Laser Cut Foam Inserts for Tool Boxes





Introduction: Laser Cut Foam Inserts for Tool Boxes

This is my first Instructable. Any constructive criticism in the comments will be gratefully accepted.

Lately I'm doing more machining at TechShop SJ. As a result, I've been carrying a lot of cutting and measuring tools back and forth from home. Many of the tools have precisions surfaces or are somewhat fragile. Remarkably, some of these came with no protective container. So, I decided to make some.

All of the work in this Instructable was done at TechShop SJ, my home away from home.

This Instructable is all about finding the best, least expensive foam from which to laser cut inserts to hold the tools safely in their boxes. Maybe I'll cover the finding/making appropriate boxes some other time.

Since all my projects get out of hand almost immediately, I also did some foam inserts for one of the tool boxes in my home shop.

Using inserts in tool boxes to protect and organize tools is called "shadowing" in the aerospace industry. It's a standard practice aimed at preventing tools from being left some place they shouldn't be and subsequently causing "foreign object damage." For an appropriately horrifying image, think about a big pair of ViseGrips left inside a jet engine when it's fired up.

Step 1: Making Foam Inserts

For foam to protect tools during transport, it needs to fit closely around them. Too bad that hand tools tend to have complex shapes. The usual way to make close fitting DIY inserts around complex shapes is to trace the outline directly on to the foam with a Sharpie and cut out the recess by hand with an Xacto knife or scalpel (there are lots of YouTube videos on the subject).

It's way too much work to do this manually if you want to do a clean job of it. It's also unnecessary for anyone who has access to the Epilog lasers at TechShop SJ or their equivalent.

To make inserts, we need foam, vector artwork of the tool outlines, and a recipe for cutting the foam. The last part is the main purpose of this Instructable, but we need to get the first two straight before we can start zapping foam.

Step 2: Finding Good Foam

Most stuff sold as "tool box foam" is polyethylene (PE) or ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) and is way too expensive. I went on a hunt for other, less expensive sources for the same stuff. Both of these types of foam are okay to cut on the Epilog laser at TechShop SJ.

The lowest cost PE foam I found was a blue camping pad from WalMart. It's about 2 ft. x 6 ft. x 1/2 in. (~610mm x ~1825 mm x ~13mm) for $7.97. Call it $0.67/sq. ft. You can't get this online, so you'll have to grit your teeth and go there.

EVA foam is available at Harbor Freight. They have 2 ft. x 2 ft. x 1/2 in. (~610mm x ~610mm x ~13mm) gray EVA interlocking tiles, 4 for $10. Call it $0.63/sq. ft. The also have rolls of foam with a diamond plate texture. A 2 ft. x 6 ft. x 5/16 in.(~610mm x ~1825 mm x ~8mm) roll is $8. Call it $0.67/sq. ft. The quality of the roll material is not nearly as good as the tiles. The roll I bought has a lot of voids in the back surface and even has some on the diamond plate (front) surface.

EVA foam covered with other materials is available at Daiso California, a Japanese dollar store (okay, truthfully it's a $1.50 store) . 30 cm x 30 cm x 7 mm (~12 in. x ~12 in. x ~1/4 in.) interlocking foam tiles are $1.50 ea, so call it $1.50/ sq ft. I chose a carpet covered tile and a cork covered tile. Daiso also has every kind of plastic container known to mankind if you ever need such things.

Finally, 2 mm (~0.080 in.) thick EVA foam is available at craft stores (locally here in the SF Bay Area at Michael's or JoAnn's). A 9 in. x 12 in. (~230mm x ~305mm) piece is about $1. I've used this foam before and it cuts great in TechShop SJ's Epilog laser. However, it's too thin to be cost effective for tool box inserts. By the time you buy enough to layer up a reasonable thickness and a can of 3M Super 77 spray adhesive to hold it all together, the cost is crazy high. Even so, keep some thin foam makes a good complement to the thicker foam (more on that later).

Apologies to any non-US readers for having such a US-centric take on sourcing these materials. I hope this Instructable gives enough information to help you find equivalent materials in your part of the world.

Step 3: Laser Artwork

No rocket surgery here. You have three options:

1) Get out your ruler/tape/calipers and start measuring. Then draw up your outline in Adobe Illustrator or its equivalent. This method is practical for tools with simple outlines like 1-2-3 blocks, V-blocks, squares, and the like. It takes a lot of time to measure and draw more complex outlines.

2) Trace the tool outline onto a piece of paper and then scan it. If you do this, it's best to convert the scan to a vector format (using LiveTrace in Adobe Illustrator or its equivalent) so you can tweak it if needed. This method isn't as easy as it sounds because, if you are using a normal pen or pencil, it's a bit difficult to keep your pencil or pen tip at a fixed distance from the edge of a complex object while you trace it.

I've found two tools that make it easier to trace. The first is a FastCap Long Nose Pattern Marker (promo video above). The second is an old school drafting lead holder (photo above). Both of these have long, skinny ends for close tracing around something thick. The marker is good up to about an inch (25mm) and the lead holder is good to 2+ inches (50mm+) as long as you are careful to not break the lead as you trace. If you use the drafting lead, go over the line with a dark pen before you scan it to get better contrast.

3) Set the tool directly on your flatbed scanner, scan it, convert it to vector, and tweak as above. This sounds easy too, but be prepared for a lot of fussing with the scan before it will convert to a usable vector outline.

I've used all three options successfully. I mostly use method 2 with the drafting lead.

Which ever way you make your outlines, be sure to check the outlines before cutting foam. The best way to check is to cut some corrugated cardboard test pieces. If that's too much trouble, at least print out the outlines and lay the tools on top of them to check that all is well. Throwing away some scrap cardboard or scratch paper beats a miscut $10 piece of foam any day.

Before spending a lot of time making outlines of individual tools, it pays to make sure everything is going to fit in the drawer/box. A quick and dirty test layout doesn't take too long and you can move the outlines around in Illustrator to fine tune everything. The final check is a full size cardboard cutout.

Step 4: Test Cuts

I use the Epilog lasers at TechShop SJ for cutting and engraving all sorts of things, but the way I test a new material is pretty much always the same.

First, check the recipe sheet at the laser work station to see if the material is listed there. Even if the exact material isn't listed, you might find something close enough to get you started.

Second, check Google to see if someone has figured this out and posted a recipe. If you do find something on Google, remember that even if it's the same material on the same laser, you need to do test cuts. Things like the condition/age of the laser tube, how clean the optics are, etc. can have a big impact on how a laser cuts on any given day. Test, test, test before committing your good material.

After I find my starting point I just put some scraps onto the laser and start cutting. My test cuts are simple squares about 1 in x 1 in (25mm x 25mm) so I can run a lot of tests without using up too much material.

Now, start varying the recipe from your starting point to find the right power, speed, and frequency to use. Don't forget that multiple lower power passes is sometimes better than one high power pass.

It's difficult to give much help on exactly how to develop the recipe for any given material. It's a bit of an art. Beyond the general rules that slower speed or higher power takes more material and low frequencies are good for materials that char while high frequencies are good for things that melt, its largely a matter of trying some combinations to see what you get.

Be sure to take notes while you are testing. It's almost impossible to keep track of lots of different recipes without notes.

Step 5: Results: WalMart 1/2 In. Thick PE Camping Pad

This material works great. It's cheap, easy to get, and the color isn't too offensive.

For the 60W Epilog laser at TechShop SJ, I used vector mode at 20% speed, 60% power, and 1000Hz. I probably could have cut a little faster and that might have reduced the distortion in the narrow cut out show above. Since it didn't matter for this piece, I didn't worry about it.

Since the V-block clamps (the black wishbone looking thing on the top left in the picture above) were only about half the thickness of the foam, it would be hard to get them out of the box. Here's where the 2mm EVA craft foam comes in handy. I cut a shim the same shape as the tool from a double layer of black craft foam and put it in the bottom of the recess. More about the craft foam in a later step.

If you plan to do full size drawer inserts, be sure to pay attention when you cut up the roll to fit in the laser bed. I cut my roll across the width without thinking about it and ended up with no pieces wide enough to fill the drawers in my roll around tool box. Very annoying.

Also, since the material comes rolled up, you need to flatten it out before laser cutting it into pieces to fit the laser. I ended up just unrolling it in the bed of my pickup truck (which happens to have black bed liner), putting some small weights on the ends, and letting it bake in the sun for a couple of hours. The material came out plenty flat enough for our purposes here.

Step 6: Results: Harbor Freight 1/2 In. Thick EVA Foam Tiles

This stuff also works great, it's cheap, and I'd sure rather go to Harbor Freight than WalMart!

For the 60W Epilog laser at TechShop SJ, I used vector mode at 35% speed, 60% power, and 1000Hz. Many thanks to Tim Q. for the assist with this recipe. Tim was in the middle of making something super cool out of this kind of foam at TechShop SJ when I stopped by to pump him for info.

This material also isn't wide enough to fill a Kennedy tool box drawer in one piece. Turns out that the 2 ft. x 2 ft. (~610mm x 610mm) size includes the interlocking features! Not counting them, the tiles are actually less than 23 in. (585mm) square. As you can see from the pic above, trying to use the interlocked tiles resulted in an ugly seam in the middle of the drawer. Also, so much of the interlocking feature was cut away that the pieces didn't hold together at all.

I also cut some long test slots for rulers in this material. As expected, there was a lot of distortion in the foam but ultimately it worked.

To try to salvage the drawer insert even with the non-interlocking mess, I used some Beacon FabriTac to glue the ends of the foam pieces together. It worked okay functionally. But, it's an extra step, the glue line takes away from the clean look of the drawer liner, and it was a pain to keep all the ends pressed together while the glue dried (I used 3M blue painters tape to help).

If it turns out I want to use a lot more of this material, I plan to try some 3M VHB transfer adhesive. The transfer adhesive might make it easier get a clean seam by butting the edges of two sheets together before cutting. It might work...VHB tape is miraculous stuff.

Step 7: Results: Harbor Freight 5/16 In. Thick Foam Roll

Another easy to use material. If you don't mind the cosmetic defects in the surfaces, it's pretty much the same as Harbor Freight's EVA tiles, only thinner.

This material comes rolled up (like the WalMart PE camping pad). So, it got the same flattening treatment in the bed of my truck as the camping pad. It came out just as flat.

In order to get a thick enough insert to securely hold thicker tools, I laminated two layers of the foam together using 3M Super 77 spray adhesive. An annoying extra step, but 5/16" (~8mm) is just too thin. Also remember that having to laminate the stuff means that its true cost has doubled, even ignoring the cost of the spray adhesive and the time to glue it together. That said, it is a way to get some big pieces of foam to feed to the laser.

The double thickness material cut well on the 60W Epilog laser at 20% speed, 60% power, and 1000Hz. For a single thickness, 55% speed, 60% power, and 1000Hz. was enough.

Step 8: Results: Daiso 7 Mm Thick EVA Tiles

These materials look cool, but were pretty much a bust.

The cork covered tile was hard to cut without getting excessive charring of the cork layer. The best results I achieved were at 4 passes of 65% speed, 60% power, 1000Hz, but that's not saying much.

The carpet covered tile worked okay, but it's thin and more expensive than the other materials I tested. Also, the label didn't clearly show the material used to make the carpet fibers and so it could be something like PVC. We don't want PVC in the laser cutter due to the hydrochloric acid vapors produced during cutting. Bad for you and bad for the machine. 40% speed, 60% power, 1000Hz cut fine, but there's no point in doing anything more with this.

Step 9: Results: 2mm Thick EVA Craft Foam

This material is great to have around for making shims to put under tools that are too thin to fit well in the box/drawer inserts. See the step about the WalMart camping pad material for how I used it here.

The thin craft foam is also useful when you want to make a container for something with a complex shape in all three axes and you want the foam to fit really well.

The best settings for cutting the foam obviously depend on how many layers you are cutting through. For 2 layers, I found that 60% speed, 60% power, and 1000Hz worked well.

Step 10: Conclusions

My foam cutting journey proves that there is no reason to pay the outrageous prices for "tool box foam" that is sold for that specific purpose.

Making box and drawer inserts is straightforward although not particularly fast. But if you've got high quality or precision tools you want to keep in good condition, it's worth the effort. The process is easy enough that it won't bother me if I need to remake the inserts some day if I change the tools I use most frequently.

Without the access to the Epilog laser at TechShop SJ, I doubt I would have made the effort to make these inserts. Having access to the lasers and other expensive equipment I couldn't justify owning (let alone afford to buy!) is the main reason I'm a member at the TechShop. Well, that and the free popcorn...

I hope you find this as useful as I found it fun to do.



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    32 Discussions

    There is one other thing you may want to consider, especially if you're cutting inserts for high precision equipment, especially with optics, and that is outgassing of the foam you use. Some foams are, even though they look nice, entirely unsuitable for such applications due to releasing gasses which can gum up the workings of precision equipment, and cloud optics. Also, for reasons which should be obvious, you want to choose foams which are not in any way absorbent to make it easier to keep your tools in tip top shape. One such foam is branded as Plastazote, it's a PE foam but it's known for it's very low outgassing properties, to the point where it's used by museums as liners for drawers and such. I've used it myself to line camera boxes I've made, and it works really great, and can be laser cut.

    I don't know about "tool box foam" as you point out, but sometimes it's well worth it to spend a few bucks extra to protect your tools instead of taking the cheap route. Plastazote isn't very expensive either, I paid about $40 with shipping for about 10 square foot of half inch thick foam.

    3 replies

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I considered outgassing for this work, but the topic seemed a little too deep into the polymer chemistry to include in the Instructable. I hope readers won't find it too deep for a comment thread!

    As you say, outgassing is a problem with some plastics. It's usually an issue with resins, like most PVC, that have a lot of plasticizers added to improve their mechanical properties. There's a class of plasticizers called pthalates that are particularly controversial right now with respect to their health effects. Pthalates are (or at least were) widely used in PVC. Many people have seen pthalate plasticized PVC in action. Historically, it's been the haze that ends up on your inner surface of your car windshield after it's cooked out of the PVC dashboard. The loss of the plasticizer is why your dashboard cracks. I hope the car companies have moved on to something safer.

    What I was able to find about PE and EVA in general didn't give me concerns about outgassing. But, at this point I'm not doing anything with optics. I agree that for particularly delicate instruments or those that are hard to clean, it's best to err on the side of caution and get pay up for foam that does not outgas. The whole point here is safe, long term storage.

    Where did you find 1/2" Plastizote for ~$4/sq.ft. delivered? From watching your YouTube channel (I'm a long time subscriber), I know you are based in Sweden. I couldn't find a source online for any grade of 1/2" Plastizote that was less than ~$7/sg. ft.

    Best regards,


    Indeed, PVC is like the devil. PE should be fairly low outgassing, and in most applications for storing tools like these should not be an issue. What may gum up tools over time, if you just store them and never use them, is the thin film of oil which probably covers most of your tools anyhow. With regular, or even occasional, use both those issues shouldn't be that big of a concern though.

    I am based in Sweden but I was living in the US when the need for it arose, I'll look through my resources and see if I can find the places I looked for it. I have a vague memory of not finding brand name Plastazote in the US, but rather some domestic analogue. I moved to the UK shortly after I needed it, so I didn't really have time to order it in the states, which led me to order it in the UK instead, from Thames Valley Supplies.

    Hi Daniel,

    If you do dig up a source for Plastazote in the US, I'd be happy to hear about it.

    Best Regards,


    Thanks for this - your materials research was a great jump-start and saved me both time and money.
    I've tested the Walmart Ozark blue foam, and I find that on a through-cut the kerf becomes very wide at the bottom - is the fix for this to use less power and slower speed?

    1 reply

    Hi Richard,

    It's good to hear that people are still finding this useful.

    A wide bottom-side kerf likely results from one or both of two causes: too much energy into the cut and/or the optics of the laser.

    When cutting foam, I tune the settings so the foam is just barely cut through on the bottom. That way I know I've put in the minimum amount of energy and thus minimized the chances of excessive "melt back" away from the centerline of the kerf. If you look at the pic above for step 4, you can see the cut on the left has a pretty wide kerf even on the top surface. Too much oomph. By the 3rd try, the kerf is pretty tight. Minimizing the energy from where you are today could come from either increasing speed, decreasing power, or both. Reducing the laser pulse frequency can also be a useful knob to turn but it's more fussy and can result in perforated cuts.

    You may already know what I'm about to describe about laser optics, so sorry if this is redundant. The way the laser optics are designed, the beams are only perfectly focused at one z-height. Moving up or down away from that height causes the beam to widen. If you've got the focus right on the top surface of your work, variation "up" from the surface is in the air and doesn't matter. Variation "down" means that the beam dispersion increases towards the bottom surface of the work and so the kerf gets wider. This isn't a big effect on the Epilog lasers I use at the TechShop, so I usually don't mess with it. But if you can't achieve results you are happy with by adjusting the energy as above, you might try multiple passes where you lower the focus (raise the work) between each pass.

    Best of luck with your foam cutting!


    There is a product called Kaizen Foam sold by Fast Cap (888) 443-3748 that is specifically made for this use, custom fitting items into a container. It comes in sheets 2'x4', in Black or White, or a "sandwich" of both colors. The sheet is made up of 1/8' foam sheets stacked on top of each other and in thicknesses of 20, 30 or 57mm total thickness. The highest price per sheet is 19.99 for the 57mm, and starts at $9.99. It's designed to be cut with a razor knife and you peel the layers of the 1/8 foam up until you get to your desired depth for your items. It doesn't say what the specific kind of foam is used for the layers in the catalog, but it looks like what you get inside of a tablet case when you buy one that uses a foam spacer where you'd put your tablet. Their website is: if you want to look it up.

    I haven't used it personally, but I've wanted to get some and give it a try. I went to get some a few weeks ago, but the distributor was out of it, and referred me back to their distributor (Fast Cap) to get it, but I haven't had the time.

    I think it might be ideal for your application, or for someone who does not have access to a laser cutter, but can use a utility knife and peel down the layers for depth.

    Your project looks great, congrats!

    5 replies

    Hi JD,

    Kaizen foam looks very useful if you need something really thick. It didn't meet my basic cheapness criteria for this project because I didn't need the thickness.

    The places I found it online have it for around $4/sq/ft. You could layer up the blue PE camping pad for less than that, but saving the hassle if probably worth it. Looking at the stuff, it seems like some sort of polyolefin (polyethylene or polypropylene or a blend) which would cut fine on the laser.

    It would be interesting to see how deep you could laser cut into Kaizen foam before focus issues caused things to get squirrelly. If the answer is "not very deep", maybe cutting the thinner materials like I used in this project as individual layers and then laminating them together could work. That could be it's own special misery, though, if you cut so much away that the layers are floppy and uncontrollable.

    Thanks for the kind words and the comment.

    Best Regards,


    Hi Tom,

    I didn't really think the Kaizen foam would work best for you, but more for people who are not neat one of the shops where you can use the tools, like me, who may want to do something similar using a razor knife rather than a laser cutter.

    You're stuff looks amazing and I'm sure it will inspire people, so I wanted to let them know about a possible option for materials. Didn't mean to take focus from your impressive work, just offer those inspired by it a possible option for materials. :-)

    Hi JD,

    Apologies for whatever I said in my earlier reply that made you think I was in any way unhappy with your feedback. Far from it...the order I just placed for some Kaizen foam was inspired by it! I'll report back on how the thick foam performs in the laser in a week or so after I have a chance to play with it.



    Thanks Tom. Some people get very "sensitive" when comments appear to lead in a direction away from the Instructable, so I always "proceed with caution!"

    I'd be anxious to hear how it works for you! Please PM or email me when you get it and let me know what it looks like, and how it may work with a razor knife, maybe a pic or 2. I was going to get some, but the supplier I went to was out, and I've been focused on other projects ahead of it, but will be excited to hear how it actually works from someone I know. :-)

    PS - voted for you!

    Hi JD,

    I guess I'm happy that I'm not quite as fragile as the snowflakes you've run across before!

    I received the 30mm Kaizen foam yesterday. As soon as I figure out what I'm going to use it for, I'll start playing around with it and post the results. I will definitely do some knife work as part of the experiments so non-laser-enabled folks such as yourself can get something out of it.

    I wonder if it's possible or advisable to add to this Instructable or if I should just do a new one.

    Thanks for the vote!



    Inkscape also has an excellent raster to vector tool and is very useful.

    2 replies

    Hi XTL,

    I swear I responded to your comment earlier but it's nowhere to be found.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder about Inkscape. I haven't played with it in a very long time and it was a pretty crude tool back then. I'm sure it has improved a lot and I need to take another look. Adobe's switch to a subscription only model for their products doesn't really work for me as a casual user. I'm not sure what I'll do when my present version of Illustrator, Photoshop, etc get too crunchy to continue to use. Maybe Inkscape is the answer.



    Inkscape is about to release version 0.91. I use it for all my vector needs but YMMV. Its not the same as Illustrator. FWIW I agree with you about Adobe's pricing model. I don't use their products anymore. I'm learning the GIMP to replace pshop but you need to follow some tutorials because you have to think about some aspects differently.

    One of the best foam suppliers for this type of foam is a company called Future Foam they know their packing foam.

    This is good information, not only for tools, but also for making custom inserts for painted miniatures used in table-top wargaming. The hackerspace in St. Louis, Arch Reactor, where I am a member, has a laser cutter. I have found a source of foam in a neighbor who operates a vehicle upholstery business. He saves all of his scraps and many are large enough for my needs.
    Great Instructable! Thanks!

    2 replies

    Hi GT,

    Thanks for the kind words. Your comment about using inserts like these to store wargaming figs brought back some great memories of my misspent (?) youth. I haven't pushed any lead around a table in a long time, but we sure had a lot of fun with it in the wayback. Are figs even made with lead these days? Seems like the Nanny State would have put a stop to that by now.

    I'm jealous of your ready access to foam. Any idea what the foam from your neighbor is made from? How well does it cut in the laser?



    They are no longer made with lead, or even metal, but are now made with injection molded plastic or even resin.
    I don't know what the foam is made of, but I'm sure that I can find out from my neighbor.
    The laser cutter at the hackerspace just got an upgrade to an 80 watt laser. The old one could cut the foam well enough, but the new one is fewer passes at a lower setting. I'm still experimenting with scraps at the moment.

    I use Option 3 quite frequently when I need an outline of a part.

    Basically I import the scan into a cad package (I use Autocad, 'cos I've got access to it, but there are freeware alternatives available) and simply trace over the image to generate new linework.

    It's extremely quick and easy (for me, as a draghtsman), and you end up with a dxf file that can be used with most cnc machines, be they laser cutters or mills or anything else.