Alchemy: Foam to Gold

shoulder peiceWhat strikes me the most about making armor out of foam is just how easy it is. Jared (my best friend, partner, husband, lover, costume designer) has long known this secret, but it’s only recently that I’ve figured it out.

Jared and I were selling wigs at Anime Boston when this impossibly beautiful couple walked up to the table. They might have been turned away from a modeling agency because they were a tad short for runway, but no other reason would have kept from from our cultural ideal of beauty. They were tanned and muscular and gorgeous, soft and hard in all the right places. And wearing wonderful foam armor. When I could tear my brain away from thinking about just how fuckable both of these people were, I began to think about their armor. They were very enthusiastic, talking about their armors construction, and it got me thinking: Maybe I can do this.

I love costumes, but I don’t make many because of my long standing feud with the sewing machine.

I’m not very good at sewing. I can put together a pillow, sure, but anything more complex than sewing a square to another square makes me confused and frustrated. I once tried to sew a dress, and while the skirt came out fine the bodice had me in tears.



What I am good at is constructing things. Glue, plastic, foam, cardboard – I can make these materials sit up and beg.  Looking up close at foam armor, I knew that this was something well in my skill set.

I have a giant photoshoot coming up called Danger’s Untold. It’s an Alice in Wonderland setup, where a girl finds herself in a fantasy setting.

I’ve rented armor in the past, but the problem with that is I only get to keep the armor for a short time. That, and I have to compromise my vision for what the rental place has available. So this time, I’m making my own. This way, the armor would look exactly the way I like it for the shoot, and I’d be able to reuse it for other shoots.

I decided to start by constructing gauntlets. Why gauntlets?  Gauntlets are a small,  simple shape that would allow me to test the techniques without using a ton of materials.

The first step in creating gauntlets is getting your materials. For me, that was craft foam, hot glue, spray paint, acyrilic paint, and a sealant.

patternThe next step is making a pattern, which is the step I was most tempted to skip. I mean, it’s my freakin’ arm, right? How complex could this be? I just make a tube, right? But I decided to make a pattern anyway, just to get the practice with it.

I’m glad I did. There is a curve to the arm and the wrist that I wouldn’t have known about without the pattern.  I put saran wrap over my arm and taped the wrap. Then I drew the pattern of the gauntlet that I wanted, and cut the whole thing off my arm. Then I had a pattern for the gauntlet.

I cut out the foam using the pattern as a guide. Then I shaped it into a curved shape by heating the foam and bending it into the right shape. It does not take much heat to shape foam. Waving it over a very low heat for a few seconds is plenty of time to heat it up enough to bend it. Lots of people do this with a heat gun. I did it with my stove on very low heat, waving the foam high above the fire. The foam does not need to go anywhere NEAR the flame. I cannot emphasize enough how little heat it takes to make foam bendable. Whatever you are thinking right now, it’s less that that. Don’t light yourself on fire, okay?

gauntletwineThen I put the gauntlets into a wine glass to get the shape to hold. One of the most important things about getting foam to keep it’s shape is getting it to cool in the right shape. Otherwise it will just sort of flatten out.

You don’t need to use wine glasses. I’m sure rubber bands, clamps, or other tools could do the same thing. I just happened to have these on hand. Also, it sort of looks awesome to have gauntlets sticking out of wine glasses.

Then I glued a bottom and top ridge on to the gauntlet with strips of foam. For the style I like, I’ve found that lining the edges, and creating lots of overlapping pieces make the armor look more realistic.

Foam getting sealed.

Foam getting sealed.

After I got all the details glued into place, I used a sealant to get the foam ready for paint. Plasti dip is a great spraypaint sealant, but modge podge is also great when you want to get a thicker sealant into corners.

Then I spray painted everything. Remember to spray paint outdoors and protect your surfaces with newspaper, plastic or cardboard. I have a giant piece of cardboard I spraypaint stuff on. After that, the foam is nice and shiny.

Then we get dirty.

You might think that it’s far better to have a shining new piece of armor than a weathered, dirty look. After all, don’t we all want to be gleaming? But with foam, weathering is what takes the armor from looking like spray painted foam to armor. Your foam warriors are far better if they are experienced than if they are newly minted. With other materials, you might be able to get away with gleaming suits of armor, but you are working with foam here!

Weathered gauntlet on the left, clean gauntlet on the right.

Weathered gauntlet on the left, clean gauntlet on the right.

Jared told me once about how young cowboys in the wild west would beat the living crap out of their hats. You see, having a nice new hat marked them as a brand new cowboy – inexperienced. No one wants to take a chance on the new kid – you just don’t believe in them. So they had to wail on their hats like they were owed money. That’s how you have to treat your armor. You need to make it look worn so it will be believable.

I weathered my gauntlets by taking black paint mixing it with a little water and washing them over the gauntlet. I let that sit for 30 seconds. Then I wiped that away with a cloth. (The cloth you do this with will be ruined forever. So. Keep that in mind.) The I took special care to get black paint into the edges and creases, where dirt would be hard to clean. This left the paint in the deepest recesses.

Weathering is my favorite part of the process. It give the armor more weight and age. It’s the incredibly satisfying finishing touch to the process. It helps to imagine all the battles your armor has gone through when you are adding grit to your beautiful armor.

Making foam armor is incredibly satisfying. It doesn’t take that long, so you can see your results quickly, and you can make a costume piece that fits you perfectly. It’s not the most realistic of methods – foam armor doesn’t move right to look like metal, but it’s perfect for still photography. (Tomorrow I’ll have a post where I show you what the armor looks like after some studio photos and a round of photoshop)

I’ve already crafted a bodice in gold, four gauntlets and a shoulder piece, a breastplate and belt in silver. I hope there are lots of fantasy photoshoots in my future, so that I get the chance to craft even more.

Gallery of Armor: Click on any photo below to make it larger.

4 thoughts on “Alchemy: Foam to Gold

  1. I know of two different things called ‘craft foam.’ Since you are unable to read my mind and tell me if the one I’m thinking of is the right one (and if you can read my mind, please don’t tell me), would you put a link to an example of the craft foam you used?

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