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You can use EVA foam to create a faux leather effect. It’s not going to be 100% realistic, but the overall look is still pretty good for costumes. While I certainly don’t recommend using EVA foam in any kind of everyday clothing, with a little bit of texture and paint, you can get something that looks great in cosplay photos.
EVA foam is great because you can heat-shape it, and you can easily make clean, precise edges. You can also use different thicknesses of foam depending on the type of armor or leatherwork you’re imitating. For example, a leather chest plate can use 4mm or 6mm EVA foam, while arm bracers will typically be best with something thinner such as 2mm or craft foam.
1. Heat up your EVA foam and press the aluminum foil
The first step is to give your EVA foam a leather-like texture. You can do this after you’ve cut out your “leather” armor or strap shapes, but I find it easier to just add texture to the entire sheet of EVA foam and then cut everything out.
To texture your EVA foam:
- First, take a sheet of aluminum foil and crumple it up. You may end up needing more than one foil ball since it will flatten a little as you go.
- Use your heatgun and heat the EVA foam until it softens. If you’re working with a large piece, you may want to go one section at a time.
- Take your crumpled foil and press it against your softened EVA foam. Press the foil randomly along the entire heated section of foam to create a texture. As the foam cools, the texture will become permanent.
- If you want your “leather” piece to be visible on both sides, repeat the process on the other side of the foam.
Note: When heating EVA foam, make sure to work in a well-ventilated area.
2. Cut your EVA foam into straps (or your desired shape)
Now that your foam is textured, you can easily cut out the shapes you want for your leather armor or leather straps. Make sure to use a sharp razor when you cut it out so that you will have clean edges to the foam.
3. Paint the EVA foam to look like faux leather
Now all you have to do is paint the foam to look a little more realistic. The basic idea is to use multiple shades of brown, tan, red-brown, etc. to mimic a more realistic (or stylistic if you prefer) leather texture. Use a cloth or sponge to help get texture with the paint, and make the edges of the strap darker than the center. You can also add some stitching to the foam to give it a more authentic leather look. I’ve included tips for painting leather texture in the following section.
4 Basic principles for painting something to mimic the texture of leather
When it comes to painting your “leather” surface, there is no one way to get the perfect paint job. I encourage you to start with a test piece of whatever material you’re using. This will give you the chance to try out different techniques and applicators until you get the result you’re looking for. While you are painting, use these tips to help you get a better result.
1. Make sure it has some texture on the surface
The reality is, real leather can actually be sanded down and smooth. However, it’s quite difficult to replicate that kind of flawless, matte leather finish with just paint. Unless you’re really good at airbrushing and creating realistic smooth colors with paint (in which case, you’re probably not reading this because you can make better fake leather than me), it’s best to try to mimic leather that has a rough surface, rather than a smooth finish.
The rough texture helps to create uneven variations in coloring that don’t have to be as precise as a smooth surface. If you use cheap faux leather, it will usually have a textured surface to work with, and you can easily create a textured surface on EVA foam.
2. Apply thin layers of multiple colors
Like most things in nature, real leather is not going to have a surface that is only one color. If you look at it very closely, you’ll see there is a variation in the color of a single piece of leather from lighter undertones to the dark caramel, rustic brown, etc.
To mimic this natural occurrence, you’ll need to use multiple colors on your faux leather surface. What I always do is:
- Start with a solid layer of a light color. A light tan is usually a good option for dark-colored leather, while an ivory color is best for a lighter type of leather look.
- Add a thin layer of slightly darker paint. There are many ways of making it a thin layer. You can thin the paint with water, paint it and wipe it away with a rag, or apply the paint with a sponge, cloth, or something similar. The goal is to make sure you don’t paint a solid layer of paint.
- Repeat step 2 for three or four layers. Use slightly darker paint each time. By the time you finish, the first layer should barely be visible, but you’ll get the occasional light color coming through the dark in small spots.
- Go back with a thin layer of one of your light colors to highlight some areas of the “leather” and create a variation in color. The center of large “leather” pieces or areas where the surface of the leather would experience friction are places where the leather will naturally be lighter.
3. Don’t use a paintbrush
For the most part, you’ll want to use other objects to paint your leather other than a paintbrush. At least, you want to avoid a good, smooth paintbrush. Something old and bristly can still be useful here. Other objects that you can use are a cloth or rag, a sponge, or even your fingers.
This is because you don’t really want to create a smooth layer of paint on the surface. You want the paint to create its own random texture while you’re applying it. So pressing it on and rubbing it with a cloth or sponge, can help you create a more realistic look. You can also press paint on with a bristled brush (as opposed to painting smoothly) to help create an unusual texture that gives your faux leather more character.
4. Make areas near edges and cracks darker
In general, areas that are less exposed to light and friction will maintain the original, darker color of the leather more than other areas that fade with time. To mimic this effect, you’ll want to make the areas on the edges of the leather and along any seams the darkest color. Then add a gradient to fade that darker color into the lighter color you’ll see toward the center of the leather piece.
You can make the difference between the colors as drastic or subtle as you want. For some types of leather, you’ll really notice the difference, while for others it’s barely noticeable, especially if it’s a newly-made leather piece. So test out what you like best.