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Foam Cutting Power Supply

A "do it yourself" Project

Front of Foam Cutter

After seeing other modelers building their model wings from plastic foam, I decided
that I wanted to do the same. Building your wings from foam covered with 1/16 in.
balsa can produce a strong and light wing that could be difficult to duplicate with the
standard balsa rib construction, especially if the wing had a duel tapered, symmetrical
airfoil. The standard way to cut foam is with the Hot Wire technique, using steel or
nichrome wire through which an electrical current flows to heat the wire. However, the
methods that many use to get the wire hot leaves something to be desired. The most
common method I saw used was to connect a 12volt battery charger to 4 or 5 feet of
nichrome wire which was tied to some kind of a bow. Using the variable charging rate,
you could control (to a limited degree) the temperature of the wire and thus the speed
of the cut. But if you cannot accurately control the heat, you'll get many poor cuts.
Some have connected a series of light bulbs in line with the wall service of 115 volts
AC. It works, but WOW, is it ever dangerous! Terrible shock hazard! I've even seen
some connect the nichrome wire across a 12 volt car battery, also very dangerous.
Over the years there have been several schematics listed in the model magazine for
building a hot wire foam cutter power supply. All of them worked, I'm sure. Some were
very simple, but left little heat control, and others were complex and expensive. Heat
control is the secret for making good foam cuts. Also a good transformer is important
for removing the electrical shock hazard that threatens the modeler in his shop. A
good current limiting feature also makes the device safe from high current burns,
which some auto mechanics have suffered when working with large 12 volt batteries.

The following circuit is a simplification of several older designs. This design uses
readily available parts, is easy to build, has total temperature control for both a long
bow (48") and a short bow (24"), and has served me well for the last 15 years. Many
of the planes that I fly are my own design and I build most of them with foam wings,
foam turtle decks, foam stabs, etc, usually with dual tapered, symmetrical designs.
The short bow is valuable for sculpting foam pieces into various shapes, as it can be
held in one hand and the foam sample in the other.
The first step in building one of these foam cutters is to take theBill of Materials to
your local Radio Shack and search for the parts. I picked this source because of
shopping convenience and the total cost is a little above $30. Also get a small copper
clad circuit board (CB), about 3 by 4 inches or larger in size. If you chose not to make
the circuit board, you can solder the parts together using electrical stand-offs. The first
order of business is to mount the switches, the potentiometer, the Red and Black
electrical posts (#274-662), and the red indicator light on the front panel of the
component box according to the picture and illustration. Next mount the transformer
(#273-1512), fuse holder (#270-364), and electrical cord (#278-1255) in the box as
shown in photo. Put some rubber feet on the bottom of the box (also from Radio
Shack) so that it won't scratch your wife's end table when you take it to show her what
a great craftsman you are.

The circuit is a simple AC Triac voltage control circuit similar to the ones used to
control house lamps. The transformer provides the electrical isolation the makes this
item safe to operate. The voltage at the bow will tingle a little, but will not harm the
operator. The OFF/ON switch is a simple s.p.s.t. switch (#275-651). The "Long/Short"
Bow selector switch is the same part number. Across the primary side of the
transformer is mounted an indicator "ON" lamp (#272-712) which will light up when
the unit is turned on. The temperature control is through the 5k ohm potentiometer R2
(#271-1714). The Triac gate current is controlled by R3, a 470 ohm, 1 watt resistor.
This resistor is not part of radio Shack's inventory, therefore it may be required to
solder two 1k ohm, 10 watt resistors in parallel. The capacitor, C1, is a 0.22microF
disk (#272-1070). The 5 ohm, 20 watt resistor R1 is made of two 10 ohm, 10 watt
resistors in parallel. They are large ceramic resistors mounted side by side. These
resistors drop the voltage when the short 24" bow is being used. These resistors will
get hot, don't touch!

Enclosed in this article is a actual size drawing of thecircuit board (CB, 2.5" x 4").
Cut out this drawing and use it as a template, and paste it on the side opposite of the
copper on the CB (circuit board) with some rubber cement. Next use a center punch
to mark the center of each hole. Then drill the holes with the CB held tightly to some
wood backing, making the four corner holes a 1/8" in dia and all the rest about 1/16" in
dia. These smaller holes will be where you solder the components and wires. The
larger holes are for the mounting bolts to hold the CB to the case. Cut the CB to the
exact size as shown on the template (2.5" x 4"). Then, print out the copper side
drawing and paste it on the copper side of the board. Use a sharp X-acto knife to
remove thin strips of copper as shown. This will isolate the copper soldering pads
from one another. Remove the paper. Insert the components in the CB on the side
opposite the copper. Where the component leads stick out on the copper side, solder
the component leads to the board being careful not to allow solder to bridge the cut
lines in the copper. Cut off any excessive lead after soldering it. Bolt the Heat Sink on
to the Triac with the fins pointing out. The Triac should be mounted in a vertical
position, perpendicular to the CB. Next mount the CB in the box with 6-32 x 1" bolts
and stand-offs. Finish soldering the connecting wires to the board before tightening
the bolts. Drill 3 or 4 vent holes (1/4" dia) in the top of the box in the area above the
Triac heat sink.

Plug the nichrome wire bow leads into the dual plug speaker connectors. It is best to
trim the wire insulation on the wires back about 1/2 in. then tin the wire ends. After the
wires are plugged in, turn the unit on and with the temperature control at half point
and the heat switch set up to long. The wire should get hot to the touch almost
immediately. If it doesn't, then examine the construction on the circuit board and
wiring, and fix any errors found. After the unit is finished, bolt the top on and your and
you're done.

When you use the foam cutter, be sure that the Bow switch is in the correct position.
The switch must be in the "Short" position (down) if the 24" bow is used. Otherwise
you may blow the fuse. Leave the unit in the "Long" bow position at all times unless
you are using the short bow and you should have no problems. Before you turn the
Foam Cutter on, turn the temperature (TEMP) control fully counter-clockwise, to
minimum temperature. Turn the unit on with a bow plugged in and increase the
temperature by turning the TEMP knob clockwise. The temperature of the wire
increases almost immediately. With a piece of foam, test for the foam cutting
temperature. Reduce the TEMP control until the cut is smooth with little foam
evaporation around the wire. Remember, the smoothest cuts are made slowly. Spend
some time practicing until your cuts are smooth. You will never go back to balsa ribs!

Tom Weedon, AMA 2537, NSRCA 733

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