Tag Archives: model maker

Model Maker Materials

It’s been over two years since I’ve started spending time with model makers, and I am still struck by the variety of mediums they work with. Especially since I do the ordering for them!

Model makers who make custom models have a stunning variety of material they must be able to construct with, and just as many techniques to go along with that. Depending on the type of model – architectural, trade show, military, museum – and its purpose: sales, display, training, fundraising, etc., the actual substances used to create a model vary.

Our model shop works with all types of wood, several types of plastic, a variety of metals, molding compounds – even fabric. Just in the plastic category alone there are several different types, each with its own properties: ABS which is more resilient, acrylic which cuts beautifully on the laser but can break, resin which is the liquid plastic that the 3D printer uses, and styrene – an easily bonded staple of architectural models.

When determining what material to build with, a model maker has to decide what properties are best suited for the purpose intended. If the model will be displayed in a clear box and never touched, then delicate, intricate and the most realistic looking materials can be used. This is rare.

Most of our models are meant to be touched and handled by the viewer and need to be built with substances that can hold up to this kind of treatment. Often times this means a mixture of different plastics and metals. The metal ends up providing a solid skeleton for the model that more detailed pieces can be “hung” from.

At the extreme end of durability are models that must provide motion, simulate movement or light up. These working models require material that can withstand the friction, and sometimes heat, involved in the moving parts. It may include pulleys, actuators, motors, gears, or electronics that need to be properly housed in the correct materials.

Besides knowing what material to use for which model, a model maker needs to understand how to cut, shape, and cover the chosen substance. Paint doesn’t cover every material the same way. It’s also important to choose the correct fastening method. A model is usually made up of many parts, each of which not only needs to be accurately formed and covered with a properly adhering finish, but then has to be securely attached to the model as a whole.

Knowledge of all the different types of materials that may go into any given model, takes time and practice. Successful model makers are well versed in the various fabrication choices, methods and techniques that go into a custom model. They get this way by actual immersion in the craft.


3D Printed Models

It’s been a couple of years now since KiwiMill started making 3D printed parts for our models. It took some experimentation to get this model making tool working for us, but we have settled into a nice rhythm in terms of its use.

About 70% of our jobs now involve some degree of 3D printed parts. At the beginning of a project, our model makers decide what materials they will use to build each part of a custom model. Several factors are considered when deciding what pieces will be fabricated on the 3D printer. The complexity of the part, its use on the model, it’s size and how quickly it needs to be produced are some of the considerations.

The 3D printer is an excellent choice for complex, intricate parts. Once the time is taken to draw up the part in CAD, the printer can effortlessly build a detailed object with great accuracy. Even when factoring in the time it takes to clean support material from a finely detailed piece, it’s often worth the prep work to get a final product that has all of the desired cosmetic effects intact.

Depending on the over all model’s purpose, 3D printed parts may be too delicate for use in a project. They aren’t the best choice for moving parts, or places that need to endure a high degree of impact. However, they may still work well alongside more durable materials such as ABS, metal and tooling board, adding detail to an over all sturdy model.

Not that 3D printed parts can’t be strong. Large, solid parts, with less intricate detail, can be quite durable in nature. However, they are often cost prohibitive. The resin used to create objects on the 3D printer, is relatively expensive material. It doesn’t make sense to 3D print large pieces that can otherwise be hand-built, CNC milled or routed out of another material.

The exception to this would be if timing is a factor. If the item being fabricated can be drawn in CAD, printed, cleaned up and finished quicker than a hand build, it may be chosen in a situation where a deadline is looming.

KiwiMill has yet to completely print a model. Even in cases where the final product was made up mostly of 3D printed parts, it still involved other materials and fasteners holding the various parts together. The 3D printer has not replaced a model maker, either, though we joked about that happening when it first arrived. It is simply another successful tool of the trade that we have fully integrated into our repertoire.




Tent Models as Sales Tool

Recently KiwiMill was asked to make a series of tent models to depict a manufacturer’s product line. The models would be used as a sales and marketing tool, with possible trade show use as well.

Masters were formed on the CNC mill out of tooling board to represent three different tent designs. The tents all have metal frames with wire cross pieces and the idea was to show some of this detail on the model surfaces.

The tents were then vacuum formed using the 3 carved masters. Twenty of one design were made, and 10 each of the two other designs.

Tent connectors were made from stamped sheet metal. Five different styles were built. These connectors would attach to the tents by the placement of magnets in each tent. The idea was to offer the ability to reconfigure the tents and connectors into different layouts as needed.

Vinyl graphics were digitally printed and the tents and connectors were painted olive drab.

An oak trimmed  48″ by 60″ base was constructed with sheet metal underneath a grass mat. This way the magnetized tents would stay in place when configured, rather than slipping around.

The finished diorama can be added to, subtracted from and reconfigured using different tents and connectors.

Ask The Model Maker!

Model Maker

Ask the model maker: What burning question do you have about model making? What is something you want to know about model makers, model making, or scale models? It can be a technical question, a price inquiry, a personal question or a how-to . Anything goes.

Leave your question in the comments section and it will be answered by a model maker (through me) by the end of the week.

Remote Control Trade Show Truck Model


Truck Model

Occasionally professional model making feels a little bit like a kid in a candy shop. This phenomena occurred recently when KiwiMill was asked to build a trade show truck model of a car carrier in 1:14 scale (big!)

When it was determined that the semi trailer truck model would be outfitted with an RC controller, lights and sound, it became one of those projects that reminds model makers of why they went into the business in the first place.

Our team started with a cab kit. It was surprisingly challenging to build, considering most of our work is custom, made-from-scratch. All of the chrome parts were swapped out for more authentic looking, hand-built parts. The only way to make chrome look realistic at this scale is to actually make it out of metal – otherwise it just looks cheap. These custom aluminum add ons were more accurate and detailed.

Model Maker

Even though lighting was supplied in the RC kit, additional bulbs were added throughout the model. These decorative lights can be found on real 18 wheelers, which are really like a person’s temporary home on wheels.

Model Maker

The trailer was scratch built from laser cut styrene. Vinyl graphics were added to the trailer which included both the company’s signage and details found on the sides of trucks such as seams, rivets, handles, etc…

Model Maker

The wheels were molded and cast in the shop. The resulting combination of kit and hand-built parts made for an impressive finished truck model that was both a delight to display and interact with, as well as being an economical choice for a relatively large-scale vehicle.

Truck ModelTruck Model

Weathering a Scale Model

Architectural Model

Recently I watched our model makers take perfectly crafted scale model buildings and purposely mess them up. My curiosity was piqued. Why painstakingly create a line drawing on the computer, laser cut it, precisely assemble and finish the parts into an architectural model, only to “dirty’ up its perfection?

It turns out that a certain segment of architectural models – historical models – are given what is called weathering effects. Why? The intent is to represent the impact of the elements on an object, in order to project the sense of time, and place, that a historical scale model must provide.

The artistic application of weathering techniques attempts to simulate – not duplicate – the natural ageing and wear process on the buildings, vehicles, roads, and other inanimate objects represented on a particular historical model. Things like dirt, grime, sun fading, paint wear, spills, stains and rusting, must all be scaled down to size using well honed modeling techniques.

In addition to developing specific methods for applying weathering effects, a model maker must do the historic research necessary to match the ageing process with the time period the model is attempting to capture. For instance, a train run on burning wood will leave markings that differ quite significantly from a coal powered machine.

Model makers can enhance their expertise at weathering models by studying the world around them – noting the textures, colors and formations of real life wear and tear . Once you pay attention you may notice that everything is subject to weathering – grass isn’t green, asphalt isn’t black, houses are different shades depending on sun exposure and vehicles have signs of use soon after they are purchased.

Our perception of the world is that it is much more brightly colored and distinct than it actually is in reality. Weathering techniques take a fully painted and detailed model and use filters, washes, dusting, and  other techniques to give the desired muted effect that more closely mimics real life. Signs of wear  like scratches, faded paint, rust and stains further enhance the effect.

It’s a fascinating process watching a model maker take a flawlessly constructed architectural model and add blemishes to it. In a historical scale model, it is this artistic application of ageing techniques that ties the display together and gives it life, and the feeling that it’s accurately captured a moment in time.

Scale Model Prices

model maker

Scale Models and Prices

Taken from our website FAQ page:

How much does a scale model cost? This is the #1 question asked by all clients.  Unfortunately there is no “set price” for a scale model.  The way we work is this; we meet with the client until we are satisfied that we have a good idea of what it is they want.  Then we sit down with our staff and talk about the project to determine the best way to create what the client wants. We discuss materials, processes, tools required, and finally how much time the job will take.  With this information, we prepare a detailed quote for the client based on estimated time and materials cost.  This fixed price quote assumes no changes to the scope after the job is started.  Additional work due to changes in design are quoted separately.

On the subject of how much it costs… One thing we suggest to clients is that once you have an idea of what you want built, figure out how much you want to spend on the scale model.  We will often ask clients what their budget for the project is.  This question might seem strange and a little like the poker equivalent of “showing your hand” in the middle of the game but there is a good reason for it.  When we quote a job it is based on time and materials estimated as accurately as possible. There is no magic to it, it’s all just numbers. 

The reason why we ask about your project budget is this; Imagine you tell us you want a half scale model of a XYZ-123 with full interior detail and a working articulated motivator oscillator arm and you tell us you have a budget of $2,000.00.  Now anyone familiar with the XYZ-123 knows that a half scale model of this fine fictional example of a machine simply cannot be built on that budget, but armed with the knowledge of how much you want to spend we might be able to suggest alternatives.  How about a ¼ scale cutaway model showing the most important interior areas and not the less important areas? Maybe you can live without the articulated motivator oscillator arm?  It is to our advantage to work within your budget rather than just say,  “Sorry, it can’t be done for that price.”

Creating Wooded Areas on a Site Model

landscape model

Ever wonder how to make wooded areas on a small-scale site model? After much experimentation over the years, KiwiMill settled on a method that captures the essence of this particular landscape. Interestingly, it does not involve planting hundreds of individual model trees close together. No matter how tightly placed the trees, this method still lets in too much light – not realistic looking for a densely wooded area.


Instead, industrial filters – the kind used in air conditioning units – form the base for the wooded areas. These filters are then hand-sculpted by the model makers. Depending on the over-all scale of the model, these sculpted pieces are layered on top of each other. Three layers of 1/2 inch thick filters represent 60 ft  high trees accurately.

landscape model

site model landscape

The layers are painted all over the surfaces with glue and flocked with various natural shades of green, brown and yellow. When placed on a site model they represent small-scale wooded areas with depth and lushness.

site model landscape

site model landscape

Is a 3D Printer Like Having an Extra Model Maker?

3D printer for model making shop

The model maker team here at KiwiMill is definitely pleased with the addition of our newest Objet 3D printer. While we jokingly refer to it as our extra employee – it is quite a miraculous technology – it’s worth noting the support systems needed to make it run, as well as its inherent limitations.

First comes the training necessary to operate, clean and maintain the printer itself. An initial inservice with the sales tech after purchase is a good starting point. Ongoing tech support provided by the manufacturer keeps things running smoothly in the long-term.

Material to run the 3D printer is a regular investment as well. The resin itself  is expensive, and to a lesser degree, the support material used to print each item. The resin is the actual plastic that a part is made out of, the support material is what fills in the empty spaces in the design as it prints layer by layer on the tray.

The human labor involved in 3D printing is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this particular fabrication technique. Three dimensional printers can give the impression that they take the place of  a model maker. After all, they are touted as machines capable of  growing parts overnight, sometimes even whole models. How true is this exactly?

Traditionally model makers have sat at work benches, or run machinery, cutting, carving and shaping materials to the specifications needed for a model part. This method is considered subtractive – the model maker must extract from a whole piece of material the parts necessary to assemble the model. This certainly takes time and a considerable amount of skill, rightfully earning the model maker’s status of master crafts person.

Innovations in the field of model making have introduced automated machines that will do the extracting for you. CNC (computer numerical control) machines guide a router, lathe or mill to carve out parts automatically. Three dimensional drawings have been programmed into the machine by a computer, to provide coordinates for the subtracting device. X and Y coordinates guide the machine back and forth and the Z coordinate tells the machine what up and down motions to make, thus creating a 3 dimensional part.

The 3D printer works a bit differently;  it takes a 3D drawing and prints it out in 2D layers. What the model maker must first do is take a CAD engineered drawing from the client and make it “water tight”. This means that all lines in the drawing need to be connected, or closed off. If only a 2D drawing is available, the mode maker must be able to draw it up in 3D. If only the original object exists, with no drawing, it can be scanned and made into a 3D drawing.

3D drawing scale model part3D printed part for scale model

Why does the printer need a 3D drawings when ultimately it will be printing it in 2D? How the 3D printer works is that it takes a 3D drawing from any drafting program and slices it into 2D cross-sections, printing each slice out, layer by layer and stacking them up into a three-dimensional object. The unique aspect of this method is that it is additive, not subtractive. The part is built up out of nothing, not extracted from an existing piece of material.

3D printed scale model part

Afer the original 3D draft has been prepared by the model maker and sent to the printer, it is true that the machine then grows the parts itself. This is the magical aspect of the process. A model maker can go home for the night while a part is being created. However, once the part is removed from the printer, it is not exactly ready to use. This is where additional labor is necessary to clean the part.

3D printed model part

Support material is the substance that takes the place of empty space in a 3D object, where it is needed to hold up the design as it builds upward. It acts as scaffolding for the object being printed. A layer of support material is laid down on the print tray as well, as a foundation, before any part of the actual object starts printing.

When an object is removed from the 3D printer, it is this support material that needs to be cleaned off the part. Depending on the shape or design of a part, it is the removal of support material that takes the majority of labor in the 3D printing process. Water jet spraying, chemical soaking, scraping and digging out support material from intricate pieces takes time and effort.  Sometimes there is so much support material covering a part, that it needs to be extracted out of it as if it were a piece of gold embedded in rock. Thus making 3D printing a bit of a subtractive method as well!

3D printed part for model maker

Once the part is cleaned, it needs to be primed, painted, and usually assembled with other parts to make a whole model.  We don’t often – if ever – print a model in its entirety.  The over all complexity and sophistication of most of our scale models demands greater levels of detail. They are nice supplemental parts to have, and free our model makers up to add the human artistry that gives our models their custom look.

3D printed parts for model maker

A 3D printer does not replace a model maker, as fun as it is to joke around with the notion.  The added technology requires our model makers to be better trained in 3D drafting: drawing, reading and fixing 3D computer files. It ‘s another fabrication choice, and hones the critical thinking skills that determine what parts will be printed, CNC machined, hand-built or crafted in yet another method. This blend of artistry, engineering and technology is making the model making field such an exciting place to be right now.

Model Maker’s How-To: Molding and Casting Model Hands

model hand

Model Maker Joe recently shared the process by which he created a total of 300 model hands for a client in the medical field:

We had a customer contact us with the need of a class room training aid to use in a practical exercise, measuring gout build-up on a hand. I was initially tasked the job to produce 100 realistic hands with gout build-up at designated locations, using particular dimensions for the bumps.

First we set out choosing a hand model. Then I brushed on a platinum-cure silicone rubber (hardness: 10A, tear strength 102 ply, 1000% elongation at break to guarantee a stretchy, nearly untearable glove) over the model’s hand in thin (this rubber is very thick and traps bubbles) layers.

After achieving a desirable thickness, I shelled the mold with plaster cloth while still on the model’s hand. I made this exo-shell in two halves (palm and back) so that I could pull the mold out.

creating hand mold

After the plaster cloth was dry it was time to separate the two halves of the shell and release the model’s hand from the silicone glove.

molde maker hand mold

The next thing for me to do was pour a master by putting the glove original in its shell and banding the two halves together. After putting the unit in a standing base (resting on its finger tips, wrist up), I poured a polyurethane casting plastic (hardness: 70D, tear strength 3000 ply, 7.5% elongation at break) with some black tint and put it under pressure.

casting model hand

When the plastic was cured, I peeled the mold back to reveal the master. It revealed many small nodules around the finger tips and palm (most likely do to sweat) that I cleaned off. After the master was cleaned up a bit, another member of the team built up specific (height, width, length) gout swells out of Bondo, per the customer’s request, at particular locations on the hand.

casting model hand

After the art work was done I repeated the same steps above to make three working molds, but this time the polyurethane plastic was tinted with a flesh color.

We shipped the client an initial quantity of 20, and upon their review, found the hands too hard and life-like for their studies. We needed to re-tool and come up with a new game plan – a softer plastic or a fast curing rubber.

molde hands

I came up with the idea of a two part silicone mold. A hand cast out of a softer material might not hold up to being pulled out of a glove mold and the cast piece would have to be fully cured (no short cuts).

mold for model hands

Meanwhile another team member was preparing a new master cast by brushing some blackened polyurethane plastic over one of the previous working casts, to even out the skin texture. After that cured, he fine-tuned the gout buildup back to customer specifications and tolerances.

When he was done, I built three two-part molds (fingertips down, wrist up) and begin production casting of my next 80 pieces. This time I used a polyurethane casting plastic (hardness: 80A/30D, tear strength 2264 ply, 233% elongation at break) with the same flesh tint.

pressurized pot for casting

This plastic had a 90 minute demold time, but with the two-part design I was able to turn the mold (pull the product and pour the next piece)  in 60 minutes. These pieces came out of the mold with no flash and very little seam line.

casting hands

The customer was very impressed and the molded hands did what they needed to do. The client ordered 200 more castings.

molded and cast model hands

Model Maker How To: Martini Glass Display Model

Making a Martini Glass

display model

Everyone needs to know how to create their own display model of a martini glass, don’t you think?

What you need for this project:

  •  clear & fluorescent acrylic
  •  ren board
  •  plywood & bolts
  •  wood dowels
  •  laser cutter
  •  lathe
  •  band saw
  •  disc sander
  •  drill press
  •  oven
  •  paint
  •  solvent

Model Maker, Scott, started with a piece of plywood, cutting an 8 inch diameter circle in it to form a frame for the lip of the martini glass. He then clamped a piece of clear acrylic into the frame using bolts.

The frame was given legs to lift it off the surface. This gave room for the slumping action to take place underneath. The frame was placed in the oven to be heated.

It came out of the oven with a typical parabola shape to it. Immediately a wooden dowel was pushed down into the center of it while still hot to form the more conical shape of a martini glass. The dowel was held in place until the shape cooled.

While the glass shape was still in its frame it was brought to the laser cutter. The laser was used to cut the martini glass out, following the inside edge of the 8 inch diameter frame.

The base of the martini glass was slumped in a similar manner. Less heat was applied because the slump was much shallower on the base.

Clear acrylic tubing was then put in the lathe and tapered to match the curve of both the top and base of the martini glass. Solvent bonded the three pieces together.

The olive was made from ren board and shaped on the lathe. A hole was drilled through the center of the olive for the “tooth pick” using the drill press.

The pimento was a strip of fluorescent acrylic heated flat in the oven. It was folded over and stuffed into the core of the olive. Then the olive was primed and painted.

Finally, a wooden dowel was tapered with the disc sander and thread through the hole in the olive and placed into the glass.


At this point our model maker went home and fixed himself a real martini.

Click HERE for a picture of the martini glass on display at CES2011, Las Vegas.

3D Printed Part Transformed

At KiwiMill we use 3D printed parts to make some of our models, depending on the design and purpose of the project.

3D printed part for model

For a recently made MATV military vehicle, the doors were 3D printed out of plastic with handle,  hinge and window details. The part was grown over night in the 3D printer, taken out and cleaned up.

3D printed  scale model part

The part was then primed, painted and given additional details.

military model

Here is the door on the completed MATV vehicle. The printed part blends in with all the other materials that were used to complete this model. Our model maker chose soldered and braised brass for most of the model for the strength and endurance necessary in a trade show piece.

Model Shop Name Change

KiwiMillA&M Model Makers has been in existence as a scale model shop for half a century. While the owners, craftspeople, techniques, technology and even the company location have changed over time, the name has not.

Originally created from the names of its two founders, the moniker A&M served the company well through its former years on the West coast. Having moved to the East in the last decade, adding staff, square footage, equipment, advanced technology in the field, and absorbing another local scale model company’s talents, we felt it was time for a new identification.

Maybe the biggest reason for a name and logo change is our expansion of services. The company originally built models for the booming Texas oil industry of the time. With its West coast location it eventually focused on the aerospace industry. In recent decades that meant a specialization in satellites, and space craft models, as well as airplanes.

Today’s company looks quite different. Since moving to New York, our company has combined with another firm and expanded to include large numbers of trade show models of all types, military vehicles, architectural designs, museum pieces, topography, medical prototypes and training models.  We have experienced master model makers who specialize in each of these types of scale models.

With the addition of engineers and industrial designers on staff, are services now encompass all of the latest 3D technology. We even have a sister design service for product development and prototyping needs. Our in-house electronics team adds special effects to our models, including automation, lighting and sound.

Fabrication processes have expanded along with our knowledge base and equipment acquisition. Molding & casting, CNC machining, 3D printing, metal bending/punching have all been added to more traditional model making techniques, allowing for more variety, accuracy, speed and detail in our productions. Old world craftsmanship and cutting edge technology have melded beautifully in our shop to provide truly innovative services in the model making industry.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the company. Our current team is well-balanced as far as skill sets, talented in their individual specialties and motivated to do quality work for their clients on every project. It seems like an appropriate time to unveil our new name, logo and company website: