Choosing The Right Material

Choosing The Right Material

Choosing the Right Material
By Kelly Fayton-Hrdy

Scenic Fabrication, at its core, is the realization of a designer’s vision. Ultimately, to produce the best version of that vision, a critical decision about material choice must be made early in the process. What is the best material choice for a given job? The team at ShowFab faces this question head-on every day and looks to push the boundaries of materials to produce showstopping results.

When diving into the topic of material choices for fabrication, we thought it would be fitting to sit down with our in-house expert Mike Riccio to help break down the critical first steps in picking out the right material for a successful product. As Director of the Technical Design Department at ShowFab Riccio is one of the first stops on a design’s journey through the fabrication process. With 24 years at ShowFab it’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two about the best practices when it comes to choosing the right material for the job.

In talking to Mike one theme kept coming up when discussing the art of material selection – a key starting point of choosing a material is to look to the end stage of a design’s journey through our shop-the scenic finish. Will the end product have an automotive paint treatment, metallic finish, woodgrain, or be heavily textured? These are critical details that must be considered at the beginning of the technical design process to guarantee that a designer’s vision can be fully realized.

The next lens often applied when delving into the realm of material choice involves the structure of a given unit. What do we need internally to support the finished product that a designer has depicted? Most of the time that structural decision goes down one of two paths – wood or steel construction. When asked about what types of projects belong on which path, Riccio put it in terms of certainty. A project that is best suited to the carpentry shop is one of “less certainty, one that is still thinking about what it might do with the rest of its day.” On the other side of the path, a project best suited for the metal shop is one “with certainty. Projects that know who they are.” This idea of certainty is an interesting mindset when considering the manipulability of wood vs the rigidity of metal fabrication.

Talking about materials that lend themselves to manipulation and malleability led to a discussion about the organic nature of some projects. We see all kinds of designs at ShowFab including those with sweeping curves, 3D free-form shapes, or layered textures. The best approach in Mike’s eyes when faced with an organic shape is to “envision material choices initially from the perspective of thickness. Do [we] have to design as a frame with a skin or does the skin itself need to act as the structural armature?” From there we can start to break down whether or not a unit is a suitable candidate for wood fabrication or if we need to look to other techniques to get the job done.

This way of thinking can help lead to another crossroad of material choices – 3D Printing or foam milling. ShowFab has both routes of machine-assisted fabrication at our fingertips, and it can be tricky to know when to use one or the other. Mike’s thoughts were that “these technologies represent an interesting contrast of approach to design, one being subtractive, the other additive. Knowing this, as a technical designer, is key in understanding when one might make a better choice than the other.” He went on to add, “I think if you have a complicated shape, one that cannot be flattened or is just not developable, then 3D printing is maybe the best candidate.”


One of ShowFab’s greatest tools in material choice is to look back on previous jobs and replicate past successful selections. ShowFab is also constantly investing in new technologies to help open new material choices to build up our arsenal of fabrication techniques. Mike spoke to the importance of this dichotomy by going even further to call on the importance of the past in our technical design decision process:

“Personally, I like to design looking for tomorrow, but confident that I know what was behind me. I love to explore how something might have been accomplished 100’s to 1000’s of years ago. Knowing where we came from, studying and practicing the historic methods of making help me to design in a translation, old tech to new tech … that sort of thing. I think it is invaluable for a fabricator to have familiarity with how things were accomplished, could have been accomplished, and may yet still be accomplished. Materials tell this story inherently. When you build something, you begin a conversation with these materials and tools, and more often than not, that conversation has happened countless times before. Knowing that helps inform new ways to confer with methods of approach and grounds the designer and fabricator.”

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