In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus mainly on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange, or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, or refurbish.
When I was a kid, there were few toys more exciting, and more well-used, than my Mattel Vac-U-Form and Creepy Crawler Thingmaker. These were sort of the proto-MakerBots and RepRap machines of our boomer youth. Both toy lines got dropped, changed hands, and then got wimpified (read: “made safer”). You can still get a modern version of the Creepy Crawlers Workshop. When my son was small, we got him one and it was somewhat disappointing. The resulting bugs were more brittle than the originals and that noxious chemical tang from the original Plasti Goop was gone (and where’s the fun in that?).
While visions of MakerBots danced in their heads
The Vac-U-Form machine is no longer made. You can still get them via the eBay/collectors market. That too had a “safe” second life before being discontinued, with the new machines using a light bulb heat source, like the current-gen Creepy Crawlers Workshop. I haven’t tried one, but I hear the results are less than impressive. If you decide to get one on eBay, make sure it’s an earlier Mattel version, not the one from Toymax.
The peanut butter jar vacuum former
But not to worry. You and your kids can still have fun cloning the toys and knickknacks around your house with near-molten plastic! You can make your own vacuum forming device and it’s surprisingly easy. When I was editing The Best of Instructables, we included a project for making your own vacuum former out of a plastic peanut butter jar. I ended up making one myself and doing a demo on making them at the second Maker Faire Austin. This would be a great project to do with your kids. It’s just challenging enough to feel like you’ve really accomplished something, but not so involved or time-consuming that the kids will lose interest. And when you’re done, you’ll have a tool that they can use — with adult assistance — to start copying anything they can think of that will fit onto the device’s “workspace.” Once you’ve worked the bugs out, you can even graduate to a plastic storage tub or other larger container, giving you a more substantial workspace. In the Instructable, author Adam Harris graduated to a plastic trash can and metal baking dish for the workspace.
Here’s the original Instructable: How to Make Your Own Prototypes: How to make your own Plastic Vacuum Former
This short video, by author Adam Harris, shows the peanut butter jar vacuum former in action.
As somebody who’s built one of these, here are some tips on construction and operation that I’ve discovered:
- Take the time to drill your vacuum holes carefully and evenly on the workspace. You want the most even suction you can get, so plenty of holes, evenly spaced, is best.
- Sealing all of your seams is important. I didn’t used the Saran Wrap for sealing, as recommended in the project, but used liberal amounts of epoxy to seal up all of the joints.
- You really do need a shop vac or other vacuum with serious suction power. And you want to make sure the vacuum nozzle mates well with the “port” you create on your vacuum former.
- You need to get the plastic stock really soft and floppy to get a good mold. This is one of the hardest things and takes some practice. You want to get it as soft as possible without burning a hole in it. Once you get the distance of your heat source, the heating motion, the time, etc. down, you should be fine.
- Beside the proper heating, the next hardest part is the actual vacuum forming. You need to instantly get the soft plastic material in its frame over the object to be cast and get the vacuum going. It takes two people to best handle all of this. You also want to make sure you pull the plastic frame down as far as it will go over the object and then turn on the vacuum. Knowing this little dance, of moving from the heating of the frame, to covering the object, and introducing the vacuum, all in the shortest span of time, takes some practice too.
If you build this and get the bug for the process, there are plenty of other projects for vacuum formers with much better “resolution” and much bigger workspaces. MAKE Volume 11 had a project, Kitchen Floor Vacuum Former, on making a simple one you use with your oven. You can also search on “vacuum forming” on MAKE, Instructables, YouTube, and Google to find plenty of other examples.
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