How to Create a Halloween Village: Chapter 4
Carving a Foam Base
When creating a foam base start with a large, thick foam sheet that covers the entire area of your display, which we’ll call the “foundation.” For example, if we are creating a display on a 2-foot by 4-foot folding table, the foundation would be a sheet of foam measuring 2 x 4 feet.
Having considered your layout, place your buildings on this foundation. Once you are happy with the layout start adding levels by roughly cutting and layering smaller slabs of foam under some of the buildings. As you cut make sure to leave room for carving later. You can stack as many layers of foam which you will later glue together using craft foam or low-temp glue gun to secure to the foundation. Take a picture of the draft layout or mark the foam where the buildings will be placed and set them aside.
Carving the foam is next using a serrated knife or a Hot Wire Foam Cutter is the next step. Just like carving a ham, you remove layers and add texture. There are many techniques but here are some YouTube videos to get you started. I recommend practicing on a scraps of foam before carving your base.
Below are a few supplies that I suggest having on hand. Safety first! Working with melted foam, adhesives, and hot tools may be toxic and hazardous to your health so work in well-ventilates spaces, using eye protection, and personal respirators.
Foam for Carving a Base
There are several options for building a base for your village. Often referred to as "Styrofoam" (which is a brand name) foam is made of little plastic bubbles puffed and compressed into sheets. The closer and smaller the bubbles, the more dense it is. The denser the material, the better it is to carve and retain detail.
Traditional Styrofoam (above left) sold in crafts stores is brittle and too airy to carve with any detail. Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam (above middle) is often faced on both side with a plastic skin. You'll want to slowly peel away this skin before storing or using. Left in a hot garage, this plastic melds onto to the foam and is very difficult to remove. Wear a respirator mask as the adhesive turns into a powdery mist as you peel the skin away. If you leave the skin on, it presents a sticky, stringy, melty problem when you try to carve it, and it's difficult to paint. Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) which has a much higher density and can be recognized by the blue, green or pink colors. I use the blue sheets for detailed sculpture I intend to use year-after-year. It has no skin and is typically printed on one side, but it is more expensive and usually available in limited thickness.
Both EPS and XPS foam are readily available at home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes. Look for it in the building materials section in the insulation aisles, or just ask for "rigid foam". It is sold in 4' x 8’ sheets for about $11-$30 depending on thickness and density. I've also seen 2' x 4' sheets that are much easier to transport but more expensive than the full sheet.
Serrated or Hot Knife
Once you have your foam, start your layout by cutting down the large sheets using a keyhole saw with a sturdy handle. You can also use a sturdy serrated bread knife but make sure it's dedicated to crafting and not one from the kitchen (buy an inexpensive knife at a discount store like TJ Maxx or Home Goods). Sawing away at foam makes a giant mess so be prepared for clean up.
Electric knifes can also be helpful since they provide all the sawing motion and they heat up a little leaving a slightly cleaner cut. It's still a mess.
Hot knifes are the easiest way to cut through foam but you should be aware they are sharp, can seriously burn you instantly, and they're expensive. But they are super clean with no foam dust. You do need to work in well ventilated space.
Hot Wire Foam Cutter
Once the large sheet is cut down to more manageable pieces, you can carve the foam with a hot wire foam cutter, which is looped wire attached to a handle. When you plug it in, the wire gets very hot allowing you to cut (or rather melt) through the foam. Using various wire shapes and techniques you can achieve a rocky appearance or even a brick pattern.
You can find cheaper hot wire foam cutters at craft & model railroad stores, but I prefer the pro tools at Hot Wire Foam Factory. They are the best.
Safety first! It is vital to work in ventilated spaces or outdoors, and wear a respirator safety mask . Foam is essentially plastic and burning plastic gives off toxic fumes. For questions contact the manufacturer of your foam.
Low Temp Glue Gun
To assemble foam pieces together, you can also use specialty liquid glues like Foam Fusion (which is carvable when dry) or even Elmer's Glue but they take a while to set.
It's better to use a low-temp glue gun. Do not use high temp as the glue will melt right through the foam like acid. My preferred glue gun is the Surebonder PRO2-100L 100-watt low temperature glue gun and Surebonder glue sticks – yes, quality glue sticks make a difference!
For extra support of intricate shapes, broken foam pieces or to help give taller structures a more stable core, insert wooden skewers or toothpicks into the foam and secure with a dab of hot glue at the ends.