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Homemade vacuum forming machine


Nick_Karatzides
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Vacuum forming is a very simple technique that can produce thin-skinned parts of various forms. I mainly used vacuum forming for producing a variety of components for scale modeling. Basically, it’s all about a box with a connection for your household vacuum cleaner and a series of holes in its top plate and try keeping the box airtight at the seems. The basic idea is to build from scratch or buy one if you find something similar, a wooden box like the one I present. I found the following item (which supposed to be a display box or something, for placing plants, coloured sand & stuff inside and make them look nice as a decoration on the wall) at my local IKEA. Looking exactly like what I've been searching for and considering the low price (not more that 5€), I preferred to buy it instead of building a new wooden box like this from scratch. As you can see at the following pictures, I removed the glass, applied a generous layer of water based white glue for wood (which becomes transparent when it dries) across the inner joints, to keep them as air tight as practical and be sure that no air could escape from there.


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Visiting my local Dexion store (shelving & racking solutions), I got a 135x85cm hardboard sheet (more than 1 square meter area) for 8€. This is actually a louvred panel, designed to stand against the wall and accept hooks & spigots for easy storage of everything from belts and hose clips to spools and reels and all kinds of other parts. I cut a piece on the right dimensions and slide it into rail to test the fitting. The 35x25cm top plate has many 4mm wide holes to allow air to be pulled through them. The locations of the holes are not important, and can be also drilled by hand using a hand held drill. Just make sure that they are fairly close together. This top plate should be pretty sturdy to hold the subject being duplicated. I made mine from hardboard high-density fibreboard plate, but I have seen them made out of aluminum too. The top plate finally was slided into inner rails - otherwise it would be screwed down with flat head wood screws. Be sure to countersink the holes to make the heads flush with the top surface. I also epoxied it down, just to also make it a little more air tight. As long as 1 square meter area hardboard plate, is more than enough for me and can be used to build more than 5 or 6 vacuum forming device plates, I gave the rest to other fellow modelers who are also interested to build one.


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Using the proper Black & Decker saw tool, a 34mm wide hole was drilled through the side of the box to facilitate a vacuum cleaner fitting. Luckily, last week I found a real bargain at the local Media Markt store and I bought a 1600W brand new Hyundai HVC-6003 vacuum cleaner for 15€ only. I decide to use in this vacuum cleaner into my hobby room and for vacuum forming purposes only. I cut a plastic tube - you may have an old piece of an old tool laying around the house or you can purchase one at a vacuum cleaner shop - and fix it with Bison glue for PVC on the box. Then, I screw a wooden stick into the box's center to prevent any possible hardboard plate bending because of vacuum and finally slide the high-density fibreboard plate through the rails to close the box. I sealed everything with white water based glue for wood. The following pictures show the vacuum chamber box building progress and where you will plug in your household vacuum cleaner.


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I also got few wooden picture frames found at the local IKEA store for only 1€ to 3€ each (depending size) and few metal made spring clamps for 0.5€ each, to use them for steady & tight styrene sheet holding while being heated. Avoid plastic clamps, because they might melt while in the oven. It's also possible to build clamping plates made by aluminum sheet and the two plates are clamped together using screws and wing nuts. Aluminum clamping plates is better but might cost more. For these, you are only limited by the size of the oven you have.


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In order to reproduce, small parts, I use smaller wooden frame to secure the styrene (the pieces to be vacuum formed are small and there is no need to spend big styrene sheet), I need to close the outer holes on the hardboard high-density fibreboard plate. To do so, I cut a plastic bag in shape and covered as required the desired area.

 

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To stick small parts on plate, I use plasticine.
 

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I pinned a styrene plastic sheet on the wooden frame, insert it into the preheated electric oven as described before and as soon as I noticed that the plastic got warm enough and started drooping down, I removed it from the oven and thrown the sheet on the vacuum former plate, while the vacuum cleaner was already plugged & switched on. This procedure may take some practice and sometimes a mould tips over or the plastic won’t form properly over the mould (folding around edges). This is also the part where I should warn you that you can burn your fingers - I highly recommend Nomex Aramid flame resistant MilSpec gloves, which I personally use for the job. I buy large plastic styrene 50x30cm sheets for 0.5€ to 1.5€ each (depending width), not the more expensive styrene by Evergreen. When an attempt fails, I usually throw the sheet back in the oven and start again. Once you have the machine, you can make all kinds of things. You can make a lot of aircraft wings, airframe, panels etc out of a sheet like that. You can make the master moulds from balsa wood, epoxy, polyester etc and the parts you make depend on how accurate the master moulds are. The moulds must be as accurate and detailed as necessary to achieve the results you are after.

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I placed the frame into the preheated electric oven and I wait few critical seconds watching the plastic start heating.
 
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As soon as I noticed that it started drooping down, I removed the frame while wearing gloves, to prevent finger burns. While the vacuum cleaner was already switched on, I placed the wooden frame with the pined plastic sheet on the vacuum former plate. The plastic nicely formed around the “virtual” airframe mould... and voila!
 

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Using a new Nr 11 stainless steel surgical blade, I removed the formed pieces from the styrene sheet. The yellow stuff appears in the picture, is plasticine surplus - the plasticine used to secure the small parts on the vacumm former plate and caged into vacuum formed plastic sheet.

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Same results can be achieved while using clear styrene sheet, to reproduce aircraft or helicopter canopies.

 

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A helicopter's cabin also was made in one piece only by vacuum forming.
 
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Nick,

 

Thanks for posting this. It's invaluable. I'll try to copy this later this year as it will come in very useful. Got to be the best instructional I've seen for this yet.

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Thanks for posting this. It's invaluable. I'll try to copy this later this year as it will come in very useful. Got to be the best instructional I've seen for this yet.

Great possibilities for static and flying models.

 

I 've used a couple of other vacuum formers before, but I found good idea to build a new one, take some pictures during the building process and present it here, so anybody could use it as a reference for his own vacuum forming machine. I believe anybody can build it - no need for special craftmanship talent. Most important, is that its easy to use and if not have desired results, you just pin another styrene sheet on the frame and vac again!

 

Just for the record, I used this one, to produce a thin-skinned fuselage for my JT-9T autogyro scratchbuild project and a full cabin & clear canopy for my Bo-102 helicopter scratchbuild project. Feel free to check full articles text by clicking HERE and HERE and I hope you 'll find more tips & techniques that might be usefull on your next project.

 

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