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Spurned by a series of tweets (as most of my blog post ideas are), this first installment in what hopefully is a series of posts about model building, will give fledgling architecture students a primer into what they might need to know to create awesome presentation models that are sure to knock the socks off of any guest critic. Hopefully distracting said critic from the fact that you really have no idea what you are talking about and there is no way this POS could possibly work in real life, but DAMN, it will look good right? The biggest question in my mind is “Why now?” in the age of digital design, 3D virtual modeling, Revit, BIM, Sketch Up, etc. why, after having escaped 12 years ago from studio hell and being the only model builder in the company in my first job out of school, am I going to talk about it now? Building models was one of the highlights of my college experience. Being able to use my hands to make something that is sculptural yet conveys an interpretation of some architectural idea that we were presented with during the course of the studio session is something that’s almost primal in nature. It’s hidden within each and every young architecture student, and its screaming to get out. THIS is why I am writing these now.

The first post in the series will be dedicated to the Materials and Tools that one might find when touring an architecture studio. Not all materials are used all the time, and by no means do you need each and every one of these items. I will admit however that at one time I have used each item on the list in some form or another during my studio experience. In the meantime, if you want to see some of my work from studio and the model shop, my portfolio stuff is



This brown pressed paper makes a great material for contour models as well as general massing of shapes and structures, thereby making it a staple for most models. It comes in multiple thicknesses and depending upon the manufacturer can be a warm gray to cardboard brown in color.

Museum board (or Bristol Board):


Another type of pressed paper board, but this time its white as snow. Perfect if you’re going for the Richard Meier look. Same uses as chipboard but can get dirty very quickly. Dirty museum board ruins its pristine effect so make sure you have a clean work surface and clean tools when using it. There are also black and antique white museum boards.

Crecent board (or mat board):


Crescent board is essentially museum board with a textured or colored paper adhered to one side. Depending upon the effect you’re going for; don’t assume it’s just for picture framing. When combined with some pencil or scored it can be dressed up to represent anything from limestone to concrete. Further on in the series I will describe joining techniques, one of which is particularly suited for crescent board.


Cork comes in sheets and also makes great contour models- it can be stained, painted, or left in its natural state.


Clear sheets of, well… Plexiglas. Comes in varying thicknesses and can be very temperamental when trying to cut it with the plexi-cutter. Can be left as see-through, or sanded on one or both sides.

Aluminum printing plates:

These might be hard to come by in this day and age. When we were in school at Kansas State, they would let us buy the old printing plates from the journalism school. These were interesting as they had images of yesterday’s news on them. Not sure how the papers are produced today, but most of the time this material was sanded down because you didn’t want to see the ink and news on your model. Not the most enjoyable material to work with but really made some awesome detail pieces.

Acetate sheets:

Thinner than plexiglass and more malleable, this material is easier to cut than plexi, being able to do so with just a standard exacto knife. It too can be sanded down to represent a translucent material


It’s a box, but you can do cool stuff with cardboard, however you must be careful as it can look sloppy if not done right. One technique is to tear one side off and expose the ribbing.

Balsa wood:

One word- DONT. I could go into detail, but just take my word for it. I have never had any luck with this poor excuse for a wood product. It’s more like foam (which I also never really used). I could start a whole separate blog post with images of bad balsa wood models.




If Chipboard is the bread, than basswood is the butter. Basswood comes in TONS of shapes and sizes, both in stick and sheet form.

Spackle (or Joint Compound):

There are primarily two kinds of spackle- joint compound, and the lightweight version made with acetate. I can’t remember which kind works the best (my thought is the acetate one since it won’t add moisture to your model, but it can definitely give you some interesting texture when mixed with pigment and smeared like stucco onto a contour model).

Wire/metal rods/ metal sheets:


Steel Piano wire, or copper rods work well for small metal columns, or tension members. My favorite is the copper since you can solder it. I was never able to make the steel wires stay connected to each other very well. Also you can put acid on the copper sheets to make prematurely age them and give them some interesting staining. I actually just ran across this website in my research for this post: http://ask.metafilter.com/106711/How-to-stain-copper. It gives you recipes for mixtures that will stain your copper different colors. I really wish the internet was more easily available (I.E. didn’t take 5 minutes to load a web page) when I was in school.


While I have not personally ever used PVC foam sheets in models I have seen it done. I won’t say what I saw was successful, but I am sure it could be. Especially if you use PVC glue which is probably stronger than the rest of the sheet once its set. There are also PVC tubes that range from 1/8” up to 3/8” or more.

WOW- so that was a lot of materials to choose from. I didn’t even get into using real items like wood, nails, screws, bolts, and other found objects in your model. Architectural and automotive salvage places are chock full of parts and pieces one could use to convey their ideas. Of course, if you thought THAT list was long, check out all the different tools one can use when making models. Forgive me if I don’t give you an image for each one (OK maybe I will). I also should really be giving you links for all of this stuff, but the problem with links to places to buy these items is that the place could go out of business, and then you are left with a broken link, and then you send me a nasty-gram about said broken link that I then must take time to go back and fix… but I digress. You know what google is right? Let me google that for you.


Exacto knives (big and small):


If you are trying to decide whether to get the big red handled one or the small silvery metal one- don’t stress. You will need them both. And DON’T bother getting one with special grips or other doodads. The original ones are still around for a reason. The others always fail.

Various blades- and saw attachment:


There are many different blades for your exacto knives. I would invest in a bulk package of the #2’s as well as a small miter box and saw blade attachment. I never needed any more than that. OH- ok, I did have the square ended chisel one for a while that made awesome clean inside corners if you were not adept at making them with a standard blade.


You already have these- believe it or not you can add a wash of color with some prisma pencils, or force some texture/relief by using a graphite pencil. Finally sharpie markers and black crayon are great at outlining edges if you are applying a marker colored paper facade to a crescent board box. There are tons of uses for coloring and drawing on your model. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Large cutting board or two:


The self healing cutting boards are awesome, but when cutting at an angle you are guaranteed to make it into a non-healing cutting board. Don’t worry, nicks and gouges in these are expected. Some people forgo these and just use 3 ply chipboard. You just have to be careful not to cut all the way through. If you do get one, get two that fit side by side under the length of your parallel bar unless you can find one that fits under the whole thing.

Cork backed metal straight edge:

MANDATORY for cutting materials with an exacto knife. I would suggest one with a finger guard, but these are not as precise a just a standard metal ruler with some cork on the back. The fear of slicing your fingertip off should keep you from doing it, but if you do, you probably won’t do it a second time. Mainly because it won’t be there anymore. Fun fact: we used to call it a staysput… because it stays put when you hold it down. Spring for the 18” version. You’ll thank me later.

Parallel bar/drafting table/ drafting templates/triangles:

With the popularity of 3D modeling, BIM, and AutoCAD for doing the drawing portion of your project, you will still want to have a nice parallel bar mounted to a drafting table to help you make straight parallel measured cuts. And when combined with a triangle, nice 90 degree angles. If you can get one with a metal edge it will keep you from making divots out of the nice straight edge that you have available for hand drafting when the need arises. Other standard drafting items like French curves, ships curve, and adjustable triangles also help when laying out model pieces.

Dremel tool:

The Dremel is your go-to power tool. It will help you sand things, drill things, polish things, etch things, even cut things with the metal cutting wheel. Definitely get one with a variable speed so you can annoy your studio-mates by speeding it up…..then slowing it down.

Hot glue gun:

You don’t need an expensive hot glue gun (I have one like the image). The purpose is in the name. Its glue, it gets hot, you pull the trigger to squirt it out. It is NOT for delicate detail work. It’s to hold stuff together when you don’t care what the joint looks like. Protip: Show up with hot glue strings hanging from your model and globs of hot glue holding sticks to paper and you are liable to get laughed out of the crit room.

The Chopper:

My favorite tool that I never owned!!! Everyone else in my studio had one of these so I didn’t really need one. The little clamps on the sides are all but useless- build your own jig and you can cut 100, 200, 1000 sticks of basswood the exact same length. It doesn’t like super thick pieces thought- see Exacto saw blade. In my research for this post I saw they now make an 18” version. It doesn’t seem worth the expense since you really are just paying for the blade mechanism and something sturdy for it to be mounted to.

Glues and Adhesives:

This could also probably be its own blog post since there are so many different glues out there that do different things. Depending upon what you are trying to join, you probably will need an assortment of glues in your arsenal. I can’t seem to remember the name brand of the one that we used the most, but I think it was a cyranoacrylic glue that was in a nice little squeeze bottle with a metal tip. There were two kinds- think and thick. I never bought the thin stuff. There was also a bottle of spray that you could use to help speed the bonding process. I loved the smell of that stuff! I am sure it was healthy to breathe those fumes right? Of course there was elmers glue, hot glue, rubber cement, and wood glue. As for adhesives, aside from drafting dots I really didn’t use a lot of tape while in school. Now AFTER school was a completely different story. I learned that 3M made double sided tape that came in 12” wide rolls. It was awesome for rolling across the back of a drawing- cutting out the drawing, then removing the protective “other” side of the tape to stick it to a crescent board box. It was also used for those cork contour models I made at my first job after college.

Aside from those, there were many other tools I used from time to time. I didn’t feel I needed to go through all of these, but I am listing them here just so you have a good idea as to what else you might want to think about to add to your model building arsenal.

Other Tools you might look at for your arsenal…

Drill/drill bits

Table saw (yeah- for cutting mdf and plywood)

Handheld jig saw/blades (curves in plywood and mdf)

Scroll saw

Plexi cutting tool

Solder gun


Spackle Knife

Electric eraser

Next time I will begin to discuss techniques that one might use when building models, starting with how to hold an exacto knife, and making clean sharp cuts. I promise the photos will be better quality!! Until then, if you have additional tools and ideas that you would like to share, feel free to add them below!!

10/19:  Adding some links for everyone to reference when researching model building techniques and architectural model images.  Please let me know if they get broken.

Awesome Tumblr for all types of Architectural Models.

Obligatory Architectural Model page from Wikipedia.

6 Responses to “Architectural Model Techniques (Materials and Tools)”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Wagner, Avril Korman. Avril Korman said: RT @threefourteen: I finally blogged… these need to get a lot shorter ;) http://bit.ly/bdOkdc Architectural model building technique … [...]

  2. Ooh Ooh Oh! I know something you don’t know! They now make fine tip hot glue guns. The tip is extremely small and perfect for tiny detail work. Who knew children’s clothing design would cross over into model building! Glad to see you blogging again. :-)


  3. Utilizing state-of-the-art tools and techniques, often employing laser cutting technology, consistently delivers a superior product to architects, designers and planners of real estate developments, mosques, civic and commercial projects. Always, the highest quality materials are creatively and intelligently selected to best execute each step of the model making process.


  4. This blog is really helpful for me, Beause I am keen learner of architectural models. Please let me know the whole information about this.


  5. Hey, you demonstrate some valid points and I find your blog interesting.


  6. My father was a Professor of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma, and my brother got his architecture degree there. Both were masters of the balsa architectural model. Old school technology, but think about how ecological it is. Whether it works depends entirely on your skill level and concentration. Maybe you should rethink your position? Balsa has three different cuts, which have different working qualities, maybe your problems with it were that you were using these cuts indifferently without allowing for their inherent differences.


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