How to Make Your Own Prototypes : How to make your own Plastic Vacuum Former

Picture of How to Make Your Own Prototypes : How to make your own Plastic Vacuum Former
Make a Plastic Vacuum Molder using parts around the house.

NOTE--This article was originally posted at SheekGeek. This is my first tutorial or instructable.

Plastic vacuum formers are an important part of prototyping. If you need a nice plastic robot body, or custom case for a project you are doing, get your tools, 'cause this one's easy to build and fun to play with.

The vacuum former uses a simple concept. They use the power of a vacuum to suck gooey plastic sheets very tightly around an object you place in them, making a 3D copy of pretty much what ever you want.

Plastic vacuum formers are usually big, expensive machines; however we don't always need to make huge pieces for our projects, so these machines would be pointless to have, or at least that's what I tell myself so I won't want one ;)

Our molder will have a good size for most projects that you probably deal with. If you get confused or just want to see what I am talking about, watch this short clip showing the video of a vacuum form I made.

Step 1: Gather the Pieces

The main parts to this machine are:

-A top; which is the place that the object to be copied is put and the magic happens. This has holes drilled in it so the suction is about the same over the whole surface.

-A hollow cavity, like a strong, airtight box. This is to get the same approximate suction on all parts of the top

-A vacuum cleaner (shop vacs are a pretty good choice because they have a lot of suction, but a normal vacuum cleaner will work too.) This is the source of the suction.

-Two frames to hold sheets of plastic. This can be two picture frames, or something made of Popsicle sticks.

The first plastic molder I made was a test run of what I wanted, but it worked so great, that I usually use it for all the small parts I make. I will first tell you how to make one of these, you don't have to build it, but it will show the concepts of how and why the machine works. The bigger machine is described later in this article.

Parts list for very small plastic molder:

1 - Plastic peanut butter jar or similar. (Don't use glass, you'll need to cut it some.)

1 -2 liter coke bottle or similar.

1 - Home vacuum cleaner, or similar.

A few sheets of saran wrap.

Some good tape, like electrical tape or duct tape.

Tools needed:

-- A good sharp cutting knife or razor (be careful don't cut yourself!)

--An electric drill with a small drill bit, a Dremel works nice with the standard 1/8 inch drill bit.

Ok, got it all? Let's start.
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wiz_ard6 months ago

hey well i lack experience and i have no ide what ican do with a finished prototype

please help thankyou

wiz_ard6 months ago

yeah this is really cool

but i lack experience so i have no clue what i can do with the finished product

please help me out.

robbert2293 years ago
Very good project, just finished making it today. Soon I will have my own homemade Warhammer 40k miniatures thanks to you! Whats the best way to make the frame? I am running into some slight trouble with my frame not working very well.
jstargell3 years ago
lol i know im a lil late, but you can also make an exact copy of ur mold by reverse molding it, by sitting the mold of the object upside down and molding the inside of that mold
Valpara3 years ago
I'm not sure if this is the correct plastic, but what about the thin cutting sheets used for chopping veggies and such? It seems like the perfect size. Obviously, you can buy the clear/opaque ones, but there's also different colors, which might be beneficial to some prototypes.

I don't what they use to add the coloring... not sure if it would cause any problems. Anyways, just a suggestion because they're cheap and easy to find. The attached image shows what I'm referring too. They're 0.2" thick: 1. Flexible Cutting Board 2 Pack (12" x 18") - $3.99 on webstaurantstore.
2. MIU Flexible Cutting Board, Set of 5 (11"x15") - $9.99 on Amazon.

I was also thinking of laminating sheets, but I think they'd be too thin and stretch to the point of tearing. I'll let you know the results I get if I try either of them. Great Instructions though, thanks!
Cutting Board 2.jpgCutting Sheets.jpg
mechcem Valpara3 years ago
Type 6 plastic is the most effective and stable medium for this. Others probably could work, you should just be careful and look up there melting points and toxin release rate for them
BraisedDuck4 years ago
QUESTION!! is it possible to use plexigless as the plastic!?
SorinRayne7 years ago
how did you get the car out of the mold w/o deforming the mold?
sheekgeek (author)  SorinRayne7 years ago
You have to make sure you pick something to mold that has sloping sides. IN this case, the little side mirrors on the car gave me problems, but I fiddled with it until they came out. Usually a shape with sides sloping 5 degrees or more work pretty good. If you have to reform the mold, I usually just pop it back out when I am finished, or heat it up just a bit after I remove the original. That helps is somewhat. Maybe others have better tips. Hope this helps!
couldn't you use any object the right size but score seams and break it, then fill with glue and wait till it sets in both halves, then stick them together when they are nearly dried, it will become nearly solid :P (about a month drying time tho :C lol)
kriogenic4 years ago
Wow, thanks for this instructable, I didn't realize the concept of these was so simple. I made the small one and it worked a treat. I then made one out of an old oven emptied out welded airtight with the glass replaced with plexiglass. as the vacuum source, a garden blower\vacuum, I made a frame for this to go on top with clamps.

to make things a little easier for the heat source, I got one of those portable bbq stoves. I then hung it upside down above my frame unit and fixed a sheet of aluminium just below that with a 2cm gap from the stove and a 2mm space from where my clips and frame is.

Finally clamp my sheet up top, turn on heat source. heats up aluminium and with the small gap it heats up most of the plastic.

and your good to go, I've made things up to 70cmW x 70cmL x 30cmH with this setup... though the oven could be replaced with anything its all i had and i had the welder rented the day before for something else anyway.
sheekgeek (author)  kriogenic4 years ago
Wow! Glad to see that this project inspired you to not only build one, but to go further with the idea. Great job! post some pics or an instructable if you can, I'm sure people would be interested in seeing your device.
tzq33tdq4 years ago
i like making stuff and this will most likely save me time/money.
batman964 years ago
I made a tiny one from a soda bottle cap and used milk jug plastic, it worked great! I just held the plastic to a wood frame with office clips then heated it 2 inches above a candle, just move in a circular motion don't let sit in one place, when the plastic turns clear you are good to go.
paqrat4 years ago
Thanks for a great instructable. Many years ago there was a "toy" vac-u-form, I believe made by Marx. I had one and played around with it. I think I will definitely be making one of these. I think this could be most useful (and inexpensive) to make molds from which one could make wax models for lost wax casting.
paqrat4 years ago
I wonder if using a cylindrical trash can instead of the rectangular one might make it less likely to be deformed by the vacuum? Seems like the large flat sides would make the rectangular trash can more vulnerable.
chrisnbolen5 years ago
just wanted to thank you for posting this instructable, I used totally different materials (only things I had on hand without spending anything) and man does it look good. I plan on using old DVD cases to form around my cell phone to make a custom holster for it, then who knows I've a good imagination. I also added a one way valve using thin sheet plastic so once the vacuum is created it will hold till the work peice is removed. it's still drying so I haven't tested it yet. Cheers Chris
rcamp0045 years ago
The best place for all kinds of parts is McMaster-Carr. My engineering buddies told me about this place and it always has everything you could need for any project (that I've run across). HDPE link to McMaster-Carr http://www.mcmaster.com/#hdpe-sheets/=87yw82 I don't work for these people, It's just every time I've hit a materials roadblock this company would get me out of that rut. Hope this helps any other builders out there short for materials.
InventiDan5 years ago
Go to Lowes, Home Depot or any Hardware and get Acrylic sheets. They are sold anywhere PlexiGlass is sold. IE: Storm doors and windows. There is acrylic and poly.... something sheets. sorry I forget the exact name of the poly sheets, But I have used the Acrylic sheets and they work great and are sold in many different thickness. So if you have something tall to do, you wont strech it too thin. And as for heating it, Use your oven set for 350 to 400 for 3 to 4 minutes. Hope this helps.
thalden5 years ago
The lining on the boxes that cooking grease comes in are HDPE. Ask your local restaurant if they can save you one. You get about a foot and a half square of flat plastic off each side, if not more.
spudstud5 years ago
 This is very helpful.  I am having a hard time finding the plastic sheets you refer to. Could you post a link?
kitten555 years ago
This looks easy to make. But with it being finished, how do i use it? like, how does it suck?...or is just a replica or an actual working vacumm.
XOIIO5 years ago
How did you make the popsicle frame so that it was even?
sheekgeek (author)  XOIIO5 years ago
I made something like a  "rabbit" joint at the ends of the large popsicle sticks so that they fit together evenly. Then reinforced the corners by gluing smaller popsicle sticks across the corners, but only on one side. This left the other side flat. Making two of these allows you to clamp plastic between the two flat sides.

You can use any kind of frame for this though, Dollar store picture frames are another idea I had.

Goog luck!
XOIIO sheekgeek5 years ago
Sweet, thanks! I plan n making this, then the garbage can sized one and ordering sheets online, then once I learn to weld I will make one like MythBusters did.
duck_tape_5 years ago
Would using screen (like for a screen door) work?
Fizzxwizz5 years ago
Here is a good list of HDPE products http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-density_polyethylene
Bostonians6 years ago
I do not have a heat gun nor an electric stove burner. Does anyone else have any recommendations for heating the plastic? Great instructable
Late reply, but it might help someone.  Years ago, I was building a replica of a sci-fi robot and needed a clear curved/bubble faceplate.  I put a piece of plexiglas over an old electric space heater set on low and it worked great.  I didn't have a mold; I just softened it and then held it horizontal and let it droop a bit, and repeated the process until it was the shape I wanted.
sheekgeek (author)  Bostonians6 years ago
You really need an electric heat source. Anything with an open flame will melt the plastic and make it useless. You can attempt to use a hair drier, but I really don't think that'll work well. You are better off buying a heat gun. They are pretty useful if you do other projects and crafts.
I used a blow torch, i used the highest flamer size and waved it rapidly over a 6x6" plastic sheet, the plastic was thicker than most vacuum forms s that probably why it worked, But if you move the heat enough it won't burn a hoel through it.
Lance Mt.5 years ago
 Question. Milk bottles are used in a food context so if you cleaned said milk bottle plastic THOUGHLY after melting/shaping would it still be food grade?

Cheers, feel like making a huge one.
Food grade is an measurement of sterility of the manufacturing and shaping process as well as lack of impurities in the actual content of the container itself.  So in theory, as long as the milk carton was THOROUGHLY cleaned, as well as your vacuum forming device, you'd be pretty close to the spirit of the description.  I can't speak to the measure of off-gassing that plastics do when heated, though (as you'll note that milk containers use a different plastic than, say, the ones intentionally designed for use in the microwave).  Hope that helps!  All around, a great instructable to get novices into the art of vacu-forming!
 Thanks.. I'll see how it turns out before I start a cancerous pet-project.
ive been wanting to do something like this for a lego gummie instructable :D
kudoskun8 years ago
Instead of the coke bottle...couldnt you use a vacuum attachment for easier hook up? Probably one of the lesser / if ever used ones.
thats right. and you avoir collapsing problems with the bottle...
Lance Mt.5 years ago
 Hot water. And alternate to heat gun for those cheap like me.
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