Plastic and Foam - The Osceola School for the Arts

Plastic and Foam
Plastic comes in an infinite array of
formulations and shapes. The kinds that we
use most in theatre are often plastics that are
used in the construction industry and are
very cheap. On the whole, plastics can be
cut easily, reshaped with a little heat, and
are light weight.
• Polystyrene, expanded,
• cutting, shaping , hot wire
• painting, coating
• adhering, liquid nails
Polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) comes in
two basic types:
Expanded- this is made as small beads of polystyrene that are
expanded using steam. This type is usually white and comes as sheets
from the lumber yard or as packing material.
Extruded- this is formed as a smooth foam without beads.
It is
usually blue or pink. This stuff is used to carve detailed shapes that the
beaded foam can’t do.
Cutting foam is easy. Any saw can do it. It can be
routed or carved using almost any tool. To make
some of the more detailed shapes, or to mass
produce pieces, polystyrene can be cut with a hot
wire. This method is used by shops that have the
facilities to deal with the fumes. Burning or
cutting with a hot wire releases some very toxic
gases and should only be done while wearing a
Most glues don’t work on foam. They either
don’t stick to the foam or they dissolve the
foam chemically. The glue we almost
always use is called Liquid Nails. Make
sure you use the kind formulated for
sticking to foam.
Painting foam is also a problem. The
uncovered foam does not take paint
correctly and looks funny. For most uses
we need to first coat the foam with any
number of specialty products or home made
mixes (Joint compound, water, and glue +
saw dust or sand or cat food….)
Uses of foam
With all these difficulties why do we use foam? It is cheap, it is very light weight and it
can be shaped into anything we want. There are many sets that can’t be made without
Additional Foam materials
This is what pool noodles are made of. We use the noodles or
insulation tubes or backer rod for a variety of props and detail.
Great Stuff- This comes in a can and is sprayed out.
When it hits the air it expands and hardens. After a day it can
be carved and shaped into whatever we want.
foam rubber-
Upholstery foam. You and
your bottom are very familiar with this kind of foam.
It has its uses, but for large scale applications its
expensive. To paint we have to use spray paint to
allow for the foam to move and compress.
latex and prosthetic foamSpecial effects makeup.
Most Used types of Plastic
Plexi glass
vinyl, filon, corrogated roof
PVC, pipe
recycled bottle lumber
fibre glass
vacuformed plastic, thermo plastic
Plexiglas is a brand name. A better term would be sheet acrylic.
This material is clear like glass but flexible to a point. It does break but
not like glass. As a plastic it is lighter than glass but its much better in its
ability to be worked. We can cut it with the same saws we use for wood
and when heated it can be bend and will retain its new shape when it
It comes in 1/8 inch
and 1/4 inch standard
thicknesses but
thicker material can
be ordered. The
price is by volume so
thicker stuff is
proportionally more
Vinyl is a common material. Most often seen as corrugated roofing
material. (one brand name is Filon) This stuff comes in many colors and
styles and can be painted opaque or left translucent. What we use it for is
up to our imagination.
Fibre Glass
Everyone thinks of
as the pink panther foam in
the attic. But in another form fibre glass becomes an almost perfect
building material. The fibre glass comes in woven sheets and is applied
with a two part resin in overlapping coats. This is how boats are made,
and how a lot of scenery for outdoor use is made. Most specialty pieces at
the theme parks and along 192 are made of fibre glass. This material is
weather proof and paintable, light weight and very strong. But there is a
fume issue when working with the resin.
PVC stands for poly vinyl chloride. This plastic can be formed into
a wide variety of forms, including clothing. The way we usually find it is
as plastic pipe.
We can use this as pipe, or
cut into half rounds or
quarter rounds. It also can be
heated and shaped.
We in America drink a lot of soda. We also recycle most of the bottles.
This plastic is not very useful to make more bottles but it is turned into
lumber. This recycled plastic lumber is weather proof and is
very useful in building outdoor structures in Florida.
lots of sizes and colors and materials. What can we do with
it? Just use your imagination and it can become - a wrought iron gate, the
antenna on bugs, the set dressing in a alien sci fi movie, etc…..
One kind of plastic that has a specialized use in theatre is
Vacu Form Plastic or Thermo Plastic.
This material comes as sheets that become moldable at a very low temperature.
The sheets are heated to become soft then they are laid over the objects that we
are trying to copy and the air is sucked out. After a minute the sheet cools and its
ready to be cut or painted.
The picture to the right is a
link that takes you to a
manufacturer of large sheets
of architectural detail. If
you want to cover your set
with brick or stone or fancy
doors and panels this is your
source. This stuff is a trade
of money for time- you can
make the set quickly but it
will cost.
Link to manufacturer
In your life you will see many new
kinds of plastic and foam come into
theatrical use. You may be the one
to introduce some material from the
civilian world into the entertainment

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