Building a SharePoint master page is hard. Period. But with the right tools—even the most ambitious web site can be designed. It's just a different mentality than web designers are used to doing. It's more about mapping existing components than creating a new web site. I wanted to share some useful links and try to help out! Here's the must have elements of creating a new master page:
Check out the Minimal Master Page on MSDN.
In my opinion, it's actually a little too 'minimal' and takes some work to get started when all you're given is a blank slate. *NOTE: there is a required ContentPlaceHolder missing from the MSDN howto (atleast as of 1/1/2008)—make sure that there is a content place holder for the section "PlaceHolderBodyRightMargin". If not, add it to the 'invisible' panel of content placeholders to avoid issues in the future.
Is your master page missing something?
Look at the Content Place Holder list on MSDN
to see if you have the necessary component. Just because it's not required for the page to render, doesn't mean you don't want to have it on the page. For example, the section "WSSDesignConsole" is not in the Minimal Master Page as it is not a required field – yet if you don't add this to your master page users will be unable to save any changes after pressing "Edit Page"! I am also adding these to my Master Page Cheat Sheet—available from the Master Page Elements View
Hope this helps you all get started!