Canadian Woodworking

3D Models: save time and money

Author: Rob Brown
Published: June July 2008
3D Models
3D Models

Models, also known as maquettes, are one of the most overlooked aspects of furniture design.


There are many aspects involved in furniture design. Rough sketches and computerized drawings are popular techniques used in the creative process, but they are not the only choices when it comes to designing beautiful, functional furniture.

Models, also known as maquettes, are one of the most overlooked aspects of furniture design. Most forms of design allow you to see a two dimensional view. This is a great first step, but building a model is a quick and easy way to see your new design in 3D. For simple projects you can build models to scale, and for more complex projects, or those that you intend on making again in the future, you can build full size.

Using inexpensive materials and basic joinery techniques means that model building won’t cost you much, nor will it take a lot of time. Best of all, you’ll save time later on during the actual construction stage. Working out crucial details like proportion and size before you commit to milling the wood for your project will help you avoid disappointment when your project is complete. You’ll also find that building a model will help you work out joinery issues before you start on the real thing. This will save you from searching for your ‘wood stretcher’ after you’ve cut that last piece of rosewood 1″ too short. Models also provide a good idea of how different surfaces will meet and help determine appropriate joinery methods.

While I do my best to keep models as simple as possible, occasionally I go overboard when the model will be seen by a client. Clients sometimes have a hard time making the visual leap from a multi-coloured cardboard and masonite model to a nicely finished mahogany chest of drawers.

Model of pussy willow lamp table

Quick, simple joinery

Mock-ups of various legs

Simple saw kerfs for quick assembly

Building Materials

Models don’t have to be beautiful, but they should accurately portray your project in three dimensions. I make full size models that break down after I’ve had a chance to study them. This way I can store and reuse the material in another model project. My materials of choice range from plywood, masonite and 2 x 4’s, to heavy paper, foam board and cardboard. A model can be made from any combination of these materials. The decision depends on what I have on hand, how strong the material needs to be, its cost and availability. Between the scrap bin in your shop and the local building supply and arts & craft stores, you should be able to find what you need. It’s a good idea to pick up a few things before you want to build a model so when the time comes they will be on hand. If they’re right there waiting for you, you’ll be more likely to use them.

If the different colours of the materials are affecting my ability to see the piece properly, I use a can of spray paint to unify the colours of the model. If I choose the colour properly, I find it helps me clearly see the piece of furniture. Dark brown for black walnut, pale beige for maple, rich rusty brown for Jatoba.

Joinery Techniques

Joinery should be kept simple, yet strong enough to hold the model together. When working with wood products there are only a few ways I join parts together. A groove in the wood (quickly cut on the table saw) will help locate and hold masonite, sheet stock or cardboard, and small L-brackets temporarily fasten particle board and plywood meeting at right angles. A few fluted dowels can add strength; even masking or duct tape will be enough to secure some joints. I don’t usually use glue, but if I’m having a tough time keeping a critical joint together, a couple drops of fast drying glue or five minute e poxy will work, yet allow me to take the model apart later. You could also drive a screw or nail through a joint to hold it in place for a while.

Working with cardboard, paper or foam is sometimes a better option. Tape, a glue stick and push pins will go a long way to holding the different parts in place.

When choosing materials for your model, take into account how much strength is needed. A piece of heavy paper isn’t rigid enough to represent a dining table top in a full size model but is perfect for a jewellery box top.

Full Size or Scaled Models

Before I begin cutting any of my project stock I want to have all the information I need to make efficient use of the stock. A full size model gives me that level of comfort. It allows me to see not only proportion, but also how the overall size of a piece will affect its function in its new home. However, there are times when a scaled model is a better choice. For some projects, it is awkward and difficult to produce a full-scale model. For example, if I was designing a sofa I’d choose to produce a scaled model using Styrofoam, shaping it to resemble the upholstery, and then add wooden legs. Making a full size model of a sofa is time consuming and does not give you any more information than a scaled version.

Simplicity Is Best

When building a model, remember to keep things simple. Overall sizes and proportions are necessary, but smaller details are not always imperative. A marker or pencil line will often trick the eye into seeing the real thing. For example, instead of using different pieces of material for the stiles, rails and panel of a traditional frame and panel door, simply draw the different parts on a piece of masonite with a marker, and duct tape the hinge side of the door in place so it can swing open. Markers are also great for adding door handles, marquetry or carvings. With a bit of experience you’ll learn what details are important to include and what can be left out.

Sometimes I construct a model so it looks finished from only one or two different angles. Proportions can be studied, sizes modified, and a photo can even be taken with half of the model incomplete.

A Detailed Part

There are times when I need to work out the details regarding a specific part or section of a piece of furniture, such as a table or a cabinet leg. Since there are so many options when designing a leg, I find it useful to glue up a couple of 2 x 4’s, dimension them accordingly, and use my bandsaw, spoke shaves and chisels to flush out a design.

Sometimes, I machine a stretcher or apron so I can see how everything will line up. More often than not, I end up throwing the leg in the firewood box before it’s complete because it’s not going where I hoped.

This is what design is all about, and is the true benefit of modeling; making mistakes on cheap material and honing your hand tool skills in the process.

I write the date and description on each part once I’m happy with it. Now I have a cluster of legs I can look at when I need inspiration or clarification.

Fine Tune Your Design

I constantly readjust proportion and size while building models, as I rarely get it right the first time. Making a model gives me the opportunity to try out different ideas; I can see how a table would look if the overhang is increased by another couple of inches, or if the legs need a stronger curve. Cheap materials allow me to experiment freely on my way to coming up with something I like.

If you keep enough of the right material on hand, making a model will not only be a fun, informative part of the design process, it will save you time and money.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


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  2. I come from a robotics engineering background and have been using CAD, either AutoCad or Solidworks for 40 years. I can’t imagine making sawdust without the laptop close by. You’ll definitely find obstacles and their solutions much easier on the screen than on the shop floor.

  3. Great idea — a lot better than my way of doing things with the actual pieces and cursing when it doesn’t fit or look the way I want it and then trying to fix it.

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