If you’ve spent any time following Cosplay, you’ve probably heard of Worbla. And for good reason! It’s pretty awesome stuff. It’s really easy to work with, can be molded and shaped however you want, you can use a bunch of techniques to finish & paint its surface however you like.
It does have some limitations, though, so it’s not perfect for every costume. It’s also very expensive, and not everyone can get it locally so shipping costs get pretty extreme too. So here are some of the alternatives I’ve used in the past, what they work best for, and where you can get them!
(aka Expanded Closed Cell PVC, or PVC Foam Board)
How much it costs: Varies by company, but usually $50 for a 32 sq. foot sheet
Where to buy it: Local Plastics Stores are your best bet, but also sold online. Most commonly sold by its generic names (Sintra is the brand name)
What it is:
Sintra is a lightweight thermoplastic originally used to outdoor signs. It’s very durable (much more durable than Worbla) but still very easy to work with. Its durability means you don’t have to do any weird technique to make sure it stays – a single layer is rigid enough to hold its shape forever without support. You can cut it with a knife, shape it with a heat gun, sand it, glue it, paint it all like Worbla.
Sintra is incredibly versatile. While it’s not quite as easy to shape as Worbla, it can still make some pretty complex shapes with it. And it’s durability means it’s my go-to material for the base layers of my armor. Every set of armor I’ve ever made had Sintra for it’s base layer, and some have it for the detail layers too.
(Tandy Leather’s new answer to Worbla)
How much it costs: $40 for a 2×3 foot sheet
Where to buy it: Sold exclusively by Tandy Leather. Check for local stores near you, or buy it from their website.
What it is:
Terraflex is Tandy Leather’s newest product. It is a thermoplastic extremely similar to Worbla in a lot of ways, but also just a bit different. For one, it smells like maple syrup, especially when heated with a heat gun! Like Worbla it’s not super durable by itself, so you either need to layer it or sandwich it or something to give it extra layers of durability. However when heated it will stick to most other plastics (including Sintra!) without any glue.
Usually I use Terraflex just for the details. I’ll use Sintra for the base layer for durability, and then use Terraflex for any details on top of that. You don’t need to coat the Sintra in it like you would foam, either. Once sanded & painted, you can’t tell the Sintra apart from the Terraflex, so there’s no need to fully wrap your pieces in it. Just cut little bits to fit the details and sand them down to your liking.
It’s also great because like Worbla, you can heat up the scraps and smoosh them together to be reusable! Not a single bit of waste.
(Plumbing for water sprinklers)
How much it costs: $10-15 for a 10 foot tube with a 2 foot circumference
Where to buy it: Home Depot, Lowes, & other hardware stores. May be able to purchase in flat sheets at plastic stores.
What it is:
PVC tubes are usually used to create plumbing for pop-up water sprinklers in yards, among other water-transportation-activities. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, with different connectors and such. You see a lot of convention booths use PVC pipe contraptions to hold up their signs & prints. But you can also cut one in half and flatten it out to create a sheet of plastic that you can heat-shape!
It’s a very inexpensive thermoplastic, and extremely durable, but it’s also much much harder to work with. You cannot cut it with a knife. You’ll need to use some sort of saw or rotary tool to cut it. It also takes much longer to heat, and when heated it tries to curve back to its natural form. (Trick! To stop it from trying to curl back up, heat it up and flatten it out. Then while its still hot, dip it in cold water to ‘freeze’ the molecules in place) Long story short, it’s not as easy to work with. But it has its uses! And it’s so cheap & easy to get your hands on, sometimes it’s worth the extra work for the price. And of course if you need something that’s already a tube shape, there’s nothing better than some PVC pipe.
Because of its extreme durability, it can be used for things like knee armor that’s strong enough for you to actually kneel on. It’s also great for sturdy props like swords or staffs. Because it’s so hard to cut and shape, it’s not too great for detail work. You may want to look at Sintra or Terraflex for those.
(Used to just be a rigid alternative to PVC. Until…)
How much it costs: Varies
Where to buy it: Varies! ABS tubes from hardware stores, ABS filament from… other stores!
What it is:
Once upon a time, ABS was just another option very similar to PVC. It was a little more rigid, but still difficult to work with & very very durable. You could buy it in even larger tubes than you could PVC, because it’s extra durability made it even better at holding large amounts of water.
Now… ABS is what most 3D printers use! As 3D printers come down in price, it’s worth mentioning that it’s a completely reasonable way to make armor, especially because they use such a durable thermoplastic. This is perfect for highly detailed pieces with tons of intricate parts, because you can just print the parts exactly the way you need and glue them together!
Of course you can also use ABS the same way you would use PVC tubes, to make the base layers of your armor, for super durable, thick armor that will never budge an inch.
(This stuff is trash. Literally!)
How much it costs: Varies!
Where to buy it: Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, etc.
“The Good Stuff”: Check with dealers that sell to Vacuuform table owners
What it is:
Styrene is probably what most people think of when they think “plastic.” It’s what trash cans, totes, plastic bins, and buckets are made out of. It’s pretty basic stuff that is SUPER cheap to come by (raid Goodwill once a week and you can become a Styrene tycoon!) though how easy to work with it is depends on what exactly you by.
Why? Because most Styrene you can buy in stores has been treated to be chemical resistant. The buckets, bins, and trash cans also have a treated surface that makes them repel everything. That includes paint. Yeah, this stuff can be a pain in the butt to paint, unless you can find some that isn’t treated.
It also has a tendency to try to revert back to the shape it started in, even after you’ve heat-shaped it. It doesn’t revert back right away, but slowly over time you may notice it trying to curve more than it used to.
All that said, if you can find a seller for it that isn’t shaped or treated yet, you have a very inexpensive but useful option on your hands! A lot of people who use Vacuuform tables swear by this stuff (along with ABS) because they found a seller for “the good stuff” and are now in love with it.
Personally, Sintra is my favorite thermoplastic. I’ve been using it for years, and I love how durable it is. I also love how easy it is to work with. Lately I combine Sintra & Terraflex together on most of my armor & weapon projects, because the two are very complimentary. Sintra handles the large base armor, while Terraflex goes on top to make the filigree & other details.
Do you have any favorites? Let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook!