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Creating a Barber Chair in Maya, ZBrush, Substance 3D & UE5

Kevin J. Coulman has shared the working process behind the Barber Chair project, detailed how the prop was modeled in Maya and ZBrush, shared tips on making accurate materials, and explained why UE5 was chosen for rendering.


Hello, my name is Kevin and I’m a 3D artist from New York. I got into 3D while studying illustration at Ringling College of Art and Design and have been hooked ever since. This was my first time showcasing a prop that I modeled, lit, and textured entirely from scratch in Unreal! In this breakdown, I will explain the process I implemented in order to produce my barber chair. I hope you find my approach applicable to your own workflow.

The Barber Chair Project

I started the project as a planned hero asset for a barbershop environment piece that I made for an Unreal modular kit class. I was inspired by the beauty of old Koken barber chairs from the early 1900s and built my scene from there. Since my subject is associated with a specific era, I needed to really study what would and wouldn’t be found at the time. For example, the wood used for the chairs was oak so I made sure my materials matched my reference.

Research and reference collecting is probably the most crucial step in replicating a historically accurate piece. I made sure that the time period for each element of the chair was consistent. Another critical detail was the Koken brand. The chair had signature ornate features on the footrest that made it iconic. Features like this, ground the prop in reality. In order to keep track of all my references, I used the imageboard program called PureRef to store my images in an organized fashion. A lot of the photos came from antique websites and eBay.


The modeling of the chair started with a simplified block out of the hard surface wood and cushions, which were produced in Maya. Then the meshes were brought into ZBrush to add leather creases as well as wear and tear. Marmoset Toolbag 4 was used for baking my high poly meshes. The cushions were made by smoothing each vertex where the buttons would be and then welding the points to get my diamond-shaped extrusions.

As for the footrest, I followed my reference exactly and blocked it out to a tee. For the Koken lettering, I found a font similar to the one that was used, went into Adobe Illustrator, vectorized it, then extruded it in Maya. At this time, I moved on to ZBrush to get my high poly. I divided my cushions and wood meshes so I could use alphas and brushes to make imperfections and folds. After that, I went back and pushed the leather wrinkles further by hand to really exaggerate the form. The biggest challenge was baking the cushions as it took patience to get them to bake right on the low poly. I found tweaking the cages in Marmoset quite effective. After getting the bake I was looking for I could then move on to texturing. 


For the chair’s topology, I started off with a lower poly asset. Later I felt limited by the geometry of my cushions, so I chose to change my plan and make my chair a nanite asset. This made baking far more ideal as the silhouette would read better with a higher poly mesh. However, I made sure to have my UVs in good shape before smoothing my meshes to make them easier to unwrap. This applies especially to the wood direction because the maps need to layout in the same direction for texturing.


Substance 3D Designer was used when texturing the asset. I used my photo references to match the wood, leather, and brass textures. Once I got the materials looking to my satisfaction I took them in Substance 3D Painter to create further breakup in base color, roughness, etc. To make my materials, I really depended on my photo reference to get accuracy. It was important to see where parts of the chair would be more worn from use. In those areas that were worn, I made sure to add roughness to really sell it. 

For the small damaged parts like scratches, I painted them with the height maps in Substance 3D Painter. I also made two variations of the wood material: one varnished with a darker roughness value and base color and one unvarnished lighter in base color and roughness. I then would mask out areas where the varnish would come off to sell the treated oak’s authenticity. I also used generators to mask out where dust would gather on my prop.


I chose Unreal Engine 5 to render because I knew I could really take advantage of the capabilities of Lumen. My full environment would also be rendered in the same way and I wanted consistency. Unreal really helped push the presentation of this project.

I made use of both cameras, cinecameras, and some panning shots to reveal the chair in a more interesting fashion. I also would take quick screenshots and then go over to Photoshop to tweak. I would use that as a reference for my color correction in the post effects. This helped elevate my lighting and contrast in the scene.

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Barber Chair was an informative personal project I took on to push myself. I suggest trying one detailed prop for yourself. You will build both artistic confidence and be more sure of how to build assets in a time-effective way.

Don't be afraid to reach out to friends. It’s so important to have people around you that support you, have the same goals, and can be honest with you! We can’t see it all so insight is precious. Pursuing a project like this can be seen as a daunting task, so be sure to pace yourself, and enjoy the process. People can really see a difference when you enjoy a project versus just going through the motions.

Thank you 80 Level for this awesome opportunity and I hope there were useful tips taken away from my process!

Kevin J. Coulman, 3D Environment and Prop Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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