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How To Make Photorealistic Wood Textures For 3D Props

Denis Malakhov has walked us through the process of creating a hand saw, detailing modeling, texturing, and rendering pipelines, as well as shared some tips for aspiring artists.


Hello, I'm Denis, a 21-year-old 3D Artist with over 7 years of experience specializing in creating weapons, props, environments, and hard surfaces.

My journey into computer graphics began with the creation of mods for Stalker and Mount & Blade. I dreamed of being part of professional teams and creating mind-blowing video games.

 I also want to add that I'm a self-taught specialist. Everything I have learned is almost exclusively the result of my research and my curiosity. It's a real passion for me, I don't even feel like I'm working when I'm doing this. Texturing attracts me the most. This is the most creative part of the pipeline.

At the moment, I hold the position of Lead Weapon Artist on the ILL project, a narrative-driven first-person survival horror game. Additionally, I have my own Discord server dedicated to 3D graphics and its related aspects. On this server, I engage with subscribers on a regular basis and provide them with valuable resources. Also, I run my own online school where I teach people the intricacies of 3D graphics.

Some of the works from the people I mentor:

As a huge fan of 3D art, I always keep my knowledge up to date, digging new stuff, and techniques, trying it all out, and doing experiments. My main focus is props and weapons, this is what we do both in my personal project and at work and what I really love and try to push further. 

Some of the assets, which you can see on my ArtStation, were created for a large project by my team of like-minded people. Our team is creating an interactive museum of weapons on Unreal Engine 5. It will include a variety of weapons from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day.

Our main focus is to keep the high quality of each asset. In our team, there are both experienced professionals with a fair amount of experience in the industry and talented newcomers. If any of the readers are interested in taking part in such a thing, write to me on ArtStation. We use the following software: 3ds Max, ZBrush, Marmoset Toolbag, RizomUV, Photoshop, Substance 3D Painter, and PureRef.

References and Inspiration

Since I have been dealing exclusively with weapons lately, I wanted to do something different, some small prop in 2-3 evenings. My choice was a hand saw because it has a simple shape and very interesting materials.

The work began with the search for suitable references. With each individual asset that I need to create, everything usually starts with examining that particular object or similar assets. I am in no hurry to study the subject, and when I am satisfied with all the information I have managed to collect, I get to work. Globally, it is fashionable to divide references into two categories: references for modeling and references for texturing.

For modeling, we use references that help us understand the shape and proportions, and the mechanics of the asset that we make. For texturing, we can use photos and videos not only of the object we are making but also of other things with similar material. Expanding the circle of reference search helps to find very interesting details that bring their own unique story even for the simplest asset.

As for references, you can open Google and start searching. You can use the "search by image", explorer forums, trading platforms, and thematic websites. In my practice, all my students constantly neglect this activity at first. However, this is one of the most important stages in working with any materials, which will determine the result of all the work you have done. I can't help but mention the help with the references of my friend Alexander Ostrovsky.

Here are some of my references. As you can see, in addition to various saws, there are other tools with similar material. However, I had very few references, and I could not allocate enough time to search for them. Instead, I decided to create a new challenge for myself, to create the most realistic result, mainly relying on the library of personal observation and artistic expression.


Since the form and technical components of the asset are quite simple, I will focus in detail on texturing. I will tell you briefly about the other stages of the pipeline. I started this work by creating a dimensional model. I tried to make a model at once with a more or less good grid so that the overall model with minimal changes in topology could be used as a high-poly blank for a sculpture in ZBrush.


In nature, it is rare to find perfect shapes without distortion. A sculpture is one of the best tools to give realism to your model.

I recommend starting the sculpture with large details. The average patterns can be obtained procedurally through the noise in the brush. They add great detail, the main thing is not to overdo it and leave "vacation spots" without detailing at all. I do not recommend doing a fine texture in a ZBrush because it is much more convenient to do it in Substance 3D Painter. Also, such pipeline is not destructive, and you can change something at any time.

As a general rule, dirt tends to accumulate at the intersection of different parts of an object, and dust becomes trapped in certain areas. Therefore, creating smooth transitions between details also contributes to achieving a more realistic appearance.

Low-Poly and Unwrapping UVs

I make a low-poly model out of a block, adding additional sections and removing unnecessary geometry.

For the UV section, I would first set all my smoothing groups to the correct margins and surfaces, then I would relax the different UV islands and align them so that they are as straight as possible. There are a few rules to keep in mind when unwrapping:

  • Alignment of the shells along the axes. This helps to pack the UV more tightly, as well as avoid artifacts when baking.
  • You must unfold cylinders into straight pieces.
  • For optimization, the repeating elements can be positioned on the same UV coordinates, and you can also use symmetry on them.

This is just a small list of the most important rules. I advise you to take a look at the UVS made by professionals, analyze them, and then apply all the techniques to your own work. I will also note that for internal shells, I reduced the texel by 30% and sealed them.

The baking stage does not contain any secrets, everything is extremely ordinary.


At the texturing stage, I want to stop in more detail.
Texturing is a very important part of the creation process when it comes to 3D modeling. Often even a model that is very simple in geometry can be improved with textures. And even a perfect model can turn into the garbage because of poor texturing.

My practice of team management and teaching shows that it is important to correctly place accents in the information conveyed to people. Very often, beginners studying educational content first pay attention to the "specific sequence of actions" – that is, the technical part of the workflow – and overlook the conceptual component. This becomes evident when reviewing the portfolios of such guys. Typically, their portfolios include works created under the guidance of a tutor, which often differ in level from the artist's independent works. In other words, the artist was able to replicate the tutor's assets step by step and gained fragmented knowledge, but their overall skill level did not improve significantly. This is why it is often said that the most valuable thing one can receive from another artist is feedback – a well-organized, systematic analysis of their work. 

It is important to first understand why you are doing "this" and not just "how". This means recognizing the general pattern of the creative process and its dynamics. While working, various tasks constantly arise, and there are numerous of them. It is not productive to seek ready-made solutions for each one separately. Instead, it is more effective to establish a common understanding, formulate general principles, and apply them to specific examples. I will not delve into the process of achieving specific effects; rather, I will strive to provide you with conceptual ideas and an understanding of the reasons behind them. This will enable you to comprehend not only how a particular material was created, but also the underlying principles applicable to all materials found in nature.

Summing up what has been said, I will make a general conclusion – first of all, we must understand the essence of the process and, based on this, choose tools and working approaches. And by the way, you can use this approach not only in texturing.

Let's now move on to more substantive aspects of texturing. I want to draw your attention to the Color Map. In my opinion, the main texturing mistake made by many artists is insufficient detail in the Albedo/Diffuse Map. This part is crucial and it requires your full attention. Of course, when texturing, you need to constantly check the references and try to repeat what you see.

Of course, you can make various edits at your discretion, as long as they do not go against the logic of the overall project. Don't rely too much on procedural generation. Try to use individual masks and hand-painted techniques more often when necessary. This approach allows you to get rid of the feeling of soullessness and add more variety to the final result. I also try to add as much detail as possible to each effect, whether it's wood fibers or damage. Differences in the color of the albedo channel, and the inhomogeneity of the raffness violate the consistency, and this is exactly what real life is – inconsistency.

Practice is the criterion of the truth of theory, so I invite you to consider with me the most important stages of the work. Take for example the wood material that I made for the saw handle. The very first step is references. Yes, I will not get tired of repeating that any work begins with references. With the advent of experience and observation, you can reduce the number of references, but if you have the opportunity to study the references more closely, do not miss this opportunity. This will not only improve the current work but also contribute to your visual library, that is, it will help in the future. Now let's move on to the main point – understanding the logic of the sequence of construction of the material.

Globally, almost any material can be divided into larger, medium, and small patterns, basic material, and accent details. I always start working from small, creating microfactures. To begin with, we should create a basic material that will look self-sufficient without additional effects. The base material, as a rule, is responsible for small and medium patterns and carries correct physical properties. As long as there is no good base material, you should not take up work with damages and pollution. This is a big mistake. The base material is the foundation, on which you build a house. Without a foundation, the walls will fall apart, and the roof will leave. I advise you to make your life as easy as possible. If possible, a photo texture can be used as a basis for the base material click here or here.

It will also be cool if you take a picture of the appropriate material yourself, and then make a seamless PBR material from the photo. I recommend not to give up the possibility of creating your own library of assets. It can be not only your own photo textures but also alpha masks, smart materials, etc.

The same result can be obtained by generating the material procedurally but it is much faster and more convenient to use a suitable photo texture.

At the moment, the material looks pretty simple. There is detail in it, which can be seen from medium and short distances, but at a distance, everything merges into a solid fill. Therefore, it's time to take care of the formation of large patterns. On a tree, such patterns are often its layers.

Then you can start creating visual defects. For simplicity of notation, let's call them "gradients". In the screenshot below, I attached a color reference and its black-and-white version, on which gradients are clearly visible. I also attach the final version of my material next to it. As you may have noticed, I did not copy the shape and location of gradient spots on the asset.

It is important to understand the logic of the location of this effect and create your own interpretation. I will not dwell in detail on the step-by-step instructions for the formation of such effects. You can use both manual stencil painting and procedural generation. I try to make the basis for any effect procedural, so that, if necessary, I can easily make adjustments to the material with minimal processing thereof. Manual drawing with masks that can be made from photographs helps to give the final look to the result, but I would not recommend getting too carried away in this way since this is a destructive approach. Completely hand-drawn masks are difficult to edit, unlike their procedural counterparts. 


It is also important not to forget about the artistic dynamics of both the specific effect and the material as a whole. It is not enough to make the material only realistic, it is important to make it interesting at the same time. I have already said this and I will repeat it again because this aspect is very important. Don't be afraid to move away from the reference for the sake of achieving greater artistry because you are primarily an artist. You should be able to see the beauty in everyday things and be able to show all the beauty and visual richness of the material to an outside observer.

Let's talk about the damage. This is a very extensive topic, for ease of understanding, I will divide all the variety of possible damages into specific types.

The first thing that comes to mind with the phrase "damage to the tree" is, of course, the chipping of pieces of wood to its bare, inner part. With this type of damage, everything is very simple. We need to make an untreated clean tree. On the saw, such damages have a rather large shape. This is an accent detail that forms large patterns, which we started during the creation of the tree layers. Large chips, as a rule, affect the shape, so it's worth taking care of their creation at the high-poly stage. Only the totality of aspects works for the result. Without large patterns from afar, the material will turn into a continuous noisy filling, and without a small texture, on the contrary, it will "crumble". Do you feel that everything is interconnected?

If we are talking about fibers, then it is impossible not to single out the second type of damage. These are cracks in the cross-section of the handle. I made a mask for them during the formation of the tree layers. Now it's time to go back to this effect and highlight it as damage.

The third point is small chips of wood fibers. You may wonder: "Why not do more on the first type of damage?" And you will be right. It was really possible to do this, but I decided to highlight this damage as a separate item to achieve even greater variability of the material. If you look closely, the wood on small chips is much lighter than on large ones.

The fourth type of damage is scratches. Simple scratches that are not very striking but when carefully examined add more visual depth to the material, helping to better convey its texture.

The fifth and final point is the indentations. Unlike the four previous wear options, this type has virtually no effect on the physical properties of the material. It preserves all the outer covering of the wood, not excluding dirt. 

All of these types of damages are formed as a result of completely different types of impacts. I often come across a question from novice artists: "What else should I add to the material?" All this can be seen in the references. That is why I recommend studying them in the most detailed way.

Dirt and Dust

Although the dust is small, this is no less important detail. Realism can be achieved only if everything, even such trifles as dust, works for the result. If we are talking about dust, then it is worth considering that it is literally everywhere – in secluded places, in the air, on any, even the cleanest, surfaces. The difference will be only in its nature and volume.

Dust accumulates differently on different materials, but this does not prevent us from deducing general laws. It is worth understanding that if you are striving for a realistic and artistic result, you can and should divide dust into different types, like what we did with damage. If we continue to talk purely about theoretical and, to some extent, abstract things, then we can also add here that dust as a material is formed from large and small patterns.  As it is easy to guess, small patterns are the microfracture of dust, while large ones are the patterns of its accumulation.

It is also very important to understand the context of the use of the object, and it is from the context of use that we will begin a more substantive examination of dust on a hand saw.

The first point is that I usually start by creating large accumulations of dust. Such dust accumulates for a long time. Its thickness can reach several layers and almost completely overlaps the material on which it accumulates. This "type of dust" is formed in hard-to-reach places of the object, and by the way, the basic forms for it can often be set via dirt_generator.

The second point would be to single out single hairs of dust, but they would be almost unreadable on the wooden handle of the saw, so I decided not to do them. However, on metal or plastic, it would be a very interesting detail, perfectly complementing the overall picture. 

We started talking about dust, I mentioned the "context of the application of the object" for a reason. A saw is a carpenter's working tool. That is why it would be barbaric not to make traces of its use – wood shavings. The chip size depends on the consistency of the wood. That is, we can divide sawdust into two subtypes - small and large chips. I distributed several large sawdusts on the surface of the saw. This is an accent detail that helps to maintain a balance between small, medium, and large shapes.

The third point is small chips. It, like solid dust from the first point, usually accumulates in hard-to-reach regions. The only difference is that the sawdust will form mainly near the blade itself.

If desired, other types of pollution can be additionally distinguished. The more variable your texture is, the more vital it will seem. The main thing is not to overdo it, everything is poison and medicine, and only dosages are important.


I'm not going to talk about how important the presentation is and so on. It is a self-evident fact that it is not enough to make it beautiful, you also need to present it beautifully.

At the saw, I tried to demonstrate the materials first of all. I'm not a fan of using multiple light sources. Natural light is more pleasant, especially when it comes to wood. When rendering a hand saw, I used only HDRI without additional light sources. I like to use scans as a background. A properly selected scan allows you to immerse the asset in a thematically correct environment, which in turn creates the necessary atmosphere. It is important to monitor the texel density because it's not cool when the background is less clear than the asset, or vice versa.

It is always worth remembering that the model should be self-sufficient, look good, and without a well-adjusted light and a lot of post-processing. Render should not try to hide the shortcomings of your work.


In conclusion, I want to say an obvious, but no less important thing. Don't be afraid to redo your work several times if the result doesn't suit you. Study the references, try to highlight errors and shortcomings, and strive to correct them in the new iteration. Approach the process creatively, and remember that you are an artist, not a craftsman.

Thanks for your attention!

Denis Malakhov, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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