Over time I’ve found these tools to be useful.
Ball stylus set. These are small tools about the size of a pencil, with metal balls on the end that you can use for sculpting. For some reason they usually aren’t included in the sculpting tool starter sets. I have found them to be some of the most useful tools for sculpting, blending, and adding textures to clay and epoxy.
Dremel™. This is like the rotary tool, but smaller and more portable. I have the 4000 corded version. I’d never use it to chew through large sections on a big project, but it’s great for small details, and the various bit types are useful.
Dust mask. Using the rotary tool kicks up a lot of dust. I typically wear the kind of mask with cartridge filters.
Ear protection. I usually wear earmuffs sold for shooting guns. I don’t have a particular favorite, but I do think it’s important to wear something, if you’re going to be using a loud tool. The link is to a type similar to what I own.
Glue guns. I have a basic high-temperature glue gun from the 1990s. I like it because the glue is fairly strong. I also have a newer, low-temperature glue gun. The glue doesn’t stick as well, but it’s better for really small spaces; the glue won’t melt through plastic as easily; and it doesn’t burn my fingers as aggressively. Both types are good to have. There’s a whole world of professional-grade glue guns with giant glue sticks that have special properties, but I haven’t explored that.
Heat gun. Useful for shaping foam, melting pieces of water-jug plastic into shapes, and many other applications.
Hobby knife. Useful for just about every project.
Hobby saw. These are small hand saws with very fine teeth. Useful for getting through objects where a knife wouldn’t make a clean cut, and you can’t or don’t want to use a cutoff wheel.
Pliers, shears, and wire cutters. For manipulating metal and metal wires.
Power drill. For my metal and cardboard masks I used the cheapest power drill I could find (under $30). It worked fine.
Rotary tool. I use a Foredom flex-shaft rotary tool. It works fine, though I haven’t tried others, so I can’t make comparisons. The big motor on a rotary tool like this is essential, in my opinion, if you want to work with CelluClay or some of the homemade papier-mâché, because they need so much shaping with a grinder.
Safety glasses. The rotary tool, Dremel, and plenty of other operations can create flying debris.
Sandpaper. I use the 100-300 grit range the most. Having some finer grits is good, too.
Scissors. Good-quality scissors are important, even if you’re going to get them covered in glue later on.
Utility knife. I use the type with the snap-off blade sections.
Wood burning tool. I use it for burning details into EVA foam. I have a super-cheap set that costs about $15. This works all right for small projects, but the handle gets hot fairly quickly, so I’d buy something higher quality if you plan on using it much.
Metal and Wood Tools
Here are items more related to wood and metal working. Some of them, like the band saw, are more “good to have” than “need to have” but I include them anyway because they are very useful. Items in this section are also helpful for making mask stands.
Band saw. Very useful for woodworking projects.
Belt sander/mini-disk sander. These are useful for projects that involve wood and metal.
Jigsaw. Great for getting through oddly shaped wood and metal.
Rivet gun. I could not have made my metal helmet without it.
Scroll saw. Great for cutting interesting patterns in wood.
Vises. I used a wooden table vise.
I want to use this section to mention materials that I have found to be useful, including those I may not have talked about in this guide.
Automotive conduit cables. Also known as split-wire loom tubing. These are flexible plastic tubes with ridges on them that are great for adding texture and visual interest to your projects. I get mine from Harbor Freight. They come in several sizes, such as 1/4″, 3/8″, and 1/2″. I recommend buying at least one of each size and twice as much as you think you’ll need. It can go pretty fast once you start using it.
Baking soda. If you pour it on wet cyanoacrylate glue, it will almost instantly harden into a very tough material. This is good for bonding substances that don’t want to stick together or if you don’t want to wait for the glue to dry. It will leave some solid chunks of baking soda on your project. Sometimes this is good, because it can be used as a design element, but for a refined piece it will look rough.
Barge Cement™. This has the most impressive warning label of any adhesive I have used. It is a contact adhesive where you apply a coating to two objects and then wait for them to dry for a certain period before bonding them together. I haven’t used it much, but it does make a very strong, flexible bond between materials where other glues wouldn’t work. There are less-toxic options without toluene, but I have only used the toxic classic “All-Purpose Original” version.
Big paper rolls. I use Boardwalk Kraft Paper for covering art boards. It is medium weight paper. I wouldn’t go with lightweight paper because it will tear through too much.
Bob-Smith Industries Un-Cure™. This helps to loosen parts that have been bonded with super glue. In my experience it does work and can be quite useful for separating pieces without having to completely destroy them in the process. It leaves marks on plastic that it touches. If you do separate parts, they will look pretty ugly where they had been glued. Don’t think of this as a way to undo a previous step without consequences, but rather as a way to make undoing that step a little less destructive.
Clear liquid epoxy. I use this to seal projects when I think the paint will otherwise easily rub off, or if I just want something to be really shiny. I use the HXDZFX brand 24-hour casting and coating epoxy resin. It’s also possible to use 5-minute epoxy for coating, if it’s a small project. This is sometimes better because the surface tension of liquid epoxy can pull it into drops over time and leave parts of the surface exposed. 5-minute epoxy has much less time to do this. I usually paint on two coats anyway.
Coffee filters. These can be used in papier-mâché projects, either as the layering material itself, or to add textures.
Cyanoacrylate glue. Also known as super glue. Great for bonding plastics or mixed-media projects where you’re gluing a lot of different materials together. I have found there’s a big difference in quality between the cheap cyanoacrylate glues and the expensive types. It’s worth spending the extra money. Loctite™ makes very good super glue.
Foam clay. This is a sticky substance that kind of has the consistency of melted marshmallows. It’s really good for making rounded shapes, details, and gap-filling and blending larger pieces of foam. When it hardens it’s much more brittle than EVA sheet foam, although it still has a bit of flexibility. a bit flexible, but will snap a lot easier than foam from sheets. You can grind it and texture it with a wood-burning tool, and it also sticks to itself very easily. The product in the link is the only type I’ve tried, and I’m pretty happy with it.
Glue accelerant. This comes in spray bottles and helps to harden super glue in a few seconds. It can be really helpful for sticking together materials that are otherwise resistant to glue. It also doesn’t leave chunky buildup like the baking soda. The only real downside with glue accelerant is it’s full of toxic chemicals.
Joint compound. This is a grey, gritty, pasty substance used in construction to smooth walls, fill holes, and other uses. When mixed with PVA glue it can add a lot of rigidity and strength to papier-mâché or cloth and glue. I use USGTM All Purpose Joint Compound.
Methylcellulose glue. This substance comes in dry granules and forms a translucent glue when you pour in water. It is often used in collage making and paper crafts that require delicate glue, and is a main ingredient in treatments for constipation. A professional mask maker introduced me to it. He used it to water down wood glue instead of directly adding water. Why? He didn’t say. I suspect that pure water will weaken the wood glue more than water that’s suspended in methylcellulose. I sometimes mix it with PVA glue for this reason. I mix it with PVA glue if I want something more watery, but don’t want to just add water.
Plastic sheeting. Plastic sheets are also a good option for art boards. You can buy rolls that are cheaper and smaller than the paper so it’s less expensive starting out. It’s easy to find online or in a hardware store. 3-mil is a good durable thickness, though you can use 1- or 2-mil and it should also work.
PVA glue. PVA stands for polyvinyl acetate. I’ve always used Elmer’s because it’s the common brand where I live. I can’t speak for how well other brands will work.
Sculpting epoxy. Unlike hardware store epoxy putties, sculpting epoxy tends to be less smelly, cure more slowly, and not leave your hands covered in as much residue. Green Stuff™ is a very sticky epoxy that’s great for tiny details. It’s expensive, so when I needed a lot of it, I bought a generic version, which worked just as well. Milliput™ makes good sculpting epoxy, which is less expensive, less sticky, and more crumbly. Depending on what consistency I want, I will mix the two types.
Here is an important point with epoxy to keep in mind: even if you keep the two parts separated, they will degrade over time. This usually presents itself as changing color and becoming harder or crusty. I’ve used semi-degraded old epoxy and it sometimes turns out all right, but in general it is harder to work with than the fresh stuff. I suggest you don’t load up on a bunch of extra epoxy, but buy it fresh when you need it. If you have some and might not use it for more than three months, you’re probably better off just using it now on something, and buying more when you need it.
Thermoplastic. There are many types of thermoplastic. What they have in common is you can melt and mold them using hot water or a heat gun, and they’re very strong at room temperatures. I use InstaMorph™ brand pellets and Thibra™ sheets. I like the consistency of InstaMorph, because it’s smoother and stays moldable for a longer amount of time. A lot of cosplayers use Warbla, but I haven’t tried that yet.
I have learned a lot and gotten inspiration from watching other people’s projects. Here are some I recommend:
Dan Reeder. Papier-mâché and cloth and glue projects.
Bill Making Stuff. Model making and miniature painting, with a focus on making things out of junk or really cheap materials.
Boylei Hobby Time. Miniatures and model making.
Eric Bornstein. He’s a mask maker in Somerville, Massachusetts. He doesn’t have a book or YouTube channel as far as I know, but he’s given me good advice on glues, straps, and other materials.
KamuiCosplay. EVA foam cosplay projects.
Mechanical Fiend. Miniatures, painting, and assorted other content. Good DIY at-home inspiration.
North of the Border. Model making, and a lot of clay sculpting.
Organic Armor. Flexible and water-resistant projects. They have several info products for sale and I bought one of them. I haven’t tried their techniques, but they look interesting enough that I think it’s worth including them here.
Sean’s Crafts. A lot of superhero-themed projects, typically using cardboard and random plastic parts.
Studson Studio. Model making. Probably the only YouTube channel with more than ten videos where I’ve watched every single video.