gas pumps, and MP3 players—these are some of the
everyday objects that Duane Martinez builds. But for him,
form supersedes function. His objects look real, but they’re
Duane makes models of new products before
they go into production. As a model maker, he turns the
ideas of designers and engineers into solid,
three-dimensional objects that people can see and touch.
"It’s a little like magic," Duane says.
"We are asked to create things that are entirely
Almost everything that is manufactured
starts as a model. These models are created from foam or
other materials and are used to test and improve designs
or to give buyers a first look at new products.
Like most model makers, Duane starts his
work when a designer brings him a drawing. It could be as
simple as a rough sketch on a napkin or as complicated as
a digital blueprint. Either way, Duane uses the drawing to
make a simple model out of lightweight foam. Later, when
the designers are sure that they like the product’s
shape, he creates a more realistic model.
Duane starts many models by drawing a
three-dimensional picture on a computer using
computer-aided design (CAD) software. Then, he programs
the coordinates from the picture into automated tools in
the shop. These tools follow the specified coordinates,
cutting material into parts for the model.
Drawing in three dimensions is central to
a model maker’s work. "You need to be able to think
spatially to look at a two-dimensional drawing and add in
the third dimension," says Duane. "Most model
makers can see something on paper and know what it will
look like if it is flipped over or turned in space."
Duane finishes his models by hand,
sculpting them with woodworking tools, sandpaper, and
small dental tools that he has modified for this detail
work. "You cut away the extra until you get the shape
you want," he says. "But you have to be careful,
because you only get one pass at the foam. You can’t go
back and patch it if you make the wrong cut."
Some designers visit Duane in the shop to
consult with him as they finalize the project. "Over
time, I get to know the designers’ styles," says
Duane. "I know what kind of lines they’ll
want." As designers watch him work, they ask for
changes along the way. Duane quickly sculpts several
models, and designers choose which one they like best.
The foam stage is over when the designer
approves a shape. Then, it’s time for Duane to make a
better model. He uses a variety of materials—including
aluminum, titanium, wood, leather, plastic, rubber, and
stone—that match the project’s purpose. Some models
are photographed for catalogs and press releases and,
thus, need perfect exteriors. Other models, such as Duane’s
gas pump prototype, are built for trade shows. These
models are often made with magnets so that they can come
apart easily for travel.
The final stage in building models is
adding filler and paint. A good paint job goes a long way
toward making a model look real. Nearly any look can be
simulated, from the glossy look of a sports car to the
wood grain of fine furniture. Model makers also add
details, such as logos and digital displays. The level of
realism needed depends on the model’s intended use. A
model for a consumer focus group, for example, must be
more detailed than a model that does not need to be
examined as closely.
Some models have to move and work as well
as look good. Those models are among the most exciting to
create. "I’ve always wanted to work in a James Bond
lab," Duane says, "so making things with moving
parts and working buttons is especially fun." He fits
pieces together like a 3-D puzzle, perhaps trying many
different approaches before he finds a configuration that
Building models takes a steady hand and
good eyesight, especially when making something small,
such as the play and pause buttons on a CD player.
Being so precise takes time. Duane has
worked 36 hours straight to meet a deadline. And modeling
happens late in the design process, so model makers often
have to make up lost time. Duane has slept on the floor of
the shop to finish some projects, catching naps while
coats of paint dried. "The passion that I have gives
me the adrenaline I need to get a job done," says
Duane. "I want it to look good because a well-made
model can really sell a design."
Another motivation for working long hours
is seeing the final product, especially when it’s on the
market. "It’s fun to go to the computer store and
see all the shapes and sizes of the computer notebooks I
worked on," Duane says, "or to see the gas pump
I modeled standing at the convenience store near my
Modeling consumer products is only one
part of the model-making profession. Many modelers work on
movie sets, building models for special effects. Other
model makers create museum displays or one-of-a-kind
awards and trophies. Architectural firms also hire model
makers to create scaled-down versions of apartment
buildings, amusement parks, and other real estate. These
models—which usually include tiny cars and people—help
investors visualize how a project will look.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics (BLS) show that there were more than 11,000
model makers employed in May 2004. But that number doesn’t
include people who ran their own businesses, and it might
include workers who do tasks somewhat differently than the
ones described here.
Median annual earnings for metal and
plastic model makers were $44,250, according to BLS data
for May 2004, meaning that half of these workers earned
more than that amount and half earned less. The highest
earning 10 percent made more than $68,790. The automobile
industry paid some of the highest salaries. Wood model
makers had median earnings of $26,910, with the highest
paid 10 percent earning more than $57,230.
There are many different ways to become a
model maker. Some people learn model making primarily on
the job. Many others earn an associate degree in model
making or industrial design technology. Others earn a
bachelor’s degree in fine arts, design, or engineering.
Still others complete an apprenticeship or study trades,
such as drafting, woodworking, and painting.
Model makers stay current by taking
classes, watching experienced workers, and attending
conferences, such as those held by the Association of
Professional Model Makers.
Duane’s interest in model making began
in high school, when he spent hours building model cars.
He also took classes in ceramics and other crafts mainly
as a hobby. But when he finally discovered professional
model making, those classes helped him get his first job.
"There are opportunities out there. You don’t
have to be a starving artist," Duane says.
"Growing up, I never knew model making could be a
career, and I wish I’d found it sooner. I love it!"