The actin cytoskeleton is essential for diverse processes in mammalian cells; these processes range from establishing cell polarity to powering cell migration to driving cytokinesis to positioning intracellular organelles. How these many functions are carried out in a spatiotemporally regulated manner in a single cytoplasm has been the subject of much study in the cytoskeleton field. Recent work has identified a host of actin nucleation factors that can build architecturally diverse actin structures. The biochemical properties of these factors, coupled with their cellular location, likely define the functional properties of actin structures. In this article, we describe how recent advances in cell biology and biochemistry have begun to elucidate the role of individual actin nucleation factors in generating distinct cellular structures. We also consider how the localization and orientation of actin nucleation factors, in addition to their kinetic properties, are critical to their ability to build a functional actin cytoskeleton.