Virtual 3D Modeling has for decades been increasing in its popularity, yet hand-made models are far from extinct. Perhaps a reason for this is that despite the "3D" in "3D modeling," viewing those models on a screen or print is still, effectively, two-dimensional. A physical model of course can be held in your hand, examined and understood spatially in a way that a CAD model can’t. It can also be used as a quick and intuitive 3D sketch to get some ideas going. Whether it's for a client or a professor, models are almost always necessary in order to produce a complete understanding of the relationship between spaces in your design. To make the most use of this tool, read on for tips on how to improve your modeling:
1. Use the Right Tools
Having the right tools for building your model may not be everything when it comes to model making, but it sure will separate a good model from a great one. You don’t want to waste time trying to find a less-than-suitable substitute for a missing tool. However, listing all the essential tools calls for a post in itself; take a look at this one to get started.
2. Use High Quality Cutting Tools
When building a model you will always need to cut up some material or another in order to suit your needs, making this specific tool somewhat more important than many of the others (with the exception of glue perhaps – more on that later). Getting that clean edge adds another level of neatness; it may not be fully appreciated, but trust us, its absence is always noted. Get your hands on a good utility knife with a set of exchangeable blades; a blunt knife is often more dangerous than a sharp one. A good pair of sharp scissors comes in handy too, especially when you don’t want to spend hours making delicate cuts using a knife for a simple sketch model.
3. Carefully Choose Your Materials
Although your model may not always be an exact miniature of a full-scale building, the materials you select to represent it are important. Firstly, you want your model to narrate something about your project; having carefully chosen materials, as opposed to a model entirely made of card, will help to immerse others in that narrative far more effectively. Secondly, you want to make sure that the materials you use are easy enough for you to work with; a model should supplement your project, not hijack all of your time.
4. Use a Laser Cutter if Necessary
It’s not uncommon to already have a CAD model on your computer, but it is uncommon, in such a situation, to have the motivation to recreate the entire thing by hand. In this case, laser cutting may be a favorable alternative. The trick with laser cutting is to set up your virtual model correctly, in order to make it possible to cut and piece together. It’s likely that you’ll be more restricted regarding your geometry, and tip 3 comes into play here too: unless you want to start a fire, the thickness of the material you use may be limited, and if you're planning to use wood then you should have a plan to remove or cover up those freshly-burned edges. If you’re trying to get something very organic produced from a 3D model, 3D printing is probably the way to go.
5. Use Sketch Models
Thinking spatially is a tricky thing, even for architects. Sketch models, especially flexible ones that aren’t permanently glued together, can be excellent tools in themselves when trying to figure out how to compose the finished model or overall architectural design. These models have the appeal of not needing to look so polished, nor do they take too much time to make.
6. Think About Your Lighting
Ensuring that your working environment is properly lit is essential in preventing your eyes from straining themselves, as well as enabling you to see the details in your model and avoid mistakes. Models can also result in beautiful photographs, but only if you have proper lighting set up.
7. Make Sure You Have Enough Space
Making enough space for yourself before beginning on a model is something your future self will thank you for. Model making can get messy and confusing very quickly if one doesn’t have a big enough or organized space. Setting up a trashcan, for example, for left over scraps, or having a cutting area separated from an assembly area, can make the experience much more pleasant and prevent you from losing your gumption.
8. Select the Right Adhesives
As mentioned earlier, alongside cutting tools, getting your adhesives right is one of the most essential parts of model making. Nothing, nothing is worse than showing up with a model that is ready to fall apart at the slightest touch—except, perhaps, showing up with a model covered in drips and strings of glue. Here is an extensive list summarizing the best types of glue and tape for different types of models and materials. Bookmark it and use it wisely.
9. Wash Your Hands
One source suggests washing your hands every 30 minutes, and while this may be a tad excessive for some, washing your hands more often than usual is probably a good thing, especially when working with a white material. The oil and dirt that begins to accumulate on your fingers may not be obvious to you until you see it on your completed model. By that point, it’ll be too late.
10. Anchor the Model
A model always represents a real building project, which always has a site or context; don’t forget the context! Having a solid base is so much better than having a model floating in thin air. Models require something to anchor them down and give them that final touch, or as one source calls it, the equivalent of a "picture frame."
11. Decide on a Scale
Scale can be a game changer. Not only will it determine the level of detail and space that can be seen, but also the amount of time you spend on your model—and contrary to popular belief, smaller isn’t always faster. Spending hours cutting meticulous, small elements using your X-Acto knife is something you’ll regret when you could just as well have chosen a larger scale and used scissors.
12. Be Selective in What You Show
There will never be enough time or money to include everything in a model, so make sure you know what your model is aiming to communicate. Is it illustrating the essence of your project or concept, or is it showing a technical section of a wall? This will help you to cut out materials and time, including only what’s essential.
13. Show Something New
In certain cases, models are near-replicas of drawings, however in an ideal world they shouldn’t be. A model should enhance a set of drawings, showing another level of depth that drawings may not be able to communicate. Develop your project a step further in your model, in order to get the most out of your time and resources.
14. Make a Time Plan
Before getting started on your model, write up a time plan to keep you on track for your deadline. This is to ensure that you show up with a model that can stand on its own and withstand the examination of others (in other words, a completed model) but also so that you don’t end up sacrificing too much of your time that should be allocated to other work. Be realistic with your time plan; as stated earlier, nothing is worse than a model ready to fall apart.
15. Ask for Advice
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know everything about every material and tool that you may need to make you model. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice from friends or experts; "there’s no such thing as a stupid question," or so the saying goes.
Make mistakes and learn from your experience. The more models you make, the better they will become. Writing down the difficulties you’ve had, and what you’ve learned in order to solve them, could be a valuable resource to have a few months down the road when you run into a similar problem on your next model. Practice makes perfect.
All images are courtesy of students at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts.