Farts, fixers and filler

I was all prepared with my next blog post subject matter, and was happily collating my thoughts in the typically random order you have come to expect, when I read an article about modelmaking. More specifically, this article about modelmaking. A piece by Tanya Weaver of Develop3D charting the demise of a well respected modelmaking bureau as technology has seemingly wielded its robotic 3D Printed axe upon those poor unfortunate craftsmen.

I have been tempted to wade into the debate about the incessant march of ‘instant’ prototyping versus the ‘old school’, time served skills, but many others are doing this argument justice and suggesting that – as with most things – the success of those businesses that survive is in the adoption of new techniques to supplement the old.

No. I thought my words would be better served describing the magic of the modelmaker and how – if it weren’t for these dusty sods (said affectionately) – my career would have been found somewhere in a rather soggy drain.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my design career to date, to work in design studios that not only have astounding designers, but gob-smackingly talented modelmakers. I’m not just talking about people that are ‘pretty handy with a pillar drill and some sandpaper’, but genuinely awe-inspiring individuals who can simply create anything from anything. Admittedly they do it with a heavy dose of ‘inward breath sucking’ and often still wearing their bicycle clips, but create they do.

When I first landed a job at Kinneir Dufort in Bristol, the design studio didn’t have anything safe enough to unleash this naîve young upstart of a designer on, so for the first few weeks, I was sent downstairs to the modelmaking studio, and in particular to the vacuum casting room. I won’t bore you with the specifics of vacuum casting, but most product designers of any years will have undoubtedly seen their designs prototyped using this technique. It effectively uses a master part of some form (usually an SLA but sometimes something else), which is suspended in a cheap wooden carcass. Silicone is then poured around the master part until set and then the resultant silicone mould used to create multiple PU parts to wow and amaze your clients. Simple huh? How hard can this be?


My first job was to shadow the guys responsible for setting the master parts in the carcass. This involves suspending an often fragile, lovingly finished part in thin air in such a way as to create a perfect split line in the tool and yet leave no blemishes, marks or scuffs on the ensuing PU parts. Please remember that silicone can replicate a thumb print on a ‘car-body panel quality’ painted surface so it is remarkably unforgiving. I know how it is done. I have seen it done a hundred times. The principle is simple when haughtily describing it to clients, but I dare anyone not capable of balancing a needle on a needle to try it. Let’s just say it involves nothing more complex than some sticky tape, a glue gun and some short lengths of welding rod, but it is nigh on impossible. My most delicate of touches was the equivalent of a rhino playing golf with a medicine ball. Not good.

I still to this day, doff my hat to anyone who is capable of this!

I’d like to think of myself as a fairly capable designer. I have had the privilege of working on countless prestigious brands and products and my work – to date – seems to have courted the right kinds of noises from clients (most of the time). I can use 3D CAD. I know how stuff goes together and how it is made. I have a reasonable knowledge of materials and of how to design the right thing for the right brief. Surely, with this knowledge and the technology and software available to me, I shouldn’t need someone as antiquated and curmudgeonly as a modelmaker to realise my design ambitions? Pah!


Yes, many projects I’ve worked on have not had the budgets for modelmaking or prototyping, but by a considerable margin, the projects of which I am most proud have been the ones where I have worked in parallel with a talented modelmaker. Undoubtedly.

Let me rename them for a moment. A ‘modelmaker’ assumes that they simply translate your beautiful design into something tangible, simply making what you have told them to make. This could not be further from the truth. They are ‘fixers’…’magicians’ if you will. They take something you *think* you’ve resolved and really sort it out. Like one of those Heath Robinson machines from a Wallace & Gromit film, where something goes in at one end, lots of steam and farts emerge along the way, but the thing that pops out the other end is finely honed, lovingly crafted and ultimately resolved. That hinge which you thought you’d successfully developed in 3D CAD? They have somehow managed to make it work even though it was impossible to assemble. That ‘fine spark’ texture which has to somehow appear on every tiny surface (apart from that little surface there which I need to be VERY highly polished)? Yes, they’ve managed it, despite having to somehow get a bloody great spray gun into a crevice the size of an ant’s lunchbox.

These guys simply work magic. They are like the A-Team. No-one else could fashion a war machine out a few bed-springs and a loose toilet seat like B.A.Baracus. Similarly, no-one can manifest your pedantically fussy design prototype using only a reel of masking tape, a tiny triangular file and a dollop of P38. I would urge anyone who has never seen a true modelmaker at work, to find one and watch. Just watch. Like a brilliant card magician, everything appears normal and you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, but then WHAM! …something happens and you are left speechless. I’ve often maintained that most models should be seen by clients before they receive their final coats of paint – where you can see the final translation from sow’s ear to silk purse. Evidence of their brilliance. How they have managed to replicate all manner of production materials and impossible things on a lump of plywood and resin with a deft wrist and a crafty combination of paints, lacquers and some tactical buffing! I’ve seen a fabulously realistic tree made from a drainpipe and some newspaper. A tasty lemon slice made from some acrylic and some white modelling foam. But most importantly they have taken my half-arsed design suggestions and given them the requisite magic dust that has enabled me to confidently present them in front of an expectant client to the aforementioned correct noises.

Rapid prototyping (or 3D Printing) can only ever rely on the data it has as an input. If the person operating the CAD software is a numpty, the ‘thing’ that pops out of the machine will be the three dimensional ramblings of a numpty. There is little scope for that crude, iterative exploration with a person more capable than you, of sculpting your brain ooze into something wonderful.

I will always have the utmost respect for a genuinely good modelmaker and I have worked with some brilliant ones (at Kinneir Dufort, SeymourpowellBox+Dice and more locally, ST Modelmakers). They are often softly spoken, good natured, solid people who are invariably used to having random scribbles and impossible requests thrust upon them, each time with a sage like nod and twitching fingers at the ready.

Which is why I read Tanya’s article with a sense of sadness. Modern society bays for more techno-blood. ‘We’ want things that are antiquated and old-fashioned to be replaced by shiny, clever autobots that are linked to our computer mouse. Indeed, that know what we want even before we know it ourselves. Modern modelmaking certainly has to adapt to these new technologies, and in truth, it would be virtually impossible to create a modern design prototype without some form of rapid prototyping (the phrase we used before 3D Printing came along), but the kind of iterative prototyping that comes from a semi-resolved design solution combined with a skilled modelmaker is unrivalled. That phase of a project when you need to ‘see how it feels’ or ‘check how it might work’ and the amazing realisation of form that emerges from a lump of foam or resinwood is second to none when you have the armoury of ‘modelmaking’ – not prototyping – at your disposal.

I do lament that many projects cannot justify the costs of a good modelmaker and that design projects are conveniently steered towards more CAD time and less REAL time. But that’s the situation that commercial software development and faster project leadtimes have created. We have – as an industry – pushed this beautiful part of the design process out. We’ve found quicker, slicker ways of doing the same thing, but I would argue that many products have suffered as a result. Less ‘consideration’ time. A lower appreciation of the ‘whole’. Fewer opportunities to ‘experiment’ in the earlier stages.

So there may be many reasons why the advancement of technology in modelmaking and prototyping is a good thing. I use these very advancements in our studio projects every week and find it hard to argue with the timings, costs and advantages. But I do sense that we may well look back in a few years and see that we have no options but to use this technology alone. The craftsmen, the magicians, the fixers have become operators, programmers and CAD-peeps.

I for one, will regret that moment when it arrives.

14 thoughts on “Farts, fixers and filler

  1. Thanks for singing our praises Rusky. The design projects that have worked out best over my career, have been ones that have involved close collaboration between designer and modelmaker. Rapid prototyping has its place, that’s for sure, but it is not a panacea to solve all problems.

  2. Morning Russell.

    Love the blog, well said on many accounts, your observations are very much in-line with my thoughts. It’s all about a balance of good reliable RP technology, combined with the iterative skilled approach of a knowledgeable model maker.
    With all of this, we still need great designers of course….


  3. Hi Russ,

    Love your blog and agree with your sentiments. Having personally spent many hours at the workbench at box&dice I can vouch for them in particular.

    Speed, Rick and the boys do incredible work however my fondest memory always relates to their terminology for fits.

    A tight fit was called ‘thumb in bum’ and a loose fit ‘dick in a shirt sleeve’. No further explanation necessary. 😉



  4. Haha. Love it.

    Modelmakers are rubbish at telling people how good they are and they often go unnoticed, typically because their work is impossible to detect from the ‘real’. Rise up dusty ones! 😉

  5. Hi Chris,

    Whilst I haven’t worked with you directly, I was working at SP when you did the Nokia reference models. I remember the whole design studio fawning over the models when Dave & Paul showed them at a studio meeting! Thanks for commenting and completing the circle!

  6. Hi Russ,
    I was really chuffed today to read your blog detailing your experiences of working with the softly spoken, solid people called model makers. I was also very flattered to be included as a member of the Fab 4 group of model makers that you class as brilliant – thank you for that.
    I am emailing from home as we are lucky to be very busy at the moment and I didn’t get time to send you an email.
    I wanted to respond to your comments and also to the plight of Chris Hill who has been forced to downsize as a result of a number of issues effecting the design industry, obviously worldwide.
    There are so many things you talk about that ring true with us at Box and Dice where this year we celebrate 25 years of performing miracles for people like you. The key point for me out of what you mentioned was the importance of the human involvement in any project – meaning the little extra that all can gain on building an idea and turning into something to hold and evaluate.
    I have always tried to produce work for our clients using the measure of “would I be happy to pay for that model ” or “would I like to be treated like that?”
    In many cases the development of a product is a very personal thing and being able to help someone achieve sometimes more than they hoped for is something model makers can provide.
    A very interesting point in the Chris Hill article was his comment about the client base changing for dealing with designers to dealing with marketing and accounting people where the value of the model is determined by the price. This could not be more true and we are now dealing constantly with clients with a very embellished view of 3D printing and all it can do for you. I read an interesting article from a UK 3D printing group who likened 3D printers to bread makers and within two weeks they are in the cupboard and you are off to the shop for a cheap loaf of bread.
    It is all a bit dramatic I know but we are convinced as you so rightly mentioned that there must be a way of combining old school with the new stuff and it is getting the mix right which will determine how well things work out.
    There are many things effecting modelmaking these days but we are not alone as we learn to deal with other countries offering similar services at a lower price. It is hard but imperative to try and embrace all these things and to somehow make it work.
    Anyway it sounds pretty grand but we continue to have a go down here in Sydney with our senior team members learning slowly but surely from our young Gen Y’s about the New World which is just like the old one with a bit of bog and a squirt of paint.
    Regards Speedo

  7. I have the pleasure to be married to a model maker, or more specifically vacuum casting guru. And I just wanted to agree with the the amount of ‘steam and farts’ that are generated when he works.

  8. Speed here again.
    Good to hear from Nathan Pollock who is doing his best to push the professional side of our business. You forgot our patented term MLL = Make Look Lovely. Something we are good at.

  9. I find common sense in short supply these days. Apart from in the model making community!

    Traditional skills are not old fuddy-duddy and outdated, more than ever they have a relevance in our new technology driven world. The ability to use our hands to produce precision models does not mean that we somehow lack the cognitive capacity and vision of a designer. Many of the best designers I have worked with over a 30 year career are model makers.

    They should be part of the wider toolbox now available to the design community. What the design community needs to better understand, is “How do we use these tools to add distinct value to our process”? Not how cheaply can we knock up a model because the client expects to see one!

  10. Great words and great sentiments Russell!

    Having had the fortunate position to be exposed to many Product Designers, Pattern makers, Toolmakers and Modelmakers, I share your sentiments. Technology it great, we must embrace it but machines will only as good as the input provided. Nothing will surpass the delicate human touch and attention to detail. Your post sits at the heart of what needs to be celebrated and admired. Respect for all these crafts, not only for our gratification and appreciation is essential if we are to continue to push the boundaries on design.

    Your description of humble modelmakers is also entirely true, they really have no ideal how good they are and how they can transform projects and give them life ……

  11. Thanks for all the comments.

    I think I’m most chuffed that all the comments on here are top notch modelmakers, which means that I must – just about – understand what makes them tick. It’s great to hear that it resonated with the industry, and I hope that it can do something to repel the 3D printing hype and misunderstanding.


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