My partner in crime, BrainTwitch, and I have been building a camping structure (an instructable yet to come) that needed a front wall and a back wall and both were to be made out of insulation foam.
I've always wanted to dabble in more prop and set making so I was excited to experiment with techniques to transform foam into something eye catching. I took on creating whimsical wood planks, subtle wood grain, and a stacked stone wall look.
I've never worked with foam before, so I'll be sharing with you what I learned through my experiments and the results you can get sculpting insulation foam with common tools!
Step 1: Experimenting With Tools
My main tools of the trade:
1" and 1/2" Pink Insulation foam
Soldering Iron (cheap and expendable preferred)
Small wire brush
Clothing Iron (with parchment paper)
Large flat head screwdriver
Rasp or rough cut file
I experimented with all of the different tools I had at my disposal; here are my findings:
1" and 1/2" Pink Insulation foam: A great sculpting medium: firm, meltable, and carvable. I used 1" for the stone walls and 1/2" for the wood planks.
Heat gun: So much fun to sculpt with! you can get a lot of neat depth and warping with the heat gun. I only ever used the low setting and that was plenty to melt the foam, I would stay away from using high heat unless you want holes!
Soldering iron: This will melt foam and melt it quickly, you need a steady and fast hand as you draw. Great for deep textures and you can use it just like drawing with a pen.
-- Melting the foam creates a lot of fumes so best to use with a fume extractor or done outside.--
Small wire brush: Creates a rough texture for variation in your wood. Looks incredible after the roughed up sections are melted a bit with the heat gun.
Clothing iron: Helps to flatten out textures if you are going for a more subtle look. It also creates a harder shell of melted foam so it can give you more control with the warping from the heat gun.
--Use parchment paper under the iron to prevent it from melting to the foam!--
Large flat head screwdriver: I used this for the subtle wood grain texture. I used the edge of the tip to press into the foam and create lines without cutting into the foam.
Rasp and box cutter: Handy tools to do the rough cutting and shaping of your foam pieces.
After experimenting with different combinations and techniques I felt confident to move to the final product. The round disk pictured above was my test of final techniques for both wood planks and stone. Next I'll share my favorite combinations to achieve the desired affects....
Step 2: Wood Planks- Carving Grain and Adding Texture
Carving rough grain boards
I wanted the wood planks to be whimsical and exaggerated, with a deep wood grain and lots of wood knots.
I went to Google images and looked up some reference material to get a sense of how wood grain looks and naturally forms. I recommend googling "wood grain" "pallet wood texture" or "burned wood texture". Luckily, wood grain is organic and natural so it doesn't need to be perfect. You can sketch it out first or make it up as you go. Become the tree, tell its story through its grain!
I made it up as I went. I would start at the top of my plank and create a line of grain across to the other end of the board. From there I would slowly fill it in with knots, points, and more long grain. I found a tighter grain, though it takes more work, looks the most realistic.
The knots are the most fun to do. Draw out a circle and have some cracks radiating out from the center along with some subtle tree ring lines. Then, make a nice rounded diamond around it and let the rest of the grain travel around the knot.
Adding texture and depth
After I finished melting in the grain and knots, I roughed up the knot holes and about every other grain line with the wire brush. This gives variation to the wood and helps visually separate the grain.
Don't skip roughing up the edges of the board with wire brush! This helps clean up your cutting edges and really helps the boards look authentic from all directions.
Finally, hit the edges and the rough texture grain/knots with the heat gun. If you use the heat gun too much it'll flatten everything out. If you stick to the wire brushed sections it keeps a really neat warp that adds a lot of depth and visual flow to the board. The heat gun also softens the edges of the knots you carved to make them look more aged and realistic.
For the rally long streches of board I found I couldn't carry the grain that long far without losing myself and ending up with some weird designs that looked like something in a lava lamp. To help myself overcome the burden of an 8 foot straight line, I created fake joints! You could design a joint to look like anything, I inveted an "L" shaped thing with fake bolts.
I created a template to help me keep them consistent. I melted the joints extra deep to help it really stand out from the rest of the wood and the grain. Not only did it help break it up into smaller sections but I was a dramatic effect too.
Subtle wood grain carving
If you want a subtle wood grain use the edge of a flat head screwdriver instead of the soldering iron and gently draw the grain into the foam.
Mark out the spacing for your boards, I did mine at 4in wide each. I used a straight edge first and then went back over the edges freehand and purposefully went off the lines a bit for a more rustic and older building look. I like to keep things organic!
I did the same technique as the rough, deep grain boards but I didn't do any knots on the more subtle boards. If you accidentally press too deep you can ride over the deeper spots with the iron and it'll flatten back out a bit (don't forget the parchment paper!).
I struggled to get a good picture of this process but you can really see the effect pop in the next step were it is painted.
Carving wood grain does take some patience and time, practice first and take lots of breaks. It took me ages to carve all the wood I needed for our walls!
Step 3: Wood Planks - Painting and Finishing!
As beautiful as your wood grain looks, the boards still loose some of the illusion of being wood as they are currently bright pink. Time to add some life to your boards with some paint!
Base it out with black (missing picture, apologies!).
Basing out the boards in black paint will allow a full coverage of the pink that we are trying to avoid, as well as create a nice deep contrast for our grain and texture.
Spray paint will give you the best coverage but you need to be careful when using spray paint. If you apply the spray paint too heavily the aerosol will start to melt the foam! Instead, its best to hold the can away from the boards and gently dust it by letting the paint fall onto it instead of spraying closely and heavily at it. Keep the spray can moving so the paint doesn't build up too heavily at any one spot. This technique will take a bit longer, and tire out your hand, but its worth it to maintain all of your expertly carved wood grain!
Alternatively you could use latex paint which will not melt the foam but its a little more challenging to get the paint into all the little nooks and crannies.
Dry brushing top color
This is point where all your blood, sweat, and tears up to this point really start to reveal itself.
Dry brushing is the technique of only having a little bit of paint on the brush, practically dry, and then wiping it across your texture. This keeps the paint from filling in your deeper, lower areas and keeps them dark for contrast.
I found if you brush against the grain of the wood the top color won't follow the brush strokes into your grain. If you get too much paint in the grain it'll start to look flat and you'll lose your details.
I stayed with a simple dark, aged looking wood. However, you could do another layer of dry brushing with an even lighter brown or white to create some highlights for higher contrast. You'll want your brush to be really dry and you'll want to use a very light touch to create highlights.
For the subtle wood planks I wanted it to look like a wood wall that had been painted. This is a much easier process as you just need to choose the color you would paint a wall of boards! It took two coats of paint to cover the pink, but when all that's left is your grain texture the illusion is amazing!
Step 4: Stone Walls - Carving and Texturing
Stone walls are much faster and easier to do than the wood grain and works well for larger sections of wall. It can still be tedious sculpting though, so remember to take lots of breaks and practice until you get a hang of it first!
Blocking out your stone shapes:
Much like the wood grain, I went to google images to find some reference material for my wall. I choose to do a stacked, flat rock wall since it has a lot of variety and doesn't demand a lot of precision.
Starting at the bottom, I drew a row of rocks of varying size and thickness with the soldering iron. Remember to have a fume extractor or work outside when melting with the soldering iron! From there I slowly built up one row at a time. I made it up as I went and just focused on creating some fun combinations. I really liked using supper skinny and long stones wherever I could.
If things get away from you a bit and you mess up you can still cut rocks in half, make then slimmer, or add extra "mortar". Remember that a rock wall would never be perfect, every flaw adds character and realism!
Sculpt one block at a time and build as far as you need.
Ironing for strength and control! (optional)
In my experiments I found that if you iron the stones before you use the heat gun you'll have a lot more control. When you iron the surface evenly it melts the foam and you create a stronger, thicker layer. This layer will prevent the heat gun from melting the foam too quickly and you gain more control over the shape.
I found that worked well for the smaller sections I did but that wasn't practical for the full walls I had done. Still, its a nice technique to know about.
Heat gun warping and texturing:
Using the heat gun on the stone warps them in a way that perfectly emulates a stone form. A little goes a long way when it comes to melting the stones so use a light hand and a low temperature!
- Hold the heat gun on one spot to let it melt it into a dip in the stone while leaving some high points.
- You can follow the edges between the rocks to create the illusion of them setting out from the wall and away from each other.
- Use a swooping motion over the larger and longer stones to get some neat forms.
Extra edging for greater depth (optional)
After you have formed your stones with the heat gun, you'll notice the spaces between the blocks has gotten a little flattened out and warped. I went back over all of my lines with the soldering iron again to really define the stones and add some interesting dimension. You can compare the two pictures above.
I liked the effect of this technique but it does prove to be time consuming. Like the ironing, I only did it for the smaller sections. Visually, the larger walls didn't suffer much without this step.
Lets see your efforts come to life with the power of paint!....
Step 5: Stone Walls - Painting and Finishing
Basing it out in black:
Be prepared to loose feeling in your arm getting the larger sections fully covered!
Lightly dust the stone walls with the black spray paint the same way we did with the boards. I found that the edges between the stones that I deepened with the soldering iron took a little more attention to fully cover black.
Keep at it until there is no more pink.
Painting- the detailed way:
For the smaller sections that would be the front of the structure I wanted more detail in the stones.
I started with a light gray color for my base and dry brushed all of the stones. Then, I mixed the base grey color with white to create lighter stones. I choose randomly which stones would be lighter, a nice smattering here and there. Finally, I took the base gray and mixed it with some black to create some darker stones. Once again, pick a handful with good spacing.
Its subtle, but it really adds a lot of character and variety to your wall.
Painting - The lazy way
On the full wall sections there was no way I was going to hand paint every stone. I take pride in my work but sometimes you have to work smarter, not harder.
Solution: use a paint roller! It was a bit tricky to get a paint roller to act like a dry brush. I would lightly fill it with paint and then roll it across cardboard until it would get tacky. This worked amazingly and got the job done in a couple of minutes. I could argue that it did a better job picking up the heat gun warping texture better than my hand painted stones!
Step 6: Completed Facades!
Here are the finished foam facades that you would never know I sculpted out of pink insulation foam! (except by reading this instructable).
It took a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimenting with tools and techniques, and a lot practice pieces. I'm delighted with how my first foam project turned out. This is the biggest prop-style project I have ever taken on and I'm glad I was able to share my findings. I consider myself an amateur foam sculptor now and I am excited to use it more!
I would love to hear other DIY'ers experience, skills, and techniques they've picked up working with foam. I plan to incorporate it into my future projects and I bet there is a lot of good information you all have to share!
I hope I have shared some new things myself.