Paper modelling in the 21st century

I recently extolled the virtues of illustration board as a modelling material. It has the benefits of both paper and plastic and is cheap to boot. Because it’s actually paper, I thought about how to combine paper model design and traditional plastic design into a monstrous hybrid. The result is similar to products now being made of laser-cut MDF, with the disadvantage of not being laser-cut but having the advantage of not being made of MDF, a material which I find irritating for a number of reasons*.

I was inspired by this thread on, which also led to this specific page. I quite liked idea of a settlement made of spaceship parts, and the structures were curved rather than straight. If they existed, they would make a nice addition to a science fiction building collection.

I began by designing a very simple building in Google Sketchup (I normally use Metasequoia as a modeller, but I thought I’d try something different, and it also works on Mac). The model needs to be very low poly, unless you enjoy labour-intensive work. Non-developable surfaces should be avoided. This is where Sketchup is very limited, as vertex-level editing is unavailable. Oh well. I’m digressing into technical things about which nobody cares anyway.

This is what it ended up looking like. Admire its simplicity!

I am simple.


The next trick is unfolding it. Luckily for Sketchup users, there’s a free Ruby plugin called Flattery. Because the model was made very simple, it’s not particularly difficult to unfold. The end result looks like this:

Flattery will destroy buildings.

Next, the building was exported out of Sketchup as an SVG, then imported into Adobe Illustrator and scaled to 15mm scale, which I selected as being 1/100. Because you have complete control over the model if you make it yourself, you can select whatever scale you want as 15mm, then argue about it on an internet forum.

At this point, I added details that could be cut out of a second layer, much like the MDF buildings made by GameCraft. The details should be simple, because they’ll need to be cut out of illustration board with a knife.

The end result is a template for a building. Because not one of 1000 people will actually do the steps above to make their own buildings, I’ve included the template for your download pleasure.

At this point you might be wondering what good this is. A pdf of a template does bugger-all to help. Here 21st century science steps in to help — PostIt glue sticks.

How it all works

Print out the pattern on any printer you want, on regular paper. Use the Post-it glue stick to glue the template onto the illustration board.

Cut out all of the pieces. The larger, featureless top, front and back are a base layer, and the more detailed ones are cut out and glued on top. The back garage door can be cut out and recessed on the base piece, if desired.

The side pieces are a little different. Because I was going for the “spaceship hull” look, I cut out the pieces from slightly softer board. I then attached a variety of cardboard bits to make spaceship-style greebles. I used a variety of thicknesess (cardstock, illustration board, a box from the recycling bin, etc) to enhance the three-dimensionality.



If you’ve never done this before, there is a PDF guide written by “Johnny”  will give you excellent guidance. It’s for plastic modelling, but works just as well for paper.

At this point, you will have five pieces, which basically go together as a box.

I made another two buildings from a mailing tube cut in half. I sawed he plastic end-caps in half as well, forming two Quonset/Nissan style huts. The mailing tube was covered in paper greebles as well. You may have already noticed this because there’s a picture above this paragraph.

The rest is just painting. Here’s my procedure:

Prime white. This step isn’t all that important, because paper tends to absorb colour anyway. However, not all the paper was the same colour, so I wanted to start with a nice base.

I underpainted darker areas and shadows with black ink using an airbrush.

The base colour was a mixture of white, carbon black and Payne’s Grey. After painting the base coat, I highlighted various raised areas with a lighter shade, using an airbrush.

I custom-mixed the orange and masked off those areas, then followed the same procedure as above.

The details (doors, windows, etc) were painted in by hand with a brush.

I added a bit of weathering with pastels, which works much better on paper than on plastic.

The total cost for these buildings is less than $5. Unless you value your time.

And that’s it. The models are rock solid because they’re made of illustration board, they’re lighter than MDF, and they look more 3D than print-and-assemble ones.


Everyone loves detail shots.


* Notes

1. MDF is exceptionally hard. This makes it excellent as a modelling material once it’s cut out, but cutting it out comprises the actual modelling part. As I don’t have a laser or a saw fine enough for such detail, it doesn’t work for me.
2. It has to be sealed. If you get MDF wet (or even damp), you will find that it rapidly expands and destroys itself. Put too much water in your acrylic paint and all your modelling is ruined. It’s not a problem for the finished surfaces, it’s the edges, so you could be all done and then watch in horror as moisture warps and cracks your nearly-finished product.
3. It’s heavy. It’s made of glue and random bits. This gives an illusion of solidity where it doesn’t really exist.


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