Map it as a whole.
Every “break the model up and flatten it” tutorial I’ve seen is made by someone who doesn’t know how to use UVW Unwrap.
Basically, drop a UVW Unwrap modifier onto your editable poly/mesh (Make sure the object isn’t in sub-object mode – the name in the modifier stack should be in grey, not yellow, click it if it isn’t) and then hit the [+] button next to UVW Unwrap in the modifier tab. click “select face” so its in yellow, and click edit map, so that you get the unwrap window open. move that out of the way of your perspective window, and select all the polys in the unwrap window and move them out of the blue box (they should be a mess, ignore that).
Now select co-planar or mostly co-planar polys in the perspective window, and hit the “planar map” button in the bottom right. “average normals” should be selected.
In your unwrap window, you should see those polys planar projected into the blue box. Move them out of the way, not on top of anything else, and repeat this until you don’t have anything left in your jumbled mess you moved out of the way originally (this way you can tell you didn’t miss any polys). Using the weld verts, weld selected, etc tools stitch them up where you don’t want any visible seams. Position everything in the blue box, and use as much space as possible. Keep in mind you will need to keep a little bit of space in between things that are not supposed to be seamless, as MIP mapping and bilinear filtering will cause bleeding. welding the left side onto the right, etc, will allow greater texel resolution at the cost of sometimes obvious mirroring (don’t do this if you’re going to have numbers on both sides, for example).
Mostly, it’s just practice, practice, practice to get better, but that’s the basics behind unwrapping.
Once you’ve gotten it all inside the blue box, go grab the texporter plugin (google it) and load it up (either place it in your plugins folder and restart, or go to customize-plugin manager, right click in the grey area and load it up). Then go to the utilities tab (Hammer tab to the right of the modifiers tab) and go to “More” and then load up Texporter (probably at the bottom). set it so it will render a map in powers of two (256x256, 512x512, whatever. It defaults to 800x400 and I have no idea why). I personally prefer to have it render edges only, with backface culling and mark overlaps off, with a constant color of white (you’ll understand when you load it up if you’re not familiar with it). Then you select pick object, click your guy, and it will render the UVs. Save this out as something lossless, like a tga, and load it into photoshop. doubleclick the background layer to make it a normal layer, create a new layer, put it underneath, fill it with 50% grey, set your UV layer to “screen” and opacity to 20% or so, and start painting on a new layer underneath it.
Hope this helps.
btw, if you feel the need to cylindrical unwrap, you can select the faces you’re unwrapping, apply a mesh select modifier, hit 4 or click the poly select button (loading your selection), then apply a UV Map-cylinder/sphere/whatever (cylinder is the only one that is useful.) Hit the [+] button and select gizmo to move the cylinder gizmo if you need to rotate, etc. The green edge is the seam it will split down, so try to not run that along complex geometry to keep your map nice looking.
Then collapse the stack down to an editable poly/mesh and apply a new UVW unwrap. You’ll see your new unwrapping spanning the blue box.