Made from white expanded foam - alien water filled craters

If there is one material that we scenery builders rely on, it is Styrofoam, or blue foam, or pink foam or whatever your name for it is – it is the material with 1001 uses – walls, rocks, hills, buildings, ponds, rivers, trenches – pretty much anything can be made with it. Cutable, sandable, carveable, it is the terrain makers wonder material.

So what is it? Well, firstly there are more than one type of foam that is of use to the wargames scenery builder. Styrofoam - a trademark of the Dow company which has become ubiquitous, much like Hoover is synonymous with vacuum cleaner – is just one of a family of different foams that we can use. There are fundamentally two forms of foam, expanded polystyrene foam and extruded polystyrene foam. Expanded polystyrene foam is familiar to all of us as the beaded white foam that is commonly used as a packaging material. Made up of compressed beads of foam, it is a low density light weight foam. It can be used for wargames terrain making, but has some limitations which we will look at in a minute. Extruded foam is the holy grail of scenery making – a smooth, high density foam, it can be cut cleanly, sanded, carved and is pretty tough stuff. Commonly referred to as blue or pink foam, it comes in a range of densities and colours and from several different manufacturers.

Rocks being made from white expanded foam

These foams are made in large sheets of varying thickness to be used for insulation in the building trade. They can be bought from specialist suppliers and on the net (see below). In the UK, it would be worth trying a builders merchant for the extruded High Density Foam – I haven't found it in any of the chain DIY shops. It can certainly be bought on-line. Expanded foam is more readily available (and considerably cheaper) – large sheets of 1in or 2in thick foam can be bought from Wickes in the UK for a few pounds.

Working with expanded and extruded foams.

The main differences between the two types of foam become more readily apparent when you start to work with them. Expanded foam is more difficult to cut cleanly with a knife / saw due to its beaded nature. This also makes sanding difficult – it is hard to get a good finish on it. The high density extruded foams cut more cleanly and can be sanded to a fine smooth surface.

To cut foams you can use a good sharp knife – (old) kitchen knives are good for this, or a hacksaw or similar. I've heard that the high density foam can be very successfully cut with an old electric carving knife, jigsaw or band saw. I've used a padsaw myself. The finer the teeth, the smoother the cut – my padsaw is fairly coarse and gives a very rough cut, which is not bad for representing rock straight out of the box as it were. The high density foam will blunt knives very quickly, so you'll probably need a good supply of blades.

In part 2 of this article we'll look at using hot wire cutters, and methods of finishing your foam wargames scenery piece.

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