Part 2: Basic Tools
Now that you have the full complement of safety equipment from the previous article (you do have safety equipment, right? Or perhaps you’re just making the whole shopping list at once before you sell your soul to Harbor Freight?), it’s time to talk tools.
Since this is meant as an introduction to prop-making equipment, the items covered here are hand tools that don’t take a lot of prior training or additional safety protocols. There are certainly MANY other useful tools out there, but the ones on this list are those I tend to use most often for general prop construction.
1) Rotary Tool.
One of the most popular and useful cosplay tools is the rotary tool (known better by the brand name Dremel, though there are various other manufacturers). I don’t think it’s too much to say that the rotary tool is the single most versatile tool you could purchase for cosplay prop-making.
What it is: The rotary tool has a small motorized bit that spins, just like a drill or power screwdriver. However, there are literally hundreds of interchangeable tips for the tool, so instead of having to buy a power drill AND a pipe cutter AND a detail sander AND a buffing wheel AND a router AND an engraving tool AND a… (you get the picture) you can just have one rotary tool with several different tips.
Why you want one for cosplay: In addition to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of buying one tool to do a dozen jobs, rotary tools are amazing for building and detailing props. Most power tools are bulky because they are intended for construction jobs – they aren’t designed to reach inside pieces of armor or engrave tiny details into a sword hilt or drill tiny stitching holes through leather or beads. But the small profile of a rotary tool makes it perfect for such jobs, and the fact that it fits right in your hand makes it easy for even the inexperienced craftsman to engrave or detail a prop (it’s kind of like drawing with a fat marker).
Rotary tools come in both cordless and corded versions. The corded ones have a lot more power, while the cordless tend to be smaller and more portable. Look for a model with variable speeds (important for sanding or drilling different materials), and shop around for accessory kits – some are ridiculously cheap, and pretty much any brand of accessory will fit any brand of rotary tool as long as you have the right collet (an adapter for different sized bits).
Where to get one: Any home improvement store and most big box stores will sell rotary tools. Prices run anywhere from $25 to $150, depending on power, speed and features. They also turn up in some surprising (and cheaper) other locations! The rotary tool I use most often for cosplay was actually sold as a dog nail grinder, and it has more speeds than my cordless Dremel model. I’ve also seen them for sale at craft stores (in various pastel colors, because… crafts).
Dremel brand is the best known; other tool makers like Black & Decker have their own versions. If you’re looking for something cheaper, there are a number of less-expensive models on the market. There will be some variations in RPM and torque among these different models, but they will all function more or less the same unless you’re doing something really demanding.
2) Hot Glue Gun.
This may seem like an odd choice in a section on “power” tools (it is electric!), but if you remember that glue guns were originally sold by hardware stores and only later co-opted by crafters, you’ll see how it fits — and how useful they can be for prop construction! Plus, they have to be on this list because I use them ALL THE TIME.
What it is: A hot glue gun is a simple tool that melts and dispenses a stick of thermoplastic adhesive. You squirt this very hot goo onto your project and smash the pieces together. When the glue cools, it turns solid again and holds your pieces together.
Why you want one for cosplay: Due to its ease of use and very fast set time, hot glue is a favorite adhesive for crafters and cosplayers. (It is also VERY HOT, so if you’re prone to burning yourself, take heed.) Because it is solid at room temperature, it can fill gaps between pieces of wood or other material, reinforce a weak joint, or create raised surface texture. Hot glue can also be used in wig styling and wefting. (Note that while it is very versatile, it is easily overused, and there are other products that are better suited than hot glue for these applications on a large scale. If your prop sword is more hot glue than anything else, you might have a problem. Also, don’t leave it sitting in a hot car.)
The best thing about hot glue and cosplay, however, is that ethylene vinyl acetate foam – a.k.a. craft foam/Foamies/Fun Foam, a favorite crafting material for cosplayers – fuses permanently to hot glue on contact. If you’re making a costume or prop piece with EVA foam, hot glue is best way to stick it to itself.
Where to get one: Any craft store, art supply store, or silk flower retailer will carry glue guns. The small craft models are very cheap ($3 to $5), while larger or variable-temperature models might run $10-$20. The price of hot glue sticks also varies by size and type. Mini glue sticks are sometimes sold at discount stores (I buy mine 20 for $1 at Dollar Tree), while full-sized sticks are usually only available at craft stores and are more expensive. Glue sticks also come in low and high melting temperatures, so make sure you know what size and type your glue gun uses.
3) Power Sander.
Whether you go with an orbit (spinning) or palm (vibrating) sander, this little tool speeds up some kinds of prop-finishing by a factor of thousands. (There are also larger models for those really big props.)
What it is: Sandpaper works on the principle of rubbing a coarse surface over another surface to knock off the bits that stick out and make it smoother. This is exactly what a power sander does – only it does it at 20,000 RPM, which is a bit faster than my arm can move the piece of sandpaper. It also provides a more consistent sanding pattern, since I can guide the sander over the surface at a steady pace.
Why you want one for cosplay: If you’re sanding a very large or flat surface (shield; armor), or one made of a dense material (wood; resin), your arm muscles will likely give out before you reach that mirror shine in the surface of your prop. Plus, if your prop has details like narrow corners or overlapping pieces, it’s almost impossible to get a piece of sandpaper back in that area with your fingertip and get a nice, even sanded finish – but you can get a power sander with a detail tip that will fit back into that awkward space and polish it just fine.
Most power sanders have either hook-and-loop or adhesive sandpaper pads that you can swap out easily as you need finer grain, and many have a little vacuum with a filter built in so you don’t blow sawdust all over your work area. (Well – at least there’s less sawdust.)
Where to get one: Any home improvement or hardware store will carry sanders. They range in price from $15 to $100, depending on size, power and features. While shopping, also check the price of the sandpaper refills (though many brands have interchangeable refills, so they stay pretty competitive).
4) Heat Gun.
If someone made a horror film about a hairdryer from hell… the heat gun would star in it. (Or maybe that’s Chuck Norris. I’m always mixing them up. Which one was in Hellbound?)
What it is: This one does exactly what it says on the tin – it shoots heat, at a (usually) adjustable temperature of 500 to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s intended for paint stripping, pipe bending, heat shrinking, shrink-wrapping, and other high-temperature applications. (Like the hot glue gun, these things get HOT. Use caution.)
Why you want one for cosplay: Many of the most popular prop-making materials tend to be thermoplastic (that is, they are molded or shaped using heat). Wonderflex, Worbla, EVA foam, Sintra, styrene, ABS, Friendly Plastic and many other synthetic crafting materials require heat activation or heat setting. The heat gun allows you to heat up any of these materials to the activation point, then form them into the desired shape or melt them together before they cool. Heat guns are also good for stripping paint off found items to repurpose them into cosplay props, or (when used judiciously) for drying/curing certain types of lacquers and finishes.
Where to get one: All home improvement and many big box stores carry heat guns; they’ll be in the paint section. Prices range from $15 to $60 depending on features. I recommend a model with adjustable temperature and multiple fan speeds (most basic models have at least two settings, though the higher-end ones have up to 12 temperature levels).
(Also, watch out for models with automatic cooldowns. I recently purchased a fancy new digital heat gun that would not turn off for 80 seconds after you pushed the power button because it had to run a cooldown cycle. Worst design I’ve seen! How can you hold your plastic pieces in the right shape while juggling a blowing 1100-degree heat gun for 80 seconds? Not to mention the safety risk if you needed to turn it off in a hurry… I returned it the next day and bought a straight on-off switch model, which also happened to be $10 cheaper. ^_^)
…And that’s just a start! This is only a very introductory tool primer – so now, armed with a knowledge of the options, you can choose your weapons and start hacking out those amazing cosplay props! (Okay, since common sense must prevail, I also recommend that you read safety information and use caution when using new tools for the first time.)