Introduction: Introduction to Worbla
"Mutation, it is the key to our evolution...This process normally takes thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward."
Ok, so Professor X was talking about the the origin of mutants when he said this, but from a costume design perspective, I think he could have been talking about Worbla! Worbla is simply incredible material for costumes and prop making because it combines ease of sculpting with quick hardening and unbelievable durability. If you have much experience making things, you'll understand the significance of this for the creative process. While making things out of Worbla certainly requires some planning, it also allows for a kind of creative spontaneity that you usually only get from materials like clay, but you don't have to fire it or wait a lot time for it to dry! In short, I'm in love with Worbla, and by the end of this instructble I'm willing to bet you will be too :)
In this tutorial, I'll talk about the different kinds of Worbla, then I show you how to use it to build a headpiece by combining it with foam, heating, and sculpting. As with EVA foam, the world of Worbla is a rabbit hole full of incredible creations and time consuming techniques. This instructable is simply designed to introduce you to the material and some of the basic techniques, and get you excited to dive deeper into other tutorials and future projects.
This tutorial is part of How to Become a Superhero collection that will walk you through designing and creating your own superhero costume. To learn how to finish your Worbla piece, and construct the other parts of a superhero superhero costume, check out the other instructables in this series:
Introduction to Worbla (*you are here)
Step 1: Types of Worbla
Worbla is a non-toxic thermoplastic sheet material made partially from wood pulp. Worbla softens at 194 degrees fahrenheit (90 degrees celsius) which means you can usually mold it with your bare hands and feel like a superhero! (Unless you have especially sensitive skin, so kids should be careful). It it's heated state it sticks to itself like mad, so you don't need any glue whatsoever to work with it. When it hardens it is extremely strong and can be painted and finished easily. It can also be re-heated and formed endlessly, so you never have to waste any of it! Just heat your scraps and mush them back together. It's pretty supernatural.
There a few different types of Worbla that are good for different applications. The standard kind which we'll be using is officially called "Worbla's Finest Art", and it looks a bit like cookie dough, or weird fruit leather (but don't eat it :). It comes in different sized sheets 2mm thick which can be layered on top of each other or combined with thin EVA foam to create thickness. This original kind is has a slightly grainy surface which can be primed and sanded to a smoother finish, but if you are making something with a lot of detail work, you might want to use...
Black Worbla (aka "Worbla's Black Art") is a very similar material that has a finer grain and doesn't need as much priming and sanding as regular Worbla. It softens at the same temperature, sticks to itself and is fully re-usable. It is slightly more expensive, so unless you're making something very detailed it sometimes isn't worth the extra money.
When you are making large structural pieces you often want something that is slightly more stable than Worbla to use as a base. One option here is to use thin layers of EVA foam and sandwich them between layers of Worbla (this is the method I'll be showing you here). Another option is to use a different Worbla product called "Worbla's Mesh Art", or a similar material called Wonderflex. These materials have a mesh base inside the thermoplastic which gives them more stability, but means they can't create the same kind of compound curves or be melted together and re-used. They are good for creating strong bases and reinforcing Worbla at points of attachment.
Though we won't be using it in this lesson, Worbla also has a new product called "Worbla's TranspaArt" Which is a transparent sheet that can be also heated and molded, but at a slightly higher temperature, 250 degrees fahrenheit (120 degrees celsius). It also doesn't stick to itself as well, and is a bit fussier to work with.
In short, there are a lot of options! But to start out, we're just going to be working with regular Worbla, though if you wanted to spring for the Black stuff, the process of using it is the same.
Step 2: Patterning for Worbla
Just like with EVA foam, the first thing you need to do when working with Worbla is make yourself a pattern. The method of patternmaking you use will always depend on what you're going to create and how it needs to fit on your body. If you are making a larger piece like a breastplate or shoulder piece the methods I discussed in the foam lesson could just as easily be used here, but I'm going to show you another great method that works really well for headpieces like the one I'm making.
I used this method on a head form because I happened to have one, but you could also do this on yourself by wrapping your head in plastic wrap and covering that with masking tape in strategic places (being careful not to suffocate anyone, by covering the mouth or nose, and using extra caution if you're working with kids). Head forms are great tools though, and you can usually find them fairly easily and cheaply online or at a wig store (I think this one was $15).
I covered my head form with tape masking tape, and drew a line down the center of the head.
Then, referring to my sketch, I drew the shape of my headpiece out on top of the tape on one side.
I took the tape off the head and cut out the pattern. I also cut a slit in the pattern to allow it lay flat.
As it was, this pattern was going to require three darts to create the shape I wanted, one at the top of the head, and one on each side where I cut the slit. Worbla can mold around compound curves but I wanted to use some EVA foam as well in the base of this headpiece, so I knew I couldn't rely too much on compound shaping. However, I didn't really want a dart in the final piece where I had cut the slit, so when I traced the pattern onto paper I decided instead to rotate the point at the top of the head down a little making the dart at the top of the head larger while eliminating the two side darts.
This is a patternmaking trick a bit like the one I used when I moved the sleeve seam of the bodysuit down. As long as the volume of the dart is going somewhere, you can often move it around to suit your design vision.
Once I had revised the pattern, I mirrored it to create the other side, then cut it out and tried it on my own head to see how it was looking. I altered it a bit, for the shape of my face, and decided that I didn't like the arrow points at the ends of the pieces extending over the cheeks, they looked a little weird so I eliminated them. I think it's really important, and sometimes hard, when you're creating to accept when something isn't working and be willing to change your design - but you're a superhero, be brave!
I made sure the bands extending over the ears were long enough to curve around the back of my head a little, and I marked little slits in the end of each that would allow me to add an elastic attachment. Now I was pretty much ready to cut and sculpt with Worbla!
For some accessories you can use a much simpler patterning method, for example to create a pattern for this bracer I just measured the distance around my wrist, the length of my forearm, and the distance around the thickest part of my forearm. I drafted these measurements on paper, then drew the shape of the bracer base onto this basic shape.
Obviously both these designs have details and other elements so why am I not patterning them now? As when you're working with EVA foam, the curvature and thickness of the Worbla makes it hard to pattern details accurately ahead of time, so it's usually best to pattern and create them as you go. This is actually one of my favorite things about Worbla, it's is a very spontaneous material that allows you to design and create as you go and still see fast, durable results immediately. Like I said, it's fairly supernatural :)
Step 3: Sandwiching Foam
Once you have your pattern it's time to create your base layer of Worbla. You could use 2 or 3 layers of Worbla sandwiched together for this, but I like to use the foam sandwiching method. I usually use this method because it adds some extra thickness and stability without using too many layers of Worbla (making it both lighter, and less expensive). This would also be a good place to use Wonderflex or Mesh Worbla.
To use the foam sandwiching method, use your pattern to cut out a piece of foam, I'm using 2mm thick EVA foam here. You really don't need something too thick, and keeping it thin will help maintain the flexibility of your Worbla.
I also used my pattern to cut out two pieces of Worbla a bit bigger than the pattern on all sides. You'll notice that it has a shiny side and a slightly duller, more grainy side; the shiny side is slightly more adhesive so it's better to use this side as the side you stick to your foam.
Now you need to heat your Worbla. A lot of tutorials recommend using a layer of wax paper under your Worbla when you heat it up, but I have found that wax paper sometimes sticks to the hot Worbla so I often just work on a wooden butcher block counter, which works great. Aluminum foil will also work well as a base.
Lay your Worbla on the table and wave your heat gun over it, holding it about 4" away. My heat gun has two settings and I usually use the lower one because the higher one can start to really melt the Worbla if you aren't careful. You want to wave the heat gun back and forth, not focusing too long on one place until you see the Worbla start to soften and darken slightly. If the Worbla gets too hot it will start to turn white, so stop heating if you see that happening.
Heat one layer of Worbla evenly all over, then place your foam piece on top of it, pressing it down so it sticks.
Heat the second piece of Worbla and place it on top of the foam, pressing it down lightly, and working your way from the center to the edges to eliminate any bubbles.
To seal the edges of the two pieces of Worbla around the foam it's nice to have some kind of thin smooth implement to run along the edges. I found this tool in a drawer, I think it's some kind of sculpting tool, but anything similar will work. The Worbla will probably have begun to harden again by now, so heat it again and run the tool around the edges, pressing the two layers together.
When you've gone all the way around use your scissors to cut away the excess, re-heating as you go.
If there are any jagged edges you can use an X-acto to trim the hot Worbla.
To create the openings to attach elastic I used my X-acto to cut into the Worbla, then moulded it into the gap with my mysterious pokey tool.
Step 4: Shaping
Once you have a flat sandwiched piece of Worbla and foam, you need to shape it into your headpiece or whatever you're making.
If you're already working with a head form you can use it to create the basic shape of the headpiece, then adjust it to fit you. You could also use another similarly sized round object like a the base of a vase. Household objects can work great as shaping aids and finding them is a pretty fun treasure hunt :)
If you are going to form over something, test a hot piece of Worbla on it before you shape your design to see if the Worbla sticks badly to the surface when it cools. Worbla doesn't stick to this head form, but if it did I'd use a little vaseline on the base to prevent sticking.
When you're ready use your heat gun again on the sandwich, flipping it over to get both sides evenly. Then place your Worbla over the form, and if you have any seams like I do here, press them together along the edge so they stick, closing the dart and giving the piece shape.
Press the rest of the piece around the base, moulding it into the shape you want. Try to keep the mirrored sides even, and hold them in place until they cool and harden into shape. You may have to keep reheating and reshaping until you get everything looking just right.
Let the piece cool, then try it on yourself and see if there's anything you want to change. If so, heat just these areas and re-shape them. You can also re-enforce any seams from beneath with strips of Worbla.
Another option is to shape pieces directly on your body from the beginning. (If you are doing this with a head, it's a bit tricky. It's really better to do it on someone else's so you can see what you're doing, and you definitely need to protect the person's hair by covering it in wax paper.) Other parts of the body are easier to form over, though. If you are creating a piece like the bracer I made, you can easily just form the Worbla right over your arm. Different people have different heat tolerances, so be careful. If you find the Worbla is too hot for you, you can dip your arm in water first, or cover it with wax paper.
One problem you might encounter when you are heating your Worbla foam sandwich is that air bubbles will sometimes appear beneath the Worbla. When this happens I just stick the bubble with a pin and flatten it with my fingers.
Step 5: Creating Details
Now comes the fun part, creating the details that will make your design unique and beautiful. For some of these pieces it's a good idea to create patterns, and for some things you can just work freehand.
To create pattern for details you can use the masking tape method again, this time taping and drawing directly over your Worbla, or you can use your base pattern to just sketch out shapes and then hold them up to your piece to see if they fit - do whatever feels most natural to you.
To add your detail pieces you need to heat both the base and the pieces you are adding. I think it often works best to create sections of details separately and then add them to your piece all at once. Once a piece of Worbla has adhered to itself it's really difficult to get it off without damage, so mistakes can be hard to undo.
Something I really like about Worbla is that you can also use details to cover up mistakes or seams, like I did on the top dart of my helmet.
At this point you are really just sculpting, so you can use all kinds of different techniques depending on what kinds of details you want to create or what material you are trying to emulate. If you are trying to create something realistic it can be helpful to look at reference pictures as at this stage.
For example, if you want to create something that looks like it was made out of sheet metal, you should probably cut shapes out of flat sheets of Worbla. One sheet of Worbla is really quite thin, so I often sandwich from 2-4 layers together with to create a lot of my detail pieces. Heat each layer and roll them together with a rolling pin to get a nice flat piece.
If you want to create something that looks like it was carved or sculpted you can use your Worbla more like clay, mushing it together, rolling it, shaping it, or even pressing it onto something that has a texture!
You an also use tools on your details once they are in place to shape them further.
Most details won't require more foam sandwiching, but if you are adding another large structural layer, like I did on my bracers, it can be a good idea.
I also used a foam core in the antennae of my moth headpiece. First I created the base pieces and formed them into a curve I liked with a little tab at the bottom that would be the attachment point to the helmet.
The texture of the antennae was created by cutting pieces out of triple layers of Worbla and sticking them to the base one by one.
When I had both antennae made, I heated them and then stuck them to the helmet.
Step 6: What Will You Make?
So... are you in love with Worbla yet?? It can take a little time to get used to, but once you get the hang of it, it's hard to put down! There are just so many places you can take this material. If you haven't done a google search for Worbla images yet, do yourself a favor - you'll see some incredible things.
Of course once you've sculpted something with Worbla, you still need to paint and finish it to give it its final form. To learn some simple techniques for painting and finishing both Worbla and EVA foam costume pieces check out the next instructable in this series!