Better Boxes through Foam Core

I have made over fifty inserts for games I love, and some I don't. I think I have learned a little bit on working with it and thought I would write a little blog about the journeys I take with it. Follow me as we play Reverse Tetris and make some Boxes Better.
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Foam Core 101 - Basics and Cuts

Chris Whitpan
United States
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Taken from a post I wrote for the Games on Tables Blog

From gallery of cwhitpan

Sometimes the inserts that come with a game are just not great or barely accomplish the basic task of storing the components. Some games are prime candidates for an insert, being obviously bad from the manufacturer, while others are just fine the way they are. (I’m looking at you Survive! Escape from Atlantis). When choosing the game to do you need to ask yourself a few questions…

Do I want this insert to be functional or artistic?
This is an important question. A prime example is my insert for Tsuro. It has very few actual parts, but the insert creates a wow factor and just adds to the artistic nature of the game. These inserts, although less in appearance, do end up taking a lot of time, planning and patience.

From gallery of cwhitpan

Do I want this insert to help with set up of the game?
I am a fan of baggies, but let’s face it, there are games where you just have too many bits to effectively organize a game. A perfect example of this is Le Havre. I specifically designed this insert to be functional first. It makes set up very easy and breakdown a simple matter of popping the pieces back in the box, Tetris-style. An insert like this can make getting a game that takes a lot of time to set up to the table that much easier.

From gallery of cwhitpan

Am I interested in removable boxes, or working out of the original box?

As in the example above with Le Havre, working out of the box is not the best option if the goal is to speed up set-up and break down. But working out of the box is perfectly fine for games with fewer components like Tsuro. Also if you find that there are not a lot of bits to manage, working from a box insert makes perfect sense. In the case of Ticket to Ride, I went more on the work from the box side as I have space for all the cards for the base, four expansions and Europe in there, and once you have your trains out, there really is no more bit management issues.

From gallery of cwhitpan

What is your skill level at this point?
This is a hard question to wrestle with. Your instinct is to want to go and “fix” the hardest game you have, and you have done your research, have a plan to execute, but when you start to put knife to foam core, you wind up not even close to what you want. An amateur carpenter isn’t going to try and build a dining room table on his first go, but rather he will start with end tables, and small shelves to build up required skills and muscle memory, so should you approach working with foam core. It actually has much of the same concepts as basic woodworking, and the most important one is patience. I have glued a card or to into a box because I couldn’t wait for it to dry and still struggle from time to time with waiting.

Start small with some basic builds and work your skill level up. I have had the opportunity to do my Suburbia insert 3 times, and each time it has gotten a little bit better. The Tsuro insert above is after I had built 30, yes thirty, inserts. I now get the occasional commission to build for others and really love this new avenue of the hobby, but it took time to get here.

You need to decide early on what material you want to use and where you will get it. I realized early on that white, while cheaper, did not give me the look I wanted in my inserts. I decided to go black on black, but found finding it to be more expensive and a bit harder to find than the common white on white. Also there are more off brands in the white, available pretty much anywhere, even in dollar stores. This is a purely aesthetic decision, but one that you want to stick with until you change your mind. I find that the white with a very glossy coat also does not take glue as well as the rougher texture I found on the black.

The important thing is consistency of materials. Whatever you choose, choose the same brands and buy in bulk if it makes sense. After running my local Walmarts out of the Black board by Elmer’s, I just buy it on Amazon now in a case of ten. A normal insert requires about one sheet in my experience. A big one like Caverna, may take a bit more.

Consistency will also help you in terms of consistency of thickness. This is actually a very crucial piece of the puzzle when figuring dimensions. I prefer the 3/16th thick as opposed to the thicker as it buys me a little extra space. On some builds that can be huge. Also do yourself a favor and hit the local craft store and buy some scrapbook paper in the 12×12 size that matches your board. This is great if you need to save height, because using this as a base will buy you another 3/16” that could prove critical in small boxes. Firefly is a prime example of a tight build where this came in to effect.

The nice thing is the tools you need are very few. In fact I didn’t need to purchase anything when I started making inserts. That being said I did go through some trial and error with some tools, but found the basics one work the best for me. The main things to have are the rulers, knives, cutting surface and adhesive.

From gallery of cwhitpan
From gallery of cwhitpan

The self-healing surface is a nice thing to purchase. It should be large enough to hold the whole 20”x30” sheet and give you plenty of room. These mats are the pricey part of the project at $40-$60, but you can get by with a basic cutting surface as long as it is flat and clean. The guide lines are helpful as a visual aid in making straight cuts.

Rulers and straight edges are important. I use two for pretty much everything. One is a large framing square I have which is great for the long cuts. It is also nice and heavy which helps it stay put as I cut along it. The other ruler is nice for cross cuts and shorter cuts. I have a cork back on mine which is great for staying put when I cut. Make sure it has clear markings in the measurement you want to use. I use 16th of inch increments since I am used to them, but Millimeters also is accurate enough to work with. Precision will help.

Pencils need to be sharp and have a fine point. When you are dealing with tight tolerances, you want that additional precision. I use inexpensive mechanical pencils to accomplish this.

The knives are the key to the endeavor. You need to have two in my opinion. One to be used for long cuts, and a detail knife. The detail knife of choice is the Xacto style. I use the standard type 11 blade in a very comfortable pen-like grip. Finding the one you are comfortable with is helpful since you will be using them frequently. The one where people will have opinions on is the larger blade. I like a standard utility knife with a quick change blade. One that uses the trapezoidal blades you can pick up at home depot by the hundred rather affordably. I also like the weight of the knife itself. Having a heavy knife helps it cut easier and gives me straighter results over all. Make sure you have plenty of blades on hand because you want to change them frequently. I change them out for a fresh one each and every build, so check replacement prices.

From gallery of cwhitpan

Last thing is the gluing materials. Straight pins with big heads are easily found at a craft store, and help hold things in place while glue sets. The glue itself is critical too. I personally have had great success with standard Elmer’s school glue. The school glue is a bit thicker than the Glue-all they make so it holds in place better I think. I also have had the glue all fail on the glossy white board I mentioned earlier. In fact it’s the only failure in an insert I have made.

Mastery of the basics, like any undertaking, is key to having good square edges. Like building a house, having square, plumb and true walls will ensure a more stable build as well as being more functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Set up your cutting station at waist height. You need to have good ergonomics in order to be able to hold the knife consistently throughout the cut. I am tall, so having a high enough table is not a problem, but you need to make sure you can reach the full length of the cuts in one single pass.

Measure twice, cut once. Measure the cut in multiple places and connect the dots with your straight edge. Hold your edge in place firmly and make several, usually two or three, passes to complete the cut. Keep your arm straight over the cut and draw the knife with a consistent speed. The first cut cuts through the first layer of cardboard, the second the foam, and if needed the third will cut the last of the cardboard.

From gallery of cwhitpan
The other crucial piece of the puzzle is consistency in width of cuts. Having the widths match is key to the overall structure and functionality of the insert. If you have uneven cuts, sides won’t match, any second level will not sit flush, cards and components will find their way out of their spots and many other problems.

In order to get a good cut I use a very specific method. When I cut a piece for height, I make sure to get it right and true, measuring it once I have placed the square. I try to be hyper accurate on this first cut because it will serve as the base for the rest of the cuts. I actually have pre-cut strips I can use as templates in various widths. 7/8”, ½”, ¾” and so on, and label them (Seen in the picture above with the blue painter’s tape on it).

I then use the original to enough cuts for the entire box I am making. This way when I make the box, they are all the same height. The picture above shows me using a white strip to set my straight edge. Then it is a simple matter of executing the cut. This not only makes the process faster, it also has the benefit of making it much more consistent which is the first step to creating a great insert for your games.

Starting out is usually the hardest part. The nice thing about foam core is that for a minimal investment and materials lying around, you can get started creating your own. It ends up being much less expensive than hunting down tackle boxes, and better from the standpoint that you can maximize the space inside of a box to get everything to fit. Actually a few of my inserts even feature a slot for a Plano box since it makes the most sense for the games they are in.

So start your planning because in Foam Core 102 we will discuss planning your project and figuring out dimensions for your games so you can get started making some inserts! Then it is on to the more advanced stuff like separate trays and more artful techniques.

Be sure to check out my Geeklist on Boardgamegeek and follow some links to other people’s work who inspired my original start.


From gallery of cwhitpan

Basics Series:
Foam Core 101 The Basics, Cuts and Tools
Foam Core 102 Designing an Insert on the Fly

Advanced Series:
Foam Core 201 Token and Dice Displays

Xacto knife
Utility Knife
Straight edge, Square over 30” in length
Straight edge Ruler, 18”
Foam Core – White or Black 3/16” -
Cutting Mat – Self Healing 24”x36” recommended –

Elmer’s School Glue (or similar)
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