How To Become a Clay Modeler

Recently I have been reading several forums that have had many posts on becoming a clay modeler. In those readings I’m finding that there seems to be a romance with this particular field in automotive design and yet many people have very little understanding in what it takes to become one. It would appear that the image that is being portrayed is, pick up a tool and scrape away until the desired shape is reached. This I’m afraid couldn’t be farther away from the truth. In industrial art certain parameters need to be kept and to create a form that is devoid of parameters will only come back to haunt you at a later stage in the program.

Having artistic flare is always a plus but you have to be able to translate a designers sketch to fit the package or parameters given, that is where the skill lies. Creating the best or closest resemblance to the sketch.

In my particular instance, to become a clay modeler I have progress through various fields. A road that wasn’t direct but through various related trades. For me I started at the age of sixteen as a pattermaker, this came about through my love of wood carving and wooden furniture which automatically placed me into finding a job where wood would play a major part in my daily activity. To determine a career at the age of sixteen is pretty much a hit and miss affair unless you are real focused. To help me with my decision the local careers officer would be at the school for the last two weeks before finally being pushed out to fend for myself and it was at that point that we I decided upon pattermaking. The whole process was based on the fact that I liked working in wood. Little did I know that only a small percentage of the apprentice patternmakers with Ford Motor Company would end up in the wood patternmaking shop, the rest would be working in metal!

During my apprenticeship I became familiar with using blue prints, hand tools and the workings of engines and all components that would have to be cast in a foundry. The fine tolerances that would improved water flow around an engine, the small difference in a wall thickness that could amount to massive savings in materials used during a years production. In that trade I would have to determine the best way and most productive way to produce a pattern for that specific component. It also meant that I had to go to college once a week for the duration of my apprenticeship to learn the theory behind the practical experience. In doing so I was fortunate to put those learnings to good use and hone my abilities, eventually ending up in the place I wanted to work, the wood shop.

Looking back on those years of my apprenticeship they were the stepping stones to the real job. They were the methods to make me think and assess a situation and act on a particular course of action to take. In other words my mind was taught how to build a pattern, core boxes and molding methods, I already had the woodworking skills.

In any employment situation you will find opportunities will arise and it is in these situations that a decision has to be made, normally a decision that has to be weighed up quickly. For me it was the opportunity to go as a contract modeler and secondly it was an adventure. Even though I had been trained as a patternmaker I knew I could handle the transition to modelmaking. I could read engineering drawings and I had an analytical approach and what I did not know I would be able to learn from the more experienced members of the team. Sure it was a chance to take especially as I was leaving a permanent position to go contracting.

You maybe asking what does this have to do with clay modeling but what I am sharing with you is clay modelers do not always start out as clay modelers. I had in effect traded in one profession that I knew, patternmaking for another and that was hard modelmaking. The common denominator was the ability to read engineering drawings and work with wood. In modelmaking at that time I was using beech for prototype press tools prior to the master models being made from Stabilite, a stable model tooling board made from layers of Mahogany and a resin glue. I say Stabilite, I believe that was what it was called.This particular tooling board was later banned because of the toxic nature of the material when cut or drilled.

When I returned from that contract some two years later the only way forward was to take another modelmaking job, you did on occasion interact with designers especially if you were involved on interior or exterior panels that required designer sign off. The designers were there to ensure that the blend of the fillets and radiis were flowing without any harsh intersections and panels highlighted correctly. These hard models were replicas of the former clay model so it was their job to make sure that the form wasn’t lost in the translation process, whereas today it would be scanned directly from the clay, tuned in the computer and milled out as a master clay model. This data would be released for a hard model to be made via milling, eliminating much of the hands-on process that is associated with 30 years ago.

The next twist of fate came during a period when large numbers of the workforce were finding themselves unemployed due to the massive cutbacks that were affecting the UK. I had been informed that the model shop that I was working at was closing its doors and consolidating its efforts at its parent company, offering no chance of relocation. With no alternatives on the horizon it was back to finding a contract position again but these sort of jobs do not come up everyday, fortunately I had previous experience in contracting and there would be an opening but I would have to wait for four months.

Eventually I find myself going back to a company that I left three years ago, the only difference this time is, they need additional people in the clay studio to help with detailed hard parts. This opportunity doesn’t come everyday and I find that during that one year contract only one hard part is addressed and that is a door mirror. Everything else is hands-on clay modeling. Did I sit still during that period, hell no, I made sure that I made the neccessary tools to do the job. The wire tools, scrapes, rakes, steels and more, all the tools that I still use today. Once again reading the tape drawing or line drawing is no problem, the different tools, the different medium is the real challenge but you have got to go to it. Ask the right questions without looking stupid, practice and be your own worst critique. Settle for nothing less than perfection in your own eyes, other will certainly tell you when and where you ARE wrong. When you are starting out, be humble don’t come across as the know it all, other senior modelers will open up to a person who is willing to learn, do the opposite and you may find that the door will shut.

Those lunch times were very productive and the contract sculptors that were there were only too willing to share their knowledge and explain the pros and cons of each tool that they used. To be able to use one of their tools and get a feel for the size was invaluable allowing me to make adjustments to suit my own needs.

Each sculptor I found had their own favorite tool/tools and a different approach to resolving a surface. This allowed me to make adjustments to my own tools, to suit the way that I modeled and typically I have a longer throat depth and a longer, slimmer handle than the ones that are typically bought. Being able to try different surfacing methods by watching others also shaped the way that I model today. Watching the variety of styles and trying what felt natural to me always brought the best results.

Everyone you will find has a different style and it is important to determine which way is the most natural and best for you, there is no one correct way. The most important aspect of clay modeling is the end result, it should be of a high standard and reflect the design intent. Afterall, everyone is an individual and the methods and the approach are like that person, always unique.

So after reading this post the bottom line is, try to become involved in the industry, that is, have a concept of how panels are put together, understand surface development, be hands-on, it is not a typical job. Most of the guys are some type of car nut or speed freak. It is not a 9 to 5 job either, you are at the mercy of the fickle design direction, hours are long, patience is a virtue, praise is few and far between and sometimes you get to see your family!

Now, do you want to be a clay modeler!!!!

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