Hard Surface Sculpting

As ZBrush evolves that fast during the last three years, many artists came up with new and innovative modeling and sculpting techniques by using the new tools and brushes Pixologic invented. I tried to test some of these workflows myself, used a concept sketch of the amazing Andrew Ley (http://cghub.com/images/view/3730/) and made a 3d model out of it. To be honest, I was much more focused on testing the new tools and techniques than to create an exact copy of his sketch. For me it was important to develop a fast and efficient way for creating complex machinery parts. I started with a sphere, turned it into a dynamesh and began to block out some basic shapes. Claybuildup, TrimDynamic and HPolish brushes are of great help. When I was done with the concept I created a clean mesh on top of it with the ZSphere edit topology function. After creasing and subdividing the resulting mesh I was ready to add small details. Below is a rough tutorial that describes the work steps from primitive to the final model. All in all, the outcome is really nothing special at all but the basis for more complex and much more detailed stuff I think…

Hard Surface Modeling in ZBrush 3.1

The following models are made in ZBrush 3.1 a few years ago. Back then it required a little bit more preparation in an external 3d package but the intelligent use of the available brushes and mostly projection master already made almost everything possible. With the introduction of Dynamesh, a bunch of new polish brushes, Shadow Box, the enhanced transpose tool, tillable alphas, the insert mesh brushes, the possibility to create insert mesh brushes from almost every object, the decimation master plug-in and now the new Qremesher makes it possible to work solely in ZBrush, even for the most difficult tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I know it sounds like I’m doing advertising for Pixologic here but to be honest, I don’t know any other package out there where you are capable of doing such things…

Short Modeling Breakdown

1. Start with a simple sphere or any other ZBrush primitive and turn it into a dynamesh. The dynamesh resolution doesn’t have to be super high. A few thousand polygons are already more than sufficient to block out the basic form. For a more complex shape, turn on Shadowbox and draw the outlines of your object as masks on the Shadowbox planes, then convert the resulting mesh into a Dynamesh. You can also import your basemesh as an OBJ from an external package of course!

2. Use Move, Move Elastic, Clip and ClayBuildup Brushes to create basic shapes. The new transpose-tool features become handy for transforming the mesh. Redynamesh the geometry from time to time to make it easier to work with. If you would like to keep sharp edges during redynameshing, enable “project”. Also the symmetry mode works in conjunction with dynamesh. When you are done, increase the dynamesh resolution for the next step.

3. Make use of the TrimDynamic, HPolish, Smooth, Pinch and Flatten brush to straighten the planes. Edges don’t have to be super accurate – so don’t waste your time; it only serves as a concept mesh where we build the final mesh upon. At this stage you can already start adding details, like the lines I made, to get a feeling for the overall look. Be aware that we will lose these details again during the next step!

4. When you are happy with your concept mesh, append a ZSphere to the subtool palette and start retopologizing the object. Make sure to add poly-edges along the edges of your concept sculpture. Don’t spend too much time creating nice edge flows, because we are turning the resulting piece into a dynamesh again later on. Also triangles are no problem at all.

5. Use the fantastic Crease and Uncrease function, located in the Geometry tab to add hard edges where you need them by hiding parts of the mesh you don’t want to be affected. On your select tool, switch from rectangle into lasso mode to speed up your workflow when selecting polygons.

6. Subdivide the new piece of geometry until the surface looks smooth and no polygons are visible anymore. Then turn it into a highres Dynamesh again. Dynamesh will close all holes created during the retopologizing step. So it’s not even necessary to make sure that your recreated mesh has a closed surface.

7. Use the Clipping Brush to create straight planes and to get rid of any dispensable material. Don’t forget to dynamesh afterwards to get rid of the squeezed polygons. If needed, make use of the slice curve brush with dynamesh “polygroups” function enabled to cut the mesh into pieces when redynameshing. Use the transpose-tool to move the pieces apart.

8. Create custom alphas or use the still great projection master to add all sorts of fancy details. Have a close look at the alpha panel and the settings there. Take a look at the “GrabDoc” button (Alpha Palette/Transfer/GrabDoc). This feature captures the depth of the canvas as an alpha – very useful!

9. Finally, you can turn off dynamesh if you haven’t already. In case your design contains many different parts, use the decimation master plugin to reduce the polycount. You can easily convert the decimated object into a workable mesh later on by using dynamesh again with highres settings and “project” turned on. The next step would be to run the new Qremesher for creating a lowres mesh with subdivisions. With the help of UV master, you can create your UV’s, generate displacement and normal maps, export the mesh with maps and import it in your external 3d package of choice for rendering and presentation.

Interesting Links:

Mike A. Nash, please visit Mike’s website! He is a true hard surface sculpting master!!
Eat3d, they have published two hard surface technique DVD’s with tons of useful tips and tricks – recorded by Mike Jensen


  1. Min Jo says:

    You’ve comeback with a lot of interesting posting!

  2. Chris Wells says:

    wow, little tips like that make me want to just live in z-brush land forever…thanks for creating these!!!


  3. PROPHETTA says:

    Thank you for all new tutorials and stuff,they area really helpful!! WELCOME BACK! 😀

  4. jon says:

    you sir are awesome! i hope u never ever stop doing this for a living cuz a lot of your work is very inspirational to me and very helpful! thanks

  5. b2przemo says:

    very useful article, thanks for sharing workflow

  6. Aneesh Abdulla says:

    Thanks, a lot of helps here for me, for my friends.

  7. Brendan says:


    I want to do everything inside zbrush since it will be a lot faster then creating things in maya then zbrush.

    I was wondering do you do every one of you’re hard surface models in zbrush alone?

    Thank You

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  9. Gary Turton says:

    Just like to say thanks, this example of hard surface sculpting was of great help to me. I started modeling during the release of Lightwave 7 whilst ZBrush was in beta release 1.23b if i remember rightly i only recently picked up on using zbrush again recently after struggling to resist it as i have spent so long learning to hone my sub-d skillset i didnt want to abandon them but then i realized i can combine both but am a bit overwhelmed by the amount of tools now in ZBrush so clear and precise tutorials like yours are a godsend to me so thankyou for your kindness in sharing your knowledge and time to prepare this , keep up the good work , people like me are out here and in dire need of this kind of tutorial. thankyou. Gary,

  10. Arshpreet Singh says:

    i know hou qremesher works but not in case of hard surface my basic question is that whats the way To make it animateble

  11. Willow says:

    Hey,Thank you so much for this tutorial.It’s very helpful for me,but I still got one question.(English is not my mother tongue,hope I can express myself well.)

    It seems like you used the Topology tool in the retopology part,I’m wondering if there is some more effective and controllable way to solve this question.U know,ZB has envoled so fast these years,I have updated my ZB to 4R6,as far as I know,ZB has provided some more ways to optimize meshes,like ZRemesher and Decimation Master.I’m not quite sure which one is more usable or in which way I can blend them,in order to keep the borders and do topology at the time.

    Thank you!

  12. Translation Services in Germany says:

    Thanks for finally writing about > blog topic < Loved it!

  13. Danny says:

    Hey dude,

    Great stuff and I am a fan of your work. I had come back here to click on the mike nash link and noticed the link takes you to a very NSFW website and also seems to be using Mike’s name logo header too. 0_o Wasn’t sure if you were aware or not.


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