How to Make a 3D Physical Model

Written by f.r.r. mallory
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How to Make a 3D Physical Model
An architectural model using foam core and other materials. (Brighton pavilion in miniature image by Shirley Hirst from

It is becoming easier to create three-dimensional models using photography software tools. But virtual models won't give you the same understanding of a structure that a three-dimensional physical model will produce. A physical model allows the viewer to see the mass of the object and its relationship with surrounding objects. It can also answer questions or show areas where a design doesn't work. These are equally important since making a model is inexpensive compared to constructing a full size house, building or large object.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Floor plan
  • Roof plan
  • Elevations
  • Scissors
  • Foam core
  • Spray adhesive
  • Artist knife
  • White glue
  • Straight pins

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  1. 1

    Photocopy the floor plan, roof plan and elevations of the building you want to model. A floor plan is what you would see if you pulled the roof off a house and looked straight down into the house. An elevation is what you see looking straight at any side of the house.

  2. 2

    Cut out the floor plan around the outside edges. Spray adhesive on the back side of the trimmed floor plan. Mount the floor plan to a foam core board that is 25 to 50 per cent larger than your floor plan. Center the floor plan. You want the base board large enough to draw in driveways, sidewalks, decks or other landscape features to help position your model in its environment.

  3. 3

    Trim around the outside of each elevation. Cut off the roof. Because elevations are straight on views, often a section of the building that is recessed (like an entry door) will appear to be flush. By looking at the floor plan you can see the actual alignment of the walls to find recessed areas. Cut the recessed sections away from other areas of the elevation at the corners where the recess begins and ends. Set aside your recessed sections for later.

  4. 4

    Spray adhesive to the back of each of your elevations and recessed sections and mount these to foam core. Cut out each elevation and recessed section with a metal straight edge and sharp artist knife.

  5. 5

    Mitre the corners of your walls to join them evenly. To make a mitre, tape a metal ruler so that the edge of the ruler overhangs the edge of the table by at least 1/4-inch. Place your elevation so that the corner line you want to trim is aligned with the ruler's edge. Tape down your elevation. Place a second metal ruler over the top of the elevation 1/4-inch from the edge of the first ruler. These rulers should be parallel.

  6. 6

    Cut a 45-degree angle using a serrated or saw edged knife. You can also use a hot wire cutter if you have one. Angle the cutting edge to touch both of the edges of the rulers as guides. This will produce mitred cuts. Outside corners cut toward the inside of the foam core. Inside corners cut toward the outside of the foam core. Position your walls over the floor plan to see which walls are outside corners and which are inside corners. Draw lines for the corner angles on the top edge of your foam core to help you line up properly. Cut all of your corner cuts. You may have small recessed exterior walls that are not visible on the elevation. These will show on the floor plan. Cut and mitre these walls at the same time.

  7. 7

    Apply a bead of white glue to the bottom of the front exterior wall and position that wall over the floor plan. Glue along the mitred corner. Find the corresponding corner from the side elevation. Add glue to the bottom of the second wall and press the mitred corners together. Insert straight pins at the top and bottom of the corner, through the mitres to hold the corner square while the glue dries. Repeat for all walls.

  8. 8

    Build a roof using the roof plan and following the same techniques. You will need to notch the underside of the foam core where the roof overhangs the exterior wall. Use a ruler and sharp knife to make a V-notch at these locations. Do not cut all the way through the foam core board. Glue the roof together as a single piece and add pins to help hold it together. The roof should lift off the model if you want to view the interior space.

Tips and warnings

  • Floor plans are often drawn at 1/4-inch scale. This makes it very easy to make a physical model at that scale.
  • Colour elevations before gluing them to foam board. Build interior walls by following the wall lines on the floor plan. Cut windows open if you desire views into the model. Add landscaping using markers, paints and three-dimensional foliage. Add small figures if you wish.

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