5 Tips for Architectural Model Making

Model making is one of the worst agonies an architecture student must go through (other than rendering, photoshopping, using AutoCAD…). Unless you are Jose and Lauren. During my schooling, Jose and Lauren were the dream team – a dating duo of architecture amazingness. I think everyone was in complete and utter awe of them, and their models. Lauren possessed the fingers of one of Santa’s elves, and Jose was well versed in all methods of construction. Anyways, I once asked just HOW they managed to do it, and within the following tips their wisdom is contained (along with a little bit of my own experiences!)

1 – Strategize. Understand what you want your model to convey – because it is highly unlikely that you are going to be able to build an exact replica of what your building would look like in real life – you don’t have the time, nor is it really useful to you. Try not to duplicate what you want to say in your printed presentation (plans, sections, renders etc.). You want to utilize your model as a tool in the presentation. Perhaps you are trying to highlight how well the building is integrated into the landscape – in that case you would spend quite a bit of time on the site and the base – and you likely would use the same material (or similar looking/color) for the building to emphasis that connection. Perhaps you use a smaller scale, so that you can show more of the site and in this case you wouldn’t focus on the detail of interiors, or small exterior details.

2 – Understand how your materials are going to affect the model, and the time it will take you to build it. Seriously consider using difficult materials like acrylic – do you really need the hassle? If it’s the best material for your project then go ahead and use it but BUDGET YOUR TIME! Sometimes the simplest materials like cardstock and cardboard, well crafted, can look great. Or even simple blocks of different coloured hardwood. Also utilizing different thicknesses, or different textures of the same material can give the model more depth. If you use materials that are the correct thickness (in scale) to walls, roof, etc. it gives the model a much better sense of accuracy, particularly when a crit-ter is picking apart your project and comparing the plans and then your model.

3 – Glue. The bane of model making existence. It pools, glops, stains, and sticks to all the wrong places if you don’t know how to use it!

Gluing fibrous materials (paper, cardstock, smaller wood types like basswood): USE THE SMALLEST AMOUNT OF GLUE POSSIBLE. Literally put the glue on a sheet of paper and use a toothpick to apply. You only want to wet the fibres. If you just wet them, then the fibres stick up and can interlock into each other and create a structure. If you use too much glue, guess what, the fibres won’t touch and your model will fall apart.

In the same way, you need to sand off the burn marks on laser cut wood to achieve the same result, as the laser has burnt the fibres down.

Once you have glue on your pieces you want to hold them firmly together for 30-40 seconds – that secures the bond.

The best glues are white glue or super glue for these smaller pieces – good brands include “Weldbond” and “Lepage gel control superglue”

For larger pieces of wood, you need to use WOOD GLUE and clamps and bricks and braces!

If you are gluing two pieces of wood together (plywood for example), or many layers of wood – spread the glue evenly along the surface and clamp the entire way around as best you can AND put bricks or something heavy on top so that the entire surface is glued together (best on a flat table as well)

If you are gluing two pieces perpendicular – utilize k clamps (those big long ones), and miter clamps for corners (or something straight and heavy). Put glue on the edge, stick to the perpendicular piece, and make sure you wipe off the excess (it is not fun to try and sand that shit off later).

If you need to glue things bent together you have to build a jig

Acrylic… ya I don’t have a lot to say about acrylic. Use the paintbrush type (liquid) if you are trying to stick edges of acrylic together AND DON’T EXPECT IT TO LOOK GOOD (again unless you are super human like Jose and Lauren). Good luck getting your acrylic to stick to your wood – gel might help. Don’t touch anywhere near the glue – if you touch it, it gets on your fingers and then everywhere on your acrylic, and it takes so long to get off your hands. Just avoid it where possible – most of the time you don’t need to use it for windows or things like that… its tedious and unnecessary. Acrylic is usually best for important features of your building, to convey the concept of transparency, or other symbolic meanings.

4 – Use the appropriate sized tools for the appropriate sized jobs. You wouldn’t use a table saw to cut a toothpick now would you? Small tools for small things, big tools for big things. Most of the time, you likely won’t have access to large tools anyways – we were lucky that our school had a whole wood workshop with table saws, ban saws, and lots of other saws for cutting plywood, and blocks of hardwood. Small tools such as Japanese style hand saws, X-acto knives, sissors, tweezers, needle-nose pliers, scalpel, can make your life easier.

5 – Measure twice; cut once – more like cut 4 or more times (especially with an Xacto knife). The first slice needs to be done with a ruler and it’s the “scoring”slice, with very little pressure, just testing the path of the cut. The second, third, fourth, etc. are slightly stronger slices, think of slicing through the layers slowly one at a time. Then eventually you’ll make the final slice through the material. This should give you a clean cut and shouldn’t tear your material. I also try to stand up when I cut to make sure that the cut is straight and to give me good control for how much pressure to put, sitting down is harder. For straight lines and accurate angles, use a T-square and set square. Its a little detail that may not be noticeable but it shows in the end, collectively. Sanding your cuts make a difference in the end as well, it cleans up messy edges.

Good things to have:

Cutting matt, miter for your Japanese hand saw, metal ruler, various types of sand paper (grit) particularly superfine (gets pencil marks off super well), scraps of paper, paint brushes, protractor, level, and a hand sander (makes life sooo easy).

Here are some examples of my own model making work (which when I look back now I am amazed I even got any of these done…)


I worked on this model (which is quite big – at least 3′ around) with my partner Jeff Villaverde in our Comprehensive Studio. It is a First Nations Centre for traditional learning (Ninaiistako was the official name). It is ALL wood.

MODEL WITH OUT ROOF  As you can see the top comes off and you can look inside the main space, which features a circular courtyard, with a floating glass staircase (do not ever EVER do something like that! It looks cool, and we did use it as a tool to explain all that but it was so time consuming).


This is a close-up of our sectional model from the same project (see below). We laser cut all of the facade pieces, sanded them down and then glued them in panels. One of the panels was removable so that we could explain how the facade worked, and hand it off to the crit-ers (tactile is goooood). This model is about hip height on a 5’4″ person.


The next two images are of a Seed Bank project that was part of a larger agricultural complex – the bank is underground – and a cave-like feeling was achieved through the sculptural ceiling (which also did double duty as the containers for all of the seeds). People could walk through and view the seeds, through changing levels of board walks surrounded by water. It was intended to be an almost spiritual experience, like that of a church, but highly grounded in well, the ground. I used a vacuform (thanks EVDS!) to create the ceiling (created a clay model, super heated thin plastic, and the machine pulls it down and uses air pressure to mold the plastic to the form).SEED BANK 2 SEED BANK 1PARTI

This last one is a Parti model (concept model) for the aforementioned First Nation’s Centre. It is stacked acrylic with holes cut in it so that when you stack them all together you end up with circulating channels, which the beads can move around in. The concept was that there are many paths we can take in our lives, and places like the building we created in our project, help to make those paths more transparent through learning (circular nature of the paths), guidance (overlapping of the paths), and tradition (the solid block of acrylic itself).


Hope this helps! Happy Model Making 😉

(Please note: All images in this post are my own, I would appreciate if they were not copied or distributed. Suggested products are not endorsed.)

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