Designing Architectural Models for Laser Cutting in Inkscape




Introduction: Designing Architectural Models for Laser Cutting in Inkscape

Lets design simple architectural models in Inkscape, and use the designs to laser cut and fabricate simple models. Inkscape can be pretty tough to learn. There are lots of buttons, and some tricky interfaces to worry about. However, if we take it slow, experiment a bunch, we will have no issues. It'll take time and practice, but we will make awesome models!

Step 1: Download & Install Inkscape

We will be using Inkscape to make our designs. I'm working on OS X, so we'll focus on that.

  1. Head to the download page here:
  2. Follow the instructions on the page to install. This requires XQuartz & Inkscape to get up an running.
    1. Install XQuartz
    2. Reboot or log out then log back in.
    3. Move Inkscape into the Applications folder.
    4. Run Inkscape. The first boot up will take a few minutes.

Step 2: Configure Inkscape Document Settings

Lets tune up Inkscape to be a bit easier to use. Open up the document settings (File > Document Properties, or Cntrl + Shift + D), and define the default units and size of our page to 12"x20". This is the maximum size of our laser cutter.

Step 3: Import a Reference Image

The easiest way to get started with architectural models is to start with a reference image. Lets use a quick Google Search to find an image we can use as a reference. I am going to use one of my favorite buildings as an example; Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. I want to find an image of one of the sides of the building, straight on. Not from an angle. Once we find the image we want, we can simple copy and paste it into Inkscape. (Note that in Mac OS X, the copy and paste keyboard short cuts in Inkscape are Control + C and Control + V, not Command!)

Once we have it in, lets zoom in. Select the zoom tool (the magnifying glass icon, or Z for the keyboard shortcut) and then the 'Zoom to fit page in window' button (5 for the keyboard shortcut when the zoom tool is selected). Remember you can hover over buttons to get the description of the button if you are having trouble finding that button.

Step 4: Start Tracing Using the Bezier Pen Tool!

We are going to use the pen tool to trace out our image. This is the hardest step, so take your time.

The Pen Tool

The pen tool works by simple clicking from point to point. However, if you click and drag to add a point, you can curve the line created. There is lots of more features to the pen tool, it is incredible powerful, and tricky to master. It deserves its own guide itself. Here are a few resources to take a look at, even a game to play.

Inkscape FLOSS Manual Pen Tool Chapter

The Bezier Game

Inkscape: Guide to a Vector Drawing Program: Creating Paths

The best way however to master the pen tool is to simply play around. Keep trying, failing and retrying!

Select the pen tool by clicking the button, or pressing B for the keyboard shortcut.


Simply start tracing using the pen tool by click point to point. Rectangular structures are easy to follow the lines without creating curves.

Regarding Laser Cutting

Remember that these will be laser cut! Always be thinking about the lines you are drawing, and how they will be cut. All lines we draw during this point will be laser cut. Think about what the resulting shape will be!

Step 5: Tips & Tricks for Tracing

1. Zoom in and out often: Get in close when you need to with the + / - keys on your keyboard. Use the scoll bars to move about when you are zoomed it.

2. Hit escape to get out of drawing: If you mess up with a line, simply hit escape to give up on the line to start again.

3.Use lots of small shapes instead of one big one: We can combine multiple shapes later on, so make lots of smaller shapes to keep it easier to work with. Group those smaller peices as you go along to keep them together. (Path > Group)

4.Always remember the laser cutter: These models will be laser cut, so consider how these flat sheets will be assembled into the final model.

5.Copy and paste repeating elements: Sometimes if you need to create lots of something, like identical windows, the easiest thing to copy and paste one element to repeat them.

Step 6: Remove Reference Image, Add in Detailing That Will Be Engraved

We can add lots of detail to our pieces by creating lines of a different color. You can change the 'stroke' color to any other CYMK color. With the detail line selected, click Object > Fill & Stroke. A new sidebar will appear on the right. Click on the Stroke Paint tab in this new sidebar and adjust the color as needed.

The laser cutter dectects different colors and let us describe different powers and speed settings for each color. The result is that we can lightly engrave each of our detail lines and cut out our larger ones.

Step 7: Remove the Reference Image, and Clean Up.

Once we have all our lines, we can remove the reference image and clean up the lines. I like to just move the reference image out of the way so I can still refer to it later on.

You can also clean up multiple shapes using what we call boolean operations. We can use Union to join to shapes, or Difference to remove one shape from another. These tools are really useful, but take a bit of getting used to to understand what they do. Take a look at the image above that was taken from the Inkscape Advanced Tutorial.

Take some time to clean up and compare your lines to the reference image and see if there are any changes you should make.

Step 8: Export for Laser Cutting & Laser Cut!

Inkscape's default file format is SVG. This will work perfectly with our laser cutter. Simple save the file and submit the .SVG that is saved to be laser cut. Then, take it to the laser cutter, and run it.

Step 9: Assemble, Assess, & Redesign.

With your piece laser cut, go ahead and assemble them. Hot glue works well, thin super glue does not as it soaks into the chipboard easily. Take your time and build it up. Hand cut any extra little piece you might need like braces to make walls stand, or inside pieces to fill in windows or holes.

Once it is build, sit back and take it in. Does it look good? Does everything fit right? Are we missing anything? Any more detail we can add? Take time to really dig into all of the good and bad traits, and go back to the drawing board, or in this case, Inkscape.

Rinse and repeat. Design, cut, assemble, test, revise.

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    7 years ago

    There is something so fascinating about models! Thanks for sharing your very first instructable! Great job! Can't wait to see more from you!