How to work with Styrofoam and Polystyrene

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hills and cuttings

Styrofoam and Polystyrene are amongst my favourite landscape construction materials.

Cheap, easy and quick to work with Polystyrene foam, and its close relative Styrofoam, are great for creating hills, tunnels and cliffs and even buildings (in larger scales).

Their light weight also makes an ideal material for small layouts in restricted spaces, such as a spare room, where you do not need or be able to erect permanent woodwork and supporting structures needed for heavier materials.

It’s undoubtedly these reasons that it’s such a popular material for modellers but also one that creates more than its fair share of questions as to how to work with it.

Here then are the top tips I’ve picked up from my experience in working with it plus those from some of the best modellers in the field.

Gluing Tips

(See what’s the best glue for Polystyrene and Styrofoam for the best adhesive to use).

  • Apply the glue to both surfaces being glued and rub the sheets together to force out air bubbles and ensure an even coating.
  • Use heavy objects or clamps to push the material together achieving a long-lasting bond.  (The pot the glue comes in, filled with glue or water, or a handy glass bottle makes a great weight if you don’t have clamps. If you do use clamps, place a piece of wood or thick card between the clamp and foam so as not to damage it).
  • If glueing two sections together, place a sheet of newspaper between them — think sandwich. This will provide a much stronger join.
  • Insert pins and/or wire at angles through the boards to hold them in place while glueing. Remember to remove this before cutting them in future.

Shaping and Cutting

At this stage, don’t worry about detail — this is just to get a rough shape and for subsequent layers where the detail will be added.

For the majority of my cutting, I use Nordstrand’s hot wire knife, available from Amazon here.

This literally slices through the stuff and has the big benefit that it doesn’t create a lot of mess although the fumes of the melting Styrofoam/Polystyrene are toxic so this should only be done in well-ventilated spaces or outdoors.

The one area this can’t be used of course is on internal areas where the long wire of the hot knife doesn’t reach or fit — such as caves and tunnels. For these I use a short serrated knife; a fruit knife (borrowed from the kitchen) is ideal.

As mentioned, one problem with cutting this material is that it can create lots of mess and a small vacuum cleaner such as this one is handy to have around.

Painting, Texturing and Finishing

Having shaped the foam, it’s then a case of applying surface texture and detailing.

Before getting into specifics, one general tip I’ve found very useful is from at Arla Johnson at miniland.ca.

“When painting small Styrofoam items they have a tendency to move around and stick to the brush. Even worse, if you use a spray or airbrush they fly off the workbench in the wind.”

Aria’s tip is to pin them down while painting and drying to keep them in place. For small pieces, track pins are ideal. For larger items, a needle can be used. I pin them to a larger sheet of polystyrene but this is just a personal preference.

It’s a simple tip but one I wish I’d thought of years ago!

Sadly, the original article is no longer available but there’s an archive copy here.

If you’re creating hills and ground areas, I’d just lay plaster cloth over the top, paint it a suitable earth colour and then apply scatter and static grass once dry before topping with trees and bushes (see my guides on DIY foliage, make your own trees and home made bushes). Any variety of plaster cloth will work although I now make my own.

For creating streams, rivers, valleys and other indentations in the terrain, a naked flame (as I covered previously in this tip) creates wonderful river bed textures.

For rock and cliff faces or anywhere that doesn’t require a smooth finish, these materials are ideal and can create very credible effects. Take a look at these pictures of polystyrene rocks for an example of some of the impressive results possible. I’m itching to try these on the Cornish section of my N gauge layout!

Just take a look at what the folks at TerraGenisisa do if you want examples of the possibilities and they have a great guide to Styrofoam rock detailing here.

When painting, perhaps the best tip I’ve found over the years is this one on the Libbrarium-online Warhammer forum. Using our old friend PVA, coat the Polystyrene before painting.

This gives a better finish when painting and allows a greater range of paints to be used, although water based craft sprays are my preferred choice for their price for base coats on large areas given their low price compared to specialist model paints.

Masonry and stone work

Finally, don’t just limit yourself to landscape with polystyrene and styrofoam. They can, especially the latter, make great stone and masonry modelling material.  There’s a good guide to making masonry type walls here or if you prefer there’s a video on making stone walls that will hopefully give you a few pointers and ideas below.

Do you use Styrofoam and Polystyrene on your layouts? How do you work with it? Join the conversation and add your tips below.

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