How to build a vacuum form machine

Written by alex smith
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How to build a vacuum form machine
Vacuum suction moulds plastic to specific forms. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Vacuum form machines are useful if you plan to make many plastic copies of a particular shape. You can use these shapes in home decoration, hobby and craft projects and for small business packaging. The concept of a vacuum form machine is not complicated: a heating element is positioned over a vacuum table. Place an object on the vacuum table, then the plastic heats and presses against the table and object. Suction from the vacuum moulds the plastic to the object.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • Baking tray
  • Marker
  • Ruler
  • Drill and various bits
  • Plastic sheet
  • Jigsaw
  • Shop vacuum
  • Super glue
  • Silicone caulk
  • Plywood
  • Wood screws
  • Wooden dowel
  • Angle stock
  • Hacksaw
  • Electric grill
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Window screen frame kit
  • Bulldog clips

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Turn an 18-by-13-inch baking tray upside down. Draw a grid of 1-inch squares on the bottom, then drill holes at each line intersection with a 1/16-inch metal drill bit to create the surface of the vacuum table, which is similar to an air hockey table. Once you've drilled the small holes, drill 1/4-inch pilot holes every 2 inches around the entire lip of the baking tray. You'll eventually drill the sheet to the base through these holes.

  2. 2

    Put the baking tray upside down on a sheet of 1/4-inch plastic. Use a marker to trace the outline of the sheet onto the plastic, as well as the locations of the pilot holes. Cut out the plastic sheet with a jigsaw and drill the pilot holes with the 1/4-inch drill bit. Cut a large hole in the centre of the plastic, large enough for a shop vacuum hose to fit snugly. Cut the hole by first drilling a hole in the centre large enough to fit the jigsaw blade.

  3. 3

    Attach the end of the vacuum hose to the hole in the plastic with super glue. The end of the hose should be as flush with the surface of the plastic as possible. Seal the connection on both sides of the plastic with silicone caulk and let it cure for 24 hours.

  4. 4

    Cut four pieces of 1/2-inch plywood. Two of the pieces should be 12-by-18 inches, and the other two should be 12-by-12 1/2 inches. Assemble them into a box that measures 18-by-13 1/2 inches (12 inches high) with no top or bottom. Drill pilot holes and screw the box together with 1-inch wood screws. Cut an arch into the bottom of one of the sides, large enough to pass the shop vacuum hose through.

  5. 5

    Cut nine pieces of wooden dowel that match the depth of the baking tray. This is usually 1/2-inch, but measure to be sure. Spread these pieces out inside the baking tray, taking care to not cover any holes, and super glue them in place. These will provide support to keep the baking tray from caving in when you turn the vacuum on.

  6. 6

    Place the plastic sheet on top of the box. The vacuum hose should extend down through the box and out of the arch in the side. Drill pilot holes through the existing ones on the plastic sheet and into the top of the box, then glue the sheet in place with silicone caulk to form an airtight seal.

  7. 7

    Position the baking tray upside down on the plastic, lining up the pilot holes. Glue the baking tray in place with silicone caulk, then insert screws through the pilot holes in the baking tray, plastic sheet and into the wood. This will secure the assembled table top to the vacuum table.

  8. 8

    Cut four 3-foot pieces of metal angle stock with a hacksaw. Screw one to each corner of the vacuum table, extending 2 feet above the table's surface.

  9. 9

    Hold an 18-by-13 inch electric grill upside down at the top of the angle stock. Mark the hole positions of the stock on corners of the grill with a marker, then drill holes in the grill. Bolt the grill to the top of the angle stock using nuts and bolts that match the diameter of the holes.

  10. 10

    Assemble two rectangular frames using a window screen frame kit. They should fit inside the angle stock and be able to slide up and down between the grill and vacuum table.

Tips and warnings

  • To use this vacuum form machine, clamp a thermoplastic sheet between the frames with bulldog clips. Slide the frame up to 2 inches below the heating element. Place the object that you plan to mould onto the surface of the vacuum table. Turn on the heating element and watch the plastic until it begins to sag. Turn on the vacuum and slide the plastic down over the object, letting the vacuum suck the plastic tight against the table surface.

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