What is Polystyrene Board?

Drue Tibbits

Polystyrene board is a rigid foam material made from polystyrene beads. Styrene, a petroleum by-product, is the principle component of polystyrene. It is available in various densities and has multiple applications in home, commercial, and industrial markets. It is commonly used as insulation. Polystyrene boards are also called foam boards or bead boards.

Artists use rigid, but versatile polystyrene board.
Artists use rigid, but versatile polystyrene board.

The two main types of polystyrene are expanded polystyrene (EPS) and extruded polystyrene (XPS). The EPS process involves mixing unexpanded polystyrene beads with a liquid bonding agent. The mixture is poured into a form and heated to expand the polystyrene beads. Pressure is applied to the form to compress the expanding beads and remove much of the bonding agent. The boards harden as the polystyrene cools.

Polystyrene is often used to make surfboards.
Polystyrene is often used to make surfboards.

The XPS process uses liquified polystyrene beads. A gas is injected into the liquefied beads to create a foamy mixture. The mixture is then poured into a form and allowed time to cure. The hardened polystyrene is then cut into boards. EPS and XPS boards sometimes have a facing of paper or foil applied to the finished board to prevent water absorption.

Polystyrene is used to create architectural models.
Polystyrene is used to create architectural models.

Both EPS and XPS boards have similar properties. Thick polystyrene board is lightweight enough to be easy to handle yet strong enough to handle being walked on. It is easily cut, carved, and sanded. The boards can be painted or laminated. Polystyrene boards hold their shapes and maintain integrity, even when cut into intricate designs.

The high insulation value and ease of installation make polystyrene board a popular insulation material. Polystyrene boards are also used to fabricate hobby airplanes and surfboards. Craftspeople use polystyrene to create architectural models and pattern forms. Display boards are commonly made of thin polystyrene boards. Some commercial signage uses letters cut from polystyrene board.

Depending on its thickness, the board can be cut with a laser, a hot wire, or a razor knife. Programmable laser machines are used to cut commercial signage letters and intricate designs. Hot wire cutting involves sending an electrical current through a wire or strip of metal until it is hot. The wire or metal strip is then moved through the polystyrene board, making the cut by melting the material. Thin polystyrene boards can be cut with razor knives.

Polystyrene boards are not environmentally friendly, although efforts are being made to improve their long-term impacts. The boards are only somewhat biodegradable, and they may take hundreds of years to degrade fully. It takes almost as much energy to recycle polystyrene boards as it does to make them. Some polystyrene is being recycled efficiently into hard plastics, such as disposable cups and cutlery.

Polystyrene foam -- often associated with insulation -- can be used to make sheets of Styrofoam and other foam boards.
Polystyrene foam -- often associated with insulation -- can be used to make sheets of Styrofoam and other foam boards.

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Discussion Comments


I own a cafe, and I am always looking to save money in the ways we operate. One thing that has helped me is polystyrene board.

I don't have a big budget for advertising, so I like to do my own in my display window. I buy white polystyrene board, and I write our daily specials on it with a permanent marker. Since the board is inside the glass, I don't have to worry about rain ruining it, yet everyone can still see it from the street.

I also have a separate polystyrene board with our most popular items written on it, along with a short description. I write large enough so that people who are parked out front can read the sign without having to walk up to it, since some people are shy about such things.


I like to use polystyrene board as backing for my artwork. I learned to use it in college, when my professor told me that it is cheaper and sturdier than regular mat board.

I do use matboard with an image window cut out for the front of the frame, but I always buy some cheap polystyrene board for the back. I position the paper so that the drawing will show through the window, and then I use a small piece of art tape to secure the paper to the board. Then, I line the outer edges of the board with double-sided tape, and I press the mat frame onto the tape to secure it.

Polystyrene board is lightweight, so it is easy to hang these framed pieces of artwork. When I sell a piece and have to ship it to another state, the polystyrene board helps me cut down on shipping costs, too.

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