Essential Architecture Supplies—Understanding Model Making Material

Updated on February 24, 2017

Architecture Model Making

For anyone without an art background in Architecture school, model making is a daunting process. This is especially true for first timers - year one architecture students. I remember my first day in architecture school when the assignment was to make an architectural model of a pavilion. When I walked into the art shop to get my model making supplies, I was confronted with a bewildering array of model making material. What model-making material should I use?

Fret no more! Architecture model making is now less scary. I shall explain the commonly used model making materials used for architectural models that all good students of architecture would use. (Mainly due to price and cost!)

Selecting Your Model Materials

Material selection has a huge impact on how a model "feels". Hence, it'll depend on what you are trying to achieve for your architecture model. There are mainly 2 types of architecture models - sketch models, which are exploratory models and presentation models.

For purposes of form exploration, most architectural models are mostly massing blocks. With that, the volume is important, and foam is preferred overboard.

For purposes of presentations and architectural critiques, often students would use better quality material like acrylic, wood or paperboard. Again, the decision on what material to use for the architecture is key. If you have a project in a rural area say some woodlands, it may be more suitable to make the model in wood to be able to express the more emotive side of your design.

Rarely would architecture students present finished models (professionally made models with the actual reflection of color and material) due to their complexity and cost.


Paperboard is some of the most common model making material that architecture students would use. That said, there is a huge variety of paperboard out there on the market.

Bristol board is one of the most standard material used in architecture models. Bristol board is uncoated, machine-finished board. It provides two working surfaces and has a homogeneous color throughout. This means that the edges of the board are the same color as the flat surfaces. This is important as it gives a uniformly white color to your model. Normally, architecture models prefer smooth surface finished Bristol as it allows the creation of pristine models where the focus is primarily on form. They come in a variety of thickness. One huge advantage is that 1mm Bristol board is available, compared to minimum thicknesses of 1.5-2mm for other boards. Hence, it's possible to create better detail with the material.

Grayboard is a cheaper alternative to Bristol, but it is more difficult to cut and work with.


Wood is one of the other primary materials that is used to make architectural models. There are 2 main types of model making wood used commonly - bass and balsa wood.

For higher quality work, bass wood is preferred. It has a nicer finish and texture compared to balsa and the wood is also harder. As a result, it is easier to cut and get a clean finish without any remnant fibers left dangling along your pieces. It also takes paint and other color readily without much fuss. The drawback? It is more costly that balsa.

Balsa is the cheaper alternative but personally I do not like to work with balsa for the primary reason that it is soft and snaps easily. This is especially true when you are working with dowels and small balsa strips. Material wastage is extremely high due to the fragile nature of the wood. Balsa also has a "spotted" appearance which I do not find to be aesthetically pleasing.


Again, there are many types of foam other there, common ones being compressed foamboard, styrofoam & blue foam.

Foam is extremely useful to create volumes. Compared to board, which takes 6 pieces, which is 24 cuts to make a volume, foam by nature creates volume! Hence, it is often used by architecture students to make massing models.

The commonly used foam is styrofoam. It is soft and easy to cut, BUT not easy to work with. It comes in either blocks or sheets of certain thickness. The trouble with styrofoam is that the blade used must be extremely sharp and your knifework must be accurate to cut the material at 90degrees. If not, the model would look pretty terrible. Some favor the use of a foam cutter, which i personally find quite troublesome to use.

The other common material used is compressed foam. This either is created with a paper board finish or plain finish and comes again in a variety of thicknesses. It can be used as a model base or to make models. For places like Korea, where cardboard is prohibitively expensive, foam is the dominant modeling material in use.

Blue foam, as from it's name, is blue. It is a hard and stiff foam that is used to shape sculptural form. It is commonly used for product design where students create life size models of their design. Although it is not often used in architecture models, some people do use it for massing studies.


Acrylic makes beautiful beautiful models. Full stop. But acrylic models are dastardly expensive to make. It's almost impossible to make pretty acrylic models without the help of a laser machine to cut the pieces. But if your architecture school workshop happens to have a laser machine, rejoice for this material is now open to you.

Acrylic comes in 1mm, 2mm and 3mm thicknesses. With the laser machine, it's possible to either engrave or cut the pieces. They are then pieced together with acrylic glue which holds the pieces together with a chemical bond.

To create windows, a far cheaper alternative is to cut out transparency sheets!

All being said, models made out of full acrylic are extremely beautiful.


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      Integral Architectural Model Making 

      11 months ago

      Nice - Integral Architectural Model Making -

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      very useful, i just graduated architecture and i can tell you, you can t get enough information about model making

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      thank you very much for this information. I have read the 3 articles ang i must say it really helped a lot to know that info. Im not yet going to college but this encouraged me to go for architecture.


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