Cosplay: All About Worbla

All the cosplay posts! Ok, not literally all of them, but I’m all about following through on my promise to you guys to spill the remaining details about how Steampunk Hawkgirl came/is coming together. If you’re just joining the conversation now or missed out on any of the previous installations pertaining to this costume you can read about the corset, leggings, and the support rig for the wings using those respective links. Today we’re going to go into all the little details of the costume that involved the use of thermoplastic. These included a breastplate, gauntlets, covers/toppers for my boots, the hawk crest necklace, and the helm portion of my mask/helm/goggles mashup.

We’ve talked about thermoplastics a couple of times, namely how to work with closed-cell plastic and now to shape lengths of acrylic into fun swords. What we’ll cover in this post pertains mainly to Worbla and other sheet-form, closed-cell opaque thermoplastics. Worbla is one of the single biggest buzzwords in cosplay right now, and it’s not hard to see why. With a bit of planning and a splash of heat, Worbla can take on just about any shape you can imagine. Want to re-create Zelda’s pauldrons or Kayle’s armor or Daenerys’ Qartheen belt? Worbla (or similar thermoplastics like Wonderflex) will help you make it happen.

That sounds awesome! How does it work?

First, you’ll need a few things, namely the Worbla itself, but also a heat gun, a Sharpie or other durable pen/marker, scissors, and craft foam. The easiest way to procure Worbla is online. Fair warning, it’s not the cheapest of costume-making materials, but if you buy in bulk you can save yourself a bit of cash in the long run. I always end up buying the largest sheets available both for the potential savings and the fact that the plastic has to come from Europe, which often translates into shipping times of at least a few weeks. Heat guns are a bit easier and cheaper to come by, as many models are available in most hardware stores (plus Amazon, which is where I got mine from). If you can, try to get a heat gun with a high and low setting, as this will give you the maximum amount of control when working with the thermoplastic.  All the other items are optional and dependent on the type of project you’re working on. I will make the following recommendation about cutting implements though: if you’re making something particularly complex or that just involves a lot of pieces you may want to splurge on a nice set of tin snips. Your hands will thank you if you spend any extended period cutting through the sometimes-uncooperative plastic. 

Once you have your materials it’s time to discern what shapes you’ll need for your project. For Steampunk Hawkgirl I used the clingwrap and masking tape method to draft patterns. All you need for that method are exactly those two items, a pair of scissors, and a marker. You wrap the part of your body you want to model or will otherwise be wearing your intended piece in plastic wrap, then do your best mummy impression and cover the wrap with a layer of masking or marking tape. Aside from becoming what will be your pattern, the tape offers two tactical benefits. First, you can draw directly on it with your marker to give yourself a concrete idea of shapes, designs, and potential decorations. Second, the tape will be a bit constricting, which will provide a great simulation of what it will feel like to have the thermoplastic on your body. Once you're happy with your designs, carefully cut the tape and plastic wrap off yourself, then trace the resulting shapes onto your thermoplastic and/or craft foam. Adding a layer of craft foam to your pieces helps give definition and structure to the finished product, but you should certainly experiment a bit to see if your particular project requires this step.

As the majority of endeavors involving Worbla or similar thermoplastics do require at least one buffering or structural layer of material, the rest of this post will focus on the techniques used to achieve that. If you're not layering your materials, the steps for warming up and shaping the Worbla are still the same and completely applicable. After you've cut out all your shapes and patterns (this should include anything you're using for decorative purposes as well as what your foundational pieces), it's a good idea to also cut out several long, thin strips of Worbla. These little strips can come in handy when finishing the edges of your pieces or for correcting areas that didn't turn out quite as planned. A safe bet would be to cut these strips to be twice as wide as the thickness of your thickest material.

Ok, so you have your shapes, your craft foam, and your edging material. Now it's time to prep your work space. I tend to like working on a piece of cardboard that I've covered with at least one layer of aluminum foil (with the dull side facing up, but this doesn’t make a huge difference). This helps protect the underlying surfaces, but also helps you recover the Worbla once it's been heated up since it can get pretty sticky. Handy things to have within easy reach include a sharpie/durable marker, a ruler, and a pair of scissors. Lastly, you’ll need your heat gun. I have a small square of granite that I keep under the heat gun just for another layer of protection, but having a dedicated resting place for your gun is completely optional.


Many heat guns have two settings: a lower heat and high heat. You’ll want to employ the highest setting your gun has when initially warming the Worbla. Also, this is an ideal time to orient your Worbla in order to make your crafting life easier in the near future. Worbla has two sides: a rougher side with a texture reminiscent of fabric and a smooth, shiny side. The latter will be more adhesive once the material is warm, so it’s almost always the side that you want to apply to the inside of your garment (or apply directly onto your craft foam, if you’re using it). I always have the Worbla lay with the rough side facing up at me from the aluminum foil because doing so allows the ‘glue’ of the shiny side to heat up gently, thus creating better behaved thermoplastic. This is just what I’ve found works for me though. You should definitely experiment to get an idea of what will serve you best.

Lay out your Worbla as you see fit and apply the heat from your gun as evenly as possible; using small circular motions tends to be very effective. You may notice that the Worbla will change to a subtly darker tan/brown color as it warms up; once your piece has completely taken on this hue, that’s usually the sign that it’s ok to begin shaping it. Carefully peel your piece off of your work surface. The Worbla should be very pliable, sticky, and hot, but not burning, to the touch. You have 15-30 or so seconds to mold the Worbla into your desired shape before it begins to cool and harden. To get your desired form, apply what was the shiny side directly to your foundation material (usually craft foam). Manipulate the Worbla with your fingers until you’re satisfied with the shape, then leave it to cool. If your first attempt at shaping didn’t go quite as planned, you can reheat the Worbla to make it flexible again. While you can repeat this a few times, try not to go overboard on the corrections, as it is possible to scorch the thermoplastic (it will turn white-ish and start to flake).

Once you’ve built up your desired piece from the Worbla, let it cool entirely. In the meantime, gather up any scrap thermoplastic you have leftover and set it aside in a safe place amongst your other crafting supplies. You never know when you may need an odd shape in a future project and, given the cost of Worbla, it can be handy to have extra bits on hand. After your piece has cooled and hardened, you can finish it as needed to achieve your desired look.

For the Worbla portions of Steampunk Hawkgirl, I primed each piece with four coats of gesso then painted directly onto the dried gesso with standard acrylic paints. This was to give the pieces a weathered, textured look in keeping with the Steampunk aesthetic. Sanding the gesso or using other agents in addition to the gesso, like wood glue, will give you a more polished and smooth finish if that’s what you’re after. For the trim, I used Rub N Buff in a few different shades (related aside: I highly recommend picking up the sampler set if you're going to invest in that specific finish). Rub N Buff is a wax-based paint that, while sometimes messy to apply, gives you an incredibly realistic metallic shine and works beautifully with thermoplastic.

If you're going to add straps or extra foam to help adhere your piece to the rest of your costume (or your body) I'd recommend using rubber cement on all surfaces that share an edge with the thermoplastic, as hot glue will likely cause distortions. Other than that though, you can add pretty much anything to the Worbla, including more Worbla.

It's an excellent material and lots of fun to experiment with. You'll get to see the 100% finished pieces in the very near future. In the meantime, best of luck with your costuming adventures!

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