Help me figure out how to make a model of this tent
July 22, 2020 6:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to make a small model of this tent. The entire thing will be very small, less than an inch and a half wide. I can't figure out a good way to do it.

Please don't suggest I use a 3D printer.

This is going to be HO scale, 1:87.

It's a small circus-type tent that in the real world would be about the size of a large camping tent. Imagine an HO-scale person living in it. The person would be about an inch tall, with the tent slightly higher. Maybe 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide.

I don't need to be exact down to the very last detail, but I want it to be close enough.

If you look at the drawing, in the real world the tent would most likely be canvas draped over a frame made of wooden poles. This doesn't really work in HO scale. Both the frame and the fabric are proving difficult.

I have a good assortment of the usual modeling materials with which to work: Styrene (both sheet and rod), brass rod, clay, wood, plaster cloth, etc. I also have a workshop filled with all manner of miscellaneous materials and hardware that I could use. I also have all the paint and glue I could possibly need.

It is very important, to me, that the fabric drape over the frame as it does in the illustration. I don't want this thing to be made out of polygons.

I'm only stuck on the frame and fabric. The other details like the flags and the flap I can figure out.

Here is what I have tried so far:

Clay: I've tried making both clay "fabric" as well as just making a solid tent out of clay. Let's just say I'm not much of a sculptor. This isn't working.

I made a brass frame by soldering bent brass wire together into a rough version of the tent frame. This looked like crap. I then tried wetting tissue paper as well as a coffee filter over the frame, hoping it would take the shape and then dry. This did not work.

Here is what I might try next:

Using a similar brass frame, draping very thin sheet styrene over it and softening it with a heat gun so that it melts over the frame. I don't expect this will work.

Here is a thing that I do not think will work but you could prove otherwise:

Making a frame and draping actual fabric over it. I think the small scale of this would not make the fabric drape realistically.

I do NOT have access to: A laser cutter, a 3D printer, a CNC machine, or a vacuum former or any other fancy device that probably uses stepper motors and an Arduino or something.

Please read this part:

I do not want to use a 3D printer or send a drawing to a 3D printing service. I know that that would be an easier solution. I love that 3D printers are A Thing but It is very important to me that this be hand made. I'm not interested in defining what "hand made" means. I know what it means to me. I also mostly hate computers and know it would take me longer to learn to use CAD or Sketchup than it ultimately will take me to do this by hand.

Googling "how to model a tent" mostly turns up how to model them in Blender or how to make tent-like party favors for your toddler's birthday party.

I'm not a super-experienced modeler or crafter when it comes to soft-looking things like this.

So, crafters of Metafilter... how would you do this? You helped me turn my kid into a Death Star once. Surely you can help me figure this one out.
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't rule out fabric. Try using something thin like a handkerchief or muslin. You can always starch it if you need to.
posted by irisclara at 7:12 PM on July 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

Papier maché for the tent fabric? The weight of the water and glue while it's wet will help it droop, and you can shape it by hand until it dries.
posted by moonmilk at 7:20 PM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think a little piece of organza would be light enough to drape appropriately, especially if you got it wet. You might then have to coat it somehow. Maybe drape it wet, freeze it, spraypaint it?
If you MeMail me your address I will send you some to try with.
posted by janell at 7:20 PM on July 22, 2020

Does it need to have an interior?

I'd think you could just carve it out of a chunk of wood and file the shape with small files/sandpaper.
posted by Paladin1138 at 7:37 PM on July 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

If you are happy with your frame, I like the paper maché idea, using very thin strips that you can wrap around your frame horizontally and work your way up to make an underlayer with the depressed "draped" look you are seeking, followed by another over layer of a single piece to make it a bit smoother. A few layers will also give you enough material that you could very lightly file or sand if needed when done and ready to paint.
posted by meinvt at 7:44 PM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

At full scale, I believe those type of medieval tents aren't just a sheet of fabric draped over a frame, the fabric is cut and sewn into
shape (I see at least 4 front panels, four back panels, two long rectangular sections for the roof, and two triangle sections one on each end of the roof). I'd be tempted to try with a really fine weight paper, like tissue paper mache. But not draping a sheet over the whole frame, doing it in small sections.
posted by muddgirl at 7:44 PM on July 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

Having seen your wood turnings, I would say to use your gouges and make it out of softer wood, with some very finely-woven fabric laminated onto it with glue.

Even if you skip the fabric, gouging it would let you simulate the drape of real fabric.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:45 PM on July 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Actually looking at the picture again there's an extra peak on one side for some reason so it has three rectangles for the roof and two triangles.
posted by muddgirl at 7:48 PM on July 22, 2020

I would start with the frame. If I was tackling this I would bend wire into a stretched hexagon shape for the top of the walls.
      /    \
Then use more bent wire to create the "legs" and the peak.

Once you've got the size of the frame, you can then measure it to make a template for the fabric. I think it's going to need a couple of seams. I would use paper to get the proportion right, and then try fabric – perhaps something like beeswax cloth because it's malleable when warm, and then sets into shape.

Then when the tent is in place, you can add the flagpoles and the doorflap.
posted by robcorr at 8:03 PM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

You want Sculpey polymer clay. You can roll it out THIN, like super nearly translucent thin, if you have a pasta machine roll it on a 1 or 2. Drape it over your frame, it will drape just like (appropriately weighted) fabric and you can bake it hard and paint it any color. It is without a doubt what will work the best for this, will cost 3 bucks, and you will have plenty left over for future projects.
posted by phunniemee at 8:05 PM on July 22, 2020 [9 favorites]

I agree with those saying the tent will need a few seams -- you won't get the right drape if you just put a piece of fabric over the frame. I don't know much about building with brass rod, but I'm assuming you can make the frame out of that or wire. I'd suggest trying a very soft, thin, drapey fabric -- at that scale, it may give you the right amount of drape (the real tent would have been made from canvas, but at small scale, that will be almost as stiff as cardboard). Try something like silk or rayon for the fabric -- both are a pain in the ass to sew, but the seams are short enough that you could do it by hand, and use something like Fray Check on the inside of the seams to prevent fraying. If the fabric works, you might try painting it to help fix it in place and give it the color/texture that you want.
posted by ourobouros at 8:08 PM on July 22, 2020

Soft fabric sprayed repeatedly with diluted PVA glue then painted as necessary (seams etc.), or Sculpey as mentioned above.
posted by aramaic at 8:11 PM on July 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

I don't know anything about modeling, but this guy uses heavy-duty tinfoil to make corrugated tin sheds. Maybe there's something in his technique you could adapt?
posted by Gorgik at 9:10 PM on July 22, 2020

perhaps: carve a solid form ( including the drooping character of the tent) from pink or blue styrofoam: easy to carve & especially easy to sand.
-you will then be able to shove & anchor your tent poles into the foam.
-then lay thin fabric or even easier tissue paper on that- this is easier if you wet it, & it will set hard if you put a bit of white glue mixed in with the water.
-if you are careful about carving the draping details into the foam, you could also skip the fabric & just paint it with acrylic paint to mimic canvas - you can texture the wet paint by pressing fabric against it here & there.
the tent poles you use ( paint them as well) plus the bit of actual fabric you use for the awning will ‘sell’ the rest of it. The flags will also sell it.
posted by cabin fever at 12:11 AM on July 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

Fabric with lots of laundry starch or thinned out white glue.
posted by theora55 at 2:52 AM on July 23, 2020

Carve it from clay and let it air dry, then decoupage on some very light fabric?
posted by wenestvedt at 4:26 AM on July 23, 2020

Balsa could be carved and sanded to approximately the shape, then sanded and painted to give the approximate shape.
posted by nickggully at 5:44 AM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'd make the shape out of a polymer clay like Sculpy or Fimo, then press a fabric on to it to imprint a pattern of fabric, peel it off, stick in some flag poles, and bake.
posted by advicepig at 6:37 AM on July 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

A combination of carving tent shape out of soft wood/clay/plaster etc, coating it with a releasing agent, drape lightweight silk/organza/poly/tissue paper that's been soaked in diluted white glue over the mold (cut material neatly into sections along drape lines for ease of fitting). Let it dry. Release mold and retroactively fit the metal frame work interior which will be visible but won't actually be structural.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:15 AM on July 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nothing helpful to add except that I love that book. Would love to see pics of your final model.
posted by papergirl at 7:23 AM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would use Crayola model magic clay to create a base to cover with papier mache. Model magic is air dry clay that is very easy to work with because the consistency is more like a soft marshmallow. Use the clay to get a rough shape of the tent and then use tootpicks to mimic where the tentpoles are. Then use papier mache strips for the tent fabric. I feel like this will get you closest to the aesthetic you are trying to achieve.

I agree at that small scale regular fabric would not drape properly. You may get better results if you used a slightly stretchy fabric, but it's hard to say without feeling the actual fabric.
posted by jraz at 7:44 AM on July 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks, everyone. This is giving me a lot of good ideas.

Carving or sculpting it is probably a non-starter. I'm not confident in my abilities to do either. It's a much different process from turning a bowl on a lathe.

I do like the idea of sculpting a clay frame, or otherwise making a temporary frame, and then draping paper mache or thin cloth over it, then hardening it with glue.

I don't sew, I mean I'm sure I could sew enough to make some seams, but I don't see that working at scale. I may cut and glue some sections together.

And, no, it doesn't necessarily need to be hollow inside. As long as I can hollow out the door and paint it dark inside to give the illusion of an interior, that'll be enough.

I'll probably try a few of these over the next few days and see what works.

And please keep the ideas coming!
posted by bondcliff at 8:14 AM on July 23, 2020

Just a thought: old-school model airplane folks used a type of tissue paper and various chemicals to cover the struts on their plane wings, and when painted these did a pretty good job of looking like old wood/canvas aircraft. The same trick might work here, if you're prepared for the tent to look a bit "taut" (example).
posted by aramaic at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

aramaic, that was called doping, and the chemicals involved pretty much made this like huffing glue if you didn't have good ventilation. :7)

bondcliff, do you have a Dremel-type tool, and a grinding head? You might be able to cut it out of a block of something firm. Have you considered closed-cell foam?

But if not, using a soft medium like clay, which sets hard, will let you take your time and be experimental.

Finishing that material off to look realistic at HO scale shouldn't be the end of the world. Heck, if it's the right color, you might even press cloth into the surface to leave a texture!

Once again, I would recommend you to the folks at r/TerrainBuilding -- searching for the word "tent" brings up some intriguing thoughts (like using paper towels drenched in Mod Podge)!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:42 AM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do I have a Dremel... you offend me. :-)

The main trouble I'm having is sculpting or carving a believable shape, be it with clay, wire, foam, or wood. I'm not sure how to explain it but all my attempts come out looking like something a four year old made out of Playdough. Sculpting something like this doesn't seem to be in my wheelhouse. Everything I've carved or sculpted in the past, bowls, trays, guitars, allowed for mistakes to happen and then it was just a matter of "ok I guess it's shaped like this now!" as opposed to this, which needs to be carved to a somewhat precise shape that has been decided upon ahead of time.

Edited to add: I have no problem huffing glue. The airplane wing method actually sounds intriguing and I realized I might have some heat shrink window plastic (used for weatherstripping) that perhaps might mold itself around a frame if I take a heat gun to it.
posted by bondcliff at 11:50 AM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wouldn't heat-shrinking plastic make it perfectly taut, and thus lose you the nice sag you're looking for?

If not, then I would use some stainless steel wire to twist together a frame (or maybe solder it?), and then shrink wrap that baby. Instead of framing an internal "doorway", you could just pack the thing with Sugru, and paint it once it dries.

(I think you're selling yourself short on your ability to drive your thumbs into somenicem soft clay and smooth out those shapes. If not, ask your wife for help -- she's awfully clever!)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:03 PM on July 23, 2020

i think if I only heated the plastic slightly over the right frame it might work? Probably not though.

You'll have to trust me when I tell you my attempts at sculpting were... not good.
posted by bondcliff at 1:22 PM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well there's the subtraction process, ie wood carving, and there's the addition process, ie clay, in which you can patch your mistakes with more clay.

But what if you built a framework out of balsa wood chop sticks and stuck the uprights into a block of floral foam (styrofoam) from the Dollar Store. Hot-glue string or wind wire between the uprights to mimic the drape. More wire leading down to the "ground" for the tent sides. Then tear and drape pieces of tissue paper/lightweight cloth (soaked in white glue+water) over the framework. If using tissue paper, do a couple layers for strength. Torn edges won't show a hard edge where they've been pieced together. Think of it as a series of polygons, cover each polygon wire to wire overlapping the edge, then move onto the next one.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:21 PM on July 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Another option once you’ve erected a frame, plaster gauze strips. Comes in a roll, cut into pieces, dip in water and squeegee excess off between your fingers, drape. Less likely to tear than tissue paper but will have a texture that might look out of scale. Probably only need one layer.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:09 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Since starting this thread I've tried plaster cloth, tape, tissue paper, foil, paper mache, and very thin clay. Nothing is working the way I want it.

I tried again just sculpting it out of clay and I think with some sanding and some highlights and shadows with some paint it'll look ok. When I do stuff like this I get a very clear idea of what will be acceptable and this is just about on the line. Blended in with the other houses and the landscape I think it'll look ok. I'll post some photos when I'm done.

Thank you all for your ideas and help.
posted by bondcliff at 7:07 PM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Results. It's not exactly how I envisioned it but I think it looks ok.
posted by bondcliff at 7:44 AM on July 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

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