up to 30cm high easily, as long as they’re not load-bearing. Because Pvc sands well cut edges can be cleaned up if uneven and right-angles bettered prior to gluing together. Also because Pvc sands well the visible joins after gluing can be sanded often to invisibility!

In the next example I am constructing a piece of vaulted ceiling by first making a framework box (2mm Pvc) and then curving a thinner piece of Pvc underneath it. Curves are much easier to cut smoothly in Pvc because there is no grain and the material ‘gives’ a little. It is also possible to make a definite guiding groove in the soft surface using a compass fitted with two metal points. Curves can also be perfected by sanding them.

Here I have scored the 1mm on one side to help it to bend. The same can be done by heating it uniformly and securing it until cool on a curved surface such as a bottle. The piece can be glued in position, in much the same way as the curved profiles on the ironwork example, by first securing one end, pressing the rest into position and ‘spot- gluing’ from outside. Here the end has been made purposely longer and can be easily trimmed off once the rest is glued.

Whereas other plastics such as styrene or Abs can be sanded to modify the surface, because foamed Pvc ‘gives’ so much more it can be inscribed or even embossed to create different textures. Here is just one example where I have scraped the surface with coarse sandpaper to simulate wood.

To build up the structure of wood panelling I first cut out the raised areas as continuous pieces, then pressed firmly with sandpaper (120 grit, mounted on a small block) along the length of each part. ‘Grain follows length’ almost always for any realistic wood construction.

I scraped those areas of the base piece which would remain visible as panels then stuck the frames into position (just spacing dots of superglue). I used different thicknesses of ‘half-round’ profile styrene (also sanded) inside the panels and around the door frame.

The painting method and the choice of medium are fairly crucial in making this technique work. Normally it wouldn’t  be reasonable to paint plastic with any water-based paint  and expect it to stay, but because the surface is sanded it can grip quite well. The paint needs to emphasize the scratches made by the sandpaper, settling well in the grooves but not too much on the surface. Sometimes this can be achieved well with washes of thin paint, other times by rubbing in/rubbing off like a polish. For this example I just used a regular System3 yellow ochre acrylic thinned down with a little water and ‘rubbed into’ the plastic surface using a medium-hard brush. It takes some practise to find out for oneself what a particular painting medium might do and how best to do it.

1:25 scale feature at the 4D modelshop, London

I’m exhibiting my 1:25 scale teaching kit for a short while at the 4D modelshop 120 Leman St, London E1 8EU as part of their focus in May on working in 1:25 scale. Because of teaching commitments I can’t donate it for the whole month but it will be there from the 15th. The kit comprises model examples, worksheets and material samples and I started developing this compact form (the intention to fit everything into a box measuring 350x530x100mm) when I was asked to teach in Helsinki last December and I imagined that I wouldn’t have much more than half the space of a suitcase after all the thermals went in!  As it happened it was the warmest Helsinki December for a long time and I spent most of the time in t-shirts but the Helsinkibox as I call it for short has remained one of my better ideas and I have continued to develop it. My aim is to keep refining it until I have illustrated just about every material and technique that it likely to feature in my regular teaching .. without adding to the overall volume! This is quite a challenge since I obsessively update my teaching plans and continue researching new materials and methods almost every day.

What’s rather satisfying though is the thought that the project has become very similar to a theatre design brief, in which the ‘stage space’ has a physical limit and the materials are ‘characters’ which need to be conveyed (sometimes under various disguises) by means of ‘set pieces’.

4D modelshop have also asked me whether I can contribute a few guidance sheets focusing on some of the materials displayed which will be printed out and available to take away (adding to 4D’s already impressive array of free guidance sheets!). I am planning to post them here in my usual format but am hoping to open up a new section for these, accessed from the menu underneath the header image, with the title ‘Materials’. This will I hope make it easier to search for guideline information on using specific materials.