Since we published this review in February 2004, Elliot has obtained and reviewed one of the newer model StyroCut 3D cutters. Please note that Elliot's review of the newer model is an update and needs to be read in conjunction with the review below.
The Cool Tool (oddly it's the name of the company) might be a company you've not strictly heard of personally, but I suspect that many of you have seen one of their other, more well known products - the Unimat 1. Aside from manufacturing that excellent piece of equipment, and the Styro-Cut 3D (which we're about to review in this article), they also manufacture a wide range of lathes and power tools for hobby use as well as CAD/CAM software for use with these machines.
This is a review of their Styro-Cut 3D and the optional Freehand Styrofoam Cutter. This review was written and submitted by Elliott Saunders of www.ellsweb.com
Model: TheCoolTool Styro-Cut 3D
Capacity: Bow frame clearance 355mm with a swivel range of 45 degrees. Optional circle cutting device from 45mm to 600mm diameter
Cutting Wire Specifications: diameters from 0.5mm to 1.2mm with a max length of 500mm. Temperature of 600-850 degrees at 0.6, 1.1 and 2V and 9.7A. Accepts all types of wire, but suggests piano or spring wire as optimum choice.
Power: Mains powered with various power options available (produced in the EU). Reviewed model was UK mains (230/110V, 50/60Hz). Transformer switches to 25VA.
Optional Extras: Optional Length Stop Device (G1A 020), optional Mitring Fence (124 100), optional Hand Carver (900 120) and optional Circle Cutter (G1A 030)
The cutter, after assembly looks pretty decent, it has a sturdy grey, temperature resistant plastic casing, covering over the 'live' parts of the cutter and is doubtlessly sturdy enough for all polystyrene projects you're going to attempt to put in its path.
Coming flat-packed, it is a bit of a pain to assemble, since it's made in Austria and the instructions, whilst reasonably comprehensive, do have the odd grammatical mistake or mistranslation and more annoyingly the odd strangely shaped picture (like flat packed furniture instructions, but slightly better).
Intended for decorators and DIYers, modellers, sign makers and a whole host of other people I'd never imagined used polystyrene I was expecting it to be as easy to put together as their Unimat 1 (which I also own and recommend as a great hobby power tool assortment particularly if you have children as the blades have been designed to ensure they will not cut into flesh). Was I ever wrong!
It took two people to put the thing together in the end, but had I known some of the things then that I do now it would probably be reasonably easy to assemble in half an hour by an above average (intelligence) 12 year old. The odd diagrams seem to be the worst culprit for the construction time - there are several nuts that are square on the diagrams, and several parts that come pre-assembled for convenience that in the manual are separate. Arrrggghhh!
After the careful swearing and sweating in part 1 of the 'project' I calmed myself with a cup of tea and contemplated the quality and build. Whilst it was somewhat of a pain to setup, once its done, that's pretty much it for assembly, so long as you have somewhere to keep it - it is pretty big! Of course, you could always keep it in the box and put it together as and when you need it. I'm sure if you kept doing it you could hit some sort of speed record for assembling it.
Anyway, assembly issues aside it is a well made piece of technology for the modeller who lusts after straight cut polystyrene or for those 'marketing managers' and sign makers (as it advertises) that need stencils of letters for producing signs, and for those architects that need precise polystyrene models.
The plastic base is one-piece, solidly constructed temperature resistant plastic, with pre-cut slots for installing the host of additional extras in place for even straighter cutting, circles or angled work. The one I'm reviewing is my own pride and joy, so I purchased the optional hand-held cutting accessory (so called the Moulding Tool), because most of the stuff I make is hardly ever straight.
You may be asking why I didn't buy one of the other types of tool instead if I wasn't specifically after the ability to produce stencils or perfect straight sided pieces of polystyrene - well I'll answer with the fact that most of the good, top quality cutters are either bench cutters, like this model, or hand-held cutters - this one offered the chance for both and it was reasonably priced and available in my home country (most others are US only and would take more money to import than the thing costs in the first place). So, whilst I wasn't going to use it 'all' straight away, it is always good to plan ahead for that rainy day when you do need a perfectly cubed piece of 'styrene!
In operation its a great little mover, it heats up within seconds and is then ready to rock your polystyrene shaped world.
I tried the kit out on a couple of pieces of standard polystyrene (the white beaded type) and it sliced through it within seconds on the first setting without leaving too many streaks of excess plastic behind (as is more often the case with battery operated cutters that tend to get too cool during operation and tend to leave little threads of poly hanging off the finished model).
It also cuts 'home improvement' foams (aka Blue and Pink board) with ease too, including the Dow stuff that has the shiny aluminium covering (although I did have to turn it up first - my advice, peel it off before cutting if you can).
Even without the accessories, purely by hand and eye it cut a straight side within a millimetre or two difference from either end to end, so with the accessories, it would doubtlessly be perfect for those who are anally retentive when it comes to measurements, or those who need that all exacting measurement and squarer edge.
After letting it cool down and replacing the bow's wire with the two wire ends of the hand tool (one of which is a little spade end much like a U, the other is a hard end like an I which incidentally goes into the little hole in the metal piece that the wire goes into under the plastic table - it took a few minutes to work out how to sort it, since in the manual its the other way around, but it would be the work of a few minutes to change it to another spade terminal with a soldering iron) I was ready to try freehand.
Oh what a rush, mind you, perhaps that was the result of the fumes from the burning polystyrene... Always ensure that when your cutting you open the windows or do it in a room that is well ventilated in some other way.
After the initial smoke calmed down and dissipated, I turned the temperature down a little and continued my merry gouging, shaping the wire with a pliers as I went. Perhaps its not wise to admit, but I was cackling demonically at this point with the sheer joy of a tool that works without problems or stopping, something that you can't say for those hand held battery tools.
Now, whilst you can theoretically put in a huge loop of wire it does get hot, which means it bends and can make the two sides touch further down, thereby negating the current, so whenever possible try to ensure the hand-tool has a reasonably sized loop (or using a pliers, bend both ends at right angles and make a little 'knife') for the project your currently cutting for.
An accessory that I'm not going to cover, but one that is made for the tool is the mitring fence that allows even more perfectly straight, or even angled pieces cut.
I already had a similar piece of equipment from another companies hobby 'bench saw', and thought I'd use that for now, until I really really need their own mitre fence, because whilst it wasn't expensive, there's always something better that can be bought for the same price in this hobby (like a new mini)!
This 'tother bit of metal is a length stop device, which when used in conjunction with the mitring fence above or even for some things, on its own allows you to get that cut far straighter and exactly how deep you wanted it without over cutting. A piece of MDF or some other wood could be wedged in to the guide to ensure that larger pieces of polystyrene can be catered for.
This, whilst it looks like a torture device for your nose is actually the optional circle cutter. Another optional piece I personally didn't want, because to be very honest, you could, given enough time and effort produce circular cuts that are as accurate as you'd probably need for modelling (except if your a scale modeller with very big issues with the word scale, or your an architect that needs perfect sizes) by hand with the basic bow cutter.
Interestingly, the manual that comes with it (called cunningly the construction manual, and not actually about how to assemble the thing, but about cutting and shaping poly) has some interesting ideas in it. There are sections on producing templates and stencils from card or plastic for cutting exact shapes using the bow and stop device. As well as sections on using the optional hand-held cutter with 'stops' (i.e a bit of wood that you clamp on to use the thing as a miniature router for polystyrene - side note: If you're ever zaney enough to try using a normal wood router with 'styrene , you'll know that you'll find it easier and cleaner to use a hot tool than something that flings beaded polystyrene everywhere, trust me...)
There is also a section on producing what the tool was I suspect originally designed for - model boats and airplanes, including information (albeit it not an inexhaustible amount) on carving out hulls and wings and making moulds using polystyrene, possibly for pouring something in, but what I'm unsure, because liquid plastic (intended for making castings) usually melts polystyrene!
Overall a great piece of kit and if I had to go back and buy it all again (so long as I didn't have to assemble it! ), I would. It will doubtlessly have far more use than intended, and I've even made some, ahem, changes to the case to allow me to leave the bow and the hand-held cutter 'in' at the same time (obviously, don't use them both at the same time, or you'll blow the transformer or wire or a fuse or something more dangerous).
It wouldn't have hurt them to allow the base unit to have the facility for the hand-held tool to be left in though to be honest - it isn't a major chore to unplug the wire and put in the hand tool, but if they had planned ahead and thought it out they could have made some sort of plug in port for the tool which disabled the wire whilst in use. Would have saved me 20 minutes with a drill, a couple of inches of mains wire and two computer case switches later I tell you!
However, don't let my bitching put you off what is a great product. Whilst not the Rolls Royce of 'styrene cutters, it is a great little four-wheel drive model with optional spoiler and tinted windows for those more tricky moments where precision and or shape dictates a better quality cut than can be done by hand and eye with the standard bow and stretched wire affair. It's likely that anyone who needs to cut a LOT of polystyrene will use one of those huge tabletop jobs from the professionals that cost £500 and up. This, running in at under £100 (that includes the extra hand tool AND UK postage) is more than adequate for anyone who wants to mass produce dioramas and terrain by hand, or even with the optional extras the odd sign/stencil or architectural model or fifty. Basically - its a beasty that includes the basics with the facilities for further enhancement in the future, and with the hand tool, you'll be using it far more than that bread knife your currently cutting your polystyrene with!
+ Sturdy, well made plastic 'cutting table'.
+ All metal parts are sturdy and well made (i.e. they aren't bent or misshapen like some cutters I've tried in the past) which ensures a good, accurate cut even without the optional guides and fences.
+ Bow (stretched wire) cutter as standard which means you can cut smaller large chunks without needing any other accessories - the wire length is adjustable by hand without the need for tools.
+ No batteries and a reasonably low power consumption means you'll save on those batteries.
+ Reasonable cost vs. functionality - you'd expect to pay over £100 for something like this.
+ Has variable power, so you can adjust the cutting temperature yourself, ensuring you don't melt the polystyrene too much.
+ Takes thin and even fairly thick wire so specialist cutting can be done by bending the wire into shape, either on the bow, or using the hand tool.
- Fiddly construction the first time you put it together.
- Have to take out the wire and replace it with the hand tool wires before using the hand tool which could have been planned out better.
- They used to provide all the 'accessories' in the box but now they are extra. (Personally, I would have paid a little extra for the whole kit, but its not terribly more expensive.)
The model used in review was purchased from Hobby's Annual UK at http://www.hobby.uk.com.