Model Making Advice for Students

A basic guide from a professional model maker.

The aim of this article is to provide students with some general advice on how to produce well made, informative architectural models. Whether you’re an architecture student or doing a design project at school, there are some simple do’s and don’ts that are well worth knowing in order to avoid the basic errors made by many first time model makers.

Let me explain first of all that I am writing this from the perspective of someone who has had personal experience of having to make architectural models with limited resources. Although I am now a professional model maker I was once a student at the Welsh School of Architecture where they viewed models as an important part of the design process. Through my three years on the course and subsequent many years in the model making profession I have seen, or made myself, most of the common mistakes people make when setting out to produce an architectural model. Hopefully I can help you avoid these errors and save you a lot of wasted time and effort.

Planning your architectural model

The first and most important step for any architectural model making project is to establish a clear goal for the model. In other words, what is the model for, what is its purpose, what does it need to communicate? Very few people have the budget and resources to make a model that shows everything about their project. It is more realistic to choose an aspect of your design that the model can show well.

For example, if you are designing a building in a sensitive area, a monochromatic massing model can show the overall form and layout of your design and how it sits in its context. This will give viewers an instant general understanding of your project. The colours, materials and any other detailed elements can be explained through additional drawings, photographs, swatches, etc.

Another approach is to let your drawings show the general overview of your project and use an architectural model to illustrate one of the detailed aspects. For example you could make a part-model of a particularly interesting area of the building; an entrance feature perhaps or a decorative elevation. Or you could make a sectional model that slices through the building to show the internal spatial organization.

The important thing is to start with a clear purpose for your architectural model and then work out what sort of model will best achieve your goals.

What scale should the architectural model be?

Once you have decided what your model needs to illustrate, the next step is choose the most appropriate scale. This decision is affected by two things; how big an area you need to model and how much detail you want to show. If you need to show a big area, perhaps for a site context model, you would have to choose a smaller scale, say 1:500 or even 1:1000. This is to avoid the model becoming too big to be practical. But at these smaller scales you need to be aware that is not really possible to show much in the way of detail.

If the purpose of the model is to show just the building itself you could consider 1:200 or even 1:100 scale. At these scales you can show windows, doors, balconies, etc. However, if your goal is to illustrate a particular area or detailed element of the building you may well need to go bigger again, say 1:50 scale or even 1:20 scale.

Whatever the purpose of your model, being able to understand scales will enable you to work out practical, achievable options for your particular project. Many students will already have a clear understanding of scales and those who have can skip this next bit, but if you are a little unclear on the subject it’s probably worth reading.

Scales are actually very simple. The scale of an architectural model is a ratio - in other words, the relative size of the model to the real thing. For example, 1:1 scale (we would say it as "one to one") would be a life size model. Whereas, 1:10 scale ("one to ten" or “one tenth scale”) would be one tenth of actual size. Likewise, 1:100 would be one hundredth of actual size, and so on. The larger the scale indicator number, the smaller the model, which means less detail can be shown.

Another useful way to think about scales is to work out how many millimetres represent one metre at the particular scale you're considering. We do this by dividing 1000 by the scale indicator number. For example, for 1:200 scale, divide 1000 by 200 and you get the answer 5. Which tells you that one metre in “real life” will be represented by 5mm on the model. So if the area you need to model is 100 metres x 100 metres square, your 1:200 scale model would be 500mm x 500mm (100 x 5mm).

For particularly large sites you will need to use a much smaller scale, say, 1:1000. At this scale the architectural model will be one thousandth of the actual size. To work out how many millimetres will represent a metre we redo the sum we did above, 1000 divided by the scale indicator number (in this case also 1000). The answer is obviously “1”, meaning that one metre on site will be represented by 1 millimetre on the model. A square site 1000 metres x 1000 metres would therefore be 1000 millimetres square as a 1:1000 scale model.

Architectural model making methods and materials

For the purposes of this general guide I won’t go into a lot of specific detail on architectural model making techniques and materials as this is a very broad area and will be covered in a separate article. Here are some basic rules to follow though.

Be realistic about what you can achieve with the time, materials and facilities available to you. Don't try and make the model show every detail of your design or you just won't finish it. Very often it is students with good model making skills that don’t finish their architectural model, simply because their enthusiasm has got the better of them and they’ve tried to show too much. Or, the model does get finished but it has taken up so much of their time and energy that other important parts of their presentation have to be rushed or don’t get done at all.

It is tricky to get the balance right but it is better to be a little less ambitious with the model and focus on submitting a coordinated, fully realized overall presentation.

The use of colour is another area where models can go wrong. Sometimes it's safer to keep things monochrome (white, for example, can look quite "architectural" and stylish) unless you're very confident with colour or it's a vital part of what your model is trying to show.

Always present your model on a good, solid base with a clean edge finish - this acts almost like a picture frame and enhances the general appearance of your model.

As far as materials are concerned, unless you have easy access to a fully equipped workshop including a laser-cutter (the most useful tool for architectural model making), it would be best to work with card or foam-board or similar, easy-to-cut materials such as Balsa or Lime wood. In other words, anything that you can cut with either a sharp blade or junior hack saw and stick together with conventional shop bought glues.

And when you are cutting, if possible, try to use a square, especially if you are cutting out floor plates or elevations. Keeping everything square is crucial if you want to achieve a neat, crisp finish for your building. It’s also worth investing in a metal ruler as you will find a plastic or wooden ruler will get damaged very quickly.

Whether you’re cutting with a craft knife or a scalpel, it's better to use several light passes rather than trying to cut all the way through with one go. You’ll get a cleaner cut and you’re less likely to slip and cut your finger.

Laser cutter

As indicated above, the most useful machinery for architectural model making is a laser cutter which most educational establishments now have in their workshops. This tool will enable you to create precise, perfectly square floor plates and elevations which, as long as you have drawn them accurately, should fit together perfectly to create a neat, sharply finished model. The laser cutter will also allow you engrave line detail on to the elevations which will add extra refinement to your model.


Sourcing materials can be difficult, but your best bet is to investigate your local Art & Craft shop and check also if there is a hobbyist’s model shop in the area. These shops will usually have a good range of materials but do get what you need early. It’s surprising how quickly a group of students all working on a similar design brief can empty the shelves of all the best materials.

If you can’t get what you need locally there are several model making supplies companies with on-line catalogues who provide a good mail order service. Click on Links, where you will find a list of useful links for architectural model making supplies. Or use a search engine and see what that turns up.

Good luck with your project. If there’s only one thing you remember from this article make it this…
"the model will take twice as long as you think it will."

Stephen Wynne-Owen
Architectural model making specialists
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