In my very first project video ever, I made a small vacuum former. It was super basic and didn’t have its own heat source, I had to put the plastic in the oven. I’ve always wanted to improve that design and now is that time!
As many of you know, I don’t really repeat projects. Not that each project or video is perfect, far from it actually, I just rarely have the time or desire to completely reinvent something I’ve already done. If you check out the link for my first project video, you’l see why this project (being far from perfect) is in need of a revamping.
In my previous attempt at making a vacuum former, I placed the material in a frame and placed it in my oven to soften the plastic. This technically did work, but presented a lot of problems; melting plastic where my food goes, taking over the kitchen with a prop-making project, the plastic starts to cool when moving it around, etc. So I found a small space heater that is meant to hang from a shop ceiling to use as the source of heat to soften the plastic.
A vacuum former works by heating up and thereby softening/slightly melting a thin sheet of plastic. That malleable sheet is then pulled down over an object that sits on a flat bed of holes. Once the plastic is pulled down over the object and sealed around the bed, a vacuum pulls the air from under the sheet through the holes and the plastic sucks down into the object’s nooks and crannies creating the vacuum formed shape.
To keep the heat source above the vacuum bed, I built a box out of 1/2 inch thick MDF and mounted the heater in it. The vacuum box was built in the exact same way and I used the CNC to drill a bunch of holes for the air to escape. I had to drill a large hole in the vacuum box’s side panel so I can attach the shopvac hose directly to the lower box.
Some aluminum angled stock will act as the vertical supports. We guesstimated the amount of sag that the plastic would have when heated and added some space for a tall-ish object laying on the vacuum bed and that was my height dimension. I screwed the aluminum supports directly into the two MDF boxes and the vacuum former took shape.
To hold the plastic sheets up near the heat source and to bring it down on top of the object, you need a material support frame. This is a two-part frame that will act as a clamp on all sides of the material as well as a pulling mechanism that should seal to the vacuum bed. I decided to use some 3/16 inch thick steel flat bar because it would be rigid over the 24 inch span without much support. After welding up the two frames independently, I added two simple handles to one of them. You have to make sure to grind the welds flat, especially where a tight seal would be needed like the bottom and where the material would be held.
Furthermore, I added some simple MDF handles to the sides incase the frame got too hot for my hands. The two frames would be held together with some flat-bottom binder clips and held up near the heater using some magnets suspended on long screws. This will keep the frame in place whilst heating and still allow me to pull the material down with minimal force.
On our first test pull we learned a lot. First, plexiglass is super brittle when vacuum formed and didn’t work that great. Second, the space heater’s radiant heating area was smaller than I thought, but it still worked well enough. Third, the binder clips prevented a perfect seal with the vacuum bed, so I needed to add some extra gaskets. Thin EVA foam cut into strips would acts as a seal when the material frame sat on the vacuum bed. I lined the outer perimeter with the EVA foam, and then added small pieces in the areas that wouldn’t touch the binder clips. This made little notches in the gasket so that I could line up the clips in the same place each time.
Our second test went much better and it was time to switch to some more appropriate, polystyrene sheets. The white polystyrene sheets heated up and drooped like I’ve seen in professional-grade vacuum formers. I turned on the shopvac right before pulling down the material frames and wham! Good pull. The white plastic sucked down to the vacuum bed and the camera I was forming was wrapped perfectly. It was a success!
Great Project to Revisit!
In conclusion, I am so happy with how this larger vacuum former came out. It is large enough to do some cool prop builds and small enough that I can store it away easily. Most of this project was made with material I already had, minus the heater and some pieces of metal. If you are looking start vacuum forming pieces, give this project a try. If you liked this build, check out more of my work!
(purchasing via these affiliate links supports ILTMS)
- SawStop cabinet saw
- Dewalt 20v drill driver combo
- Countersink drill bits
- Pancake compressor/nail gun combo
- Grizzly 14″ Bandsaw
- Grizzly Drill Press (WAAAAY overpriced (3x) on Amazon, buy from Grizzly directly.)
- Shop Fox Hanging Air Filter
- Rigid Shop Vac
- 2HP Dust Collector
- 1 Micron bag
- Box Cutters (for eva foam)
Finishes & adhesives I like:
- Steel Flat Stock
- Aluminum Angled Stock
- MIG welder *
- Welding gloves
- Welding magnet
- Angle grinder *
- Cut off wheels
- Metal cutting bandsaw *
- 10″ Evolution Miter Saw for cutting Steel, Aluminum, Wood, etc.