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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Modular Scratch Building - Part One

Hi folks!

I may not have vast knowledge about miniatures yet, but I sure have some "experience" building modular FoamCore room boxes!  I thought some folks might be interested in how to go about building them, so I thought I would show you the processes I used for the boxes. 

First, let me share the resources I used because they were very helpful to me.

The first was a book written by Dorie Krusz, titled "Building Miniature Houses and Furniture".

Building Miniature Houses and Furniture, by Dorie Krusz
In this book were the basics of  Modular Foam Core construction, along with chapters on basic tools and techniques, things which I might have missed entirely if I had not done my research first.  Stuff like how to plan for overlap of the top, sides and floor, how to plan for a staircase, how to plan for doors so that the "floor" reaches from room to room without a gap.  This book really formed the basis for my overall plan to use Foam Core Board. It did such a nice job of laying out the process.  I continue to use it as I reach new elements of the build. 

The second was the website of a self described "maker", David Neat, who has the generosity of spirit and the knack for teaching to create an extremely valuable website sharing his various modeling techniques.   If you haven't found it yet, and want to learn how to develop a professional looking model, I highly recommend it!

The last major resource was more a matter of inspiration than anything else.  I stumbled onto Juliette's website "Victorian Mini - Adventures in Scale Modeling".  I was impressed with the versatility and the modular nature of the build, and this was the point at which I said "I can do that!" 

One reason for my choice to use modular construction and Foam Core materials is that while I have marginal woodworking experience (having built exactly one jewelry box and one sofa table in high school, a flat or two for stage sets, and some "posts" for various projects) I felt that I was more likely to succeed initially with the Foam Core Board.  I also, as I mentioned in an earlier post, wanted the build to be light, and modular in nature so that I could work on some parts of the house without having the entire large structure sitting on my dining table.  To me, with the above three constraints, I thought Foam Core would suit my situation well.  So far, it has been a great choice!

So off to the store I went, looking for Foam Core Board! 

Here is the process I came up with, which has served me quite well.  

Obviously, Step 1 was to determine the size of the room boxes.   I got inspired by a book titled "Decorating with Architectural Trimwork" by Jay Silber, part of the Creative Homeowner series, which helped me decide the initial room sizes before setting the floor plan in my Chief Architect Program.  This was the drawing that I found, which pleased my sensibilities.  I used this and my "It should look about like this" tool to finalize those sizes for each room. 

Image "Decorating with Architectural Trimwork"

Once I had the room sizes established, I began cutting the Foam Core board to size, with an alteration from the drawing for the window walls.  Deceptively simple...yes? 

First Cuts for the Project

Well, there is a secret or two that is of use...these learned from David Neat's site, linked above.  Foam Core does not like to be manhandled...  Gentle is the word of the day.  To get a clean, straight cut with Foam Core board you will want to follow these instructions very closely.  

  1. Make sure you have a sharp cutting tool.  I use the Utility Knife above, which gives me a good solid weight in my hand that helps me guide the cut.  Others recommend a scalpel...yes, like doctors make these cuts.  I found the utility knife very satisfactory though, if I used care and changed the blades often enough. 
  2. Measure the lines you would like to cut, and draw them onto the Foam Core with a mechanical pencil.  I like the mechanical pencil because the line of the graphite is more controllable, and the lines can be drawn in quite lightly and precisely. I used an 18 inch steel ruler, which I highly recommend purchasing, again because it allows precision.  
  3. Before making any cuts, be sure to measure and draw both intersecting corners.  The reason for this is that you want to ensure that you have those corners square and even.  If you do not, your final roombox will not be square, which creates problems for you all the way through the build.  I learned this the  hard way!  Use a carpenters square or tri-square to ensure 90 degree angles, or an architectural triangle also works well.  Measure once, measure twice...then start your cut.  This is probably the most critical part of the process. 
  4. Place the steel ruler against the line to be cut, ensuring that the edge is directly on the line. drifting away from the line, because your cut will follow the ruler, not the line....the very act of putting pressure on the line tends to cause your hand to drift away from the line. 
  5. SCORE the line lightly.  Do not try to cut clear through the entire piece of Foam Core all at once.  Hold the knife, as you draw it along the line, tightly to the steel ruler, as this will keep you from drifting. 
  6. It is best to draw the knife from both ends of the line into the center, especially as you are working out a corner.  This prevents cutting into the board surrounding the cut, especially important as you are cutting out doors and windows. 
  7. Repeat the cut on the same line, using slightly more pressure, and cutting a little more deeply, again from both ends into the center unless you are cutting a single line clear across your Foam Core.  
  8. Repeat until the cut is made.  I have found that it takes about 4 times through before the cut is complete.  
When complete with the above process for one room at a time, I ended up with something like this:

A completed roombox

I am fudging in the photo above...I didn't of course take a picture of the roomboxes without the this picture is standing in for that.  I did not apply the wood sticks until I had built the basic roombox assembled in each case.  I glued the Foam Core along each edge with Arlene's Tacky Glue, which I love...and I have used the sticks primarily for the purpose of adding strength and giving me a way to ensure a tight fit between modules.

I'll continue this post next time, explaining the process of applying the balsa sticks and showing the decisions I made to connect the roomboxes into a final whole.

Until next time!

Doug S


  1. Hi Doug! I'm happy to be able to follow your work from the beginning. I like Juliette's way of building her house, so it will be a pleasure for me to see your house growing.

    1. Welcome Ersilia! I am so glad you stopped by! I am definitely "at the beginning" every way possible! In some ways I feel a bit exposed posting my progress, but I also enjoy sharing what I learn.

      I took a quick run through your site! I love the fact that you and your daughter are building your house together! I'll be back to absorb more. You have a lot of great information on your site.


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