Wargames terrain - hill

A piece of Wargames terrain - a rocky hill

In this second part of our look at expanded and extruded foams, we'll look at hot wire cutters and finishing your terrain piece off.

The best tool for cutting foams of either sort is a hot wire cutter. These can be bought quite easily and come in various forms, from battery powered to mains powered table top cutters. The better ones go through foam like a hot knife through butter and make a good clean cut. With careful use they can be used to shape and carve the foam. If you are serious about making gaming terrain from foam, they are a good investment, and I'd recommend the mains powered type over the battery powered ones any time. I'll be doing a review of the Hot Wire Foam Factory cutters that I use shortly. Hot wire cutters can also make the white expanded foam more usable, as they tend to melt the beads into one uniform surface. The hill and craters in the pictures where made from white foam. Note the stranded surface on the craters – the strings that the hot wire cutter can produce can be gently sanded / rubbed off, but I left them in place here as it gave a more alien, volcanic feel I thought. Don't be afraid to experiment with white foam – it is lot cheaper and can still make some very effective results.

Safety considerations

There are a couple of points to bear in mind when working with foams. Firstly, when sanding them, beware of the fine dust produced, just as you should when sanding MDF. Especially with the higher density foams, the small particles of dust produced are very hard and abrasive – so you don't want that getting in your eye. I'd also suggest that you'll probably not want a lungful of the stuff either. ..I'd strongly suggest you wear a dust mask. If cutting foam with a hot wire cutter or using a powered saw (which can melt the surface through friction) beware of the fumes produced. These foams are full of potentially nasty chemicals, most are also treated with fire retardants (halides I'd guess) and some extruded foams use an inflammable agent in the extrusion process that can be released on cutting. Its difficult to be specific as it depends on the type of foam, the manufacturer and the process used to make it. The short answer is – only ever cut foam with a hot wire cutter (or powered saw) in a well ventilated area, and avoid breathing the fumes in. I tend to do my cutting outside, or in my conservatory with the doors and windows open.

Finishing foam

Styrofoam takes most paints well – the main exception being some spray paints, as the solvents that are used in the paint attack the foam surface (melt it). Always test on some scrap foam first before using a can of spray paint in anger! You can get round this by sealing the surface with something first. I tend to use a couple of methods. You can use ordinary household emulsion paint, which has the advantage of being cheap considering the amounts you are likely to need for finishing terrain projects. Pretty much any neutral colour can be used for this sealing coat. You can also use emulsion paint for the finial finishes if you can find suitable colours - tester pots are quite useful for this. Alternatively you could use a water / PVA mix to coat the foam with before painting. This way you can also add sand to the surface to texture it – just tip it over the PVA mix coated model. When dry, tip off the excess and paint as usual. I use both methods before giving a coat of chaos black spray paint and then painting in the usual way. All your standard acrylic paints can be used for this.

Styrofoam can be glued together with a range of glues. There are special foam glues, hot / warm glue guns or ordinary P VA can be used. The thing to watch with this though is that the denser forms of foam are largely impervious to air, and PVA requires air to set. You'll often find with big areas that only the outer rim actually dries and the glue in the centre doesn't take. What I do is use PVA round the outside of the ares to join, and glue from my hot glue gun (but not too hot or it might melt the foam) in the centre. This has the advantage of having instant grab too, so the item can be moved without fear of it coming apart or slipping. Another useful technique is to use cocktail sticks or parts of – push the sticks into one of the surfaces to be joined, carefully line up the top piece (after you've applied the glue) and push down – the cocktail sticks act as locating pegs and reinforcement for the joint.

We'll cover more on using the various types of foam in the various projects I have lined up – I can't imagine making wargames scenery without it!


Hot Wire Foam Factory Hot Knife Foam Cutter for Styrofoam EPS Foam Polystyrene
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