How I do a late 30s/early 40s sponge roller set (and avoid dents!)

I’m here today to talk about hair!

Now that I’ve settled into a routine with my haircut at shoulder-length, I thought I’d show you one way I set my hair for a late 1930s/early 1940s look. It’s just a nice hairstyle that I think is easy to wear and easy to style. No fuss, no frills. I know over the years I’ve learned a ton from vintage hair tutorials online, so hopefully this will help someone out there and I can pay it forward. I don’t have a video camera yet but I’m working on it, so in the meantime you’ll have to make do with photos. Lots and lots of photos. πŸ™‚

Let me say at the onset that I really admire gals who do full pin curl sets, but my lack of patience combined with fussy, rather fine hair and a bit of laziness thrown in means my preferred method of setting my hair for vintage hairstyles involves sponge rollers (also known as foam rollers). It’s quick and it’s easy, what can I say.

Sponge rollers sometimes get a bad rap, I think in part because of the tendency they have to leave a dent at the top of each section of curl due to the little plastic bar closure. (People also complain they don’t keep their shape, but all you have to do to fix that is get them wet and they’ll bounce right back by the time they dry.) I sometimes use perm rods, which I like well enough although they have their own quirks, but I always return to my sponge rollers. I’m going to share my tip for avoiding dents!

This hairstyle will work for shoulder-length hair up to about chin-length hair. You can achieve a somewhat similar look with longer hair, but your whole style will be much fuller and you’ll need to do a lot more brushing.

So, let’s begin!

A late 30s/early 40s sponge roller set (with no dents!)


  • sponge/foam rollers
  • setting lotion, like Lottabody or Motions Foaming Wrap Lotion
  • a handful of duckbill hair clips
  • hairspray
  • optional: water-based pomade, hair serum or your favorite styling products

I start with freshly washed hair that is mostly dry but still a little damp. If I wet set my hair with completely damp hair it takes forever and a day to dry, so I start the process when my hair is about 75% dry. Though you’ll notice during these photos it may look a little more dry as it took awhile to take all the photos!

Even doing this, about the latest in the evening I can start a fresh set from washed hair is about 7pm if I’d like it to be dry by the next morning when I wake up for work. And that’s 7pm to be putting the rollers in. Even that is pushing it.

Here’s my hair in its normal, slightly damp state. Before I begin, I part my hair the way I want it to be parted when it’s styled. You can’t really tell but my hair cut is slightly layered. Not like a true middy, but in the spirit of it, with a bit of layers and a U-shape where it’s a bit longer in the back than in the front, and is cut parted. (Also, cut by a gal who knows vintage hair.) In case you’re curious about the texture of my hair, it’s fairly fine but there’s a lot of it. And it’s really resistant to curls.

I start with my bangs (fringe for non-Americans). I pull back the rest of my hair and leave my bangs loose.

I set my bangs in two rollers, rolling back (away from my face). The rollers I usually use for my bangs are the largest ones I used, and just a hair over 1″ in diameter. An absolute requirement at this point is a good setting lotion, so I use either Lottabody in a spray bottle mixed with a little water (about 2/3 Lottabody to 1/3 water is what I use), or Motions Foaming Wrap Lotion. I actually used Motions for the first time in this tutorial after reading the review awhile back by Ashley of LisaFreemontStreet’s YouTube Channel. (I’ve used it since and like it well enough, though have to use it several more times to really get an idea if it works for me.)

I start by pumping a blob of foam about the size of a U.S. quarter (for non-Americans, about the size of hmm… a Hershey’s kiss!) into my hand and run it along the entire section of my bangs thoroughly, like you’d use mousse. If you use a spray setting lotion, spritz this section of hair a couple of times until it’s a little damp. I run my hands along the section of hair to make sure it’s well covered.

I should point out that I do not apply setting lotion over my whole head first, I only apply it to each individual section of hair that I’m working on. That way it doesn’t dry before I get to roll it.

(Holy crap, look at my roots and my grays, egads I better fix that!)

I section off the back half of my bangs to roll first. I used a comb in this tutorial but really I just use my fingers. Doesn’t have to be precise. The reason I usually use two rollers instead of one is that my bangs are a year’s length of growth from Bettie Page style bangs, so there’s a lot of hair in my bangs section. One roller usually doesn’t seem to work as well for me. Your mileage may vary.

Roll this section back all the way to your head.

Then I take the front half of the bangs and roll them back, too. The reason I roll my bangs back is to get a gentle wave when they fall to the side. My hair is really finicky and if I roll this section of my hair to the side, it just droops. Sometimes I want a tighter curl so if that’s the case, I use smaller rollers. Standing pin curls work, too, and you can use a mascara or lipstick tube to form the curl. I learned that trick from Lisa of Snoodlebug’s tutorial for a pageboy with a side wave! I sleep on my side a lot so I sometimes crush standing pin curls and the result is hilariously bad, so I tend to roll around a roller.

When done, it looks like this.

I move on to the heavy side of my part, i.e. the side with the most hair. For most of the rest of my head, I use the next size down roller.

I use relatively small sections of hair, no wider than the width of the roller itself. I use small sections partially because my hair will never dry if I don’t! I probably end up using about 20 rollers total on most days. That’s a lot more than most tutorials I’ve seen, but it’s what works for me. With my hair, less rollers means both increased drying time and decreased curl. Over time you’ll learn what your hair needs and you’ll fall into a routine.

I start at the top, and coat the hair with setting lotion like I did for my bangs. I roll each section at about a 90 degree angle from my head, i.e. straight out (or slightly lower if my arms are getting tired, ha ha).

I use 3 rollers for the heavy side of my part, the rollers closest to my face above my ear. I roll them all the way to my head. While you can’t really tell, the green and yellow rollers are about the same size and I just use them interchangeably… basically whatever I grab first in the bag.

The next row of rollers I do just back from the first row, starting again at the top. You’ll notice I don’t section off each with a comb, because frankly it just doesn’t matter. It’s something that slows the process down and I’ve never noticed a discernible difference. So I don’t bother!

I don’t roll this all the way to my head because I want a flat crown. So I roll it to a few inches away from the top of my head. I do the same thing for all the topmost rollers. This is considered ‘off base’.

For anyone out there who has trouble starting a roller, this is how I do it. I start it a couple of inches up the section of hair, manually wrapping the ends around, then tucking the very ends and rolling up the rest of the section. I find that so much easier than trying to wrap the very ends of your hair around a roller.

Back to this row of rollers. In this row, I use as many rollers as it takes to get to the spot under my ear. Usually it’s 4.

Then, and this is just the way I do it, I go over to the other side of my hair and do the lighter side of my part. (Why? No reason in particular, just habit.) Notice I don’t roll the top roller here all the way to my head, but leave it hanging a few inches. This is the side I either tuck behind my ear or pin back, so I don’t want the curls there, I want it to be flat. If you want this section curly, roll it all the way to your head. I use 2 rollers on this side. You could use 3 for more curl.

Then I move to the row behind this row. And just the same as on the other side of my head, I use as many rollers as it takes to get me to the spot under my ear. In this case it was 4, although I took the photo before I put in the 4th roller under my ear. Again, the topmost roller is not rolled all the way to my head but the ones below it are.

Now I do the rest of my hair in the back. There’s really not that much left, enough for two more vertical rows of rollers. (You can see the insane cowlick I have on the back right side of my head, ugh.)

This photo really shows you how the topmost rollers on either side are off base (i.e. not rolled all the way to my head). Plus you can see my horrible cowlick/whorl.

I do 3 or 4 rows of rollers going from top to bottom but leave the very bottom section of my hair free.

On this section I use a slightly smaller roller. Honestly I’m not really sure if it matters that much, but it was a habit I got into when I had really short hair and didn’t have enough length at the nape of my neck for larger rollers.

And ta da, all the rollers are in. At this point if any are flopping around too much or don’t seem tight enough, I’ll adjust them.

Now this next part is how I prevent the dreaded dents that sponge rollers are famous for! It’s so easy, too.

All you need is a handful of duckbill hair clips.

There are different kinds, so be sure to use the ones that are smooth and don’t have grippy teeth. For American readers, you can get a box of 12 (more than you’ll need for this tutorial) for under $4 at Sally Beauty.

On the top layer of rollers (all the ones off base) and any rollers used in my bangs, I grasp the roller lightly.

I rotate the little bar that closes the roller from the top down to the bottom. It moves freely.

I take a duckbill clip in my other hand and open it slightly, then insert it into my hair at the bottom of the roller, keeping the closure bar of the roller between the prongs of the clip.

And this is what it looks like once inserted. (Note: you can see here I already have a little dent at the top of this roller. That’s because my hair was already drying with the rollers in due to the time it took to take all the photos. Usually that does not happen. But if it takes you a long time to put your rollers in, I’d suggest inserting the clip as soon as you put each roller in.)

I repeat the procedure for the topmost row of rollers, i.e. the rollers closest to my crown (the ones that are off base). It’s not necessary to do this for any rows of rollers underneath as the top curls will fall on top of them, preventing any dents from showing. I use a clip on the 2 rollers in my bangs, the top roller on each side, and the top row of rollers across the back. 8 total for me.

(You can see in the photo below behind my ear got a little wonky, which I later straightened out.)

It only adds a minute to my routine and produces a much smoother set! And because the clips are inserted into the setting pattern I don’t even notice them in my hair while sleeping. However if you find them uncomfortable, you can try this method with double prong clips or bobby pins. Just know it’s a lot more difficult to keep the roller in place due to the shorter length of the clip/pin and lack of hair to really attach them to (since it’s all up in the rollers). I love the duckbill clips because they are long enough to just slide right in with no effort whatsoever.

If you’re doing a different type of setting pattern, say where the rollers are placed lower on your head for less curl, you can of course still use the clips. It also works with the little elastic on perm rods, if you find those dent, too.

As a last step, I push down slightly with both hands on the top layer of rollers across my crown, which helps contribute to the flat crown that you want with this kind of vintage set.

That’s it! Then all I do is wrap my rollers loosely in a scarf, taking care to tie it behind the rollers in my bangs. I don’t tie the scarf over all the rollers because I think it adds to the drying time, personally. (Half the time I don’t even bother with a scarf.)

Then I go about my day or night. I usually set my hair in the early evening and sleep on it, taking the rollers out the next morning. It looks something like this after the rollers are out.

But the curls are not usually this tight! I ended up letting my hair dry much longer than normal so it resulted in really tight curls. I set it one morning, then took the rollers out the next morning, which is unusual for me. Normally I set it overnight.

You can also see I don’t have any noticeable deep dents from the sponge rollers.

I start with my bangs. I brush them with a few passes of a hairbrush, brushing away from my face.

I grab the hair near the base of my head at the point where I want the hair to make a slight wave down to the rest of my face, and brush the curl forwards (towards my face).

I insert 1 or 2 duckbill clips backwards so the curved part is facing forward, place the curl how I’d like it, then hairspray the dickens out of this section. I leave the clips in as long as I can and usually will hairspray it again before taking them out, for good measure. A few minutes is okay, but longer is better, especially if you have fine hair. (A special note: so far, I find Lottabody leaves my bangs a better texture to perform this little wave trick than Motions.)

And then I brush the rest of my hair. My technique for this particular style results in tighter curls, not that full. To achieve this, I do not brush the curls all the way through like I would for a softer style (which is actually more my daily style).

I only brush until I feel resistance with my hairbrush, a couple of inches before the bottom of my hair. I do the same all the way around my head.

Sometimes when I’m brushing, I’ll see a curl that hang a little lower than its neighbors. For pesky curls like that I grab that section of hair towards the bottom and brush the curl under, towards the nape of my neck. Usually that works to tame it.

Now if I have a really droopy curl or a little section that just said “pffffft, I’m not curling no matter what you do to me!”, I just pin it to the base of my neck with two crossed bobby pins. No one will ever be the wiser. I try and always have bobby pins on me when I’m out because it never fails that on a day when your hair looks perfect, you pass yourself in a mirror and suddenly see an errant curl. (Little buggers.)

On the light side of my part, I use my hand to smooth down the hair above my ear a bit.

Sometimes, I’ll use a bobby pin.

When I think the duckbill clips have been in my hair long enough, I take them out. Now we were actually leaving the house shortly after I did this part of the tutorial so I was only able to let the clips sit in my hair for a few minutes. Thus the wave didn’t really hold, as you can see below.

While it looks fine, I know my hair well enough to know that within about an hour, that will droop and bug me. So on days like this, I just use a barrette. A perfectly appropriate addition to this hairstyle, anyway, and actually how I usually wear it during the work week.

Now this particular style doesn’t involve a lot of brushing, so sometimes I find that a few of my curls want to cling to one another and revert back to Shirley Temple-style locks. If that’s the case, I just use my fingers to break them up a bit, because too much brushing will soften the look of this style more than I want.

The last step? I use a little bit of pomade and a tiny tab of hair serum to tame my frizzies, running my hands over my hair with a bit on my palms. (I’m still working on a routine to tame my frizz, and actually recently realized you’re supposed to use the serum when your hair is damp, not dry. I’ll be trying that out soon because oh, how my hair loves to frizz.)

That’s it! The actual brushing and styling of this look probably takes 5 minutes at the most! Super easy!

Now what do I do when it’s time for bed?

Some people are able to sleep on curls and wake up the next day with decent second day hair, but not me. (I do it on occasion when I’m truly feeling lazy, but I’m always sorry the next day and my hair ends up back in a wide barrette at the base of my neck.)

So what I do is brush all my hair out thoroughly, then roll it back up in rollers, just running the slightest bit of water over each section of hair when I put each roller back in (don’t forget the duckbill clips). I usually dip my fingertips in a small bowl of water and run them along each section as I roll. If for some reason the day was particularly humid or I was out in the rain and my curls really fell quite a bit, I’ll add a bit more setting lotion that night to help the curls along overnight. In this manner this set can last 3 days for me with the curls most relaxed on the 3rd day. That’s the longest I can stretch it as my hair gets oily quickly and the crown of my head starts looking bad due to aforementioned cowlick. πŸ™‚

And just a couple more photos on how it looked before I left the house.

And from a different day, here’s the exact same set and styling using Lottabody setting lotion instead of Motions Foaming Wrap Lotion and sleeping on the rollers overnight after setting it that evening. This was taken several hours into the day and is more representative of how this usually looks on me.

If you like the style but want your curls more loose and full or brushing like this doesn’t cut it for your hair (everyone’s hair plays differently), simply brush through the curls all the way, holding each section of your hair at about earlobe-level when brushing the ends. This helps prevent the style from getting too poofy. I like to do that with either a bamboo or a plastic bristle brush as my boar bristle brush isn’t strong enough to work through the curls efficiently (I have fine hair but lots of it). I’m hoping to do a video tutorial on that once I get my video camera and figure out how to use it!

Anyway, there you have it. My version of a late 30s/early 40s sponge roller set and my first hair tutorial. πŸ™‚

Happy setting!

Filed: Tutorials, Vintage Hairstyles

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