Clay Modeling – An Alternative Career?

Clay modeling is perhaps not the direct ambition of a fledgling car designer, but in today’s crowded work environment — with numerous graduates seeking scarce employment in design studios — it should be considered a viable option. Nick Hull fills us in.

Many young car enthusiasts dream of becoming a car designer, but what about the technicians who translate the ideas into three dimensions: the clay modelers? Is this specialism a viable career option for young designers?

“The modeler’s role is often underestimated in the creative process,” says Colin Hart, Modeling Manager at Nissan’s design studio in London. “It’s a vital part of any car program, with designer and modeler working closely together to achieve the end result.”

Traditionally, clay modelers came through a patternmaking apprenticeship but that training has almost ceased to exist in many countries. As a result, in May 2013 Hart set up a meeting with a group of modeling managers in the UK to discuss the future for clay modelers coming into the industry and if there was scope to set up some new initiatives to educate young modelers in this niche specialism.

One of the concerns expressed was that the age profile of many modeling teams was becoming quite old, with a majority of individuals approaching retirement within the next five years. Subsequently, Nissan has set up a level 3 apprenticeship scheme leading to a Diploma in Clay Modeling, in collaboration with West Thames College in London. Three apprentices have now enrolled on the course and are starting to work in the Paddington studio.

One of the main sources of new talent in recent years has been graduates from Coventry University’s Transport Design degree course, where clay modeling is still promoted and taught. Around 20 BA or MDes students have graduated and become clay modelers in the past five years, with JLR and Aston Martin in particular being keen to offer internships to students to help build their skills.

Coventry University has now decided to offer a more specialized version of the course from 2016 to build on this new demand from industry. Students will be able to specialize in 3D form development in the final two years of their course, with a view to becoming either physical clay modelers or as digital modelers using Autodesk Alias software.

One of the difficulties to becoming a clay modeler is to acquire an extensive set of tools, such that one can carry out the full range of tasks required. Tools required include carbon fiber splines, microplanes, toothed clay rakes, plain finisher rakes and spring steel slicks, all in a variety of sizes and shapes to suit the various surfaces, be it a large roof panel or detailing on a scale model or interior. Another required skill is the full dressing of models for viewings, including the application of Dynoc film using warm water and felt pads.

As a career, clay modeling has developed in tandem with design, so there is now a proper career structure in most design studios, from junior modeler up to modeling manager, responsible for all 3D activities within the studio. As with designers, a large proportion of modelers are engaged as freelance contractors, with similar, if not better, hourly rates payable.

Bentley Bentayga clay model development

Modelers will often move around the world as new projects and contracts become available, resulting in the most highly-skilled individuals being highly sought after by design managers. Six figure salaries are not unusual for experienced contract modelers, recognizing the high skill needed to operate in a team to develop a model.

Surface development remains the most difficult area, with surface adjustments of 0.05mm being necessary to fully highlight a full-scale model such that the light lines flow correctly. That requires great dexterity and a fine eye for surface development.

Aston Martin has also revived its apprenticeships, with a new Apprenticeship in Clay Sculpting run in conjunction with Walsall College. “A skilled clay sculptor needs the ability to turn a 2D sketch into 3D life-size reality,” says Design Director Marek Reichman. “Clay sculpting remains an integral part of the design process at Aston Martin and is vital in helping the Design Team visualize future models.” Two apprentices will be recruited this year.

The clay modeling profession is nothing new. It’s been around for a long time and will likely continue despite the increasing use of CAD. Numerous designers – from Maranello to Zotye – have stressed the importance of being able to fine-tune a surface by hand, giving it a human touch and achieving a level of refinement that simply cannot be matched by digital methods.

Watch Denise Kasper take us through her journey to becoming a clay modeler at Ford in the video above, and check out Damian Lottner’s story here.


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