Building Better Models – Part One


All images and text © Abaroth. Permission is given to reproduce for non-profit purposes only.


I seem to get asked the same questions quite often: How do you build models like that, and where do you get your ideas? This guide is meant as a general set of suggestions, which could improve almost anyone’s model-making. This section lists the most important procedures for making any model. They use fantasy references, because that is what I build, but apply equally to historic or sci-fi.


Whilst inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time, it is often hard to “make it happen”. There are, however, some questions you can ask yourself which can aid you through “designer’s block”. The following are a few suggestions to get you started, and the answer to one question can easily lead to another.

What is it going to be used for? (This will determine if you need a cluttered, detailed interior or more fighting space)

  • Wargames? Skirmishing? Roleplaying? Display? Dice roller?

What is the model of?  House, Shop, Tower, Temple, etc.

  • Who owns the house? Who built it? What is their social standing? How many people live there?

  • What do they sell? Do they make the stuff on-site? Who are their customers?

  • Wizard’s tower, defensive tower, signal tower, etc.

  • Temple to which religion? Good or Evil? What rituals are performed there?

What materials is it constructed from? Brick, stone, wood, etc.

  • Mud brick or fired clay? Is it coated with plaster, adobe, whitewash?

  • Chipped stone? Fieldstone? Sandstone (Egyptian)? Marble? Granite?

  • Half-timbered? Log cabin? Planked walls?

What historical style or period is based on? (Even fantasy settings are usually based closely on some particular style and culture)

  • When was it built? Is it old or new? Who owned it before?

How big will it need to be to serve its purpose?

What furniture, fittings and accessories are kept and used there? What are they made of?


Strangely, this stage can actually provide the original inspiration, e.g. a building plan that doesn’t work as intended, but would make a great...  The design process can take different forms – stacked blocks, CAD models, sketches, scale plans. The more experienced you become, and the more decisions you have already made, the less time you will need to spend doing plans. However, it is always a useful process, which can provide new ideas and will make you answer more questions – how do you get to the second storey? Nice fireplace, but where does the smoke go?

When attempting a large building it is imperative to start with some kind of plan – even if that plan changes organically as you build. It is far quicker and cheaper to throw away paper plans and start again, than it is to try ungluing plaster blocks. The quality of the plans does not matter if they are for your use only – a thumbnail sketch on an envelope is fine, as long as you understand it. If, however, you wish someone else to build the model, then the plans must obviously be more detailed.

I prefer to go from sketches to scale plans, using stacked blocks to see how certain details will look. Just stacking blocks restricts your possibilities in most cases – you can only stack what you have already produced, and you can only stack what will balance.


Once again, this can supply inspiration, “that’s a cool picture, so how could I make a model of that?” Of course, you can build models without doing any research, but you limit yourself. It is also rewarding process – you may not find just what you were looking for, but could happen upon something infinitely more interesting. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Study at other people’s work on forums or personal websites.

  • Use a search engine to find inspirational images of “castle”, “Egyptian hieroglyphs”, “gargoyles”, etc.

  • Collect holiday brochures from travel agents – many have pictures of local places of interest.

  • Read the description of a building in a novel, and let your imagination work out how it should look.

  • Buy or borrow books on “Mayan Culture”, “Ancient Egypt”, “Gothic Architecture” etc.

  • Find out what tools, equipment and materials are used in a forge before you start building yours.

  • Look at printed dungeon floorplans, and translate these into a 3D construction.

  • Visit historic buildings, and take your own photographs.

  • Check book covers in the fantasy section of the bookshop.

  • If you’re going to add plants, moss or fungi – look for real examples to base yours on.

Keep Going

These 3 steps are meant to get your creative juices flowing. It isn’t important in which order you do them, as long as they get done. It may be tempting to stop thinking about them, once you begin sticking plaster blocks together, but don’t. Inspiration strikes again, designs change and require further research – the processes should continue until your model is complete.

Good planning will speed up the actually building process immensely, and don’t give up – a mistake is a learning experience too, as long as you make a mental note not to do it again. Bear in mind that so-called “mistakes” often lead to more interesting models – remember that half-finished church which became an instant ruin, when you knocked it off the table!

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