Monday, March 19, 2012

Doing Radical Stuff With Pink Foam + Tips on Supplies and Process for Doing It Yourself

Any large-scale tournament organizer or hardcore hobbyist eventually builds something of a love affair with Pink Insulation Foam.

Results TBD in about 20 years whether this also means they build something of a love affair with exotic cancers ... but more on that later :)

The sweet terrain crew we have for the NOVA began building tournament terrain with pink foam with our hills last year, the design of which was tackled by Tim Williamson of the Tau of War.

They started as misshappen lumps of pink foam, and turned into some pretty solid looking and functional LOS blocking tournament terrain.


We also commissioned tons of cool figure-8 "footprinted" hills from a local terrain builder, although some were perhaps a bit too large for the centers of tables ...

But these suckers are all built from Pink Foam. That said, our production of foam-based material was largely limited to hills last year ... and this year we had yet another ambitious terrain production project ahead of us, in order to become fully self-sufficient in the terrain department.

One of our big requirements was the production of more partially-los blocking corner pieces, and also some really fancy pants LOS blocking centerpieces of a more "perfect" size and dimension than the Figure 8's we had to ad-hoc into the center of many tables. While my focus on this particular entry is what you can do with Pink Foam, we also have been exploiting the value of foamboard for creating the "base" structure of partial los blocking corner buildings ... and I'll highlight some of that as well in the following set of "in-progress" and "finished example"


Foamboard is available quite affordably from Michael's, and a few creative templates + proper foamboard cutters. Finishing is really where the details are at, and you can help avoid some of the inherent "warp-ability" over time of foamboard by applying proper coatings and finishings, and by building it in a way that doesn't expose it to too much damage.

Onto the pink.

Here are many of the pieces we built at the last terrain day (obviously not painted/textured/etc. yet, but you can see where they are going) ... PS you end up putting on silly faces for photographs like this staffer did, if you inhale too much pink foam smoke.

FYI we base our foam with thin MDF from Home Depot, which we cut/sand to shapes ... the flat edges you see around the foamboard and pink foam pieces' baseplates are power sanded down so that models don't encounter wobbly model syndrome when placed along the edges.

Tools. The most valuable tools for doing intricate things with pink foam are pretty straight forward. I know some folks build their own in this regard, but there are some serious advantages to a proper tool/set of tools.

While you can use a handheld hot wire cutter, it cannot/will not give you precision edges. This is in large part due to the imprecise nature of the tool, and the very thick wire. As a result, the notion of building believable walls and other things with it is a little bit on the difficult side. It's equally difficult to imagine repeating the same shapes reliably with it, so any type of build that would require replication for believability becomes more difficult.

Handheld wire cutters can be GREAT for hills and similar features, b/c the ripply effect they create along the edge of what they cut has a great appearance for "natural" and irregular features.

You can hand cut pink foam to a degree with sharp edges (and it tends to break along score-marks like plasticard), but that can also be time consuming, and can be harder to properly do with thicker pieces ... still problems!

So, after a little trial and error, we wound up with a supply of these suckers:

The Proxxon is WAY cheaper than the Mighty Might, though it has some user friendliness inhibitions that aren't quite there with the Mighty. The Mighty is the best we've used, if you don't mind the $219 up-front cost.

You could also go with this guy:

While nice for things like hills, the wire gauge is much thicker, which causes more roughage along the foam when you cut it. This slows down the cut and generates more smoke, but can be very effective for certain effects and results; it can also be quite a bit more durable over time. This last one is the best price, and certainly way better than a hand cutter; it may not be your FAVORITE for precision edges. We've used it as well and have a couple on hand for project days.

As a general rule, the thinner the wire, the straighter the edge potential and the less smoke generated in the process (aka less cancer in your future).

Aside from that, all you really need is Pink Insulation Foam (available in 8' x 2' sections from the Home Depot, in the $8-15/board range for thicknesses of 3/4" to 2") ... manufacturer is Owens Corning.

What we started to learn over time (and many of us knew it already, so once they came on board, instant knowledge!) is how much you could do with the simple addition of common tools. Knives and butane lighters/torches were the two most intriguing when we started to use them.


Also of huge merit in the production process was when one of our guys (pictured looking way too high on pink foam smoke in the above photos) grabbed a butane lighter and started firing at the pink foam with it.

This particular piece uses cutting / puncturing / gluing things to it, precision creation of repeated shapes/bricks, and burning giant meltabomb holes in walls.

Some other examples of recent productions abound below ...

Suddenly, you start to figure this stuff out. Pink foam is waterproof, takes spray paint better than rumored (unless you spray point blank), takes texture well, and has strong resilience against "bangs" and compression. It's simultaneously super easy to cut, damage, melt, warp, burn, and glue things to or stick things into.

More importantly, it's affordable as a product to start working with, and if you put in the up-front costs for the right tools ... and take some time to practice and get creative, you can really create some interesting material with it that makes awesome and unique terrain for your home table, club tables, or gaming groups.

Those veteran hobbyists out there probably know a million and more ways to do this stuff, and even do it better ... and we're open to those inputs as well :) ... but hopefully this is a little bit of a helper for those who are just getting into the hobby side of things, and who want to give a try to a couple of cool processes we've learned over the 1,000 pieces of terrain we've built for the NOVA.


  1. Hey mike, if you need a man with an airbrush to help paint all that stuff. let me know when you plan on painting...

  2. Roger dodger, Tim - we'll be getting to it starting at around May, and airbrushes galore will be more than helpful :)

    We could use your creativity on the pink foam cutters as well, the badass table ones, if you feel like coming around for one of those days :)

    Thanks for the offer, buddy!

  3. Great write-up. I wish I lived closer to you guys so I could contribute something to your cause, regardless of my absenteeism from NOVA 2012.

  4. You forgot the classics Mike. Poster board, card stock and balsa wood. Or the budget equivalent of all three--cereal boxes.

    Are there plans to build things other than ruins? May I suggest that you design some number of themed tables and build terrain for it. Perhaps an airfield, with a hangar (Major LOS blocker there), an ATC tower, a fuel dump etc. Or a refinery themes table or... you get the idea. And No, I cannot. I am getting my a** kicked by this American Indian museum you asked me to build. [Curse you MVB :) ] It is taking forever. But It will look GREAT when done. If I can get down there this Saturday, I'll bring what I have done, or I'll send another batch of WIP photos. All I can say is: good thing I own a variety of French curves. (Although back in the day, my favorite French curves were always on Catherine Deneuve... ) Still trying to figure out how to do the windows. They are weird :p

    Tim, You're going to want to use something a little stronger than an airbrush. Something similar to this [] and use properly thinned down interior latex matte or even satin finish wall paint--thinned with Paint Easy, available at the local Home Depot or Lowes. It is an excellent thinner for airbrushing too :) Get the wall paint by the gallon from the "Oops we mixed the wrong color" shelf at the HD or the Lowes for like $5. A cheap and very efficient priming solution. And if you're lucky, a base coat solution too, depending upon the nature of the Oops color. My local Home Depot seems to mis-mix vary shades of yellow-green. Go figure. Save the airbrush for the detail work.

    Mike, looks like you need to keep Jon away from the Pink Foam fumes. He be trippin' :) and there's no room for a bummer tent in the back yard, eh?

  5. mike,

    love what you guys are doing. I think its a great idea to become fully self sufficiant. BFS is getting geared up to start building terrain for Octobers BFS 3 GT. You were very generous in loaning us 30+ hills to fill out our tab le terrain. So im courious what you are doing for those middle terrain pieces since thats what we will need to concentrate on. Are you moving away from the Los blocking hills in the middle ? or are you modifying them in size ? Having been to our tourny you know what we had in the way of terrain. We tried to keep terrain consistant with NOVA terrain so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


  6. If you are pressed you can do pretty straight edges with a hand cutter. make a standard template out of hardboard or some other wire-proof material. Place the foam on a table with the template on top. Line the wire up on the edge of the table and spin the template around until the foam underneath is cut to the right form. Rinse and repeat for walls, roofs, floors, etc. The templates work great for any sort of cutter, really, but it's the best way I've found to get a "straight" edge off of a hand cutter.

    BTW, Geoff i LOVE the idea of the airstrip and hangar. it might be something I could work on in my garage, though I'd need to borrow your fighter-bombers to get a good sense for the measurements. That would be a huh-yoog project, so I'm assuming it would be for the Apoc scenario?

  7. I was really impressed with the change in terrain from NOVA1 to NOVA2. This is going to be an even larger leap in both coolness and functionality. I love the fact that some of the ruins will be tall enough to cover tall skimmer also.

    Lack of proper terrain is a major deciding factor for which events I attend and which armies I bring. Your progress and planning gives me hope and excitement for this year's NOVA. Keep up the great work and keep the pictures coming!

  8. Good to hear, man! Are you able to make it out this year?

    PS - the work on your DE army over on your blog is GORGEOUS; have added you to the roll here (which I'm terrible at, generally)

  9. Thanks Mike. It's on my radar, but my army collections are generally "compy" and would not fare well in the NOVA environment. I have thought about bringing the DE and going for renaissance man. We'll have to see!

    Ordering my Mighty Might today! Thanks for the review and info. I also love building terrain just as much as painting up armies.

  10. Hyv - it's worth sharing, the NOVA's environment is probably one of the most comp-friendly after DaBoyz, due to the nature of our bracketing approach. The first few rounds are going to be caveat emptor for a softer list, but you're going to find yourself in unified company for the medal-rounds 5-8 where generalship awards are won and competition generally meshes. It's also especially beneficial for those seeking Ren Man, as you may go 2-2 or 1-3 on Day 1, but have the opportunity to fight back for 5-3 or 6-2 on the second day, and thus win Best Overall with a high paint score (exactly what Gabe Dobkin did at 5-3 last year).

  11. Said another way, the format was redesigned last year with softer players in mind. The face-beaters can still do their face-beatiest to try for Best General in the top couple brackets, but the softer players are largely guaranteed to play only amongst their peers for the majority of the event.

    The key here that I probably don't enunciate well is, the sub-brackets of 16 are "fixed" from Rounds 5-8 - going 3-0 in your sub-bracket means you play the other 3-0 from your sub-bracket ... NOT someone who may be recently dropping down from a higher bracket and coincides with your record.

  12. Cut foam is great for carving, make sure you wear the proper facemask when working with it specially if sanding. The dust particles that you breathe in from this is dangerous, it sticks to your lungs and is there to stay since it does not decompose.

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