You want to make some cool-looking props for your cosplay, but you have no idea where to start. There are so many people at conventions with intricate swords, armor, staffs, and all manner of other props to help bring their character to life. You can learn to create these kinds of character accessories too! It just takes learning about your material choices so you know where to start.
The most common materials used to make props for cosplay are EVA foam, paper clay, PVC pipes, and Worbla. However, you can combine cardboard, wood, wire, fabric, and many more supplies to create accessories for your character. The material you choose to use will depend on what you’re trying to make and your skill level.
You can use just about anything to create pieces of your character’s costume. If you check out tutorials by other cosplayers, you’ll see that they frequently use unconventional materials to achieve their desired effect on their costumes. It’s really only limited by your resourcefulness and creativity. I’ll be going over the most common materials that are used for cosplay props and the types of objects you can make with each.
- Related reading: Standard supplies to have on hand for cosplay construction
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|Cardboard||Almost anything flat or almost flat, swords, shields, cubes. A supporting structure for other materials.||free|
|Foam core board||Similar to cardboard, but sturdier and less flexible.||low|
|Paper clay||Good for organic shapes such as antlers, horns, or anything non-geometric. Also good for engravings or a textured surface.||low|
|Polymer clay||Small accessories and decorations, especially jewelry.||low|
|EVA foam||Wide variety of uses, including armor, hats, and large props. You can find EVA foam patterns to create a wide variety of cosplay pieces and accessories.||medium|
|Worbla||Can be used for large and small costume pieces. You’ll find it most commonly used for armor and headdresses, but this versatile material will give you a professional-looking cosplay.||high|
|Resin||Used for creating gemstones or duplicating another piece of your costume if you need multiple parts that are exactly the same. Typically only used for small accessories.||medium|
|Wood||Wide variety of uses including swords, staffs, and harnesses for wings or a tail. Required skills in woodworking and special tools for cutting, carving, and engraving.||medium/high|
|Fabric||Good for hats, bags, masks, ears, tails, and very simple armor pieces.||low/medium|
|Wire||Wire is good for supporting wings, animal ears, and tails, and can be used as a decoration or a part of jewelry.||low|
|PVC Pipes||Used for long cylindrical pieces of props, such as a sword hilt, or the length of a staff or spear.||low|
|Styrofoam||Mostly used as a supporting structure, but is sometimes used for large props that you want to be lightweight such as large hammers.||low|
Cardboard is the easiest material to start with when learning how to make props. It’s cheap (or free!), which means you can make as many mistakes as you want while learning the ropes. It’s also a material that is fairly lightweight and easily cut and painted. Most cosplayers will graduate to using a more heavy-duty material pretty quickly, but this is still a good option for beginners and can often be used in conjunction with other materials.
What types of props can you make with cardboard?
- Anything flat (or mostly flat).
- As a base for other materials
The limitations of using cardboard:
- Cardboard is not durable, so the prop will likely not last long.
- Cardboard does not curve easily.
- You can’t sand cardboard to make it smooth.
Foam core board is the same type of material that’s used for science fairs and presentations in primary school. It’s made up of a layer of foam sandwiched between two thin, durable layers of plastic. Its uses are pretty similar to cardboard, but you will end up with a more durable result while still using relatively lightweight material.
It is a bit more difficult to cut than cardboard, so it’s a good idea to sharpen your razor blade occasionally. Paint also doesn’t adhere to foam core as easily, so it’s more likely to chip off. Foam core is not very expensive, but it will obviously cost more than a cardboard alternative.
The limitations of foam core board:
- It’s not flexible at all.
- You cannot sand the edges easily.
- Glue doesn’t always work well with foam core unless you work with heavy-duty glue.
Paper clay is one of my favorite materials to use. It’s generally easy to use and fun to work with. You can mold it with your hands or use clay tools to engrave shapes designs. Paper clay is a non-toxic material that air dries, so you don’t need to worry about fitting your prop into the oven to make the clay harden. You can also easily mold it on top of other materials (like a PVC pipe, cardboard, aluminum foil, etc.), knowing that it will harden in place.
It’s also really easy to correct mistakes. Even if the clay has completely dried, you can always get it wet again to continue to mold the material. You can also sand the clay to create a smooth texture. When you’re happy with the shape and design, you seal it with primer to make sure rain and humidity won’t destroy the prop.
Paper clay is not prohibitively expensive, but the price can add up if you’re using a lot of the material. I will always create the base shape of my prop with a different material (such as cardboard or aluminum foil), and then cover it with a layer of paper clay. This keeps you from creating a dense clay prop (which can get heavy), and it will mean you use less clay overall.
When to use paper clay:
- For organic shapes such as horns and antlers.
- For staffs and wands.
- Accessories that require an engraved pattern or textured surface.
The limitations of paper clay:
- It’s difficult to get exact shapes such as symmetrical designs.
- You should use another material as a base. Use the paper clay as a layer on top.
- It’s easily breakable.
- It will dissolve in water if you don’t seal it. Use multiple layers of primer and finisher to prevent this.
- It is not flexible. After the clay dries, your final product will not bend.
Polymer clay is the kind that needs to be baked at a high temperature to harden. It comes in a wide variety of bright colors that you can use to create small pieces of your costume. You might have used it when you were younger to create beads for necklaces or earrings. They have that same function for cosplay costumes.
What to use polymer clay for?
- Small, custom costume pieces.
The limitations of polymer clay:
- You need to bake it which means it needs to be small enough to fit in an oven and cannot be molded onto another costume piece.
- It breaks very easily.
- You can’t use it for any large costume pieces.
EVA foam is one of the materials that you will see used a lot in cosplay. It’s durable, flexible, and extremely lightweight, making it good for armor, swords, staffs, helmets, and any kind of prop you can think of. You can even find patterns for props and armor that you can use to create your own EVA foam accessories.
When you get EVA foam, it will usually be a large, rolled-up sheet. You will cut out flat shapes, glue them together and use a heatgun to heat the foam and bend it into a shape. As it cools, it will stay in that shape, so you can use it to create a wide variety of props for your costume in just about any shape.
EVA foam comes in different thicknesses. The thicker material will be used for more heavy-duty pieces of a cosplay, while thinner EVA foam is used for decorations and embellishments. In general EVA foam is pretty mid-range for the price. There are also cheaper options available. For example, the craft foam that you can get at many art supply stores is a form of EVA foam.
What is EVA foam used for?
- Large props (swords, staffs, etc.)
- Many more costume pieces and props.
The limitations of EVA foam:
- It’s difficult to create organic shapes.
- It remains flexible even when it cools. This can be good for armor but can be a problem for other props.
- You need to sharpen your razor a lot when cutting EVA.
- EVA is toxic when the dust is inhaled (through sanding) or the material is heated so you need to use it in a well-ventilated area.
- It’s difficult to cut delicate shapes with EVA foam.
Worbla is relatively new to the cosplay world. It’s basically a thin plastic that you can melt and mold. Then it will cool and harden back into a highly durable plastic. In a way, it acts like EVA foam because you can use heat to form it into different shapes. But, it’s also similar to clay because you can mold it and even create engravings.
There is very little that you cannot do with Worbla. It can act almost like clay when hot, or it can cover large flat or curved areas of a costume. Then when it cools, you’ve got a custom plastic piece of your costume. What’s even better is that this is a non-toxic material, so you don’t need to worry about finding a well-ventilated area.
Worbla is usually used alongside EVA foam to give the Worbla more structure. Since the EVA foam is flexible and can also be molded with heat, the two of these materials work well together.
The major downside to the material is that Worbla is very expensive. If you want to create anything extensive (such as a set of armor), you will need to shell out a lot for enough Worbla to finish the project.
What is Worbla used for?
- Staffs, swords, shields, etc.
- Pretty much anything.
The limitations of Worbla:
- It’s a little difficult to work with. Practice with a small piece first so that you can understand how it works without ruining your whole sheet of Worbla.
- Worbla does not remain flexible when it cools. This can be good or bad depending on what you’re making.
- It’s expensive.
Resin casting is mainly known for creating fake gemstones for cosplay. However, you can also use it to copy other costume pieces, even entire pieces of armor. Resin dries as a hard plastic that can then be painted and added to your costume. If you’re creating gemstones or something similar, you’ll want to make sure you get a type of resin that will dry clear.
What is resin used for?
- Creating gemstones
- Copying another piece of your costume
The limitations of resin:
- You might need to make your own mold which is a little difficult.
- It’s not flexible. This can be good or bad depending on what you want to make.
- It can only be used for small pieces. The larger the piece, the more likely it won’t come out correctly.
Wooden materials are typically used in the form of wooden dowels or small wooden accessories and embellishments. I’ve used wooden dowels as a base for staffs, especially when I did not have a saw available to cut a PVC pipe.
If you have some skills in woodworking, however, there is a lot you can do with this material. Between carving, assembling, and sanding, wooden props look excellent as finished projects and they are highly durable.
The downside is that this tends to be a heavy material to carry around with you, especially if you have a large prop. It also cannot be cut with simple tools that you use for most other materials. You’ll need to be very skilled with the material if you want to use it.
What is wood used for?
- Mechanical cosplays such as wings that fold, or a harness for giant costume pieces
The limitations of using wood:
- It required a lot of skill.
- You’ll need special tools for cutting and carving.
- It’s a heavy material that you might not want to carry around the convention.
Believe it or not, fabric can be used for more than just the clothing of your cosplay. It can be used to create wings, tails, ears, bags, and fans. You can even reinforce the fabric to create masks, hair clips, and arm bracers. If you already know how to use fabric, it’s easy to apply your skills of sewing costumes directly to prop-making.
What can fabric be used for?
- Bags and purses
- Fans and sashes
- Face masks
- Arm bracers
The limitations of using fabric:
- It’s too flexible to use for many props (it won’t stand on its own).
- You need to make your own fabric patterns. This might be daunting if you’re used to working with premade patterns for your clothing.
- It can rip easily.
You can get wire in a variety of different strengths to use for your cosplay props. The wire will have a gauge number when you purchase it, the lower the number the thicker and stiffer the wire will be. However it will also become more difficult to bend and cut, so you need to learn how to strike a balance between the thickness of the wire and its ability to keep its shape.
Generally, wire is used to give structure to pieces of a costume or to make it poseable. You can create fairy wings using strong wire, or use it to create a poseable cat tail or bunny ears. Thin wire can also be used to create costume jewelry pieces.
What is wire used for?
- Making flexible costume pieces (tails, ears, etc.)
- Helping costume pieces defy gravity
The limitations of using wire:
- It won’t hold heavy materials. The stronger the wire (lower gauge numbers), the more it can hold, but there are limits.
- It can easily bend out of shape if it’s packed wrong or you bump into something.
PVC pipes are long, hollow, plastic pipes. They are not bendable and work best as the length of a staff or the hilt of a sword. You can purchase them in various widths, but usually, they will be quite long. Regular cutting materials won’t work with the hard plastic of PVC pipes, so you’ll need to cut them to the correct length using a saw.
What are PVC pipes used for?
- Sword hilts
The limitations of PVC pipes:
- They only come in one shape so they can only be used for cylindrical objects.
- They are difficult to cut, you’ll need to use a saw, not a razor blade.
Styrofoam is something that I’ve used in several costumes, yet almost forgot to include it on this list. That’s because it’s rarely the main material that I use. Instead, it’s a lightweight supporting material that helps me get the correct shape. Then I will cover it with a different material that’s easier to sand and paint.
For example, creating a perfect cone or sphere is difficult. However, you can get these shapes in styrofoam and cover them with paper clay to get the shape you’re looking for in a different material. You can also use styrofoam on its own if you want to. It’s not known for making durable props though.
What can you make with styrofoam?
- Big/thick props
- A hammer
The limitations of styrofoam:
- It’s difficult to cut. You’ll end up with rough edges unless you use a special heat knife to cut it.
- You cannot sand styrofoam.
- It’s difficult to create precise shapes with styrofoam unless you purchased them that way.
- Painting styrofoam is a pain because the paint will melt into the surface.
I’ve never had the pleasure of 3D printing any prop for a cosplay, but it is something that’s becoming increasingly frequent. You would have to download or design a 3D model of the costume piece you want before you can print it out, a completely new skill set for many cosplayers.
Due to the high price and the new techniques that need to be learned, this is still a lesser-known form of prop creation. But I have seen it mentioned more and more throughout the past decade.
At this point, most people are still limited to 3D printing small accessories for their costumes. You might print the hilt of a sword, or a specific, small costume piece (like a digivice). I believe larger printers cost more so they’re not widely available to cosplayers. However, I would not be surprised if 3D printing full swords, helmets, etc. become more common.