Making Maquettes

Monday 9 July 2018

The word maquette comes from the French word for model. It's more often than not smaller than the finished piece although we do produce full sized models on occasion. It's most commonly used by architects or sculptors, to visualise, test shapes and ideas without wasting the valuable materials and time a full scale product would take up. For commissioned work, a maquette may be used to show the client how the finished work will fit in the proposed site. The usefulness of these little miniatures is often overlooked, or even mocked. No self respecting design studio, architect or car manufacturer would be without scale models.

No new car model gets anywhere near the production line until dozens of models are made even in this age of computers. You can gain so much from seeing a 3D solid object, from holding and rotating it. Proportions, lines, curves and shapes slowly reveal themselves.

Vitra, who it appears now owns the rights to every furniture design classic, produces maquettes for the majority of them. These have become collectables in their own right with many of them fetching £500 +. Their use and how it benefits us as makers is of great importance. It's easy for us to get carried away – thinking the idea we've been carrying around in our minds is going to be The One.

As makers we can all be accused of impatience – wanting to get on with the making. I think, if we're honest, most would say that we've produced work and upon completion looked back and felt a certain detail could have looked better, a curve on a leg should have been steeper or a rail thinner. All these details could have been ironed out at the maquette stage along with many others such as stability, structural integrity and ergonomics. Can you afford not to make a maquette? I don't do one for everything I make but for anything unusual or challenging it helps me sleep better. A maquette can be as well crafted as is needed, it can be very rough just to see proportions and shape, often made of cardboard or just sheets of paper, taped up. If required, these little models can be mini works of art, making a history of pieces you've created. They can be displayed for future clients to see the quality of your work – it's not always possible to have finished items ready for viewing by potential clients and a 3D model is better than a photo.

I use the technique as an invaluable tool for pitching a concept to clients as I feel the majority of clients respond better to a model than a drawing. By charging the clients a retainer or design fee it covers the cost of making the maquette.

Nest of table maquettes

The stainless steel “Nest of Table” was constructed using TIG welding rods these are exactly 1/6 scale of the 10mm rods used on the full size version. They've also been used on the macassar ebony table maquette. They've been abraded using my disk sander – after a few glue-up attempts this was the only way we could make the glue stick. The first try got nearly 2/3 finished when the whole piece came crashing down. To improve strength, the piece was also glued to its base as it was being constructed. I used superglue and the appropriate spray activator, not the strongest of glues, epoxy would have been much stronger but not as convenient because superglue requires no mixing and with the activator it sets instantly.

A piece of 3mm glass with beveled edges was obtained from our local glaziers for less than five pounds. I could have used acrylic of course but I think it looks better in glass.

Macassar ebony table maquette

The macassar ebony table has never been made into a full size piece, after making the maquette I decided it needed more work and as it was only a speculative piece it's been put on the back burner. The finish used on the top is a clear lacquer spray this gives a very quick shinny surface that can be flattened to a glassy finish. Melted Koniq wax was used to fake the stainless steel legs protruding through the top. Koniq wax can be mixed with other colours when melted, so it was easy to mix a grey colour to replicate the stainless steel.

Bench maquette

The bench maquette was made using real timber, MDF, iron-on real wood edging and a little aluminum. The components are all cut using the bandsaw and then hand planed or sanded. Most of the gluing up was done using Titebond original, chosen for its strength and short setting time.

The top was made using a piece of 6mm MDF and strips of Iron edging used to replicate the solid top version proposed. The top was glued to the base using 5-minute epoxy. The vices were turned on the engineering lathe to give the maquette a sense of purpose, although not exactly representative of the vices we used in the end, it does help to visualise the finished bench.

The timber used on the maquette and full size version was American black walnut (Juglans nigra) and maple (Acer campestre). This piece has also been finished with spray lacquer, although I didn't want a shiny surface, it's easier to apply on intricate items than an oil or wax finish and with fewer coats we can avoid it becoming too shiny.

Our students regularly use cardboard to rough out shapes. It enables us to quickly change dimensions and proportions without wasting material or having to use 3D CAD programs. A black marker pen can be used to change curves etc, acting as a shadow, this technique is great on legs. By making a cardboard template and viewing from a distance, we can shave off a little with the black pen and you can instantaneously see changes.

No timber was hurt in the process.

The rocking chair

The rocking chair is one of the hardest items to design and make. They have more challenges than most other items of furniture, aesthetic, construction, comfort and motion. It can be easy to miss one of these attributes and then the piece fails to meet expectations. If the centre of balance is incorrect it can throw people forward or tip them back when seated and a simple maquette can help eliminate these problems. I've used an MDF male and female former, which has been pined together with a tack-gun, this will be used to laminate 0.6mm veneer for the maquette. An MDF pattern was made first that enabled me to tweak the design even before making the MDF formers. Epoxy glue was used to replicate the actual piece, epoxy is very strong and gives the least amount of spring-back from the formers when removed. When the chair was removed from the former it was obvious that the sides were too square and the chair was lacking any detail. A couple of trial chamfers were all that was needed to soften the design and the result is quite a slick look.


You can use whatever materials and glues you have in your arsenal to make your maquette. Blu-Tack and Post-it notes have, in the past, found their way into my models. I used to produce maquettes in 1/10 scale but they're a little small and details are often lost on them. I changed to 1/6 scale, which I like better although working out dimensions is a little harder on the brain cells.

In use

Our workshop has been using maquettes for many years, but in writing this article it's made us understand their benefits better, I see an increase in maquette making and as a result I have introduced a section in our courses on the very subject.