Model Makers & Painting

model making

Painting is Essential to Model Making

One of the more obvious features that sets great models apart from mediocre ones is the paint job. Everyone notices it. A model makers expertly applied paint job doesn’t automatically make a model high quality, but you won’t achieve model perfection without one.

A lot goes into the painting process. Even though it is often thought of as a finishing touch, it’s actually given a good deal of thought early on in a model build. Right at the beginning, during the brainstorming and design phase, consideration is given to the paint colors that will be needed for the different parts. It helps determine the order that the model will be assembled in. Parts are generally painted before being assembled, not after. So it’s not a final step in the process after all.

What Kind of Paint Is Used?

There are different types of  paints for different projects. Our model makers use enamel, lacquer, epoxy, automotive and model paint. Models need paint that looks good, stays on and  is quick drying. Less consideration is given to the hardness of the paint as most models are not subjected to outdoor elements, or scrubbed clean on a regular basis. Paint has two, sometimes three, characteristics that determine how it will perform: pigment, binder and solvent. The pigment will determine the color hue, the binder is the vehicle that sticks the color to the model and the solvent affects the flow or spread-ability.

model making

Once a particular paint is chosen, the model is first given a coat of primer. Primer is a grey, sand-able substance that helps the paint stick to the model. It is flat rather than glossy in texture in order to show all the details of the model, and point out any scratches or  blemishes that may need to be filled or sanded out. Sometimes the primer itself will smooth out light scratches, other times a spot putty is applied to deeper flaws in the surface. When primer has been applied, filled in and sanded the model is perfectly smooth and ready for a coat of paint.

How Is The Paint Applied?

The delivery method of the paint is most often an air brush,  HVLP (high volume, low pressure gun), or spray can. Most paint is applied in some kind of mist form. Rarely is a brush used, except for the tiniest details.  Masking is used to cover parts of the model that are not ready for painting. Special tape is used for this purpose. While applying paint, it’s also important to know how different paints will interact. Some types of  paint will have a volatile reaction with each other depending on the type of solvent that is used in them.

model maker

Once the paint has been applied with an expert hand and eye, it needs to dry properly. While some paint will be dry to the touch almost immediately, the surface underneath may still be damp. A model may seem dry when the solvent in it hits the air and evaporates, but curing is the polymerization of the paint binder (a chemical process that may take much longer). Ideally a freshly painted model should sit for a couple of days before packing or wrapping for shipment.

The paint job on a model has a huge impact on its appearance and like-ability. It makes sense that it is given important consideration from the onset of a project, all the way to its finish.

sales model

Check out these Before / After Pictures:

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model makers

Custom Electronics for Models

KiwiMill has the ability, in house, to add motorized and electronics features to your models. A few weeks ago, we delivered a model to a customer that required a lot of power and numerous interactive features all controllable by buttons on a panel in a museum.

Custom Electronics Box & Power Supply

Adding electronics to models comes with its own set of unique challenges. Our customers demand their models work reliably and want to make sure the power supply is UL listed to ensure it is safe to use in their displays.

Some of the issues we run into in our models:

  1. Multiple Voltage Requirements – models often use off-the-shelf electronics (sound makers, motors, lights, etc.) that require multiple voltages on a single model.
  2. High Current Requirements – While LEDs use little current individually, today’s modern superbright LEDs can use upwards of a watt of energy each and, when you string 50 or 100 of them together, they use more current than a typical power supply can provide. Motors can also use a lot of current and require a robust power supply.
  3. Were Do We Mount All These Things – Break-Out-Boards, Controllers, SSRs, power supplies, etc… where do we mount all these things so the parts won’t get jostled and the customer won’t get shocked?

Our solution is a custom ATX power supply in a custom made sheet metal box. An ATX power supply provides multiple voltages (3.3V, 5V and 12V) which is the power requirements for almost everything we build. Not only do they put out multiple voltages, an ATX power supply puts out A LOT of current. We can get a 1,500 watt power supply just in case we need to light an entire city all at once! On top of that, the ATX power supplies we buy are UL listed to ensure they operate safely. A good ATX power supply is also built to last a long time and includes a fan that will keep the electronics in the box cool.

Below are some pictures of our CAD design for this custom ATX power supply and electronics box, and pictures of the finished product. There’s also a picture of a much larger box that has hundreds of wire connections coming into it.

ATX Power Supply Box Design Drawing
Design Drawing
ATX Power Supply for a Scale Model
Before Connections
Custom Scale Model ATX Power Supply
After Connections
Custom ATX Power Supply Box
Complete with Cover
Custom ATX Power Supply Box
Larger Custom Electronics Box

Fiber Optic Light Source

This one was a little easier.

The problem: anything that holds a light-bulb is designed to allow light to escape as much as possible. A light is designed to provide humans with light, after all. We need to fully contain the light and direct it toward a bundle of fiber-optics.

The solution: A custom designed fiber-optics light source. This is nothing more than a sheet metal box with a bracket to hold a standard light socket. The cover contains the light in the box. We used a 60W LED spotlight to direct as much of the light into the fiber bundle as possible.

Custom Fiber Optics Light Source Drawing
Fiber Optics Light Source Drawing
Custom Fiber Optics Light Source
Fiber Optics Light Source

Gene Sequencing Model x 2

What is better than having one model built of your amazing gene sequencing product? Having two made, of course!

KiwiMill is sometimes asked to make two replicas of the same object, fabricated simultaneously. Often one replica is used in a trade show booth, and the second model is shipped to the company headquarters for display. Having two models built concurrently can save on costs. Our model makers spend less time building multiple copies of a single design, which translates into savings for our customers.

This recently built gene sequencing model is a great example. The first copy was built at a faster pace than the second one, in order to meet a strict trade show deadline. It was shipped directly to the show upon completion. The second copy was finished up after the first one shipped, and sent to corporate headquarters.

The models are identical. The only difference being that the trade show model was shipped in a custom jigged hard-shelled Pelican case. the model will be kept in this case to be transported to future trade shows and conventions. The second gene sequencing model was carefully packed in a one way shipping box to its final destination –  the company offices – where it will reside permanently.

Consider commissioning two copies of your product. One for sales purposes, meant to travel from show to show, and another for display in the lobby of your company, boardroom, or executive office.

gene sequencing model gene sequencing model gene sequencing model gene sequencing model gene sequencing model gene sequencing model

gene sequencing model gene sequencing model gene sequencing model

Making an Historical Site Model of Ganondagan

Site Model of Ganondagan

This historical site model was created  for a museum in Western NY. The interactive display depicted Ganondagan,  a  community of Seneca people living in the early 1600’s. A large swath of land needed to be included on the site model, therefore the scale was quite small: 1 inch = 100 feet. With such a tiny scale to work with, the landscaping was particularly important, otherwise the model risked looking boring and monotonous. There were no buildings to focus attention on other than a cluster of tiny longhouses, and no major geological features to provide excitement.

The time of year the client wanted depicted in the model was early fall. Research  needed to be done to find the exact textures, shapes and colors which would realistically represent  this time period. The team at KiwiMill experimented with various materials to accurately represent grasses, trees, corn fields, and water at such a tiny scale.

Historical Site Model

The site model was designed to light up various areas of the landscape as well. The corn fields, wooded areas, water sources, walking paths and gathering of longhouses all needed to light up at the push of a button. LED strips were imbedded into the surface of the model and electronically connected to a control panel. The electronic knowledge required to get each area to light up correctly was complex.

Historical Site Model

Historical Site Model

The topography base was made out of a block of foam, and programmed and cut with a CNC router in house. The slots for the LED lights were cut at the same time using the router. Once the foam base was cut and sanded, the LED lights were inserted, the wiring underneath was completed and the extensive landscaping added.

Historical Site Model

Historical Site Model

Historical Site Model

Historical Site Model

When the model was completed, it was carefully wrapped and transported to the museum’s gallery for installation.

Historical Site Model

Historical Site Model

The resulting historical site model provides an educational tool for museum patrons to interact with. Check out these videos:


Making Historical Models – A Realistic Seneca Longhouse

KiwiMill was honored with the opportunity to construct two major historical models for the Seneca Arts and Cultural Center this past summer. The Seneca Arts and Cultural Center is a newly installed interpretive museum located on the existing Ganandogan State Historical Site in upstate New York. This historical site was once the home to thousands of Native American’s known as the Seneca people. Here their vibrant community, traditions,and culture are conveyed by living Seneca people telling their own story of the past 2,000 years.

The Seneca Arts and Cultural Center includes a gallery space that houses two historical models commissioned by our client. One model is an 11 foot long longhouse and the other is an architectural site model of the Ganandagon property as it existed over 300 years ago.

historical models

These historical site models were an exciting endeavor for the model shop. Model makers typically deal with precision, scale and details in their building projects. However artistic sensibilities are crucial for museum model work and KiwiMill prides itself in the ability to blend these two aspects. In addition to model making craftsmanship and artistry, historical models require a great deal of research and collaboration.

Longhouse Model

The longhouse model needed to look realistic as well as be historically accurate. The large scale of the model (11 feet long) meant that the materials used for fabrication needed to be authentic and natural where ever possible. Real sticks were procured for the longhouse frame and were tied together with actual leather strips in a similar fashion to Native American construction.

The model blankets were hand woven.

historical model of longhouse

The paper chosen for the bark walls needed to be the right weight, texture and opaqueness. The dyes used to color the paper were chosen to closely resemble Elm bark.

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The sculptures of food had to be formed and painted with realistic detail. The furs used were chosen for their scale and texture. The weapons were made from wood and metal, just like the real objects.

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Adding to the challenge, the longhouse would not fit through the gallery doors in one piece. It needed to be partially pre-assembled at the shop and then transported to the site. There the assembly needed to be finished in a short amount of time before the museum’s grand opening. All this needed to be done with out the use of artificial fasteners or obvious seams.

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

The longhouse included electrical wiring. Portions of the this historical model needed to light up as individual vignettes. The longhouse model has to integrate with the existing base at the museum and installed correctly so that each portion lit up when the correct button was pushed.

The longhouse model installed on site with figures added:

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse

historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse historical model of longhouse

Up Next: Part 2 – Site Model of Ganondagan


Making Interactive & Moving Models

Interactive features on models help to draw customers to your booth, add excitement to a museum display, and can transform a model from a boring static display to the main focus of your booth or gallery. Kids and adults alike love creating the action or turning on lights in a museum diorama, or causing water flow with the flick of a switch. A trade show display model can be brought to life by adding lights, water, moving parts, or even a miniature TV.

In this post, I’ll detail some of the interactive and moving features KiwiMill has added to the various models we have made recently.

TV in a ModelMiniature TV embedded into a Times Square Model
A trade show company came to us with ideas on how to add excitement to their trade show booth. The models were for CES, which is a consumer event, so first  people had to be attracted to the display and then were encouraged to pick up the cameras and take pictures using the zoom functions in order  to see the smallest details of the models. The TV in this model has a 1.8″ screen which was connected to a DVD player. This added movement and excitement to an otherwise static display model.

Computerized Asphalt Plant Model
This was a unique model for KiwiMill. Our client designed embedded controllers for asphalt plants and wanted to demonstrate the unique capabilities of their controllers on a working model. The client specified which parts of the model needed to function and KiwiMill created an interface to allow the model to animiate using their product. This model had numerous moving parts driven by motors and linear actuators. 

Road Construction Truck Model
This road construction truck model is used to demonstrate the numerous features our customer built into their truck. Take a look at the video below and you’ll see just how many of these we were able to build into this model including sounds, moving parts, lights, arrow flashers, etc.

Working Hydroelectric Dam
This model was built for the U.S. government to demonstrate how hydroelectric power was created. It included a valve that could be opened to allow water to flow through a working turbine. When flow and turbine were activated, the sign on top of the turbine would light, simulating electricity generation.

Display Model Delivered Direct to Trade Show

KiwiMill recently completed a display model of a gene sequencing facility. This was an expedited project completed in less than a month and shipped directly to the American Society of Human Genetics trade show in Baltimore, Maryland.

The model was designed to show of the streamlined process of genetic sequencing our clients have created with their system. Robot arms are used to move genetic material from one machine to the next, eliminating unnecessary steps in the process.

The display model was built quickly and arrived on schedule to the trade show floor. There it was placed on a lit table, serving as a center point to our client’s booth design.

Materials used included 3D printed parts, machinist board and sheet plastics. Both models fit in one Pelican case for ease of transportation. A second model is being built concurrently to reside at the corporate headquarters.

Here is a picture of the model at the trade show taken by camera phone. Look for more pictures of this project soon – and others like it – on our website portfolio, under trade show models.

display model


Summer Intern at the Model Shop

Summer is winding down and KiwiMill model shop does not want to say goodbye to its intern, Devin. One of the projects in the shop the past couple of months has involved the construction of a 9 ft long Longhouse Model. Devin has been an integral part of this project.

A longhouse is a type of long, narrow, single-room dwelling used by groups of people in various parts of the world. The particular design currently being constructed at our model shop is a Seneca Bark Longhouse developed by the Haudenosaunee people of Northeast America.

Devin has been working under the instruction of the KiwiMill team, collecting materials, fabricating these pieces and assembling them into Longhouse walls. Eventually this fully constructed model will end up in a museum opening in October, 2015.

This hands on experience at the model shop will help Devin with his long term goals in the fields of engineering and design. KiwiMill has been very excited to be a part of this internship and hope to continue this relationship into the school year.

Here is some of Devin’s work:

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Pending Model Shop Move

model shop

Next month KiwiMill will be moving to a new model shop. Our model makers are very excited to have this building designed and renovated to their specifications. The new building is self standing, and will include everything necessary to continue producing world class scale models. There will be several individual computer work stations and work benches, a clean room, assembly area, staging and packing space, paint booth, large machinery room, cast and mold station, 3D printing area, offices and reception area.

KiwiMill’s owner has been looking for the perfect space to purchase for some time. The staff has toured the new model shop and helped design the flow of the space so that it maximizes efficiency and production. Currently the interior rooms are being gutted, rewired, dry walled and painted along with new lighting, flooring and windows. We will continue updating our blog with the progress as the moving date gets closer.

model shop

Rocket Launcher Models – The Final Chapter?

This is the third set of rocket launcher models KiwiMill has built for our client. This batch is in the final stages of assembly, ready to ship in a couple of days. Like the previous orders, these are large specimens – approximately 1:50th scale.

Tooling board and plywood were CNC routed for the bases. This provided a sturdy, solid surface to build from.

Rocket Launcher Model Rocket Launcher Model



Laser cut aluminum was welded for strength and stability to build the towers for the rocket launcher models. ABS and styrene added details.

rocket launcher model rocket launcher model


The treads were 3D printed.

Rocket Launcher Model Rocket Launcher Model

As wtih the previous builds, the resulting models need custom crates designed and built in our shop.

IMG_5508rocket launcher modelEven though we are coming to the end of this project, our model makers are hoping to work on additional rocket launcher orders in the future.





Evaporator Model that Rotates

Check out this evaporator model built to pivot on an axle.

The actual product is used for waste water evaporation in the field. Our 1:3 scale replica was built with a vacuum formed cone, attached to a welded aluminum base for stability. The cone pivots on the yoke to show our client’s product at different angles.

One end of the cone has laser cut screening. The other end features 3D printed “teeth,” a neat feature of this evaporator model, giving the impression of a shark’s mouth. Great branding by our client! This easily transported model fits in a Pelican carry case that can be wheeled from show to show.

evaporator model evaporator model IMG_5441

Cool Exhibit Trailer Model

This exhibit trailer model was built a while back at KiwiMill, but could not be shared until recently. The purpose of the model was to demonstrate the final interior layout of a traveling sales room. The design was created by an exhibit company for a prospective client, as part of a bid package.

The trailer itself was built with sheet plastics, including 3D printed parts and vinyl graphics. The interior tables, chairs, video screens and cabinets were all hand built to scale. The exhibit trailer also included a platform entrance with stairs and railings.  The trailer was then attached to an off-the-shelf truck cab that was customized with the company’s graphics.

exhibit trailer model


exhibit trailer model
Scale Tables, Chairs and Computer Screens.



exhibit trailer model
Off The Shelf Truck Cab with Graphics



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So You Want to Be a Model Maker?

scale model maker

A Model Maker is someone that most people don’t know a lot about. People tend to think of model making as either as a layman’s hobby or a skill that has been replaced by computers. Neither view is quite accurate. Model Makers are a group of professionals that find viable work in industries such as trade show, product design & development, sales and marketing, entertainment, military, architectural and museum – to name a few.

Model makers often start out as hobbyists, particularly in their youth.  Plenty have found their initial love of taking things apart and re-assembling them, often in new, creative ways, as a gateway to model making. One of the main differences between the model making hobbyist and the professional model maker, is deadlines. While hobbyists may have advanced skill sets, and even generate income from their craft, typically they do not have the same strict deadlines as professionals do.

Modern model makers often work under tight time constraints. They might be creating a model of a product to ensure its integrity before it goes to production. A scale model might be used in an upcoming trade show to sell a new idea. An architectural model might be needed for the opening of a developer’s sales office. Or a museum may be looking for a showpiece for an upcoming exhibit installation. In most of these instances, there is a sense of urgency, and professional model makers are used to putting in extra hours to meet strict deadlines.

While technological advances, particularly in the area of 3D drafting, CNC machining and rapid prototyping have changed the modern model shop, they have not replaced the need or desire for 3D physical representations. Rather, computers have enhanced the profession in surprising ways.  With the advent of new technological tools, scale models are becoming more accurate, detailed and economical than ever before.

Of course that has some people wondering if the artistry and craftsmanship of a master model maker still exists, or is even necessary. Increasingly, it is the combination of Old World techniques and modern advances that set great scale models apart from the competition. Model shops that are producing exceptional models have found that perfect blend of old and new processes.

Successful model makers have a somewhat contradictory set of abilities. They need a creative mind to envision/design the finished model, but also be a logical thinker who can work through the challenges of each build. They are mentally focused on construction, while remaining very flexible in their approach when it needs to be altered midway. Model maker’s artistic sensibilities help give a model visual appeal, capturing the essence of an object, not merely replicating its structure. On the other hand, the engineering/logical side of a model maker understands and solves technical issues that come up. Part analytical and part fanciful makes for an interesting mix.

Besides being of a certain mind-set, a person wanting to become a model maker needs experience working with his or her hands. Model makers use a wide variety of materials such as plastic, wood, metal, glass, rubber, plaster and foam. The developing model maker learns the properties of these materials and how they interact with each other through direct contact, while also honing dexterity and attention to detail.  Nothing replaces the knowledge and skills gained from building objects from scratch.

In addition to these skills, the modern model maker should have a working knowledge of CAD, as well as free hand drawing ability. CNC machines are great additions to a model shop, as well as 3D printers. These require the computer skills necessary to read, draw, translate and transmit information to machines that can print, route, mill, etch or carve parts to supplement what  a model maker hand builds. Use of these machines increases the accuracy and speed in which a model is produced.

Experience using tools associated with model making is also helpful. Tools like a table saw, welding equipment, paint gun, sanders, lathe, mill, band saw, sand blaster, drill press and shear might all be used by model makers. This is in addition to hand tools like calipers, X-Acto knives, sand paper, files, dental picks and paint brushes.  Not only responsible for fabricating various designs, it’s worth noting that model makers build the furniture-quality bases for models to sit on or in, as well as the crates the models are shipped in.

It’s easy to see that there is no one path toward a career in model making. While advanced degrees and certificates in model making are not all that common in the U.S., they do exist. Other model makers have degrees in Industrial Design, or Fine Arts. Some model makers have engineering or electronics backgrounds that help particularly with models that have special effects like movement, lights or sound. Still other model makers found their way to the profession through crafts backgrounds or carpentry. With any background, it helps to work under a Master Model Maker to absorb their experience – the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to tackle the wide variety of modeling techniques that exist.

It takes a special someone who can visualize an idea or 2D representation and transform it into a fully realized three-dimensional object. While there are not a huge amount of  career opportunities in model making,  job satisfaction in the industry is high. The work is varied, challenging and satisfying. It’s a great fit for a mind that is creative yet logical, and for people who simply must do something with their hands.

Not Sure What You’re Looking For in a Scale Model?

scale model

Are you entertaining the idea of a scale model for your sales office, trade show display or company training, but are unsure of exactly what you’re looking for? While there are customers who come to us with exactly what they desire – right down to the scale, level of detail and finish – it’s not unusual to have lots of questions about scale models in general, and the process of purchasing one.

Our team at KiwiMill  can help guide you in the process of choosing a model; determining what your goals are and how best to achieve them through a scale model presentation. There are endless options for portraying a product, place or concept via modeling. Narrowing your options down to the choices that will work best for your particular situation, is something we have lots of experience in. With model makers on staff that have 20+ years in the profession, we feel confident in our ability to present you with an idea that will fit your particular situation.

You may have a product that would be best displayed in a particular scale, as a cut away, or with lighting and movement to highlight particular attributes or abilities. It might make sense to have multiple models to show various design options, or just one model that transforms into different configurations.

Size or scale is a consideration that often requires additional clarification or guidance. Some features will not display correctly in a scale that is too small, for example. Larger scales have their own considerations, such as the need for very realistic detail in order to have the impact necessary for a quality display.

The amount of detail to put on a model is another area we can offer guidance with. While it might make sense in many instances to have as much realistic detail as your budget allows, there are circumstances where it might be unnecessary and even visually distracting to go that route. This is where our model maker’s artistic eye and vast experience might help steer the direction of the project towards a mutually satisfying outcome that otherwise would not have happened if our input wasn’t offered.

There may be questions about a model that do not involve artistic interpretation,  but are more practical in nature. A client may be interested in learning about how a model can help train personnel on procedures, logistics or safety issues. We can come up with a model design that helps simplify or clarify a process, cutting down training costs and increasing efficiency.

If you have entertained the idea of a model but aren’t sure what it can do for you, or you aren’t sure what your options are in terms of types of models and their uses, give us a call. (866.783.8612). Our model makers like to talk about models, and your project or concept, matters to us. Finding the right fit between a client and a scale model that communicates its message correctly, is part of the service we offer. You don’t need to know exactly what you want in order to start the conversation.