Have you been told by someone that ‘you should try Worbla’ when you asked for advice on a project? Or have you seen something awesome that was made from Worbla and you want to see what the fuss is about? Did your school, wardrobe manager or designer tell you to ‘look into Worbla’ and you have no idea where to even start? Do you want to make durable props and costumes that take less time to construct, with less noxious chemicals?
This was designed for you.
I’m Amanda, I’m known as Elemental Photography and I have been working with and teaching Worbla for the last two years for Worbla.com, and as a result I field a LOT of beginners questions. This page isn’t designed to be an in-depth breakdown on how to build any one specific thing, and it won’t go into the history of Worbla or even tips and tricks: This is a primer for the completely uninitiated, to help you figure out if Worbla is Right For You and How It Works. I will also try to break down some of the common terms used when looking at Worbla writeups, blogs and tutorials so you can better understand those if you search for additional information.
First things First: What is Worbla?
Worbla is the brand name for a line of thermoplastics. There are (at this moment) 7 Worbla products:
Worbla’s Finest Art (the first one)
Worbla’s TranspArt (the clear one)
Worbla’s Black Art (the smoother black one)
Worbla’s Mesh Art (the stronger one)
Worbla’s FlameRed Art (the fire retardant one)
Worbla’s Deco Art (the Worbla version of plastic pellets like Friendly Plastic)
What is a Thermoplastic?
In very short, it is a plastic that you can heat and shape to your desire and it will hold that shape when it is cool. It can be a lot more complicated, but we aren’t here for complicated today.
I am still confused:
Imagine you had a thin sheet of plastic that you could easily heat up, and when heated up it acted like a sheet of warm clay or beeswax. You take that sheet and drape it over a bowl and let it cool. Take it off, and suddenly you have a copy of that bowl for a hat. You heat that bowl up again and mush it into a ball, then shape that ball into a heart. Now you have a solid plastic heart. Heat it up again and you can carve your name in it. Heat it up again and you can roll it out flat and make something else completely. And each time, it is solid and fairly durable when cool.
Why is Worbla ‘Special’
Worbla is often considered special in comparison to other thermoplastics that have been on the market for ages for various reasons:
- It’s non toxic, which is fantastic for those who are working indoors or with younger artists or who have health complications.
- It doesn’t require much in specialized tools – a heat gun regularly retails for less than $30 pretty much everywhere.
- It’s self adhesive – you heat up two pieces and they will stick together, no glue needed. (This does not include TranspArt)
- It can be heated endlessly.
- There is no ‘shelf life’.
- You never have any waste, as the scraps can be mushed together and reused – and that means Worbla is much more forgiving for mistakes for the new artist.
- Worbla takes deep complex curves without requiring a vacuform, something very few plastics can do.
TranspArt and DecoArt, while both Worbla Products, are quite a bit different to work with. This will be further explained below but for now in this writeup assume if I speak of Worbla I am speaking of Finest Art, Black Art, Mesh Art and FlameRed Art. If I say Worbla can do X, or Worbla is used as Y, I mean all of those products can be applied interchangeably to that statement. TranspArt and Deco Art will have their own section later.
How is Worbla used?
Worbla has been used in just about everything at this point:
How does it work?
Tricky question – let’s break that down into something easier.
Worbla is generally used in two forms: Flat and Sculpted.
Working with Flat(ish) Shapes:
For armor, helmets, building props or wings or corsets – Worbla is often used in small to large flat pieces that are shaped as needed. When you receive Worbla it’s a thin sheet of plastic in a roll. It’s around 1mm thick, can be cut with scissors, and when heated has the consistency of fruit leather.
Our customers heat their pieces and shape them – by hand, over forms such as acrylic spheres, bottles or molds, or (carefully) directly onto body parts or life casts. For domes and curves, Worbla can be stretched into shape. For layers, depth and dimension, Worbla can be layered over itself (it is self adhesive) or wrapped around a ‘fill’ material which will be explained below.
How does using a filler material work, and why would you do that?
One of the most common ways Worbla is used in ‘sheet’ form is for artists to create a shape out of another material – I’ve seen cardstock, various thicknesses and types of foams, aluminum foil and paper mache – and wrap that with Worbla.
Why you do so is twofold:
1: Covering something with Worbla means that the final product will be durable – very durable. Falls, travel in luggage, mock battles and public display are no issue for Worbla products.
2: Using a filler gives Worbla more ‘body’ and strength than on its own, and is far less expensive and lighter than simply layering Worbla to the required thickness. It also allows you to build up ‘levels’ or layers of detail with inexpensive foam first,
How it is done is also simple: Worbla Products (excepting TranspArt) are self adhesive and will ‘stick’ to most materials as well as to itself. Worbla can be wrapped around a filler material where it will adhere, or be ‘sandwiched’ with a filler material in the middle.
Working with Sculpted Shapes:
Worbla’s Finest Art, Black Art, and FlameRed Art are specifically suited to sculpting details. Mesh Art scraps can absolutely be used for similar purposes, but the mesh means I usually suggest you don’t plan that to be the ‘main’ purpose of the material. TranspArt can be sculpted, but is more limited in how it can be worked especially as it becomes cloudy as it is ‘mashed’ together and that must be the effect you want.
If you have ever worked with any clay, even just Play-Doh or Plasticine, you can sculpt with Worbla. I’ve seen jewelry, puppets, props, scale models, fine art, figures – the list goes on, and there is little it can’t do – though don’t use it for food! Non Toxic doesn’t mean food grade!
Sculpting with Worbla is simple:
Heat a piece – or heat the scraps saved from another project – and mush them together. Now you have a ball of plastic ‘clay’ that will stay warm and shapeable for 3-5 minutes. You can heat areas as you need to work on them, shape with your hands and sculpting tools, easily add more material and when you need to stop for the day or week, your project does not need any protective care. The cat can knock it over and it will be fine. You can set it aside for a year and the material will be just the same as you have left it, ready to continue – or be scrapped and reworked. It does not need to be baked to ‘finish’ it. When you are done, you can move onto painting as soon as it is cool, eliminating the wait time inherent in most clay.
You can see a video of the process of heating scraps and how they can be shaped here:
You can also still use a filler material to make large projects without a large expense, and to keep weight down.
A note about foam:
Use of foam with Worbla could be its own page (and might be one day). For simplicity’s sake, the types of foam most commonly used are craft foam (also known as eva foam, foamies, fun foam), anti-stress floor matting (that comes either as a roll, or in ‘puzzle pieces’ for children’s playrooms), expanding foam (a canned foam that is sprayed into general shape and expands and then cures hard, and is then carved into a final shape), pink insulation foam, and sometimes L200 or Cross-Link Polyethylene 2lbs density foam, though those are harder to come across. Type of foam depends largely on your project and what you have available. Check out the suggested links at the bottom of the page for more examples of foam as a filler for Worbla projects.
What Sort Of Worbla Should I Use (and what makes TranspArt and Deco Art different?)
If you read or watch tutorials, Worbla can sometimes be used as a catchall phrase for several Worbla products, and that gets confusing. Plus, when the first Worbla came out – Worbla’s Finest Art – no one knew it was going to be part of a whole line and so many early tutorials just say ‘Worbla’ because there was only one when it was written.
In truth, the differences between Finest Art, Black Art, Mesh Art and FlameRed Art are all small, and one can be used in place of the other for a similar to near-identical result. This creates confusion on what product you ‘should’ use, and I get asked often ‘What should I use for X project?’
Generally Speaking: Start With Worbla’s Finest Art or Black Art
Worbla’s Finest Art and Black Art are sister products. There are many differences between them technically, but for the first time user all you need to know are these points:
Worbla’s Finest Art is ‘stickier’ and less prone to tearing when stretched over shapes. It is very slightly more user friendly as a result. Many cosplayers like this product best.
Worbla’s Black Art is smoother, meaning it will take less time to prime before painting, and it takes fine detail exceptionally well – it can be sculpted into very very fine detail without crumbling. It is a bit less ‘sticky’ so joining pieces means you need to pay a bit more attention to ensure a good bond.
That’s it. Once you’ve used both, you may find you like one more than the other, or that you’ll use both depending on your needs. I know people who only use Black Art, only use Finest Art, and myself? I absolutely mix both as I need. Finest Art for bigger shapes and lots of curves, Black Art for quick builds that need to be painted quickly and any small details I want made.
Use Mesh Art when it needs to be stronger:
Worbla’s Mesh Art is meant to be used when you need strength, especially when creating something that will be pulled, twisted or potentially crushed. There is a harder plastic mesh that runs through the sheet to help reinforce it. It is also noticeably more ‘sticky’, and joins can be blended to almost invisible seams. In tutorials that suggest you use Wonderflex to reinforce things, Mesh Art works even better, especially as the scraps can still be recycled.
Use FlameRed when it has to meet fire code:
Worbla’s FlameRed art is the best properties of Finest Art and Black Art, but is not aimed at consumer level use – you absolutely can use it for your projects, but the higher price means we suggest it only for those who actually need to meet a fire code rating, as it is specifically formulated to be Certified DIN (German Industry Norms) 4102-1 as B1. If you don’t know what that means, you probably don’t need to use FlameRed.
TranspArt: Fire, Ice, Water, and when it needs to be REALLY hard to break:
Worbla’s TranspArt is quite different than the other Worbla products, which can be confusing to many! It is a clear plastic sheet that has very noticeable lines from manufacture through it. It is meant to be heated and shaped more than used as a flat piece, and those lines disappear when it is stretched. It makes fantastic water, ice and fire effects and unlike traditional acrylics TranspArt is not brittle – it can be bent, struck, even crushed – all without damage. It doesn’t have the same self-adhesive properties, so glue is needed to join pieces, and it does require a higher working temperature to activate. This means TranspArt needs more patience to get the hang of using. In other words: give yourself time, extra material and do some research in advance of using TranspArt for the first time!
What about Deco Art?
Worbla’s Deco Art is only really referenced from European artists, as it is not carried in North America. The reason is Deco Art is very similar to Friendly Plastic, which is readily available in North America – importing Deco Art would be too expensive, and so you can easily replace Friendly Plastic for any project that calls for Deco Art.
For those who don’t know Friendly Plastic: white plastic pellets that when heated turn clear, can be sculpted and shaped, and then cool back to a solid white. It can be worked on its own, or added to Worbla for detail work, and Friendly Plastic is also used for tooth appliances such as fangs. Friendly plastic is much more commonly known and has great primers available if you need more information on working with it.
Worbla can be painted with acrylics, spray paint, paint markers, wax finishes, airbrush paints – you should always test your paint in advance, but generally most paints that are formulated for plastic or wood work well.
TranspArt can be painted with alcohol markers, glass paints, and also dyed with polyester dyes as well as taking most other paints well. Again, always test in advance.
Priming Worbla can be a very important step for pieces that will be seen close up, or items that require a glossy metallic finish. Worbla products in general have a textured surface, from leather-like to orange peel, and this can show through paint. If you need a smoother finish there are a wide range of primers that can be used before applying paint. You can see a more detailed writeup about primers here, at the ultimate smoothing Worbla guide.
Some Frequently Asked Questions:
How do I heat it up? And will it melt in the sun?
Using a heat gun is the most suggested way to heat Worbla. Working over a heat-proof work surface, you heat Worbla by pointing the heatgun (which looks like a beefed-up hair dryer) at your piece, moving back and forth. Worbla is ready to use when it is pliable and tacky to the touch.
Worbla’s Finest Art, Black Art, Mesh Art and FlameRed Art all activate between 80-90C – that’s 175-195F.
Worbla’s Deco Art activates at 60C or 140F.
Worbla’s TranspArt activates at 120C or 250F.
Worbla will not melt in the sun, however it can get ‘soft’ and large unsupported pieces (such as spikes or floating straps) may sag if you are standing in direct sunlight for extended periods of time in extreme weather – if you have known your hot glue to melt off, you should take precautions regarding worbla in the same situation.
Importantly Worbla cannot be left in your car, the shed, or stored next to your radiator. (A car can reach an indoor temp of 80C in the sun, for example.)
Where do I buy Worbla?
There is a where to buy page on Worbla.com. If you are looking for Worbla in your country, type “Worbla Your Country Name Here” into Google.
What do I cut it with? Can it be lasercut? Die Cut?
Worbla cuts with regular craft scissors as well as craft knives. Worbla can be sent through Die Cut machines, though results depend on your specific dies. Worbla can be lasercut. There are pages dedicated to both questions: Die Cutting Worbla. Lasercutting Worbla.
Does Worbla have Latex? I am allergic to everything.
Worbla is Latex-Free and I have not heard a single case of an allergic reaction to Worbla.
Can I use Worbla for food displays, chocolate molds, etc?
No. Worbla has not been tested for food safety and does not have a food-grade rating.
Okay, well how do I make ________________?
Do your research. Look at the tutorials on Worbla.com. Find people who have made similar things and written about their process. Look at the list of suggested links at the bottom of this page. Experiment. Like all materials and skillsets, the more you work with Worbla the easier it will be to create things exactly as you imagine them.
If you have additional questions, there is a larger FAQ to be found here.
What are the downsides of Worbla? It can’t all be roses and butterflies.
Well personally I do think it’s pretty awesome and one of my main go-to materials, but nothing is perfect! Here’s a short list of Worbla’s potential failings I can think of:
Finishing Worbla (ie: priming before paint) to get a really smooth surface can be time consuming.
Worbla is more expensive than many other materials commonly used, like foam.
You can’t store it in a hot car.
A costume made of several jumbo sheets of Worbla can be pretty heavy compared to foam.
Worbla can only be bought online or at specialty retailers, so you can’t just pick some up at a WalMart when you’re in a hurry.
If you have a large molded ‘chunk’ of Worbla, you need to heat it all the way through to cut it down. (The fix for this is to add as you build, not subtract, and if you have to really break down a project or reshape something thick, I will let it sit in hot water until soft.)
That’s it for this write-up. If you have additional questions you can direct them to Amanda@worbla.com but please do check that your question isn’t already answered in these fantastic links of additional information below: