To some extent this review of Hot Wire Foam Factory tools may be regarded as a follow up to Gary James' review of the 3-in-1 Kit, especially as I will be making a few references to it. It's also the case that that Gary's suggestion that there should be an on/off switch on the handles of the tools was taken up by the Hot Wire Foam Factory and as you can see, the new versions that I am reviewing have a switch.
Please also note before reading on that although to some extent I will talk about the tools one at a time, I have also made quite a few of comments and cross references. Consequently, if you just read the section that appears to be about the tool in which you're interested, you'll miss half of what I have to say about it. You'll really need to read the entire review to get the full benefit from it.
The Hot Wire Foam Factory tools are very appealing with their yellow and black livery. They look neat and tidy and I get the impression that lot of thought has gone into the creation of these products. Indeed, this is the third generation of these products that I'm aware of and while I already mentioned that they now have a switch on the handle the design has clearly evolved. If you notice something about them that make you think "that's a bit odd" then chances are that you'll find out later on that there's a good reason why they've done it the way they have. This certainly happened to me with respect to the Sculpting Tool (as we shall see), but it's also the case that many aspects of the design are intended to make it such that these tools can be offered at to us at a great price.
Take for example the means of attaching the wire to the top arm of the Scroll Table. One of my mates commented that "it's a bent screw" and indeed, it is. However it provides a very effective way of adjusting the wire so it's straight up (just move it backwards or forwards a notch or two if it isn't) without the cost of some fancy custom part. Simple, effective, and economical.
I have to start somewhere and I'm going to start with the Hot Knife tool although, as I warned you: read the whole review because I'll be mentioning it again later.
I'm starting with this tool simply because it's my favourite. If you can only afford one foam cutting tool then the Hot Wire Foam Factory Hot Knife is the one to buy; and if you can't afford it: start saving up.
The reason I like it so much is because rather than having a wire that heats up to cut foam, the hot knife tool has a heated blade, or more accurately, a needle. If you want to halve an 8' x 4' sheet of foam that you got from the builders yard, or even cut a hole right in the middle, you can't do that with a normal hot wire cutter because the tool doesn't have the throat depth. With this baby you just plunge it straight in and you're off.
There's not really much else I can say about it. I've got the 4" version and although there's an 8" version I think it's probably overkill for our purposes with an increased likelihood of bending the blade. Go for the 4" model. It's plenty long enough for most purposes.
Initially I wasn't keen on this tool but I warmed to it (pun intended) after realising that I'd misunderstood what it was for. Something that Gary also seems to have missed in his review.
The thing is that the Hot Wire Foam Factory Sculpting Tool looks a lot like the kind of hot wire cutter we see from other companies. However whereas a hot wire cutter holds the wire really taught between the two arms, this tool doesn't and the wire tends to drag/sag no matter how much you try to tighten the arms. Admittedly it will go a lot tighter than I've shown it in my image but there's a reason I've shown it like that, which we will come to shortly. At the moment however my point is that the tools inability to get good tension in the wire means that if you are trying to cut straight lines in thick(ish) sheets of foam, this tool is a lot less useful than say the Hot Knife or the Scroll Table. You CAN do it, however a wooden or cardboard straight edge/template is highly recommended. Where this tool really comes into it's own though, and the clue is in the name, is when you want to sculpt. Doh!
Think about it: if you've got a big chunk of foam and you want to make hills and valleys and other flowing shapes then a cutter that's designed to keep the wire taught is not the best tool for the job while the dragging/sagging of the wire on the Hot Wire Foam Factory SCULPTING Tool allows for the creation of some really interesting shapes.
At the time of writing, I haven't used it like this for a real terrain project (just messing with scraps) however something I have done is shown to the left and if you've now twigged why the previous picture showed the tool with the wire all bent then give yourself, and the tool, a round of applause.
The marble runs on my show jumping themed marble maze were cut using the Hot Wire Foam Factory Sculpting Tool by positioning the arms such that there was plenty of slack, bending the wire with my fingers (I don't really have to tell you to do that bit while it's cool do I?), and using the shaped wire to cut the trench in the foam. Ooh! Did somebody just say "trench"? Yes they did and now I'm going to say "river", "gulley" and "ravine" too.
Of course you need to move the cutter real slow so that the wire doesn't get pushed about by the foam, but when used in this manner the Hot Wire Foam Factory Sculpting Tool should be ideal for routing out out trench systems, scooping out hollows, and making all of those other 'indented' terrain features that you can't make with a taught wire or straight blade.
Now whereas the Hot Knife is a must have and the Sculpting Tool is really useful for sculpting, this tool is one to avoid unless you want to spend hours and hours doodling patterns into bits of foam for no good reason other than that it's blooming good fun.
Joking aside though, this is probably the least useful tool to us terrain makers because although you might immediately think: brick and stone patterns, the fact is that the tip makes a mark that's about 3mm wide i.e. too big for most of our tiny buildings. I made good use of on my Alien Artefact (right) and for drawing the icons onto my Aztec pyramid (see below), and in Gary's review you can see him making a stone pattern that would suit a castle wall. However you won't be able to do teeny tiny patterns with this tool.
You could also use this tool for making hollows, texturing rock faces, and the like. However I would argue that the Sculpting Tool is better for hollows and there are quicker ways to do rock faces. However, if you like to do things other than terrain making, then you'll find countless craft projects that will provide an excuse to doodle with this tool (I've already used it to decorate foam bird boxes and a picture frame). If you're already in the market for a Hot Knife and a Sculpting Tool then spending a bit extra to get the 3-in-1 kit might be a prudent move. Failing that you might want to skip it as this is the tool that, as a terrain maker, you are likely to use least.
I already mentioned one design feature of this tool and as I hope you can already see from that, it would be really unfair to compare this tool with an item from another company costing twice the price. There are aspects of this tools design that are perhaps not as 'pretty' as those on a more expensive model however for the most part, given the market that this tool is aimed at, they won't make a jot of difference. I used it to cut out all of the pieces for my Aztec Pyramid and a half dozen non terrain related projects and I've had no problems despite the issue I will describe below.
So, the only negative that's really worth mentioning about this tool is that the surface of the table is not entirely flat. It's made from 6mm thick plastic which will tend to bow slightly, particularly at the front edge where there's nothing much to prevent it from doing so.
Now for the most part this won't make any noticeable difference to your project however, if you are cutting parts where it's absolutely essential that the cut is at 90 degrees to the face of the sheet you're cutting, then the fact that the table isn't perfectly flat can result in the cuts being slightly away from perpendicular and could result in minor problems with aligning your foam pieces at assembly time.
As I said though, in most cases these inaccuracies won't be an issue. I had no problems using it to cut out the pieces for my Aztec Pyramid (shown here prior to painting), and the image above shows me using the Scroll Table to trim the foam bases on one of my Hirst Arts Fieldstone Dungeon sections. Again, no problems.
The bow might be an issue if you are cutting VERY thick pieces of foam however if you think it's going to be a problem for you then there are two simple solutions. The first is to attach a couple of wooden battens to the base of the table by drilling through the plastic and screwing into the wood; that will pull the plastic so it's flat. The second option is to spend at least twice as much on a table top cutter from another company.
The Hot Wire Foam Factory Hot Knife is a must have even if you already own another hot wire tool because it's ability to plunge right into the middle of a foam sheet with no need to disconnect wires and no worries about throat depth is invaluable. The other tools may be more or less useful to you depending on what exactly you like to do with your foam. If you want to sculpt landscapes, get the Sculpting Tool. If you want to cut up pieces of foam for assembly into structures then the Scroll Table will most likely be your tool of choice. The Engraving Tool is probably the least useful to us terrain makers and if you were to insist that I had to part with one of these tools, then it's this one that I could do without. However that would be a bit like asking me which of my fingers I'd prefer to be without and quite honestly, given the option, I'd much prefer to have the full set even if some are less useful than others.