How to Make a Vacuum Former

First, a huge thank you to Airship Noir and their Maker Faire Kansas City 2016 project, “Make Your Own Vacuum Formed Steampunk Goggles.”  They were kind enough to post pictures and instructions about how they made an incredibly cheap, but effective, vacuum former.

Inspired by their project, I wanted to pay-it-forward and help others build their own vacuum former.  Here’s how I built mine:

  1. Parts

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    1. Home Depot “Bucket Head” ($23)
      1. I had no idea this thing existed until I saw Airship Noir’s post.  It’s basically a vacuum that clamps onto a bucket, turning it into a cheap low-power shop vac.  I believe “Bucket Head” is the Home Depot branding for this, but that you can find alternates under the title of “Power Head.”
    2. 5 Gallon Bucket ($5)
      1. I bought a Home Depot brand bucket for this exact task.  Although I have other 5 gallon buckets, it was worth the $5 to me to make sure I had something that would easily attach and detach from the vacuum top.
    3. 1/2″ wooden dowel, 4′ in length ($2)
      1. My own design uses 3D printed parts, a length of a 1/2″ wooden dowel, and a little hot glue.  However, you can substitute whatever you have on hand.  The Airship Noir vacuum former used wood shims, some nuts and bolts, and PVC pipe.
  2. Tools
    1. Chisel
    2. Drill and 1/8″ drill bit
    3. Hot glue gun / hot glue
    4. Ruler
    5. Pen / pencil
    6. Hacksaw
    7. Sharpie
    8. Masking tape
  3. 3D Print Parts

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    1. You can download all the 3D printable parts from Thingiverse.
    2. Print one vacuum cork.  This will just be placed into the vacuum where the hose would normally go.  This will cause the vacuum to suck air through the bottom of the bucket.
    3. Print two dowel caps.  These will go on either end of a short length of wooden dowel, to keep the “float” inside the vacuum from falling into the vacuum.
    4. Print three bucket attachments and three “toes.”  These will be used, with wooden dowels to elevate the bucket off the ground.
    5. Print the PDF of a 1″ grid on paper.  This is actually a 1/2″ grid, with bold lines forming the 1″ grid.  I searched for more information about optimal hole size and placement, but didn’t find anything dispositive.  I think as long as you get close, you’ll be fine.
  4. Cut Wooden Dowels
    1. Use the hacksaw to cut three pieces of wooden dowel to approximately 8″ each.  These will become the feet for the bucket.
    2. Cut a fourth piece of wooden dowel to approximately 6″.  This will be used to keep the vacuum float from falling into the vacuum, when the bucket is turned upside down.
  5. Prepare the Bucket

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    1. Turn the bucket upside down and, carefully, use a chisel to remove as much of the raised areas at the bottom of the bucket.  Working slowly and carefully, it took me about 30 minutes to move the rim at the bottom of the bucket and all the little raised areas.
  6. Add Feet to the Bucket

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    1. When the “Bucket Head” attachment is on the bucket, the top will be rounded.  However, we’re going to need to turn the entire thing upside down to use the bottom of the bucket as the surface of our vacuum former.  This means we’ll need to raise the vacuum top of the bucket off the ground so that it can stand flat – and so we can access the power switch.
    2. I designed the three bucket attachment parts so that they will slide snugly into the rim under the bucket.  The rim has approximately 24 little fins under the rim.  Place each of the three feet equally around the bucket – approximately 8 fins apart.  Mark the outline of the part on the bucket with a Sharpie, remove the part, add hot glue, and slide the part back into place.
    3. Add a little hot glue to the end of each of the three 8″ wooden dowels, then some hot glue to the inside of the “toes,” then slide the gluey end of the dowel into the feet.  You should end up with three short “drumsticks.”
    4. Don’t glue these into the attachments at the bucket sides.  The attachment and bucket feet parts were designed to be as minimally obtrusive to the function of the bucket as possible.  If placed properly, they shouldn’t interfere with the handle or bucket usage.  The newly formed feet can be placed into the holes in the bucket attachments when you’re ready to start vacuum forming – and placed back inside the bucket for easy storage.
  7. Drill Holes

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    1. Print the PDF of 1″ ruled grid paper from the Thingiverse page, courtesy of Kent State.  Center the paper on the bucket, then tape it down.
    2. Drill 1/8″ holes 1″ apart along the grid.
    3. A word about these holes.  The more holes you drill, the more holes you might have to cover up when making parts later.  However, the more holes you drill now, the bigger the parts you can make later.  It’s a little bit of a trade off.
    4. Once the holes are drilled, use the chisel to remove the burrs off the bottom of the bucket.  You don’t need to remove the burrs from the inside of the bucket, but I did to keep the inside of the bucket as clean and useful as possible.
  8. Raise the Float

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    1. Underneath the vacuum top there is a plastic cage surrounded by the filter, held in place by a big rubber band.  Remove the rubber band and filter and you’ll see a little plastic cup that is designed to act as a “float” inside the cage.  If you turn the vacuum upside down, the float will fall against the vacuum – and would prevent it from working.
    2. Holding the vacuum upright, insert the 6″ length of wooden dowel through the plastic cage and above the float, pushing it against the bottom of the cage.  Use the plastic dowel caps to hold the ends of the dowel in place so it won’t slip out or rattle.
  9. Completed bucket vacuum former!

    Completed bucket vacuum former!

    Put it All Together

    1. Place the Bucket Head on the bucket.  You may need to rotate the Bucket Head slightly to make sure you can insert the feet into the plastic parts glued to the sides of the bucket.
    2. Insert the feet into the holes in the bucket attachment parts.
    3. Invert the bucket and you’re done!

I’ll do another post soon about how to actually use the device.  If you’ve read the Airship Noir post, you know the basic steps are to place things on the bottom of the bucket, heat a plastic plate with a toaster oven, and lower the heated plate over the things you want to mold while the vacuum is one.

Art Docent Program – Square One Art Project, 2/16/2017