Designers have been using clay models to fine-tune automotive shapes and design features for decades. Even in this age of advanced CAD and 3D design on powerful computers, the clay is still an important step. Clay brings the design from the virtual to the physical world, and sometimes what looks great on a computer screen doesn’t seem quite right when viewed by the human eye in a physical form.
In this modern age, the clay used for automotive sculpture is an industrial grade, oil-based clay that is reusable. Before a sculptor ever gets their hands on a new model, the basic shape is first milled via a CNC machine to give the automotive artists a starting point. From there designers and sculptors work together to refine the design in both scale models, and eventually full-size versions.
One of the keys to the clay process is the use of tape. Even in this age of 3D, CAD, and CNC machines, low-tech tape remains a key to the design process. Designers constantly evaluate a design as sculptors carve away at it, or in some cases even add clay to it. To communicate areas, and lines that the designers would like to see refined, or changed, designers lay tape lines on the model.
With the tape in place sculptors can then refine an area, until it meets that taped line. “Tape gives us a defined line that is like a carpenter laying a level line on a building,” says Ford Master Modeler Larry Pelowski. “So when the designers put tape on the model, there is no question what their intent is.”
Tape was even once used as a means for sketching drawings on large sheets of paper. Mylar tape could be manipulated and moved to create different shapes and lines on a paper drawing before it was ever rendered in the real world. Today large computer screens have mostly replaced those paper drawings.
Ford says they use about 155 miles of tape per year for the process. The oil-based clay also allows for paint, and metal finishes to be applied to the model once the shape is finalized, giving a final finished appearance to the project. The clay model sculpture, and the tape refinement process is done for every Ford design.