Tuesday, April 4, 2017

New tools to cut polystyrene with a hot-wire cutter

Although half the hobby from a terrain building perspective is keeping an eye out for discarded toys, boxes and other shapes to build with, the other half is translating an idea into something tangible. The material that would be most useful for this is polystyrene, not the shitty expanded kind (with the little balls that keeping break off even years after sealing painting and pouring holy machine oil on it) but the solid extruded sort. It is reasonable solid, lightweight and with a few easy measures quite durable. One thing it is not, is easy to cut. As with its cousin foam board I keep spare blades at the ready and an average build tends to eat up a full set of spare blades because polystyrene is dull (pro-tip: when given a last request at the guillotine, ask for polystyrene, quickly dull the blade and walk away with a sore neck ;) ).

Add to this problem that it is hard to keep cut edges straight a tool is needed. So a few years back I decided to invest in a hot wire polystyrene cutter. At first I attempted a few 'home-build' projects that all failed and finally I just forked over the cash for a 'real' machine. This is the one.

My hot-wire cutter, als known as my rather expensive mistake...
It basically features an electrified hot wire that cuts through the polystyrene. The metal bar on the right is used to guide your project and keep the edge straight, the angle wheel on it helps to cut and an angle and for extra complexity you can move the wire to make another angle with the table. So far so good. Unfortunately this relatively expensive piece of equipment turned out to be next to useless to me. If you push the 2.5 of 5 cm (1 or 2 inch) polystyrene blocks along the guide they tend to tilt over the lower metal bar, ruining the edge. Add to that the way the guide is fixed to the angle wheel. This forms an almost natural hinge. Quite often after careful positioning of the bar the end result is a tilted, crooked mess. I still used to the hot wire cutter, but usually to save on blades and if the resulting block was reasonably out of sight like the blue block in the top-left corner on this recent project. 

The solution to my polystyrene cutting problem: only place it where it doesn't really matter.
The edge was so bad I did not even seal this in before spray coating figuring that rattlecans eating large pieces of this block would only improve the look of it. 

I think I've gotten away with my polystyrene abuse...
That changed this weekend. I was giving AoS demonstrations at the local gaming convention Impact (<- warning annoying autoplaying music on website!). During a break I walked past the stands and met the guy behind Shifting Lands who offered a demonstration of their tools to aid in cutting polystyrene with a hot-wire cutter. This rather quickly turned into a 'shut up and take my money situation and I ended up buying a number of their tools. All of these come as laser cut wood kits you have to glue together before use. As I did not have a lot of time to create my own scenery with them here is a quick rundown of the tools I'll be using on a couple of the upcoming tiles for my modular space ship interior.

Seeing this guide for the hot-wire dropper demonstrated actually made my jaw drop.
First up is the Guider Pro. You use this make straight cuts.It is large enough to alway properly guide polystyrene past this fixed position. The guy that sold me this managed to cut (I think) 0.5 cm polystyrene sheets from a bigger block. Turns out cutting is a skill that I will need to get more practice in, but I have managed 1cm sheets on my first tries.

Cutting at an angle with easy. 
This is the angle cutter. It was rather a lot of work to put it together properly, but it makes cutting at an angle ridiculously easy. Suddenly making rooftops, tank traps and wall that fit together at an angle is within easy reach.

And the best bit seems so simple, a circle cutter for polystyrene.
The third add-on is such an obvious concept (in hindsight to be sure). It is basically a nail with some guidelines added. You basically place the board with the guideline at the radius of a circle you want to cut. Then slap an appropriately large bit of polystyrene on the nail and spin it on its axis.

My fist cylinder, I need a bit more practice to make this perfect.
And you have a round shape. Then you can even push the board in a bit (reducing the radius). Then you push the cilinder through the cutter and repeat.

But even at zero skill I can hollow it out.
And bang there is a hollow tube. Once again this looked even easier in demonstration and I'm learning the hard way about snapped hot-wires, what happens when the voltage is too low or too high and so on, but I did make a nice start on a first simple landing pad.

I think I've made a good start to my landing pad.
Next up will be a test of the fourth tool I bought. It is a press to use with textured rollers from Greenstuffworld. But as the rollers had to be mail ordered, I will have to wait until they arrive. 


  1. You're taking the whole "having fun" conept very seriously, a man after my own heart.

    1. Lighthearted entertainment is serious business after all ;)

  2. Wow! Those lasered jigs look like they could even make using a hotwire easy. (and are certainly better than making your own jigs)

    1. I had a brief flash of 'I can make this myself' when I saw the demo, but I realized that would probably end up with a few failed experiments which tend to ultimately cost more than buying someone else's results. I think I was right to do so here, these jigs work like a charm (and I regret not buying the fourth hot-wire tool).