Craft Foam Armor Tutorial


I was searching for a cheap, light, but nice-looking material to make armor out of, and I discovered one - craft foam! This tutorial is designed to show what you can create using only materials that are widely available at general craft stores, with no need for specialty shops or internet orders. I specifically used it for Helm's Deep elf armor, but it could be used for almost any armor that you can break down into fairly flat pieces. The method listed below is what I've come up with, but there really is no one right way to use craft foam; check the end of the tutorial for links to other foam armor sites. For an example of a finished project, here's a picture of my elven armor.


Light weight
Inexpensive materials
Widely available materials
Easy to make
Safe to wear in crowds
Most steps are safe for kids to do
Flexible - won't break or crack
Great 'beginner' armor


Finish will wrinkle/craze if flexed too far
May be dented by sharp objects
Not suitable for high-stress use

Overall, this armor holds up quite well even when worn all day at a convention, and it's also a lot more comfortable to wear than other stiffer, more restrictive armor types. (I even took a nap in my armor, and this is the worst damage I could find.)


The tools you will need are:

Heat source - heat gun or stove burner

The materials you will need are:

Posterboard (for pattern)
Craft foam
Ball-point ink pen
Three-dimensional fabric paint
White school glue (lots! buy the large economy size)
Fabric glue
Fabric for backing
Acrylic craft paint

For those unfamiliar with this material, here's a pic of it as it comes straight from the store. These flexible foam sheets, usually known as craft foam or fun foam, are about 1/16 inch thick and come in a myriad of colors and several sizes, as well as in an an assortment of pre-cut shapes. They are popular for kids' crafts, and can usually be found next to the felt sheets, poster paints, glitter, and other such items in the childrens' craft section. Brand names include 'Foamies', 'Foam World', 'Friendly Hands'. Stores such as Wal-Mart carry this foam in their craft sections, but you may have to go to a hobby store to get the larger size (12 by 18 inches) sheets that you'll need for this project. The cost is about 85 cents a sheet for the larger sheets. I bought 20 sheets to make my armor. I'd recommend buying it in a color as close as possible to your final paint color, just so that you don't have to stress as much about paint coverage. This foam is also available commercially in huge sheets under the name L200 foam, so if you can't find it locally or in the right size, you might try that.

The first step is to make your armor pattern - I used posterboard for this. The easiest way to make a pattern to fit you is to tape stiff paper to your body, then have a friend draw the armor onto you. When removed and cut apart, this will give you your basic armor shapes. For more pattern information on Helm's Deep Elf Armor, see my pattern page or Julia's Elf Armor site.

Once you have the pattern, transfer the pattern to the foam sheets. I found that tracing around the pattern with a plain old ball-point ink pen worked best. I recommend lightly labeling each piece on the eventual underside with the piece number to make it easier to assemble later. You can maximize your foam usage by patterning out the larger pieces first, then fitting in the smaller pieces around them. Really large pieces may have to be made by patching two sheets of foam together - try to put the join in an inconspicuous place.

Now cut out your pieces with scissors. Careful - until it's been sealed, the foam gouges pretty easily, so don't carelessly drop your scissors on your work.

Assemble your armor by glueing the pieces to each other. I use plain old white school glue - it works great.

It's easiest to draw the guides for your raised designs and etched designs on the armor now, before it's shaped. A ball-point pen is perfect for this. Sketch lightly with the pen so that any lines that end up in the wrong place don't dent the foam.

The next step it heat-shaping the armor. For this you need a heat source. The best heat source would be a heat gun (if you want a cheap heat gun, check the stamp section of a craft store for an embossing gun), but other sources such as irons or stove burners work also. ALWAYS BE CAREFUL WHEN WORKING WITH HEAT! It's important to test on a few scraps of foam before moving to your good piece. If you overheat the foam, it will melt, bubble, shrink, and generally be ruined - not to mention it will get too hot to hold. You want to hold it in the heat just long enough for it to go a little floppy - a few seconds over a high burner - the foam shouldn't get hot enough to be unsafe to hold in your bare hands.

Once the foam softens, pull it out of the heat. Quickly curve it to the shape you want and hold it in the position until it cools (this only takes a few seconds). You can either mold it over a form or just bend it to the right shape with your fingers. The piece should hold its shape once it has cooled. You can reheat-reshape the foam an apparently infinite number of times until you get the shape you want.

Now is a good time to try on the armor and make any adjustments necessary. (Just taping it on works fine for this test.)

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Once you've got the armor to the shape you want it, it's time to do your 'etching'. This is done by going over the lines of the etching designs with a ball-point pen, pressing hard. Do this two or three times until the design is deeply engraved in the foam. The ball-point works well because it rolls along the foam instead of sticking and tearing the foam. You want to make the designs as deeply impressed in the foam as you can without tearing or cutting the foam. For finer, sharper lines, use a tool such as the point of a seam ripper and actually cut into the foam (thanks, Julia, for this tip!).

Now you need to stiffen, strengthen, and support the armor by adding a fabric backing. I like to use cotton crinkle gauze because it's lightweight, cheap, and easy to work around curves and corners.

Cut a piece of fabric that is plenty large enough to cover your piece of armor - leave it oversized, don't trim it to the shape of your armor yet.

Brush the back of the armor piece with a coat of white school glue.

Smooth the fabric over the glue, working it into any curves or corners and making sure it's stuck down up to the very edges of the piece of armor. Let dry.

Once the glue has dried, trim the excess fabric away with your scissors so that the edge of the fabric is flush with the edge of the foam.

Give the fabric another coat of glue, making sure all edges are stuck down well. Let dry. For long, thin pieces such as the hip armor that are more inclined to be floppy, I recommend repeating these steps to give it a second fabric backing for more support.

Next comes the really 'arty' step - doing your raised designs. Squirt-tube fabric paint is perfect for this. Make sure that you get three-dimensional fabric paint, not the sort that dries flat. I used fabric paint in metallic gold because it's always sensible to use your desired final color when possible.

It's a good idea to practice a little with the fabric paint before using it on your armor. The crispest results will be obtained by using thin lines - if you thin line isn't 'tall' enough, do two thin lines on top of each other. Try to keep the pressure even to avoid bumpiness. If you mess up, just wipe the paint off with a damp cloth before it dries and try again. When you're happy with your paint job, let it dry overnight.

Now you need to seal the foam. This is the most boring step, but it's very important to the final appearance of your armor. Craft foam is basically a sponge, which means that unless it is sealed it will soak up as much paint as you can put on it. Sealing it prevents this, and gives a nice smooth finish for your final paint job.

I've found that what works well to seal the foam is a mixture of one part Sobo glue, one part flexible fabric glue, and two parts water. This gives you a nice smooth coat that retains good flexiblity. If you can't find Sobo, just use white school glue - it'll be almost as flexible. The water thins the glue down enough that it will not retain brush strokes.

Paint it onto the foam in thin coats - you don't want it to make puddles. Let the armor dry between coats. Keep giving it coats until you have a nice smooth finish. You may notice little air holes that seem to 'pop' through the glue as your paint - you want to keep coating it until all these are filled in, then one or two more coats on top of that. This usually takes 7 or 8 coats, so I recommend doing one coat a day for a week or so - don't skimp on the number of coats or you'll regret it. Make sure you paint the edges of the foam, as well. Try to keep the armor in a lint-free area while it dries, because any little bits of fluff that stick to the glue will show up when you paint it.

Now it's time to color the armor. First, give the fabric-lined back of the piece a good coat of acrylic craft paint in the same color as your armor. This way any glimpse people catch of the back of your armor will be the same color as the front.

For the front of the armor, you're going to want a finish that will flex with your foam. All the paints I tried were not flexible enough, so I bypassed paint completely and came up with a metallic finish that looks great and flexes very well (it develops a fine wrinkled crazing when bent too far, but no cracks). For this I used Future No-Wax Acrylic floor polish and Rub'n'Buff. Future can be found in the floor cleaner section of the grocery store, Rub'n'Buff is a wax finish that is usually found by the gold leafing paint, etc, in the craft store.

Apply a thin coat of rub'n'buff to the armor, using a quick circular rubbing motion to prevent streaks. Use a paint brush to work the rub'n'buff into the cracks and crannies of the armor. After a the rub'n'buff dries, buff it with a soft cloth, then seal it by painting with a coat of the Future. Repeat these two steps with another coat. I then used rub'n'buff in a slightly different color to apply one last coat, just hitting the high spots, to get a two-tone effect.

On to the weathering! I used a 50/50 mixture of black and dark green acrylic craft paint. It's a good idea to mix up enough for all of your armor at once and store it in a jar between uses. Brush this onto the armor, making sure to get it into the recessed areas. Work in small sections at a time.

Quickly, before the paint dries, wipe most of it off with a damp cloth, leaving just a little in the recessed areas of the armor. Repeat the paint/wipe process until you are happy with the effect, then let the paint dry.

If desired, give the armor another light touch of Rub'n'Buff, hitting the highlights of the decorative details. You can also put a little Rub'n'Buff over any areas you may have over-weathered with the paint.

Just to show the importance of weathering, here's a comparison showing an unweathered shoulder bell (left) next to the weathered one (right).

I'll sneak in a little tip here - if you're making armor for a child's costume or something similar where you don't want to put in too much work for something that will be torn up and grown out of, skip the sealing step, ignore the Rub'n'Buff step, and just paint the front of the armor with the same acrylic craft paint you used for the back. This won't give you a smooth metallic finish, but it will give adequate results and be a lot faster. I would recommend adding 1 part fabric glue to every two parts of the paint, just to make it more flexible.

You're done!

Other craft foam armor links

Jedi Elf Queen
Julia's not just a friend, she's also an incredibly talented
costumer. Check out her foam armor work and tips!

Amethyst Angel
A foam armor technique that uses plastic sheets instead
of painted sealant. Very attractive results!


Tutorial copyright "Penwiper" '03