Are you looking to make your own wargaming or scale model terrain features? Foam is the probably the most versatile building material for making DIY tabletop terrain. You’ll probably want a good hot wire foam knife. Cutting foam with a regular hobby knife (or utility knife) is messy. A hot wire cutter tool is a useful tool to speed up making model foam terrain.
In this article, I share my experience making terrain with a hot wire cutter and a few tips for a better model making experience.
- Whether you’re a tabletop war gamer (e.g., Warhammer 40k, historical gamer), or hobby railroad modeler, I hope you find this post helpful. Let me know in the comments below!
Continue reading for my thoughts about using hot wire foam cutters for model making and DIY miniature wargaming terrain. You can skip ahead to to the review of 10 great hot wire form cutters and knives.
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What are hot wire foam cutters good for?
Hot wire foam cutters are useful for many hobby craft and construction projects including:
- Terrain and scenery construction
- Architectural modeling
- Prop making
- Model building, e.g., airplanes, scale model trains and railroads
- Molds for casting plaster and resin
- Surfboard fabrication
- Recreational vehicle construction
What kind of foam should I use with a hot wire cutter or knife?
There are generally two kinds of foam I recommend for use with a hot wire foam cutter:
- Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam (also known as “Styrofoam”)
- Pink insulation foam
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam
EPS is also known as “Styrofoam”, which is actually a trademarked name for closed-cell EPS.
The purpose of EPS is primarily as an insulation material. Because EPS holds a lot of air pockets, lightweight, and inexpensive, EPS foam is a very popular and common material in home and commercial building construction.
Depending on the need, EPS can vary in density, compressive strength, and load bearing. For crafting purposes, low density EPS is ideal due to its cost and ease-of-use.
A hot wire foam cutter works best on EPS foam.
EPS has a relatively low melting temperature (as compared with pink insulation foam), and doesn’t create a sticky mess when melted. Your hot knife or wire cutter will travel a lot smoother during a cut through EPS.
Pink insulation foam
Pink insulation foam is closely related to EPS foam (above), and functions primarily as a construction material for insulating commercial and residential buildings.
Made from polystyrene resin, Pink insulation foam is a rigid type of building material. To form its shape, manufacturers melt the polystyrene raw material and force the liquified foam into dies or molds of the needed shape, e.g., boards of various thicknesses.
The usefulness of pink foam for building terrain and modeling scenery is incredible.
Because it melts at relatively low temperature (compared with hard plastics or other crafting material), pink foam is some of the most favored materials for scale modelers, hobby model train enthusiasts, and wargamers.
This melting attribute is great for using hot wire foam cutters for shaping pink foam. Good hot wire foam cutters and tools slice through pink foam like a hot-knife through butter (to borrow the cliche).
Finally, rigid pink foam boards hold details a lot better than EPS foam. Because the foam material is more dense, smaller cuts, grooves, and shapes will appear in the surface with better resolution.
So, for small scale modeling and DIY terrain pieces, pink foam will allow you to add more detailed texture, such as brick face or stone facade like you see on the sides of bridges, tunnels, or ancient ruins and columns.
Is melting foam safe for terrain modeling and sculpting?
Melting almost any material will release fumes into the air. This is the result of adding heat to change the state of a solid material into a liquid or gas.
Ventilation is always advised. The smoke and vapor of melting foam can smell.
Cutting EPS foam with a good and even cheap hot wire knife is much less harmful than other common products you may use in your modeling hobby, e.g., aerosol sprays, paint thinners, and volatile adhesives (source). Melting EPS foam releases mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2), which are natural by-products of your exhaled breath.
But, be careful.
The dust from cutting foam with physical saws or sanding methods can be harmful. The fine particles produced by these shaping techniques can irritate your respiratory system.
Additionally, other types of foam you may use with a hot wire cutter may produce more toxic fumes. For example, fumes like hydrogen halides and other vapors should be vented away from your working space.
Do I need to wear a respirator mask when cutting foam with a hot wire knife?
Wearing regulatory graded vapor and dust respirator masks like this one are recommended when working with foam.
If you are familiar with the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the foam you plan to use, remember that MSDS information may not include the safety of the foam when it is melted.
Finally, check with the foam manufacturer of the foam you plan to use to make sure there are no health or safety issues when cutting their foam with heated tool, such as a hot wire foam knife.
In summary, even if you use a hot wire knife, you should wear a good quality dust mask and have a lot of ventilation.
Why do I recommend a hot wire cutter?
Have you ever tried cutting foam with a utility knife?
I’ve tried that in the past and the mess I made was ridiculous. Little bits of foam particles everywhere.
Static electricity from the rubbing of the knife and the foam also made those bits stick to everything!
Do you like the sound of fingernail on a black chalkboard? That’s the same sound of metal rubbing against foam, a high-pitched squeaking.
There are five main reasons I highly-recommend using a hot wire foam cutter:
- Less mess
- No noise
- Cleaner cuts
- A hot wire foam cutter creates less mess when it cuts through foam. The heat quickly liquifies the foam and separates the pieces, while at the same time keeping the bits of foam together. Unlike a knife, a hot wire cutter doesn’t leave behind foam dust or particles. Clean and simple.
- All hot wire knives is silent! Do I need to say more? It slices through foam cleanly without that squeaky noise that knives make when you’re sawing away.
- A useful hot wire foam cutter leaves behind no shavings or foam dust particles. It cuts cleanly without a mess to worry about. Are you looking to cut a curved line through your foam board? This job is way easier with a hot wire tool than a knife.
- Good hot wire cutters are fast. As long as the wire stays hot, you can carve through foam blocks super fast. Of course, the speed of your cuts depends on how well your knife can keep the wire element hot.
- Hot wire cutters are safe. If you are getting a good quality commercial hot wire cutter (not a DIY version), then the tool will be safe with proper handling. They won’t over-heat, for example. And, because you don’t need to add any pressure to cut foam with a hot wire knife, you don’t risk the tool slipping and hurting yourself, like you might with a knife.
What should I look for in a hot wire foam cutter tool?
There are so many hot wire foam cutting tools available now. So, what makes one hot foam cutter tool better than another?
Here’s what you should look for in a good hot wire foam cutting tool:
- Shape of cutting wire
- Heat power
Shape of cutting wire
Many hot wire foam tools have straight rigid cutting elements. Cheaper hot wire foam cutters have flimsy or flexible “blades” or wires. These are useful hot wire cutters, but you need to move slowly to effectively cut thicker blocks of foam.
For more heavy duty work, look for rigid hot wire cutters (oftentimes, these are referred to as “hot knives”).
You use them like you would a regular knife to make straight or curved edges. Or, you can insert them directly through the middle of a foam block and create a hole.
Other versatile hot wire/knife foam cutting tools have bendable wires or loops. These act like routers or traditional clay sculpting tools to create negative space cuts into foam, e.g., cutting the inside of a valley, or creating staircases. These are highly recommended for shaping foam model hills and mountains. You can even get scroll saw or bandsaw-like foam cutting tools (check out this hot wire scroll “saw”).
The power output of hot wire cutters determines how quickly the cutting edge heats up, and how hot the tool can get at maximum output.
How quickly a hot wire foam cutting tool heats up (and how hot it can get) determines how fast you can use your tool.
Additionally, note that when you use your hot wire cutter, it will cool down a bit, because the heat is lost into the foam. More “powerful” hot wire cutters can stay hot even with constant use.
This relates to the comfort and usability of the hot wire cutter. Does it fit well in your hand? Will the tool operate in a productive way because it works for what you need?
Ergonomics is a personal aspect of any tool. What works for someone else may not work for you.
As a hobbyist, you’ll be limited by how much you’re willing to spend on a hot wire cutter. The good news is that great hot wire foam cutting tools are very affordable.
Check out the various options we review below.
More expensive hot foam cutting tools have other features, such as adjustable power settings, other accessories, and high heat functionality.
How do I use a hot wire foam cutter?
All commercially available hot wire foam tools come with instructions from the manufacturer. You should read these instructions carefully before operating your hot wire foam cutting tool.
In general, for best results with your hot wire foam cutter, you will need to switch-on your tool and wait for the heating element to reach the proper temperature.
For most wire cutters, once the proper heat is reached, you can start work immediately. Operate your tool slowly, watching carefully as the wire melts through the foam material.
As the wire cuts, it will cool down, which will reduce cutting efficiency, e.g., the tool will stick instead of cut.
If this happens, withdraw the foam from the cutter to allow the tool to heat up again. Continue this process until you complete your project.
You may need to clean off the heated wire from melted foam. Be very careful! It can take up to 10 minutes for a hot wire cutting tool to cool down enough to touch again.
When you finish your project, also make sure to turn-off the tool.
Remember to never leave your hot wire foam cutting tool unattended.
Top 10 Best Hot Wire Cutters and Tools for Modeling and Sculpting Foam Terrain
The Foam Cutter Pen is the type of arts & crafts tool you might find at your local art store, like Michaels or Hobby Lobby. There are a lot of variations of this kind of hot wire foam cutter, but this is the bare-bones design. This is the best cheap hot wire foam cutter you can probably find at the moment other than DIY-ing your own hot wire doodad.
And, hot wire foam tools don’t get easier and simpler than this. Plug in the “foam cutter pen”, switch it on, and wait for the heat.
Once the cutter is hot, operate the hot wire like you would a regular knife. The cutter will melt foam as it cuts leaving behind a smooth edge. It works quickly.
This is perfect for polystyrene foam cutting (best on EPS foam).
Be careful, however, with the heating tube wire. If you put too much force on the rigid cutting edge, it will bend and break. Be patient and let the heat do the work!
Rating (out of 5)
The Woodland Scenics hot wire foam cutter is a classic design. A wire is stretched across a bow design, provided a rigid and straight cutting edge.
This great hot wire cutter provides a versatile way to cut foam cleanly with precise cuts. The design also provides you with the ability to angle cuts into foam.
Works well for cutting pink insulation foam and EPS polystyrene blocks and boards.
Woodland Scenics is a reputable company and provides great customer service. Replacement wires are available as these can wear out over time.
For those looking to carve or sculpt foam terrain pieces, this is an ideal tool for mountains, valleys, and other bold projects.
Rating (out of 5)
The Hercules Hot Knife or Pen cutter is one of the best hobby-level foam cutters available. Included in this set are two straight rod cutters with easy on-off switch operation.
These inexpensive hot wire cutters rapidly heat up and will smoothly cut, shape, and sculpt foam.
The relatively cheap kit comes with two-pens and a safety metal stand.
The wires are 2mm thick and provide a durable and rigid cutting edge. Be patient as these hot wire cutters will cut best when they are at their maximum heat.
Rating (out of 5)
This is my favorite hot wire cutting tool. An absolute beast for thick foam cuts and carves, this hot knife will take on any large foam building project you may need. Full-on sculptors use this to make those giant parade statues you see during the holidays.
The Winons Electric Hot Knife Foam Cutter is an awesome hot knife foam cutting monster. At 150 watts of power output, this will slice through any foam block you throw at it.
The heating element not only heats up quickly, but it stays hot. This gives you excellent continuous cutting power for more ambitious projects.
EPS, pink or blue insulation foam, it doesn’t matter. This electric hot knife will cut through these materials without much effort.
The hot knife comes with an adjustable power control to fit whatever your need. This hot knife is highly recommended over regular cheap hot wire cutters that modelers may use satisfactorily for light duty thin foam projects.
The handle has an ergonomic design for comfortable use.
For safety, this hot knife will also periodically beep to remind you that it’s heated. You won’t get distracted and forget how hot the knife is when you’re fully absorbed in a project.
This is a great tool for sculptors and modeler’s work on large projects. The kit comes with 6″ and 8″ cutting tips. The blades are replaceable, and there is even a brush to help you keep the metal cutting edges clean.
I highly-recommend this to any hobbyist or professional modeler who is looking for the best hot knife/foam cutter available.
Rating (out of 5)
This hot knife foam cutting kit is a complete set of 3 hot wire foam cutting tools.
Interestingly, it uses a single heating element “handle” that you attach the other cutting tools onto. Swap out the tips for whatever you project needs demand.
The heating system uses 14 watts, which provides sufficient heat for most light-duty foam cutting needs.
It included wire cutting accessories will easily cut EPS foam, and with more patience, thicker boards of pink insulation foam (which tends to be more dense). Don’t force the cutter and let the heat do the work.
Make sure you allow the tool to cool down before you change foam cutter tips.
Rating (out of 5)
The Kohree Hot Wire Foam Cutter is also a 3-in-1 hot wire foam cutting kit. There is a single heating element and 3 cutting tip attachments.
Depending on your need, simply swap out the cutting tips for your project. There is a straight rod (or hot knife), an engraving tool, and a bow wire.
The 18 watt power output is sufficient for many hobby level projects that require cutting EPS and pink insulation foam.
The wire elements will heat quickly, but will also cool rapidly during cutting. You’ll need to cut fairly slow to ensure the tool stays hot enough to cut smoothly through thicker or denser foam pieces.
This set comes with replacement wires for the bow cutting tip, which I gather you’ll need as these wires will bend and break with constant use.
I recommend this to hobbyists on budget looking for a foam cutting kit that comes with a variety of cutting tool tips.
Rating (out of 5)
7. Hot Wire Foam Factory Crafters Deluxe 3-in-1 Sculpting Tool, 3 Inch Hot Knife & Engraving Tool Kit
So, you want to do it all?
This is the best hobby hot wire foam cutter kit available. Enjoyed and respected by many scale modeling enthusiasts, and terrain makers everywhere, the Hot Wire Foam Factory 3-in-1 kit has tools that will fit close to 90% of your needs.
Except for the heavy-duty, hours-long sculpting projects that is more in-line with the professional level hot knife (see #4 above), this hot wire foam cutting kit is what you’ve been looking for.
The kit comes with 3 foam sculpting tools.
Each tool has its own independent heating element built into the handle. No need to swap out cutting tips. Just plug-in your tool, and you’re ready to go. An on-off switch conveniently allows you to pause or continue your work at any time.
Check out another review. “The Hot Wire Foam Factory hot knife is a must have…”
A DVD instructional is included in this kit. Finally, customer service from the Hot Wire Foam Factory is highly-responsive to inquires, resolving any issues quickly, which should not be under-valued for hot wire cutters in general.
Rating (out of 5)
The Proxxon Hot Wire Cutter is the best table or desktop hot wire foam cutter. It is designed for accurate, precise cuts that would be hard to do with a handheld tool.
This is particularly useful for designers, architects, or modelers that need to know the measurements of each foam part they are shaping. For scale model hobby railroads and trains, this is a great hot wire cutting tool to have for creating landscapes with precisely graded roadbeds.
The large tabletop hot wire cutter is useful for working with large foam boards. Along with printed grids and protractors on the working surface, this tabletop foam cutter provides easy fabrication of foam parts.
Safety features include an LED light to warn you of the hot wire. Adjustable wire is adjustable to enable miter cutting. The wire heats to maximum cutting temperature almost immediately (<1 second). Get working right away.
Rating (out of 5)
The YaeTek Micromot Hot Wire Cutter is a tabletop foam cutting tool with minimalist design. It comes with everything you need to get started right away.
The hot wire cutter is fairly simple to setup. Install the pillar arm, the ruler, and thread the metal wire through the device. Once the wire is attached to the heating element, all you need to do is turn on the machine.
If you’re already familiar with a wood bandsaw, then this hot wire foam cutter will be a breeze to operate. Using the same basic operation, the hot wire will provide you with accurate cuts of any shape, straight or curved.
Adjust the wire to create miter cuts, complex curved cuts in foam boards, and other shapes that would be otherwise difficult with handheld hot wire tools.
This tabletop hot wire cutter comes with a wrench to help you adjust the wire and maintain the tool.
Rating (out of 5)
The Hercules Hot Wire Foam Cutter Table almost has it all. This cutter even comes with a food pedal to turn-on the heat.
This is the ideal hot wire cutter for creating gaming terrain and foam model building.
The wire will heat to a temperature of 390 F (or close to 200 C), which is great for all types of foam, e.g., extruded (XPS) foam, EPS foam, and pink or blue insulation foam.
A neat feature of this tabletop hot wire foam cutter is the ability to angle the wire attachment on the top arm. This allows you to cut cylindrical shapes into cones, or bevel the edges of any sharp edge.
Included cutting guides provide accurate cuts in any of the 3-dimensions.
The food pedal operation of the heating element frees both of your hands to work the with your foam piece. An adjustable power output knob also adds more control to your cutting project.
Are you looking for a good way to cut custom foam storage for your miniatures for storage or transport? This hot wire cutter will be ideal for working with EVA foam, upholstery foam, egg crate foam which all make great alternatives to the Battlefoam or Citadel style pluck foam options.
Check it out!
Rating (out of 5)
Examples of hot wire foam sculpting
Here are the top 10 best hot wire cutters for making foam terrain and model scenery:
- Foam Cutter Pen
- Woodland Scenics – Hot Wire Foam Cutter – 9VAC
- Hercules Hot Knife/Hot Pen Styrofoam Cutter
- WINONS Electric Hot Knife Foam Cutter
- Hot Knife Foam Cutter Hot Wire Styrofoam Engraving Tip 3 in 1 Tools Kit
- Kohree Hot Wire Foam Cutter
- Hot Wire Foam Factory Pro 4-in-1 Sculpting Tool Kit
- Proxxon 37080 Hot Wire Cutter THERMOCUT
- YaeTek Micromot Hot Wire Cutter
- Hercules Hot Wire Foam Cutter Table with Foot Operated Control Pedal