Making wood and branches out of EVA foam

EVA foam is a pretty versatile material, especially with props. And when my sister needed a large wooden staff for her cosplay, I had to figure out how to turn foam into woodgrain. It needed to look like someone took a branch right out of a forest and made a staff out of it.

A massive "wooden" staff mounted over my fireplace
This staff is massive. It makes my fireplace look tiny.

Turns out, you don’t need fancy equipment. You can do it with a few simple supplies and a lot of patience. I spent hours carving this staff by hand, but the result is well worth it, and you get branches that leave people guessing how you actually made it.

Details of the wood grain carvings. It's all just foam
Section of the staff, carved and painted, sitting on my work desk

For this method, you will need some outdoor workspace, as contact cement and sanding foam is toxic indoors. Please use proper protection! The woodgrain and the painting can all be done indoors but make sure you have a workspace that’s easy to clean up. Please don’t ruin your carpet!

This tutorial covers woodgrain and painting, but what prop you want to make it on is up to you! This tutorial is best for dark-colored woods. Light colors and woods like birch don’t quite look right after the painting process is complete.

Skill level: Intermediate for carving and not taking your fingers out in the process.

Supplies:

  • Something to carve. It’s recommended to use 6mm or thicker foam for this project. Dense foam works best, though you can carve low-density foam with this method.
  • Dremel or similar rotary tool with a 220 grit sanding drum. I recommend having a flexible shaft attachment.
  • X-acto knife or mini box cutter
  • Permanent marker, standard width, in a color you can see on the foam
  • Brush-on foam primer of your choice. Flexbond, Mod Podge, wood glue, etc
  • Black acrylic paint for a base
  • Wood colors in acrylics. They will need to be a bit brighter than the desired color as the painting process will darken them. I used chocolate brown on my staff.
  • Matte sealant. My favorite is DecoArt Ultra Matte sealant
  • Wide paintbrush
  • Makeup wedge sponges
  • Paint bowl

Making foam look more organic

Before you can begin carving, you’ll need a good surface to work with. Smooth out the surface and the seams, round it to make it more like a branch. If you have a long PVC pipe in the middle of your prop, wrap it completely with foam. This will give you a good surface to carve later on.

After smoothing all the seams out and filling in any gaps, it’s time to beat the foam up.

Tree branches are absolutely not smooth like a sword handle or a metallic staff. They’re organic with knots, dips, and curves. A Dremel is perfect for making these deeper marks. How exactly you beat up the staff depends on what you’re making. The staff I made had a lot of knots and curves to it. I pulled up a number of branch references as well as hi-rez images from the game to determine where I wanted to make these marks.

Sanded prop showing how grooves are made to make the foam look more organic
The deep grooves are made by digging the side of the sanding drum into the foam at an angle.

You can take advantage of the shape of the sanding drum and carve at an angle. By doing this, you make angular cuts into the foam to make knots or dips that look like twists in a tree branch. You don’t need to do any cuts before digging the drum into the foam. Just mark where you want the dips to be then take the sanding drum to it and move it along the foam, following the rotation of the drum. Don’t linger in one place with the drum as that will dig into the foam and create ugly dents.

It is important to note, this process produces a lot of foam dust. Do not breathe foam dust, wear proper protection, and work outdoors or in a well-ventillated safe space.

Badly drawn diagram of how to tilt the dremel to make grooves
Carving at an angle with the Dremel sanding drum

You can use the same method to create knots in the wood. Unlike the dips, the knots tend to be more tear-drop shaped or shaped like shell macaroni.

Diagram to show how to carve wood knots with a dremel
Making a knot with the sanding drum

When creating knots, use the side of the sanding drum to create the dip. The lowest point will be in the center of the knot (shown with the thin black line). You’ll want to carve both sides of the knot to make the full tear-drop shaped dip.

After carving the knots and dips, it’s time to beat up the sides of the wood and branches. Instead of smoothing the edges out like with a sword or other non-organic props, you want them to look a bit roughed up as if you literally grabbed a tree branch and brandished it at the enemy.

A branch beat up irregularly with a dremel
Branches with organic edges

Now certainly, you don’t want to go to town on it and ruin all your work. Give the edges just a bit of a beating. Add some dips here and there to give the edges a more organic, natural look. You can use similar methods with the dips, carving at an angle until the branches start getting a more wavering edge.

If you aren’t sure what to go for, just research tree branches or go outside and stare at a tree for a couple hours. No really. It gives you a good feel of how a natural tree branch bends and curves on the sides. The more natural the sides, the more it compliments all the woodgrain you’ll be carving into it.

Marking the grain

Since we want an organic look, it seems like we could just go to town on the foam and carve whatever. But that tends to look more chaotic than organic. So it’s time for some prep work.

Determining where to put the woodgrain is more of an art form than a science. The woodgrain for my staff looked like someone had twisted the wood before turning it into a staff. The grain followed the knots and curves, making a more whimsical pattern. I used this on the knots and curves throughout the staff, marking where I wanted my woodgrain to go.

Wood grain marked with a silver sharpie
Carving lines marked for the bottom section of the staff which has twisted wood appearance.

But whimsy doesn’t work for all projects, nor did it work for the long pipe section of the staff. I needed something that still looked organic but stretched across a long thinner section. The lines were more vertical for this, curving to make them look more organic. Straight vertical lines would look more mechanical than organic.

long wood grain on a pipe section
Pipe section with curved vertical lines

For this section, the lines were also more spread apart, making it look like a longer branch instead of a small knotty one. This works for tall or long props, but can also work for smaller sections that aren’t twisted or knotty and need a simpler look.

Carving

Cutting the woodgrain with a very cute pawprint knife
I carve with a very cute mini box knife

Now that you’ve done all the prep work, it’s time to carve that wood!

While carving, you need to make sure that your knife is very sharp. Foam has a bad tendency to wear knife blades down incredibly fast. Have extra blades on hand and replace the blade when you notice the knife dragging or getting caught in the foam.

Also, be careful with the knife when working. Believe me, it hurts when you accidentally take out your supporting hand while carving.

You can do this process inside and on a table. It doesn’t produce any toxic dust. All you need is a good hard work surface like a sturdy table and a place to discard all the scraps.

I strongly recommend trying this out on scrap foam before carving your final prop. It involves cutting at an angle with a knife and if you haven’t done that before, you’ll need to practice a bit to get used to it.

When carving wood and branches, you want the woodgrain thick and noticeable. While some trees don’t have such noticeable grain, it works amazingly for cosplay because it shows up very well in photos and even on stage in contests. Fortunately, the thickness of an ordinary sharpie mark is exactly the width we need for making noticeable woodgrain that doesn’t look ridiculously oversized.

Carving is a two-step process. Start by making the first cut. Angle your knife at about 45° with the blade sticking out at the very edge of the sharpie mark (shown in red in the image below). Pull your knife along your lines, taking the curves slowly.

Diagram of how to use a knife to cut the wood grain into foam
Making the first cut

Don’t saw the knife up and down. Simply make a smooth cut like drawing a line with a pen. If you need to stop and reposition your hands, don’t remove the knife. Instead, keep your knife hand steady as you reposition your supporting hand and move it as needed. Make sure to move the knife as little as possible during this process.

If you notice any resistance when pulling the knife, you need to replace your blade. This process should feel like cutting through warm butter.

After you’ve made your first cut, you need to make the other half. The second cut is on the opposite side of the sharpie mark, though you follow pretty much the same process. Cut at about a 45° angle, using the sharpie line as a guide to ensure your two cuts meet at the bottom.

Cutting the other half of the foam channel to make the woodgrain
Making the second cut

While my drawing shows cutting to the left, unless you’re fully ambidextrous, this position is horribly uncomfortable. Flip the prop upside down and cut at a comfortable angle in the opposite direction of your first cut.

Once you’ve made both cuts, slice the very top and bottom of the grainline horizontally. Once you’ve made your cuts, use your fingers and simply grab the cut foam section and pull gently. If you made your cuts at a proper 45° angle, the foam noodle should pull right out with little resistance.

Repeat this process until you’ve cut all your grainlines. The longer the lines, the more grains you want to cut, the longer this will take so make sure to allow for ample time to do this (instead of con crunching). But the time will be worth the effort.

Priming

Before painting, you’ll need to prime your surface. Foam is porous and likes to slurp paint. So you need to give the paint a good surface to adhere to. This is where your primer comes in.

The best type of primer to use is a brush-on primer. Spray primers tend to pool when you have grooves, and the brush strokes from a brush-on primer will add to the more wooden appearance of your prop.

Use a large paintbrush for your primer, following the grainline so that if your brush strokes show up, it looks like it’s part of the wood. Prime all sides of the surface, allowing each to dry before turning the prop over. 2-3 coats should do the trick.

Once the surfaced is primed, you’ll need a solid color base coat. A black coat will make it look more wooden as white will make the top coat appear far too bright. A black base coat darkens the top coat and makes it look more like natural wood.

Cover the entire prop with the base coat using your wide paintbrush. Paint following the grainlines much like you did with the primer. This covers up any stray sharpie markings from the carving process and any different colored foam you used during the construction process.

Painting

While you could use a paintbrush, the best method I’ve found to paint wood is using a makeup wedge sponge. It’s my favorite painting method, one I’ve detailed in Painting weathered metal with a makeup wedge and used for a few articles. But instead of making weathered metal with the sponge, we’re painting organic wood.

gif of how to dab paint onto foam with a makeup wedge
dab dab dab

For this method, you only need a little bit of paint on the bottom of the wedge. Dip the wedge into your paint bowl filled with wood paint color and wipe the excess off with the edge of the bowl.

Then dab. And dab some more. Dab all the way across the prop. Dab over the woodgrain but not in it. This will leave some black in the grooves, making them look deep and a bit like the wood has been around for a while. This also makes the grooves easier to see in photos and in person because the black base coat is bringing them out.

Finished paint job with brown coat and black grooves to make the woodgrain noticeable
The long pipe section with a brown coat and black grooves

Because this is wood and not weathered metal, the main wooden color needs to be a little bit more opaque. If you notice the top layer looking a bit thin and speckled with the black showing through too much, go over the prop again with another layer of dabbed paint. Try to avoid doing more than two coats as the paint may become too saturated and look less like natural wood. You want a little bit of the black to show through to make it look like it’s been out in nature for a while.

Sealing

Cons are notorious for beating up props and you want to protect that beautiful paint job you just did. So you need to seal the paint with a clear coat to prevent paint chips and protect it from scuffing.

For wood, you don’t want it glossy and shiny like with metallic props. Instead, you want matte sealant. The more matte, the better. Now sealant by its very nature is slightly glossy, but you can reduce it with ultra matte sealants.

The sealant is applied much like the paint job. You need a makeup wedge as a paintbrush will pull the paint right off due to how thin it is.

gif showing how to seal using a makeup wedge

Dab the wedge into a bowl filled with sealant and get a decent amount on it. Make sure it’s wet but not so wet that it saturates even your workspace.

Rub the sponge along the length of the prop, making sure to get into the grooves you made with the carving. Unlike gloss sealant, matte sealant is rather milky. When sealing the prop, make sure the milky liquid doesn’t pool into the grooves as it may be visible when dried. Use your sponge to mop up the pooling sealant and spread it out along the rest of the prop.

Use about 2-3 layers to protect your paint and ensure you haven’t missed any spots during the process. Then admire your work.

Finished woodgrain prop with lights!

And there you have it! The method I used to carve my large branch staff. Now you too can make a cool prop that looks like you picked it up out of the forest and customized it for battle. It’s still not real though. Please don’t hit anyone with your foam wooden prop.

I hope this helps in your adventures with doing cool things with EVA foam in small spaces and with minimal supplies. Cosplay is for everyone, even those with tight budgets and small spaces.

Happy crafting!

If you make something with this method, let me know! I’d love to see your work. @ me on social media so I can admire it.

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