An Intro to Modeling with Foam

(Notes from our October, 2011 presentation)


By Pat Deluhery and Ron Harrison

911 Memorial Foam Sculpture

by Colette Pitcher of Showcase Art Center

1.Use.  Foam is on the rise for use by modelers, railroad enthusiasts, theater groups and decorators. Check out the number of foam decorations and other times available in any discount store.  You can do anything with foam easily and cheaply!

2. About the foam.  There are many different types of foam generally available, from the white beaded stuff used to pack electronics to the green floral foam used in flower arrangements. The type of foam used depends on the job. If you need good detail definition, one of the best types is the foam insulation available from home construction suppliers either pink or blue(waterproof). Only drawback is you have to buy this in 4X8 sheets.

3.   Safety.  There are two things to watch out for: The tools get hot; and, depending on the foam , vapors from heat cutting may be toxic. Its wise to check out the cautions for any foam you buy.  Its ALWAYS wise to do your work in a well-ventilated area, and dont breathe the vapors.

4. Tools: There are a variety of tools available depending on the job.

  • There is a U shaped tool called the Sculptor that works like a wood plane.  
  • The Knife is basically a stiff wire 6-8 long, and  is the most versatile for general use.
  • An Engraver is similar to soldering iron in looks and is used for creating fine detail. 
  • There is a large bow for big jobs like theater sets, as well as various special tool such as a band saw like device for fine cutting.
  • You can spend as little or as much as you like. A good basic knife costs about $20 and will be adequate for most jobs. If youre doing lots of work, you may decide to invest in some of the other and more expensive tools.
  • A good place to look is: The Hot Wire Foam Factory.  Google it online. This is not a recommendation, just a place to start.
  • You can also cut and shape foam with hand tools such as a serrated knife, but its very messy. Hot tools are the best.

5.  Examples of Projects:

  • Trace a  pattern with a stylus onto a piece of foam, then cut it out with a Knife. You can make whatever you can draw or trace.
  • Use a Sculptor to carve out scenery for a model display or train set up.
  • Use an Engraver to cut rocks or bricks into a wall.
  • Sculpt a bust or figure like the 911 Memorial above.

6. Sealing, Strengthening and Texturizing. After cutting our you pattern it is important to seal it to prevent absorbsion of moisture and to accept paint.

  • A simple but effective seal is Elmers (white) glue and water about 50/50 mixture.
  • There are many other commercially available sealants to do a variety of other jobs, such as add strength, texture or weatherproof. 
  • For many jobs inside or outside, a good coat of exterior latex paint will do nicely.

7. Paint.  Now youre ready to paint with a good acrylic or latex paint.  An airbrush is ideal for many of the projects we might do.

8. Glue.  If you need to glue items, such as assembling a building, hot glue is probably the easiest. The bind is solid once the glue cools and its easy to use. There are special foam glues, or good old white glue or even rubber cement (better for temporary holds) that will work well also, depending on the project. As with modeling, its wise to pin assemblies with a toothpick or wire to hold parts in place and give added strength.

9. Special Effects. Certain oil-based paints, glues and solvents will eat the foam surface when applied. This can be useful for creating groundwork, battle damage or showing wear on walls or streets. Be sure to experiment fist before applying to your project.

10. So now its your turn. Go have some fun with foam and create something for yourself!