Turning up the heat in Cosplay
Ever wonder what makes a great cosplay really great? Wonder what made a judge pick Entrant A over Entrant B? Or, why one person can look like a cosplayer in a great outfit and the other can look like the character come to life? The devil is in the details my friends, and over the coming weeks, we are going to have a conversation about just that.
Over the series of articles, I will be doing here for the Guild of Nerds, I will talk about finishing cosplays and what you can do to make them more convincing and to stand out. Everyone has seen a hundred tutorials on how to straight stitch, how to sandwich Worbla, and how to pattern and glue foam, but many cosplayers (even some bigger names) still miss out on some of the subtle stages of finishing a piece that change your sword from painted wood to convincing metal, or painted foam to a subtle carbon fiber. I am going to chat to you about the techniques that can be used to go from A to an A+, and at the end of the series, we will have a chat about competitions and how the stuff you have read can be used to your advantage to win the judges over. Of course, if you don’t enter competitions this information can still be of use and interest to you; we all want to look our best, so stay tuned, and read on. The techniques and ideas we cover will begin simple enough and move up from there.
Turning up the heat in Cosplay
Our opening topic is going to be all about heat, that gentle friend we all miss so much in the current temperatures outside. Heat can be used in many ways for cosplay; some like forming foam you have heard of, others maybe less so, but we will cover the A to Z all the same.
Tools are important. No matter what cosplay work you are doing, having the right tools can make or break a project right from the very beginning. For heating, there are a number of things you may use. For heating, a heat gun is best. Many people try to use a hairdryer, however, a hairdryer only reaches a maximum of 90 degrees, which is only just enough to activate Worbla and takes ages to heat foam sufficiently; not heating your foam enough can cause subtle creases when you bend it. Many advanced modelers use a blowtorch for the same purpose, as it is super quick. However they are also more dangerous and harder to come by, so use at your own discretion. A heat gun will only cost you about €20. A soldering iron or wood burner is perfect for doing detail work, and also a simple lighter can be a handy tool in a pinch.
This might seem strange but there is an application for heat in sewing. It is brief, which is why I am talking about this first, but can be important. Many of you will know that certain fabrics tend to fray after being cut. You will fold them in and hem them away but somewhere down the line you will see the frayed edges starting to poke out from underneath again. This can be fixed however with a bit of heat and foresight. Simple drag the frayed edge of your piece along an open flame before sewing it down and the singed edges will harden, stopping the fraying in its tracks.
The other application is weathering. As I mentioned in the opener, the devil is in the details, and so expect to hear about detailing a lot. When working on certain pieces that you want to have a gritty feel, weathering is usually necessary. This is often true also in medieval style settings such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, where everything is well worn. A few well places singes and burns along the edge of a long robe can provide some quick and easy weathering to help achieve that well-worn look.
Part of the applications of heat for Worbla is self-explanatory given that Worbla is a thermoplastic. At a certain temperature, thermoplastics activate and can them be shaped and molded until they cool down. However this can be used for detailing Worbla just as much as shaping it or applying it to a foam piece. Etched details in weapons or armor such as runes or sigils can be applied to Worbla easily enough by applying heat and pushing them in with a sharp slight object like a knife or sculpting tool. This is, however, dependant on the thickness of the Worbla or more commonly, whether the material supporting it from underneath will allow it. This is one of the many reasons why foam is the most common backing material used for Worbla, so let’s talk about that.
Foam is a cosplayer’s best friend. When you need something flexible, they have foam for that. When you need something a little sturdier, they have foam for that. And even when you need Worbla for that rock hard finish, the foam is usually your best backing material to help and develop your shape correctly.
When it comes to working with foam, heat is one of your best friends along with your rotary tool. The most basic application of heat with foam is one many of you will be familiar with, and that is for shaping. EVA foam is semi-porous, and when heat is applied the pores shrink leaving you some limited time to bend the piece to your will. I would suggest always going a little overboard as despite its malleability, form will still try to spring back as much as it can when cool, so if you want that 90 degree bend, go 120. This can also be used on pieces before gluing to help form complex shapes with less resistance. Also remember to make use of your environment and objects around you to help achieve the shapes you need when heat forming. Pushing a heated piece into an aluminium bowl can help in forming domes for instance.
Shaping can be used artistically also to bring a piece to life. If you look at the two pictures here of the Deathstroke helmet, you can see by heating and pushing in about the brow and around the eye sockets, the piece all of a sudden looks a lot more menacing.
When it comes to finishing your pieces, many of you might have some frustrations when it comes to painting foam effectively. This all comes down to sealing, and while that is a topic of itself for another day, heat can be used as a sealant itself. Heating sealing is a moderately common technique used in foamsmithing that even some of the bigger names have missed. When I mentioned how heat shrinks the pores in EVA foam earlier, the other effect of this is that it seals them.
This results in two things. One is that the foam loses most of its ability to absorb a certain amount of moisture. This might seem significant, but without sealing the foams of your foam, any glues or paints that you apply to it will get partially soaked into it, meaning more coats and an uneven finish. You should always heat seal you foam pieces before applying any sealants, glues or paints. The second effect of the shrinkage caused by heat can be seen after sanding. Foam can be sanded. It can be tough, and kicks up a right mess, so most use a rotary tool like a Dremel to ease the process. One of the problems, however, is that the sanding will leave a moderately rough texture consisting of lots of little fuzzy balls of foam that most aptly nickname “fuzzies”. Heating these fuzzies however will cause them to shrink and ultimately disappear, giving you back your smooth surface after sanding. This is incredibly important of the edges of foam props and armour, and nothing is less convincing than metal armour with loads of fuzzy balls hanging along the sides of it. You can see in the examples below how burning away your fuzzies can help.
The last and most important use of heat for foamsmithing though, unsurprisingly, comes when applying details. There are many ways you can use heat to detail foam. You could intentionally burn the surface of a piece that you want to look chaffed or singed, or you could heat the back to bend in some sharp notches at the front. More commonly, however, heat detailing is down for accents and ridging using two simple techniques that can bring a flat piece to life.
The first of these will need the use of a knife. Using the same principles of shrinkage from earlier, if you score the surface of your foam with a knife, the heating of that will cause the score mark to separate and widen, creating some nice subtle lines in your piece. This can be used to recreate wood grain (such as in the Crash Bandicoot crate pictured opposite), make the opening in faux screw heads, or adding simple borders, to name a few examples. Any if you want some less subtle line detail, we can use a wood burner or soldering iron. Foam burns quite easily and fiercely, so for one, wear a respirator when doing this, and also be careful of the iron itself, as it normally exceed 400 degrees and can be easy to accidentally tip off of. Detailing with an iron is simple, let it heat up, and then draw your detail like you are using a fountain pen. It is best to test your iron on a piece of material the same as what is in your piece in order to make sure it is heated up enough; 5-10 mins should normally do it. Also be sure to draw your detail on clearly with a silver sharpie or something similar first as it is far easily to follow a line you can see before you rather than in your mind’s eye.
As mentioned earlier, be careful of what you touch when using heating tools. Things like the iron and heat gun can retain immense heat of the metal parts long after being turned off, so be careful where you leave them also. As mentioned, wear a respirator, and make sure the room is well ventilated so you don’t set off any alarms. Lastly, go slowly. Take your time so you don’t accidentally burn anything, including yourself.
And that is that for heating. Be sure to feel free to ask any questions you might have, and tell me any other detailing or finishing topics you would like covered in these articles. Until next time, aim higher.