Welcome to the captivating realm of prop creation, where imagination takes physical form and where the right tools can make all the difference. Vacuum forming is one such tool that can elevate your prop making game, opening a world of creative possibilities. Whether you’re a hobbyist, cosplay enthusiast, or a seasoned prop master, we’ve got you covered in this guide to hobby vacuum forming machines, focusing on the best ones available on the market for prop creation.
Buying vs Building a Vacuum Forming Machine
It’s no secret that vacuum forming machines are very expensive, usually running well over $2,000 to tens of thousands of dollars. That’s why a lot of people build their own. That’s what I did and I’m working on a step-by-step guide on how to build your own vacuum forming machine for those that want to go that route. Although this may save you money, it does take time and a few skills in woodworking, metalworking and electrical work. This may not fit your schedule and if you plan on using the machine a lot, especially for professional work, buying one may be a good investment of your time.
The good news is that there are a few lower priced options floating out there and I’ve hand-picked a few examples for you to consider before making a decision on whether to buy or build your own. While there are pricier options included in this list, the vast majority will sit at around $200 or less! These machines are the game-changers you need, combining efficiency, versatility, and user-friendliness to help you craft stunning, professional-grade props right from your workspace. Let’s dive in and start exploring!
Types of Vacuum Forming Machines
Vacuum forming machines generally fall within three main categories ranging from all-in-one solutions that have both the heat box and vacuum box built into the unit so you just plug in and go, to machines that require you to provide the vacuum suction using your own household vacuum cleaner or shop vac to the least expensive option where you have to provide both vacuum and heat. Let’s look at some options within each of these categories.
All-in-ONe Vacuum Forming Machines
These vacuum forming machines are ready to use right out of the box! Just plug it in and start making custom parts. Unfortunately, they also tend to be the most expensive option, typically running well over $1000. But there is a unique, often over-looked category of vacuum formers that are very budget friendly – many running under $200! These are the dental vacuum forming machines. Dentists use these for fabricating dental appliances like sports mouth guards, bleach trays and orthodontic appliances. It turns out that they’re great for thermoforming small prop parts, accessories, molds, and more!
dentQ Dental Vacuum Forming Machine
Although the dentQ vacuum forming machine is designed for dental applications, it uses the same heat-and-vacuum process as other multi-purpose machines. Its compact design and portability is great for small work spaces. And at around $120, you can crank out small parts with a surprisingly high level of detail. With a forming area of 5″ x 5″, you won’t be able to make full masks, but it’s certainly useful for accent pieces, small molds and parts for props and miniatures.
Although the dentQ in particular is a popular choice among prop-makers, cosplayers, miniature builders and electronics enthusiasts, just about any other dental vacuum forming machine will work too. In fact, Adam Savage of Mythbusters uses one of theses machines over his larger vacuum forming machine for small jobs.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Vacucu3D A3 is the price – just under $1,200! But it comes with a huge advantage of being able to vacuum form much larger pieces. The tray takes 16.54″ x 11.69″ plastic sheets allowing you to make full masks, outer shells for animatronics, molds and more. The digital controls allows you to set temperature and heating times for different thermoplastics. Despite the larger tray, the overall unit is still compact enough to fit on your table.
Once you recover from the sticker shock, you may want to consider a few factors before knocking it out of the running. For instance, if you currently do or are thinking about doing any professional work, a machine like this may be a good investment. Having your own vacuum form machine saves time in going back and forth from local makerspaces. Another thing to consider is whether or not your projects will quickly outgrow smaller machines. Then you’ll probably have to look at larger options anyways.
Provide Your Own Vacuum
The “Provide Your Own Vacuum” style machines are similar to the complete all-in-one machines except that they’re missing the vacuum portion. Removing the vacuum motor allows these machines to stay compact and keep the price much lower. They typically have hose attachments on the vacuum box to fit most household vacuum cleaners and shop vacs. I highly recommend getting a small shop vac if you decide on any “Provide Your Own Vacuum” style unit. Their motors are usually more powerful than those found in your typical home vacuum cleaners.
Although the Mayku FormBox is one of the pricier vacuum forming machines on the list at under $800, it’s like having your own personal desktop production line. The only thing you have to provide is the suction power. This can be done either with your home vacuum cleaner or a shop vac. The forming area is 6″ x 6″ which is useful for small to medium-sized parts and the pulls you get are extremely detailed. You can even see the layer lines on 3D printed molds. This is probably due to the super-fine mesh for the platen which increases airflow instead of the evenly spaced holes you normally see with budget vacuum formers. The Mayku FormBox comes with a few thermoplastic sheets to get you started and because the ceramic heater has a range of 160 to 340 degrees Celsius, you have the option of working with a variety of different materials. I’ve seen the price of this machine fluctuate down by as much as $200 from time to time so you may be able to get a great deal – keep your eye on it!
Provide Your Own Vacuum & Heat
The “Provide-Your-Own Vacuum and Heat” category of vaccuum forming machines takes it a step further in that you have to provide both the vacuum and heat source. Although you’re going to have to do a little work, this is among the least expensive options at less than $200.
There are DIYers on ebay that build the vacuum box portion of the machine in various sizes, usually out of wood. Popular sellers on ebay include thophi86, zoom1, and maxitees (Ronniemade). The box has a hole to fit most shop vac hoses to provide the suction. A metal frame is included to secure the thermoplastic sheet.
Heat Box Options
For smaller vacuum boxes, you can use an old toaster oven to heat the plastic sheet. Leave the toaster oven door open while you hold the metal frame assembly inside (using tongs or oven mit) until the plastic sheet starts to sag. Then, quickly transfer it to the running vacuum box. This is the easiest DIY option because you don’t have to build anything.
For the larger vacuum boxes, you’ll have to build a custom heat box yourself because the metal frame assembly won’t fit in a typical toaster oven. If you go this route, you’ll need to source some heating elements. You can either harvest them from a toaster oven, space heater or buy replacements online. If you don’t want to get into any electrical work, then I suggest a replacement smoker heating element that connects directly to a power cord so you can just plug it into an outlet. Most of these come with mounting bolts or brackets you could use to attach it to your heat box.
Finally, you need to assemble the heating element(s) into a box-like housing so the heat doesn’t immediately dissipate into the air. Some people make it out of wood and then cover the entire inside with heat-resistant aluminum foil duct tape. I prefer making the housing out of metal. For a no-weld solution, I use aluminum roof flashing for the panels and aluminum angle bar stock for the frame. Then you can just bolt the heat box together.
Here’s an example of the heat box I built for my homemade vacuum forming machine. I sourced the heating elements from a thrift store toaster oven. If you want to avoid the wiring that goes along with transplanting heating elements I highly recommend the replacement smoker heating element that you can bolt into place and plug into the wall. Mounting your heatbox above the vacuum box is optional but it helps save space. If you have a heat resistant surface, you can rest the box with the heating element(s) facing up and simply hold or rest the metal frame with the thermoplastic on the box and let the heat rise up to warm the plastic.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…
Why not just heat the thermoplastic sheet in your household oven? It’s certainly big enough and then you don’t have to go through the time and effort of building a custom heat box. Don’t do it!
Plastic fumes are toxic and you’ll ruin your oven. Don’t be tempted by the various guides out there that tell you to do this! Always use either a dedicated toaster oven for vacuum forming or a custom-built heat box. Remember to work in a well-ventilated area.
The world of prop creation is endlessly exciting and is even more so when equipped with the right tools. From our exploration of the best hobby vacuum forming machines available on the market, it’s clear that each offers its unique strengths, making them excellent additions to your crafting arsenal. Whether you’re just beginning your journey in prop making or are looking to upgrade your current setup, investing in a vacuum forming machine can revolutionize your creative process. Remember, the best machine for you depends on your specific needs and ambitions as a prop creator. I hope this guide has provided valuable insights to help you make an informed decision. Here’s to enhancing your prop creation journey and pushing the boundaries of your creativity!
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