Modeling in 3DS Max

Tools and Techniques

01. 3D Modeling Introduction

In this part of the curriculum we will be going over each step in the 3D process in more detail. You should use this document as a reference, not as a tutorial.


02. Breaking Down the Model

a. Why break down a model?

The most efficient way to create a 3D model is usually to go from general to specific. The simpler the model, the more influence each vertex will have over the final form, and the more likely that once detail is added it will be correct.

This is an ages-old concept taken from traditional art. Whether drawing, painting, sculpting, or 3D modeling, a common starting point is visualizing your desired end result as simplified forms. This ensures that proportion, scale, and shape are correct before adding in smaller details, thus reducing the chance that details which take longer to create are the wrong size or shape.

These drawings clearly show human figures even though they actually consist of cylinders.
The figure has been broken down into simpler parts.

b. How to break down a model.

We typically break down models into Primitives. 3DS Max offers many forms under the Basic Primitives heading, but most 3D models can be built from either a box, cylinder, sphere, or cone (which is essentially a tapered cylinder). To speed up the modeling process, before you even start modeling, think of which primitive most closely represents each piece of the model. As you learn more about these primitives and the modeling process, you will also want to consider the flow of edges on the different primitives.

After a model is constructed out of primitives, more detail will be added to create the secondary forms and finer details. As you’re blocking out primitives it helps to envision the mesh and edge flow that you will need for the secondary forms.

Some of 3DS Max’s Basic Primitives: box, sphere, cone, and cylinder.

c. Creating primitives and adjusting their properties.

Creating a primitive is where you’ll usually start first for modeling most objects.

To learn how to create and modify primitives, watch this video tutorial by LinkedIn Learning on Youtube. This video will teach you the basics of everything you need to know to get started creating objects in 3D space.

If you would like a more in depth look at the Creation Panel (the panel you will use to create primitives and other objects) you can read Autodesk’s official documentation here. You can also read our documentation which gives a brief overview of what goes on in the Command Panel, including the Creation Panel.

There are many different Standard Primitives. Below on the left you will see the standard and most commonly used primitives in 3DS Max. For a description of these objects you can take a look at Autodesk’s documentation on the subject here.

There are also many different Extended Primitives, which you can see on the bottom right of this page. Most of these have very specific use cases, but you can read more about them on Autodesk’s help pages.

d. Examples of breaking down a model.

CSTD4951 primitive breakdown and secondary forms

Another example of secondary forms drawn over a photograph

03. Adding Reference Images to Your Scene

It is crucial to refer to reference photographs periodically throughout the modeling process, especially when photorealism is the goal. The more reference photos and the higher resolution they are, the better. It’s even more helpful if you have these images in front of you while you’re working in 3D. There are two ways to do this.

a. Set a reference image as a Viewport Background.

Applying a reference image as a Background will make sure that the image always stays behind the model.

In the Viewport you wish to add a background to, press Alt+B to bring up the Viewport Configuration Window. Select the “Background” tab, then select on the “Use Files:” option. Afterwards, click the “Files” button next to the text entry field and browse to and select your desired reference photo then click “Open.” Afterwards, make sure that the “Match Bitmap” option is also checked under Aspect Ratio. This will make sure that the image is not stretched.

For more information on this feature you can check Autodesk’s official documentation.

b. Apply a reference image to a plane as a texture.

An alternative method to the above process is to apply the reference image as a texture. The benefit of applying an image to a plane is that you can move the plane around later if you need to.
Video Tutorial: Setting Up Reference Images in 3DS Max (PluralSight Creative)


04. Basic Editing Concepts – Transforms and Pivots

a. Transforming 3D geometry.

Once you have set up your reference images and created primitives it’s time to start modifying them! The most basic way of modifying 3D geometry is with transforms.

Transforms refer to moving, scaling, and rotation an object. These tools work by transforming the object on one or more of the three available axis in 3D space: X, Y and Z.

For more information on each of the standard transforms, see Section 02.01 Subsection 09 of this course. Below are some helpful links that give an overview of each of these tools.

We recommend watching at least the video if you are brand-new to 3D modeling in a program like 3DS Max. Credit for the following links goes to Autodesk.

Video: Move and Select Objects

Documentation: Moving, Rotating, and Scaling Objects

Documentation: Using Transforms

Documentation: Using Transform Gizmos

Documentation: Transform Type-In

b. Pivot points.

When modifying objects you will often need to be aware of its pivot point.

The pivot point is the location in 3D space around which an object transforms. When you create a new Primitive, its pivot point will either be at its exact center, or else at its center on the X and Y axes and its base on the Z axis, depending on the Primitive.

Pivot points themselves can be transformed. Moving and/or rotating a pivot point is often necessary, however scaling a pivot point is not recommended. Pivot points cannot be animated.

In the image to the right, we can see the effect of moving the pivot point and then translating an object.

The green cylinders have pivot points in their centers.

The purple cylinders have the pivot point at their base.

This behavior occurs because even though the sam e translations are being applied to each cylinder (one cylinder of each color is being rotated and one cylinder of each color is being scaled), the difference in their pivot point location is changing the effect of the translation.

For more information and a video tutorial on defining pivot points in 3DS Max, please view this video from Autodesk.

05. Modifying and Shaping Geometry

After you’ve created your object and used the transform tools to position it, you will need to shape it and start adding detail.

Modifications to geometry in 3DS Max that are not simple transforms is done through the Modify panel or the Ribbon. To become truly skilled with 3DS Max you must learn to both manually edit geometry and use different Modifiers to accomplish your goals.

Modify Panel:

The Modify Panel lists all the modifiers applied to an object, allows you to change each modifier’s properties, and also has many modeling tools under the Edit/Editable Poly Modifier(s). Autodesk documentation has a lot of information on this panel at this link (Autodesk). Each sub-section has valuable information.

Modifiers in 3DS Max are applied from bottom to top – so edits and changes made at the bottom of the stack effect all the modifiers on the way up.

For a basic introduction to using modifiers watch this video from Autodesk’s Getting Started series. Afterwards, you can learn about modifier dependencies and the bottom-up behavior by watching this video from LinkedIn Learning.

The Ribbon:

When an Edit Poly modifier is applied to the object the modeling tools below will appear at the top of the workspace. It contains most but not all of the tools available in Edit/Editable Poly, and some additional ones that are not in the Edit Poly modifier.

For a basic introduction to editing geometry directly take a look at this 1 minute video from Autodesk.

Once you’re comfortable with the basics then this video from Autodesk will dive deep into a lot of the most commonly used direct editing tools, such as Extrude, Bevel, Inset, Duplicate Geometry, Bridge, Ring, Loop, Connect, Chamfer, Constraints, Weld, Target Weld, Swift Loop, and topology tips.

06. Selecting Objects and Sub-Objects (Advanced)

a. Sub-Object Selection

When 3D modeling we deal with meshes that can have thousands of polygons. It’s a huge efficiency gain to be able to quickly select the pattern of polygons or edges that you want to manipulate.

The two most important patterns to know are loops and rings.

Edge loop = series of edges connected end-to-end. Select by double-clicking an edge.
Edge ring = series of adjacent parallel edges. Select by shift-clicking an edge parallel to currently-selected edge

One benefit of keeping meshes all quads is it makes patterns of loops and edges easier to follow and control.

Growing and shrinking are important ways to manipulate sub-object selections. Growing selects all sub-objects adjacent to the currently-selected sub-object. Shrinking de-selects the sub-objects at the outermost area of the current selection. Under the Edit Poly modifier (or Editable Poly object type) Selection rollout, there are buttons for Grow and Shrink available if you’re in a sub-object mode.

Another crucial sub-object selection method is converting from one sub-object type to another. This selects all sub-objects of the type you convert to that use the selected sub-object that you’re converting from. For example, if you have a quad mesh and select one vertex and convert that selection to polygons, you now have 4 polygons selected, with only 2 clicks instead of 4. Convert selection types by control+clicking on the sub-object type that you want to convert to under the Selection rollout of the Edit Poly modifier (or Editable Poly object).

For a video tutorial on all the different options you can use for these very useful selection methods follow this link from LearnCG.

Autodesk’s 3DS Max documentation on converting from one selection type to another, different selection modes and more can be found here.

b. Using the Scene Explorer, Selection Options and Selection Groups

The Scene Explorer is a powerful tool in 3DS Max and will give you a filterable list of every object and item in your scene. You can use it to select objects without having to click on them directly in your scene.

For an overview of the Scene Explorer and the multiple selection options in 3DS Max, view this tutorial from Autodesk’s 3DS Max Getting Started series.

This video will go over most of the core fundamentals of selecting objects and using the Scene Explorer but in case you want more detail you can read the following help documents from Autodesk:

Introducing Object Selection

Basics of Selecting Objects

Selecting by Region

Using Named Selection Sets

Using Selection Filters

Scene Explorer

08. Common Tools, Techniques, and Modifiers

Now that we’ve seen the tools and settings for each sub-object type, let’s look at some of the most useful frequently used tools.

a. Shift+click+drag open edge extrusion modeling.

You can extrude open edges by selecting them, holding Shift, and then clicking and dragging using the Move, Rotate, or Scale tool. You can only do this for border edges – edges that have an open hole on at least one side. You can do this from Edge sub-object mode or Border sub-object mode. This is a fast way to block out a mesh. But be careful not to add in too much detail to soon. It’s still best to start with a simple low-polygon mesh.

The shape below was created by starting from a plane, selecting the top edge, and creating the next 7 faces by shift+click+drag extruding each edge in the direction of the green arrows.

The first two minutes of this Topology and Tools Review video by Arrimus 3D give a good overview of this technique.

Another simple example of open edge extrusion modeling can be seen starting at 2:30 in this video by Joel Duffield.

b. Editable Poly Tools and Settings

The Autodesk 3DS Max documentation on Editable Poly Settings has links to separate pages on many of the commonly used modeling tools and their settings. Particularly useful are Bevel, Bridge, Chamfer, Connect, Extrude, Inset, and Weld. Videos in the “Subdivision Modeling” section of this guide will show these tools in action. All links are credit: Autodesk.

Bevel: A 20” x 20” x 20” cube with one polygon beveled at Height 10” and Outline Amount -5”

Bridge: An internal bridge (left) and an external bridge (right), the latter connecting two elements [3]


  1. Original edge selection
  2. Quad Chamfer (Segments=2; Tension=0.5). The new polygons at the corner are all quads.
  3. Standard Chamfer (Segments=2). The new polygons at the corner are quads and triangles.

Connect: The green edge ring was selected, then Connect was used to create the red edge loop.


  1. Group
  2. Local Normal
  3. By Polygon


  1. Group
  2. By Polygon

Weld: When the vertices of the shape at the left are welded at a threshold of 2” this results in the shape at the right.

c. Tools With Their Own Modifiers

Some Editable Poly tools have their own self-contained modifiers with non-destructive settings that can be tweaked on the fly.


  • You can toggle each mesh edit on and off using the modifier visibility icon
  • You can change settings after the geometry is edited.


  • A larger modifier stack can increase lag
  • A larger modifier stack can increase likelihood of changing a selection or setting in one modifier that breaks the edits in another modifier

Face Extrude Modifier (3ds Max documentation)

  1. Select face(s) to extrude
  2. Add Face Extrude modifier and adjust parameters

Chamfer Modifier (3ds Max documentation)

The Chamfer modifier has mostly the same settings as chamfering edges, but the settings can be changed in the modifier afterward. If you add a Chamfer modifier while in Edge sub-object mode, the chamfer will only apply to the selected edges.

d. Common Useful Modifiers

Here are some common useful tools that are accessible only through their own modifiers. Videos in the “Subdivision Modeling” section of this guide will show these tools in use.

Bend modifier: This is useful for simple and even deformations that would look imperfect if attempted manually. You usually need dense topology in order for a smooth-looking bend.

Twist modifier: This twists an object about the chosen pivot point and axis. A single Twist modifier can be used on multiple adjacent objects to twist them about a single point. An example is creating a braided or corkscrew look. The twist modifier will default to using the object’s pivot point as the point to twist around. You can move this point in the Gizmo sub-object of the Twist modifier. If you select multiple objects and apply the Twist modifier, it will use the center of your selection as the point to twist the objects about. This is depicted below.

Push modifier: This modifier essentially inflates a mesh. It does not add geometry, but it moves existing polygons outward. If there is a sub-object selection, then the modifier will affect only the selected sub-objects. The Push modifier is useful when objects need to be scaled larger but stay in the same position in space, such as making piping on a sofa wider. The scale tool results in the object being moved to the wrong position, whereas the Push modifier keeps it in place.

Shell modifier: The Shell modifier, like the Push modifier, inflates a mesh outward. Unlike the Push modifier, the Shell modifier creates additional geometry, giving a mesh an inner and outer layer of polygons. If there are open holes in the mesh, the Shell modifier will bridge polygons across these, so that the cross-section of the mesh is visible. There are UV unwrapping options for these faces under “Edge Mapping.” The Shell modifier is useful for creating volumes out of planes, such as thin objects like towels or bedding. It’s also useful for creating thin surfaces such as glass lampshades – you will see later in the materials section that in order for V-Ray to properly calculate light passing through refractive surfaces, those surfaces must have thickness to them like they do in real life.

Noise modifier: The Noise modifier offsets vertices in the X, Y, and/or Z direction based on parameters you pick. This is a good way to add random-looking variation to make surfaces look more realistic and not quite so perfect. This works well for subtle variation in surfaces like cloth or upholstery. This effect usually requires a fairly dense mesh in order to affect vertices without causing irregular shading.

Symmetry modifier: The Symmetry modifier can mirror a mesh over a plane, slice a mesh, and weld vertices along a seam. It speeds up modeling by enabling you to model only half of a symmetrical object, for example modeling the right half of a sofa and then mirroring it to create the left half, and welding the vertices to make it seamless. The Symmetry modifier will default to mirroring over the mesh’s pivot point. But if you select multiple meshes and add a Symmetry modifier, it will use the center point of that selection as the point to mirror over. To change the location of this point, click the plus sign to roll out the sub-objects of the Symmetry modifier in the modifier stack, select “Mirror” sub-object, and move it where desired.

07. Sub-Objects and Tools in the Edit/Editable Poly Modifiers

When you are in the Edit Poly modifier you will find that each Sub-Object type (vertices, edges, bordes, polygons, and elements) will have their own context-specific tools. Some of the more commonly used tools to note are: Extrude, Inset, Chamfer, Cut, Connect, and Collapse. Most of these tools will be common across every sub-object mode.

a. Vertices (Keyboard Shortcut: 1)

Vertices are the simplest object when it comes to editing 3D models – they are literally just a single point in space.

For a basic guide on all the options available when editing vertices, take a look at this video by ArchitectureDaily.

A longer and more detailed look at the edit vertex tools can be found in this video by Arrimus 3D.

Finally of course there is always the Autodesk Help Documentation.

b. Edges (Keyboard Shortcut: 2)

Edges are a straight line with a vertex at each end. They can be selected individually and moved around.

One of the most efficient ways of modeling is selecting a series of connected edges (an “edge loop”) and performing a modification to it. The tutorial from “Sub-Object Selection” previously in this document gives a good overview of this behavior.

This tutorial from ArchitectureDaily gives a brief overview of edges in 3DS Max, while this one from Arrimus 3D gives a much more in-depth look.

There is also Autodesk’s Help Documentation.

c. Borders (Keyboard Shortcut: 3)

Borders are any edge of a polygon that does not have another polygon attached to it. The borders selection mode is a shortcut for selecting these open areas. With the borders rollout you can perform a number of functions including “Cap”, which will automatically seal the border with a polygon.

More information on this function can be found in Autodesk’s Help Documentation on border select.

d. Polygons (Keyboard Shortcut: 4)

Polygons are the faces of the mesh themselves and are often what you apply tools like extrude and bevel to.

This basic tutorial by ArchitectureDaily gives a good overview of the Polygon select mode and edits.

There is also the more advanced tutorial by Arrimus 3D and the Autodesk Help Documentation on this feature.

e. Elements (Keyboard Shortcut: 5)

Elements are connected sets of polygons that form a single unit within an object. The Autodesk Help Documentation on polygons and elements has more information.

f. Edit Geometry Panel

The Edit Geometry panel contains tools that are applicable to all sub-objects, regardless of what mode you are in. It’s a rollout that appears below the Edit Vertex/Edge/Polygon/Element rollout.

There are two in-depth tutorials from Arrimus 3D that you can watch to learn about the controls in this panel. They are very useful throughout the modeling process, especially “Attach” and “Detach”.

Video (Arrimus 3D): 3D Modeling Tutorial #13 – Edit Poly: Edit Geometry Part 1

Video (Arrimus 3D): 3D Modeling Tutorial #14 – Edit Poly: Edit Geometry Part 2

Autodesk also goes over the tools in this panel in their help documentation.

09. Tools Exclusive to the Ribbon

Some modeling and selection tools, such as Swift Loop and Select Similar, are only available from the Ribbon at the top of the interface. Some tools, such as Connect and Cut, are available in the Ribbon as well as in the Modify Panel under the Edit Poly modifier or Editable Poly object.

The buttons for modeling tools in the Ribbon only show up if the corresponding type of Object or Sub-Object is selected. For example, under the “Modeling” tab, the Modify Selection and Edit panels only show up if an Editable Poly(gon) is selected. Under the “Selection” tab, none of the buttons show up unless you have an Editable Poly(gon) selected and you are in a Sub-Object mode.

There are many useful tools in the Ribbon. Below are links to some highlights. These tools are used in the videos in the Subdivision Surface Modeling section of this guide.

The Edit Panel of the Modeling Tab of the Ribbon (Link: Autodesk) has helpful tools, some of which aren’t available elsewhere, such as Swift Loop.

Another tool in the Edit Panel of the Modeling Tab of the Ribbon that’s not available elsewhere is Paint Connect, which lets you draw in edge loops by clicking and dragging. Turning on “set flow” will deform the new edges to follow the curvature of the existing mesh.

The Modify Selection Panel of the Modeling Tab of the Ribbon has useful ways of manipulating sub-object selections that are not available elsewhere, such as Step Loop and Dot Loop.

The Geometry (All) Panel of the Modeling Tab of the Ribbon has useful tools that act on various sub-object types. The tools available here will vary depending which sub-object type is active. Most of these tools are also available in Edit(able) Poly object/modifier. One tool new in the Ribbon is Quadrify. This selects or removes edges to convert triangle polygons to quad polygons.

The Cap Poly command is also available in the Geometry (All) Panel of the Modeling Tab of the Ribbon, when in Vertex, Edge, or Border sub-object mode. Cap Poly may create tris, quads, or n-gons, depending on the selection.

The Loops Panel of the Modeling Tab of the Ribbon has even more ways to create and connect edge loops, some of which are not available elsewhere.

Distance Connect creates edge loops between vertices and edges across other topology. [6]

Flow Connect is available when in edge sub-object mode. Similar to the Standard Connect command creates an edge loop through an edge ring selection. In addition, Flow Connect maintains the curvature of the existing mesh by bending the existing edges at the newly placed vertices, similar to the Set Flow option of the Pain Connect command.

Build End and Build Corner are great ways to automatically turn n-gons into quads. They can be used in vertex or in edge sub-object mode. [7]

The Freeform Tab of the Ribbon has many tools for drawing topology onto a surface and sculpting mesh surfaces, usually by clicking and dragging on the mesh. Most of these tools are only available when an Editable Polygon object (or object with Edit Poly as current modifier) is selected.

The 5 Conform brushes of the PolyDraw Panel conform the selected mesh to a target. You pick the target under a dropdown. There are three options for the target: the main scene Grid (XY plane at 0 on the Z axis), a separate target mesh, or the currently selected mesh.

The Step Build, Extend, and Optimize tools of the PolyDraw Panel have different methods of clicking and dragging on a surface to add, remove, and move topology on a surface, using alt, shift, and ctrl keys to modify the action.

The Create Geometry Tools of the PolyDraw Panel have different methods of clicking and dragging to create new geometry, using alt, shift, and ctrl keys to modify the action.

The Paint Deform Panel has various tools for sculpting on a mesh.

The Shift Move, Shift Rotate, and Shift Scale Tools of move, rotate, and scale the sub-objects of a mesh in screen-space, based on the size, strength, and falloff of a brush, rather than a specific sub-object selection like the standard move, rotate, and scale tools. These tools use parameters that are set in the Shift Options Panel, which will pop up when these tools are active, and can be pinned or docked.

The other various Paint Brushes of the Paint Deform Panel perform various actions when clicking and dragging on the mesh, and again use the ctrl, shift, and alt keys to modify the action. These brushes use the Size, Strength, and Offset brush parameters under the Paint Options Panel, which will pop up when a Paint Deform tool is active, and can be pinned or docked.

10. Parametric Modeling with Splines and Surfaces

These modeling techniques use curves and surfaces defined by control points rather than individual XYZ coordinates. These are powerful methods of creating seemingly complex objects quickly and easily.

Parametric models often start with a two-dimensional shape that uses modifiers or commands to make it three-dimensional. Shapes (also referred to as Splines) are found under Create → Shape. The Line shape is created and controlled much like the Pen tool in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. The other Spline Primitives, such as Rectangle, Circle, and
Ellipse, have pre-set initial creation parameters, much like the polygon primitives. To manipulate the Vertices or Segments of the other Spline Primitives like you can with the Line, add an Edit Spline modifier.

The Lathe modifier creates a geometric surface out of a two-dimensional Shape such as a line by rotating the line about an axis. By default the Lathe will use the line’s pivot point as the axis, but you can move, rotate, or scale the Lathe’s axis as a sub-object of the Lathe modifier.

The Extrude modifier adds depth to a shape and turns it into a parametric object. [8]

The Sweep modifier extrudes a cross-section along a spline path. You add the Sweep modifier to the spline path. By default, one of several pre-set Built-In cross-section profiles will be used. The Seep modifier includes a dropdown to pick the cross-section. Often it’s useful to use your own unique cross-section. In this case you also create the cross-section as a second spline. Again add the Sweep modifier to the spline path, click Use Custom Section under the Section Type rollout, click the Pick button, then select your desired cross-section profile in the viewport.

The Autodesk 3DS Max Modeling Techniques video on Modeling with Splines part 1 shows the basics on creating and manipulating splines, different types of points, and adding points.

The Autodesk 3DS Max Modeling Techniques video on Modeling with Splines part 2 demonstrates how to use the Lathe and Sweep modifiers.

Splines can also be made renderable. This means that you simply use the tools for creating two-dimensional lines, but can toggle on the ability for them to have visible depth, rather than be an infinitely thin line. There are various parameters for the mesh density of their three-dimensional depth. This Autodesk 3DS Max Modeling Technique video demonstrates various renderable spline techniques.

Here is another video on the Basics of Spline Modeling, from Autodesk’s 3DS Max Learning Channel.

11. Subdivision Modeling

a. Introduction to Subdivision Modeling

Subdivision modeling is crucial for creating complex models quickly. The idea is to use a simple low-resolution proxy mesh to create and control a subdivided smoother mesh.

By viewing the high resolution mesh while editing the low resolution mesh, you can affect many vertices by editing fewer vertices. This makes large changes easier, reduces the chance of creating pinching or wrinkling, and keeps good helps keep good topology since most subdivision methods convert tris and n-gons to quads.

View this Overview of Subdivision Surfaces video from Guerilla CG for a great rundown of the basic concepts.

This Multisided Polygon video from Guerilla CG demonstrates the importance of good topology.

b. Modifiers for Subdivision Modeling

In 3DS Max, there are a few different modifiers that can create a subdivided smoother mesh from a less dense mesh. The easiest to use is the TurboSmooth modifier. Here is a video from 3dmotive on Practical Application of TurboSmooth in 3DS Max.

Here is the Autodesk 3DS Max documentation on the TurboSmooth modifier.

Here is the Autodesk 3DS Max documentation overview on Subdivision Surfaces.

In addition to the TurboSmooth modifier, we can also use the OpenSubDiv Modifier to smooth lower resolution meshes. OpenSubDiv has additional options.

The 3DS Max documentation also lists information on the MeshSmooth modifier. We do not use the MeshSmooth modifier. It has essentially been replaced by TurboSmooth and OpenSubDiv.

c. Subdivision Modeling Demonstrations

This Topology and Tools video from Arrimus 3D demonstrates how to use tools we’ve already learned in conjunction with a TurboSmooth modifier to quickly create detailed shapes. This covers: Swift Loop, Connect, Inset, Bevel, Symmetry, Turbosmooth, toggling “show end result” of subdivision smoothing on and off, setting hotkeys, shift click-drag open edge extrude, weld incidental vertices, keeping quads topology, constraining sub-object transformations to edge and face, set flow, vertex normals, make planar.

This video from 3dmotive demonstrates how to maintain good topology while extruding or insetting a circle on any surface, by using the loop tools.

d. Topology and Edge Flow

There are certain arrangements of vertices, edges, and polygons that are more or less desirable for creating certain shapes. The way the vertices and edges are placed to create the mesh surface is called topology.

TurboSquid provides a comprehensive topology glossary with images.

This hard-surface topology reference archive shows the low-resolution topology to use to create a subdivided smoother shape, and what the result looks like. This images were originally posted on

e. Smoothing Groups and Normals

Smoothing Groups in 3DS Max control where light transition smoothly across edges, and where there’s a hard break in lighting direction between edges. [10]

A key concept of 3D modeling is normals. Normals are invisible rays that point out perpendicular from a vertex or surface. Normals determine what direction a polygon is facing. This image from the 3DS Max documentation demonstrates that the angle of a normal changes based on the angle of the polygon, and that we can see the normals are pointing outward, which is what we usually want. Smoothing Groups affect normals, and Normals affect Smoothing Groups.

This 3DS Max documentation explains how to view and change smoothing.

This 3DS Max documentation explains how to adjust normals and smoothing.

See the “Polygons: Smoothing Groups rollout” section of the Editable Poly (Polygon/Element) documentation for more information on how to control smoothing groups.

Sometimes we end up with normals pointing the opposite direction of what we want. We can flip the normals by using the Normal modifier.


f. Mesh Density

It’s ideal to use as few polygons as possible to accurately represent any given form.

Creating a model by starting with a simple block in and slowly adding detail usually makes editing the model easier and results in a more accurate final form.

In many situations it is ideal to keep relatively consistent polygon size. The caveat is that it’s not a good idea to add unnecessary polygons only for the sake of keeping polygons the same size.

There are some specific circumstances in which it is indeed desirable for meshes to be denser, such as using displacement maps or vertex painting.

12. Collapsing the Modifier Stack and When

Modifiers are very powerful but when used incorrectly can make a model very difficult to edit. Follow the rules below for good Modifier behavior. For more explanation definitely check out this presentation.


  1. Editable Poly should be at the bottom of the modifier stack. Primitives are OK. Editable Mesh is not allowed.
  2. Subdivision modifiers should never be collapsed: HSDS, MeshSmooth, OpenSubdiv, Quadify Mesh, Subdivide, Tessellate, TurboSmooth.
  3. Use the Symmetry modifier, be careful with the Mirror Tool.
  4. Unwrap UVW can be used above a subdivision modifier, but only to Relax the UVs. Any other edits may be removed without warning.
  5. Make fur with the VRayFur object. Hair and Fur (WSM) modifier should be rarely used, and should never be collapsed into mesh.
  6. For displacement use the VRayDisplacementMod modifier. Instance the map into the Displacement channel of the material, and set the channel to 100.

13. Miscellaneous Tips and Techniques

a. Working with Copies, Instances, and References

There are multiple ways to duplicate objects in 3DS Max.

A copy of an object looks just like the original object, and contains the same modifier stack and sub-object selections. A copy is not linked to the original. They can each be edited completely independently.

An instance of an object looks just like the original object, and contains the same modifier stack and sub-object selections. An instance is linked to the original. Transforming sub-objects, adding or deleting geometry, and adding or deleting modifiers of one instance will have the same effect on the other instance. The only way instances are independent of each other is transforming them at the object level – they can each occupy their own place in space, and be rotated or scaled differently.

A reference is something like a hybrid of copy and instance – everything from before the object was referenced is an instance, and everything after the object was referenced is a copy. This division is indicated by a horizontal gray bar in the modifier stack. Additionally, each modifier below the gray bar is displayed in bold, indicating that it’s an instance.

This is the Autodesk 3DS Max documentation on Creating Copies, Instances, and References. Each of the sub-sections under here contains additional useful information.

This video from Arrimus 3D compares copies, instances, and references. See 1:10 to 2:06.

b. Perspective Matching

Often when modeling a real-world object that has a complicated shape, it’s difficult to match the proportions exactly. If we have photos of the object that are perfectly straight-on, we can use them as reference for the front, side, and top viewports. If we have photos from non-straight-on perspectives that we want to match, we can use the techniques in this video for setting up a viewport to match the perspective from a photo.

c. Soft Selection

Soft Selection allows us to transform or modify objects with a falloff effect between the vertices of the object, so that certain vertices are transformed to a greater degree than other vertices. This can be as simple as moving one vertex, with soft selection turned on, so that the surrounding vertices move with it, but not quite as far, creating a curve or bubble in the surface. It can also be as powerful as making a sub-object selection with Soft Selection turned on, then adding a modifier such as Bend or FFD, so that the changes of that modifier also falloff with the Soft Selection. Here is the Autodesk 3DS Max documentation on the Soft Selection Rollout.

d. Collapse Multiple Objects to Single Object

We’ve seen that within an Edit Poly modifier under the Edit Geometry rollout, we can attach multiple meshes. But sometimes this is tedious when we want to attach many meshes. An alternate method is to select all the meshes we want to attach, and then use the Collapse Utility under the Utilities Panel.

e. Path Deform

Path deform is a powerful way to create multiple objects and have them follow a complex path without having to manually place them. This video from 3dmotive shows how to use the PathDeform modifier to create links along a chain.

This Autodesk 3DS Max PathDeform tutorial video shows additional uses for the Path Deform modifier.

Here is the Autodesk 3ds Max documentation on the PathDeform Modifier.

f. Set Flow

We touched on the Set Flow options earlier. In this video from Arrimus 3D we see advanced techniques for bridging objects with Set Flow.

g. Create Shape

Previously we saw how to model by starting with 2D shapes and using modifiers and tools to turn them into 3D objects. We can also extract 2D shapes from 3D objects. See “To create a shape from one or more edges” under the Editable Poly (Edge) documentation.

h. Hotkeys

The more you learn about 3D modeling and the tools in 3DS Max, the more crucial it becomes to use hotkeys to speed up your workflow. This video from Arrimus 3D demonstrates many useful hotkeys.

15. Reference and Links

[1] DeMartin, J. (n.d.). Drawing Basics: 26 Free Beginner Drawing Techniques to Learn How to Draw. Retrieved from
Page 8 – Using the Cylinder to Draw the Human Figure

[2] Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Extended Primitives. Pulled from

[3] Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Bridge Borders/Polygons (Polymesh). Retrieved from

[4] Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Chamfer Vertices/Edges/Borders (Polymesh). Retrieved from

[5] Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Geometry (All) Panel. Retrieved from

[6]  Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Loops Panel. Retrieved from

[7] Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Loops Panel. Retrieved from

[8] Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Extrude Modifier. Retrieved from

[9] Imgur – esPhys. (2012, November 03). Hard Surface Topology Reference Archive . Retrieved from

[10]Autodesk 3DS Max 2016 Help Documentation – Adjusting Normals and Smoothing. Retrieved from