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Some thoughts on building models of all types and sizes

Some thoughts on building models of all types and sizes

Welcome. If you have not visited Minature Buildings before can I suggest you begin with my Aims and Scope article or at the Home Page. If you have visited before - welcome back. I hope this article is of interest to you.

In praise of Facades

One of the most famous facade groups : an Amsterdam canal frontage

Most buildings are designed to face the street.  Not all of course; some display their best side to an expansive back garden, but for most buildings all their interesting and attractive features are on just one side - the front or facade.  If you don't want to put your modelling on a layout or open the door and furnish the insides maybe you should only trouble yourself with modelling the bit everyone looks at.

A bit more than just a facade

A bit more than just a facade

This mini diorama by an unknown military modeller illustrates the effective use of a facade.  Though, to be fair, it is a little more than just a pure facade.   Almost certainly the modeller's real enthusaism is the tank and the figures on and around it. The building is there to provide context for the main subject. Not that the modelling of the building has been neglected. It is detailed, well proportioned and weathered.

The lack of a back to the building does not detract from the scene or appear off-putting.  Indeed it would probably be distracting to the central scene to include any more of the building.

Sometimes front is enough

The practice of just building the front of the building is a well established part of film sets of course. Traditionally they would have been ly modelled full size, 1:1 . But in more recent times and with modern techniques they will often be made in smaller scales too.  Even sometimes in over-scale so that actors look smaller than they really are - such as Hobbits or Borrowers?

Sometimes front is enough

I think this example of a western street is full size, though with the quality of professional film modelling you can never be sure. Which is, of course, the point. Looking afresh at the picture I do wonder why the street is smooth and green rather than the rough and dusty surface we might expect.

In another context altogether, if you think about it, many dolls houses are in reality no more than deep facades with  little attention paid to the sides and no attempt to recreate the back of the house.  The old tradition of 'cabinets' with the focus being on the interior lives on.

In railway modelling, the technique is referred to as low relief and is commonly used to provide a backdrop of buildings behind the layout.

Such as the range of mainly industrial and commercial 1/87 facades produced by Alsacast. At the time of writing they offered 46 different facades including, unusually, facade models of the side of buildings.

Alsacast's gritty representation of a weaving-factory and one of their building side facades.

Such as the range of mainly industrial and commercial 1/87 facades produced by Alsacast.

Alsacast's gritty representation of a weaving-factory

At the time of writing they offered 46 different facades including, unusually, facade models of the side of buildings.

But what of facades made for their own sake, simply to display the building?  We move from drab to flamboyant:

The Chinese wine shop facade, shown here, was produced by King & Country as part of their "Historic Oriental: Streets of Old Hong Kong" range.  K&C generally produce their models for the military modelling market but it is not clear what campaign this is designed for.  Or what scale it is?

Since it is a key element of the Miniature Buildings credo that we should focus on the modelling of buildings for their own sake how do we feel about just recreating the facade? 

The modelling of facades certainly offers the opportunity to produce and display more models.  Instead of requiring all round display space the facade model requires only wall hanging space - protruding at most only a few inches into precious living space.   It may not be the lifelike reconstruction of a complete prototype in miniature but, on balance, - we like them.

Modelling facades is also something which is used by some commercial giftware and souvenir suppliers. 

Facade plaques of old Sydney buildings on sale at the Sydney Museum
and a mystery (old?) Dutch gable house displayed on the (now disappeared) ministructures site

This is not a recent development. I did read somewhere that bringing home souvenir models of buildings seen while travelling is a practice of some antiquity.  Try searching for '18th century cork models'.  Any experts out there please do let us know something of the history.  

A Spanish church. Not typical of Laurenston's work,
which featured lots of English pubs

At one end of the spectrum you will find many small examples presented either as fridge magnets or as small china ornaments - maybe 2" to 5" high. One range of this kind was produced by Philip Laurenston, featured in a separate article. They are slightly more than facades but are flat backed.

A Spanish church. Not typical of Laurenston's work, which featured lots of English pubs

Amsterdam seems to be a leader in this market and the ornately gabled Dutch town house is eminently suitable for this presentation.  

Talking of Amsterdam, you might be amused by the first minute or so of this Miniature Amsterdam House Facade Tutorial on YouTube.


The presenter comments how she found the first cut - a straight edge - harder than she expected.  And then jumps without a pause to the point where all the windows and complex gables are cut.  You and I know just what a task that is. But you have to admire her patience; she follows up by gluing on individual bricks.

In a larger size I have some seen some good examples of the genre in Rome displayed within a picture frame.  Sorry, but I omitted to take a picture of them.

Within the same category, but at the other end of the scale, are limited edition collectibles.

Including the remarkable and extensive range produced over the years by Hazle Ceramics as illustrated here.   Their website includes a huge amount of information about their flatback scale models of historic British buildings under the banner of "A piece of Britain".  The range is huge and the quality high.  These are not pocket-money pieces.

The chosen side to display does not of course have to be the front of the building.  One correspondent, Marijke of Canada, told me of a project depicting the back wall of a house plus the patio and some of the garden.   If you have pictures of any project you are working on you are welcome as it develops.  As any of our readers to do with their own work.

Modelling the facade is of course particularly suitable for urban architecture where individual buildings commonly form part of a terrace with no independent identity. Their blank side walls were never intended to be seen and practical but ugly back elevations which the modeller will find it difficult if not impossible to research. 

The Old Town Hall, Berkhamsted,
now housing a Restaurant and some function rooms

A building I have had in mind to model for some time, the Old Town Hall in the centre of Berkhamsted (Hertfordshire, England), is a good example of this.  And a very challenging piece of modelling it is too. 

The Old Town Hall, Berkhamsted, now housing a Restaurant and some function rooms

The nineteenth century facade is striking and picturesque but the building is sandwiched between some very unremarkable mid 20th century shops.   

As you can see from the picture the building has a pitched roof sloping back from the facade.  This illustrates one of the dilemmas faced by the facade modeller.  Should the roof be accurately modelled with the correct roof angle or should it be foreshortened?

The correct roof angle requires the model to be 15 scale feet deep going back to the peak of the roof and to include the chimney which stands forward of the roof ridge.  In my chosen scale of 1/32nd this makes the front face stand nearly 6 inches forward from the backboard.  This also requires the modelling of the front part of the building's sides.  At the top of the building these are visible and can be recreated in miniature but what is to be done about the hidden parts of the sides; the party walls with the ugly building society and travel agency.  There are two choices - either extend the visible brickwork down which would be  attractive but fake or simply display it in a plain neutral colour.  In this instance I am inclined to model them in a plain red brick matching that on the facade but without the darker decorative brick highlights.

A long lost article in the US magazine Model Railroader about low relief modelling identified a number of manufacturers producing low relief, facade, kits in HO and/or N scale - Nu-Line Structures, Summit USA and Walthers and mentions that there are others producing wooden laser-cut kits.  (I haven't done a recent check on this.) They define low relief as having a depth of less than 2 inches - which at 1/87, HO, is 14 foot 6 inches. Which seems quite a lot to me. Many facade models are much shallower. But I don't think we really need a definition.  One of the joys of modelling is that there is no planning authority, so you are free to build what you want when you want. 14 feet is going quite a long way back from a facade as my Old Town Hall example shows.  Many will be content with just a metre of depth.  

Model Railroader commented that the biggest challenge with low relief structures is to make them look convincing.  This is certainly something more important on rail layouts than in other contexts.  One suggestion made is that storage tanks or trees could be used to disguise the shallow depth but the unnamed author also said "To help draw attention away from the shallow depth, I detailed the surrounding landscape.  I placed pallets and a few 55 gallon drums between the roadbed and the building, added ground foam and static flock grass and placed some weeds between the rails."  This is a useful reminder, whether we choose to model facades or full depth buildings that prototypes exist in a landscape and that the building's environment extends forward from the facade as well as backwards into the building.

Another application seems to be in the world of wargaming. When I was young this was often done on a plain tabletop but the scenery and layouts used today are getting more and more elaborate. For scratch builders foam seems to be a poular choice. But this 3d printed weapons storefront, "using nontoxic, biodegradable PLA", from Texas producer Miniature-town is designed for the esoteric world of Dungeons and Dragons gaming in 28mm scale but is also suitable apparently for medieval and western scenarios. The quality of 3D printed work seems to be improving all the time.

The next piece was featured several years ago in Dolls House World magazine.  In 1/12th scale, the facade of a cottage in Gran Canaria was modelled by Judi Noakes .  An interesting and original subject though Judi did admit that it was an amalgam of a number of actual prototypes rather than a single building.  Something that is probably true for most models.  Except for 'house portraits' the exact reproduction of prototypes is relativly rare.

It is a good illustration, developing the point made about the railway building, that the building is only part of an overall scene.   It is Judi's attention to the dressing of the scene that gives the building much of its impact.  A bare architect's model would not capture the Mediterranean feel in this way.  The decorative tiles around the front door were achieved by printing out in reduced scale some tiles featured on a postcard.  She has created something rather special.  This much extra detail on a facade model is not something you will often find.

If you are not wholly convinced with the near two-dimensional facade concept how about this idea - just model two sides of the building and mount your work at an angle. 

This example, and the source of the idea for me, is a reproduction of The Mergenthaler Linotype Building in Chicago , produced in 5/32 scale by Hugh Spector for the developer.   Hugh works as a professional architectural artist in ceramic and takes anywhere from four weeks to complete one of his models.  If you are interested in seeing more of his work take a look at the PK Imaging site. This twin facade technique would be particularly suitable for a corner building such as a pub or hotel or corner shop.

Taking the idea one step further, this model at the Cockington Green miniatures park near Canberra, Australia  (a display featured in the article 'Cockington Green') does not have the rear face modelled as it is not generally visible to visitors.

Which is all I have to say on the subject for now.  If you have anything to add let us know on MiniatureBuildings  and we will pick up the threads in an updated copy of this article. Or, if you have a lot to say and lots of interesting illustrations, we might run  'In Praise of Facades' Part 2.  It's your call.

Your thoughts on all these issues are very welcome and will be added in due course to an updated version of this article.

David, (fully updated)November 2019
(last update 3/9/21)