FIND AN INSERT TO MAKE
The first step is figuring out which of your games is worthy of your time and effort to make an insert for or which to start with if you are determined to do this for all your games. I usually target 1) games that have significant setup and tear down time, 2) games I know will hit the table often or 3) games that I just plain love and want to invest in them.
Once you know which game you want to make an insert for, go look and see what has already been done for that game. A google search for “foam core insert [insert game name]” will give you lots of images to look at. Or you can head over to BGG and check out this great list of inserts people have done.
I would highly recommend getting some plans for your first insert. This makes the process much easier and, in my opinion, less frustrating – never a bad thing for a first time. Pub Meeple offers some great plans but you can find others out there on BGG or from the Esoteric Order of Gamers.
Now that you know what you want to make, let’s talk about what you need to make it. Since this is a DIY project you are going to need some basic supplies. All of the below can be found at your local craft store but I have linked to Amazon for reference and for buying if you want. Sure, you can make an insert without all of the items listed below but they make the process easier and more manageable.
This is the most obvious thing you need to create a foam core insert. I use 5mm foam core in all my designs. You can get thinner foam core but the 5mm makes for easy math and it is pretty strong and durable. The link I provided is for a bulk pack so it will give you the most for your money but you can also buy individual sheets if you are just wanting to get your toes wet.
Self-healing cutting mat
I really can’t imagine making these inserts without this mat. It makes cutting so much easier and protects any surface I am working on. Make sure you get one that is big enough to fit most of a foam core sheet on.
Metal ruler with cork back
Both of these aspects are important. Metal – so that the blade of you knife doesn’t cut it. Cork – so that it doesn’t slide around as easily. I have several rulers at different lengths – 24”, 12”, and 6”. If you are getting just one I would get the 24”.
Elmer’s Glue All
This is a cheap glue that is easy to clean up and dries clear. Not much else to say.
Retractable Utility Knife
Having a sharp knife is really important when cutting foam core. Having a blade you can break off as needed to get a new edge and tip is a big bonus for me.
I cannot overstate the importance of these pins when crafting a foam core insert. The glue might hold it together after it has dried but these allow the piece to set exactly where you want it to. They also allow for prototyping a piece before gluing it. I wouldn’t want to make an insert without these. You can get these with flat heads but I prefer the round ones – they are easier to get out.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Each time I create an insert I tried to document what I learned from the process. I have taken these lessons learned and expanded on them to give you some good tips to get started.
- Take your time. If this is your first insert plan for it to take a while. Don’t rush it. My first one (Imperial Assault) took me several evenings to complete. Probably a total of 4 hours.
- Math is important. When working on my Istanbul insert I was in a hurry to calculate the height split between my player bit trays and my tiles/cards tray and I shorted myself by 10mm. Fortunately, I didn’t need it and I just shimmed them up so they fit. But it still bothers me that I missed that 10mm. So, math thrice, measure twice, cut once.
- Keep your blade sharp – this is how you get clean edges.
- Keep your blade as straight up and down as you can when cutting. The flatter the edge, the easier it will be to make your boxes square and the better your glue will hold.
- Use multiple passes when cutting. Don’t try to cut through the foam core with one deep cut. Use 2 or 3 cuts to make it through. This produces better, straighter edges. Use less pressure on your first cut and focus on the straightness of it. Your subsequent cuts will be easier with the first as a guide.
- Stand up when making long cuts. It makes it easier to get the right angle on the cut and enough pressure on the ruler so it doesn’t move.
- When cutting many of the same size pieces, cut one exactly the size you want and use it as a template. I use the template to mark other pieces, lightly scoring the foam core I will be cutting. Keep using the same template to ensure exact sizing.
- Cut two (or more) at the same time if possible. If you are cutting many pieces of the same size, go ahead and get get a couple long pieces cut to the right width. Line these two pieces up side by side and (using your template from the above tip) mark the height for both. Lay your ruler across both and cut them at the same time. This results in two pieces for one cut. I do love efficiency.
- Place your ruler or straight edge on the outside of the piece you are cutting. This ensures you get the exact size you are wanting. Placing it on the inside of the piece can result in it being slightly smaller than you want.
- Stabilize your ruler when cutting thin pieces. When cutting a thin piece where your ruler isn’t completely on the foam core simply put another piece of foam core under your ruler to stabilize. So much easier than trying to balance it on a thin piece.
GLUING / PINNING
- Don’t under-glue to try to save a small mess. Make sure you use enough glue and clean up any that squeezes out as best you can. It is better to have a stronger bond. And the glue dries clear so you probably won’t see it if a bit is left.
- You can’t overuse your pins to keep a piece in place while it is drying. Use as many as it takes to make your insert what you want.
- Put your pins in at an angle. This allows you to use just one pin yet keep it secure. You can sometimes even pin the two sides and the base of the box all with one pin.
- Cutouts are time-consuming and hard but can be worth it. They make for great storage and setup (Terra Mystica, Mission Red Planet) but are time-consuming and hard to do with just a utility knife. I have found some specialized tools that may make cutouts an easier process but I haven’t tried them yet. (FoamWerks cutting kit)
- When making an inset tray use a piece the same size as the base piece to make your cutouts. Use the components and a pencil to draw out the areas to cut. This may waste some foam core but having that big piece to cut from makes it so much easier to get rounded edges and small pieces to come out right. See the image below from my Terra Mystica insert for reference. I’ve heard that a hot knife makes cutting rounded edges easier. I’ll have to give that a try.
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- Straight pins aren’t optional for holding the pieces together while the glue dries. They are a must and make it so much easier.
- Be creative with the angles at which you put the pins in to hold a piece in place.
- When you are creating many rows of the same width (Eclipse ship parts tray), don’t measure for each row. Instead use two pieces the exact width of the row you want to create then use them as a guide to glue your long pieces.
- Prototype first if you are unsure about component spacing – you can see an example of this on my Forbidden Stars insert. If you aren’t sure how things are going to fit and don’t want to commit to gluing yet, put it together with pins first.
Above all, have patience with yourself as you start out. This is supposed to be a fun extension of your hobby with the added benefit of great storage and easy setup for your games. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
If you are ready to design your own insert check out our post that details out how to do exactly that.