A large percentage of costumes include some form of belts and straps whether it be actual functional belts, holster straps, or just decorative ones. While a lot of these have the appearance of leather, a lot of costumers opt out of leather due to cost, difficulty level, or a desire to avoid animal cruelty. This tutorial will help you with making realistic looking leather out of craft foam. It's really easy to do, doesn't cost a lot in materials, and can look really great!
- Craft foam (ideally black or brown but any color will work)
- Cutting tool
- Metal ruler (optional, but it really helps with cutting long straight lines)
- Heat gun or iron
- Double-sided duct tape or contact cement
- Aluminum foil
- Acrylic paints and paint brushes
- Black permanent marker (optional)
- Clear coat
- Not really covered in this tutorial but you'll also need whatever buckles or fasteners you plan to use.
Before following any of the below tips, you'll want to figure out how long and how wide you want your belts and straps to be and cut them out of your sheets of craft foam. For my Kanan cosplay I'm using 1.5" strips for my belt and 1" strips for my holster straps. Since I need the belt to go all the way around me and be seamless, I cut it from a big roll of craft foam. You can piece together a longer piece out of smaller pieces but for belts and straps that may be a little weight-bearing, I wouldn't recommend it. The smaller sheets of craft foam are great for smaller straps or making straps and buckles on things like bags and pouches. While it's only optional, I like to cut double the amount of pieces and make them two-sided. Not only does this add strength but gives them more physicality and helps with the realism.
Once you have your foam cut out, take a sheet of aluminum foil and crinkle it all up. The amount of crinkle will change the texture and worn look of your faux leather in the end, so how much crinkle really depends on the look you're going for. For an average leather try to get your foil to look something like mine. The beauty of this process is that you can redo it multiple times with the same piece of foam if you aren't happy! Now heat your foam with your heat gun--if you're doing a long strip do this in sections only as long as you can cover with both hands--and then flip it over onto the foil and push down hard while the foam cools. You should end up with a bunch of random indentations like you see on the right.
As an alternative, you can use an iron if you don't have a heat gun. Do NOT iron your foam! Place the foam down on a flat, heat-resistant surface (yes, you can even use your ironing board. Then put the foil over top of it and iron the foil. Again, the amount of pressure and the heat of the iron will change the look and feel, so have fun experimenting.
If you are making your straps double-sided I recommend two methods for sticking them together. First up is double-sided duct tape. The pro of double-sided duct tape is that its easy to find, apply, and doesn't make a lot of mess. It also adds some structural strength to your straps. If you do plan to go with the double-sided tape, I highly recommend applying it to your whole sheet before cutting it out. This is much easier than trying to trim tape off of each strip of foam.
The second option is a contact cement, like Barge, to stick your sides together. The biggest pro to this method is that, in my opinion, it looks better from the edges as the duct tape is white. Granted, you can cover that, but its more work. This is really just a personal preference, but, if like I am doing for my Kanan belt, you need to actually embed any hardware in your straps, Barge will do a better job of holding them in. I've done plenty both ways and have never had a failure either way.
Another option for added strength, if you don't need your straps to be double-sided is to add black duct tape to the back. This will help reinforce your straps without being glaringly obvious that you put some tape on it especially since a lot of leather belts and straps are black on the back side anyway.
If your foam is black, you can skip this next step (it won't hurt if you do it though anyway to get the technique down), but if your foam is any other color, this step is imperative! Take some black acrylic paint and brush it all over. The most important part here is to make sure it gets down into all the impressions your foil made in your foam.
Next, mix-up some acrylics in the color you want your straps to be. I used a couple of shades to get a nice light brown.
Dry brush it over your foam. You'll quickly see that the paint sticks to the flat surfaces but the black you applied earlier stays down in the impressions and really helps the color pop! I wanted the brown to be a little warmer so I added a bit of orange to the second batch and put on another coat. Again, how many coats of paint you want to apply will depend on your desired look and finish. The more coats of paint you apply, the newer your finished straps will look.
A very minor detail that easy to overlook with faux straps is the edge. Most leather is burnished and you'll want to recreate that look for added realism. Take a little bit of sandpaper or a sanding block and very slightly round the front edges of your strap. Then there are two options for finishing. The cheapest and easiest way is to just color your edges with a black permanent marker. This works fine for the 10 foot away look. If you want a more polished look though, go with black acrylic paint instead. If you apply one or two thick coats you'll get an authentic burnished look.
Lastly, you'll most likely want to seal in all that hard work. I used my go to favorite clear coat - Varathane Water-Based Polyurethane. It comes in both gloss and satin. I hate to sound like a broken record, but which you use is again totally up to personal preference and your desired look. The left is coated with gloss and the right is coated with satin.
To wrap up, I just wanted to show a quick example of how easy it is to adorn faux leather belts and straps. These are scrapbooking brads and buckles. Because its craft foam, they go right through much easier than trying to put rivets and things through real leather! This was a quick bag and bandolier I made for my son, so it isn't finished quality :)