by: Rick Cooper [ ]
AK Interactive is working hard to achieve a position in the modelling world as one of the few ‘go to’ manufacturers with literally everything that a modeller could want or need. AK has now jumped in with different types of extruded polystyrene (XPS) and carving foams that have recently become a new and popular medium for modellers.
This review will actually cover three different new products from AK; ‘Construction Foam’, ‘Carving Foam’, and the ‘Carving & Modelling Tools’ set. I used all three in the creation of a small vignette base to be able to give all of these a fair test drive. Keep in mind that I am a middling modeller at best and far from anything like a sculptor!
Let’s take a look at what AK labels as Construction Foam first. The product comes in two blue sheets 195mm x 295mm (`11.5” x 7.5”). One of the sheets is 6mm thick and the other is 10mm. I’ll paraphrase what AK’s marketing sheet that comes with the foam claims; it can be cut to whatever shape you need with a hot wire and the surface and can be embossed with the AK tool set or a stamping roller and can show dents and irregular shapes. It can be easily smoothed by sanding and primed with acrylic primer to help the painting and weathering process and can be glued with PVA glue.
Unfortunately, I was not really that impressed with the product. I have used XPS from both Owens Corning (the pink stuff) and the Dow blue foam (this is not just Dow foam cut up and packaged for AK) several years now and in my opinion the AK product does not really compare well to either. Both the Dow and the Owens product have what I call closed cells, in other words any paint remains on the surface and is not sucked up into the foam. The AK product does not have the same property, a very close inspection reveals what appears as open cells and it has a slight rough texture to the touch. I am not a chemist or a foam expert but what it mostly reminded me of was somewhat more refined floral foam.
I used the two thicknesses to form the base of the vignette. I have several of the rollers from Green Stuff World and used two different patterns for the two levels of the base. The rollers did a good job of embossing the surface and I would give the AK sheets good marks for holding the embossed surface. The AK foam sanded easily around the edges and gave me no trouble at all with this stage.
After embossing and sanding I primed the foam with a black acrylic primer from Vallejo. It painted over the foam just fine but it did not really ‘fill’ the open cells. Next I tried craft paint and had more or less the same result. Then I tried a mix of the acrylic craft paint and PVA glue which gave a slightly better result but still not what I would have wanted. For the sake of the review I pushed on although I was not happy with the way the foam base looked. I also used a piece of the foam for the ochre wall behind the fountain. For the wall the open cell issue was easily resolved as I used a thin coat of joint compound to model the stucco wall which filled all the cells. I also used the joint compound to make a curb for the cobblestone platform that the fountain sits on.
The painting process was easy, a medium gray followed by various stones picked out in darker and lighter grays followed by an acrylic wash of dark gray. I did use some AK enamels for the green slime. I was happy to see that the enamels did not attack the foam although the acrylic coats although you will need to take care that you get good coverage.
In the end however I can’t really recommend the foam due to the limitations as stone or brick work is such an integral part of the modelling this product would need to handle. A close look at the stone work reveals what looks like a fuzzy surface. If you were modelling lava rocks it would be perfect but that seems a bit far-fetched.
10mm thick A5 sized (210 x 148mm) Carving Foam
The second product was the 10mm thick A5 sized (210 x 148mm) Carving Foam. The foam has a density of 10 Pcf making it fairly rigid foam. AK’s website says that this foam, “…can be used for creating various structures such as buildings, walls, pavements etc. In comparison with our Construction Foam, the Carving Foam is more rigid and resistant and has a finer grain, allowing the creation of more precise details.” If you have ever worked with balsa foam this product is VERY similar to Balsa Foam II that is used in many sculpting and other art applications.
Happily, this product was much more in line with what I was looking for. I used a long bladed utility knife to cut easily through the material (if you use a hot wire cutter it will not work on this product) to the rough dimensions of the fountain I planned to carve. I used the carving tools from AK to easily sculpt the bricks and the niche for the actual fountain. I was careful to leave material for the lion head fountain and used a different carving tool to carefully carve out the lions head in the fountain. I used a couple of pieces of brass rod and tube to emboss the rest of the design.
The fountain bowl was shaped out of a separate piece that was glued on with fabric cement from Aleene’s. The fountain was attached to the wall with some PVC glue and a couple of small pegs. The foam had no problem at all with the different glues I used. I tried a little thin CA glue but it tended to sink into the surface and wouldn’t ever work correctly, I don’t know if the result would have been different if the surfaces had been painted; perhaps it would have made all the difference?
I can recommend this product easily; it was enjoyable to work with and the learning curve was very shallow. I have never carved out much beyond bricks or stone walls so this was stretching my limited skills a bit. All told the fountain took me about 60 minutes from start to finish, with a bit more care and patience I’m sure you can come up with something much better. The fine grain of the foam does come off very easily and it can be a bit messy with the dust floating around and ending up on every surface you put it on so do be aware of that.
Carving Tool set
The final product was the Carving Tool set. The set comes in a very nice hinged aluminium case with the familiar AK with the AK-47 emblazoned on the top. Inside are four stainless steel carving tools held in place with a perfectly shaped chunk of foam rubber that holds the tools firmly and prevents damage to the cutting and carving surfaces. They seem very sturdy and somewhat stronger than my old set of dental probes (I’m not a dentist, maybe dentist tools are softer to allow easy reshaping of the sharp tips?). They are light in the hand with a knurled surface on the two grip areas.
The four tools each have cutting and carving shapes on each end so you end up with eight effective tools. Two of the tools have different angled points that work well for cutting and carving; I used these two for the bulk of the work on the fountain. I really liked the variety of the different angles and thicknesses which AK offers here. One of the tools provides a pair of different narrow spade shaped tips which would be very handy for spreading putty or the like. The final tool was my favourite; it featured flat and angled broad tipped chisel type cutting/scraping edges that allowed you to remove a good bit of material quickly. I used the chisel tipped tool to get the niche of the fountain cleaned out quickly and easily.
I really liked this set of tools; the case is a nice touch and helps keep everything together (nothing worse than that moment when you can’t find a tool that you KNOW is somewhere on your workbench!) They seem very sturdy and lightweight with a variety of tips that should come in handy for many different tasks. I did encounter a bit of fatigue from gripping them, a slightly larger circumference might have been a bit better for my older hands (you may get better mileage from yours!) but I know it is always a trade off between weight and size.
A solid thumbs up for two out of three! The Carving Foam, while messy, was easy to work with and more than a bit of fun to see what I could work out. I had mentioned earlier that this product reminded me a lot of Balsa Foam III; one very real plus for the AK product is the price which is much less expensive compared to the Balsa Foam product. The set of carving tools was equally impressive, an overall good value for the money. The Construction Foam on the other hand was a letdown, the open celled look and feel can be effective in some modelling jobs but there are many others where it just isn’t up to the task. If you have a big box DIY hardware store around I would look for a 2’ x 2’ panel of Dow or Owens XPS for a better product for around five or six dollars.