Visualize Your Idea: Build a Quick Model

Here’s a tip: If you have a design idea floating around in your head – a new deck, staircase, fence, arbor, etc… build a quick model from cardboard or balsa wood. You don’t have worry about being too precise or neat – it just helps to see your idea in 3-D so you can see it from various angles.

Below are a couple of prototypes we’ve made – as you can see we weren’t too worried about fine craftsmanship, but it gave us an excellent idea of how things would work together and what modifications to make to the final plan.

Back Deck/Stairs:


This prototype is made from thin corrugated cardboard. We used straws and toothpicks for the posts/railing system.


These stairs were complicated – we wanted a 2 level deck which then transitioned to stairs that cascaded down/out to the back yard. The prototype helped us visualize potential issues.

Finished Back Deck:

Kiosk for Church Entry:


We used balsa wood for this prototype – available at craft/hobby stores and hardware stores. It’s easily cut with an exacto knife and held together with hot glue. After we built this model, we decided to adjust the design by removing the 2x2s on the underside of the “roof” and to make the angled 1x4s shorter.

Finished Kiosk:


See more of Heidi’s artwork at Old Stuff. New Stories.

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7 thoughts on “Visualize Your Idea: Build a Quick Model

  1. How cool are you? I hope you keep those prototypes on a ‘Brag’ shelf somewheres too. It’s something I’ve never thought of but will really consider if I’m every hiring a contractor for a deck or fence because it’d be great to end up with the same vision. I really like the mitred frame work around the edge of your decking, it just screams ‘polished’ and so much nicer than running the lengths to the edge…gotta Pin that. What did you use on the wood to protect and maintain that gorgeous finish? Thanks for the tips, I can see by the finished project photo’s that it’s time well spent. Great post with photo’s from concept to finish, loved it. Happy New Year to you all!

    • Actually, I think those prototypes were filed in “garbage”, but at least we have the photos! Re. your question about the finish, I wish I could give you a good answer, but alas the 2 different finishes that we’ve used were both disappointing. The first was environmentally friendly deck finish that left a layer on top of the wood. After 1 year it looked bad. The second one we tried was Ship ‘n Shore, an oil-based waterproofing sealer. But I’ve been really disappointed in that too – after just 6 months, it is very grayed-out. I need to add a footnote to that post to that affect. SO, I need to go out and research some more options (when the weather gets nice again).

      • It is disappointing, agreed. We used many things on our decks over the years but ended up totally sanding it and re-staining it 3 times. I always wanted it to look great and hated the spots that were flaked away or scratch my furniture. We’ll most likely go with a composite decking material the next warping, pealing, sanding, staining and cool to walk on. Sounds good to me.

  2. Mockups can be very useful for visualizing projects and can identify problems/issues that wouldn’t occur to you until you see it in 3D. I’m an aerospace engineer and I’ve seen fancy prototypes (stereolithography) to fairly crude mockups made from particleboard and foamcore. I have a stash of carboard (from the backs of paper pads) in my desk should the need arise.

    Although there’s a steeper learning curve, 3D design software is also very helpful in making virtual prototypes. I use the free version of SketchUp,

    There are 3rd party plug-ins that can import standard sizes of dimensional lumber, so your design with 2X4s match the real world 2X4s. There are plug-ins that will lay out your designs on boards or sheets of plywood and then provide a cut list. SketchUp will also let you import locations from Google Earth, so if you model your house or yard, it will have the actual orientation, latitude, and longitude. That might sound esoteric, but SU does ray tracing and will show sun/shade for different times of day and days of the year.

    There are many online resources for learning how to use SU. SU has a blog with articles like this: You can virtually rearrange furniture and repaints the walls. Fine Woodworking has a blog about designing furniture with SU, Sketchucation,, is also a good source for information and has an active forum.

    3D Warehouse,, is a repository of 3D models that are free to download. Some manufacturers (appliances, furniture) have models of their products available for architects, interior designers, DIYers to visualize remodels or new projects.

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