Polymer clay is a highly versatile, non-toxic, modelling material that can be hardened by baking in the home oven. Once baked it is permanent and can be cut, sawn, glued, painted and more.
It is sold in a wide range of colours which can be mixed together to make further colours. Most brands also produce a “transparent” or translucent clay which can be used on its own or mixed with colours to make delicate translucent pastel shades.
There is also the Super Sculpey clay used by professional sculptors, animators and artist, the specialist skin-tone clays for doll makers and the effects clays such pearlescents, night-glow and metallic colours.
This finely detailed primrose (pictured right) was made by Sue Heaser from polymer clay.
Many of the essential tools can be found around the home and a little imagination will adapt items for use.
Remember: tools that are used for working with polymer clay should not then be used for food preparation.
A selection of tools and equipment specifically made for working with the clays, is available from this web site. Here’s what you need to get started:
- Rolling Tools: An acrylic or nylon roller is best for rolling out clay but a small, strong glass bottle with smooth sides or a jam jar will do fine. Avoid wooden rolling pins which stick to the clay. A pasta machine is great fun to use with polymer clay and makes rolling sheets really fast. Roll out on a smooth surface such as a melamine chopping board or ceramic tile.
- Cutting & Slicing Tools: A craft knife with a curved blade is very useful and squared tissue blades are invaluable for slicing millefiori canes and for cutting straight edges on sheets of clay.
- Shaping & Modelling Tools: Needles are great for detailing. A blunt-pointed tapestry needle can be used for texturing, making eye-sockets and indenting lines and a darning needle can be used for piercing beads.
- A baking tray covered with non-stick baking parchment or ordinary paper for baking the clay.
- Methylated spirits for de-greasing before gluing or painting.
- Baby Wipes for cleaning hands and work surfaces.
- A light shake of talcum powder will help if you find the clay getting sticky when rolling or using cutters.
Always work each piece of clay in your hands to soften it before use, a pasta machine will make light work of this process.
If the clay is too soft, press a pancake of clay between two sheets of ordinary white paper and leave for a few hours or overnight so that some of the oily plasticizer leaches out. Clay that is too stiff can be softened by kneading with Sculpey Clay Softener.
For jewellery making, once a piece of clay has been added, do not try to reshape it because the result will be messy. If you are not happy with it, remove the piece and start again. It is not necessary to squash pieces together to affect a join as they will fuse together when baked; gentle but firm pressure is all that is needed. Some clays are more easily smoothed than others. This means that added clay can be smoothed in at the edges to leave no join.
Fingernail marks and dirty fingerprints on light colours will ruin your results so keep your hands clean, wiping them with wet wipes between colours if necessary.
The extensive range of colours and effects, means that the clays can be used for all kinds of applications. This pretty bracelet (above) shows their versatility - Sue Heaser has used metallic powder on polymer clay to simulate silver metal and a combination of coloured clays to create the faux stones
The clays can be blended together to make new colours and different brands are intermixable. Avoid mixing different brands of doll clay as some of these mixtures can deteriorate over time.
Soften the two colours you want to mix and work them together, folding and rolling until all the streaks have disappeared.
When making pastel colours, add only a very small quantity of colour to white: about 1 part colour to 8 parts white. If you roll both colours into equal diameter sausages, it is easier to estimate the quantities. e.g. 1cm colour to 8cm white.
You can mix most colours from a basic palette of blue, yellow and magenta or crimson red, plus black and white. Translucent clay can be tinted with small quantities of coloured clay.
Liquid Polymer Clays
The liquid clays can be used in a variety of ways to create stained glass effects, as grout for polymer clay mosaic tiles, to create faux enamel and translucent glazes. The medium can also be used for making colour transfers from printed images, photographs and colour pencil drawings.
Polymer clay can be baked in a domestic oven. Place on a baking parchment covered oven tray for about 20 minutes to 1 hour at 130°C/275°F (except for Kato Polyclay which requires 150°C/300°F). It will not harden until completely cool.
Note: do not bake clay while there is food in the oven. Keep both processes separate.
Clay that has not been baked for long enough will be fragile and break easily. Items can be re-baked several times without harm. Beware of overheating the clay by letting the oven temperature go too high as it gives off unpleasant fumes when burnt.
If you encounter problems with baking, your oven thermostat may not be accurate so check with a separate oven thermometer - some ovens can over- or under-heat considerably. Try baking a test sheet: a thin, baked sheet of any of the strong clays should bend into a U-bend without snapping. Sculpey III remains fragile.
If you are baking in a gas oven try baking a test piece on gas mark 1/2 or 1/4. If the clay is discoloured, turn the temperature down. However, if it is very fragile, turn the oven up.
Use superglue to glue jewellery findings to baked clay, or baked clay to baked clay. Two part epoxy glues such as Araldite are the strongest to use for jewellery findings and recommended if you sell your work. Superglue is best for mending clay breakages. PVA glue can be used for gluing soft items to baked clay such as fabric or dolls’ hair. If you want to add fresh clay to a piece already baked, a smear of PVA will help it adhere better before baking.
Paint and Varnish
Baked polymer clay can be painted with acrylic paints but do not use enamel paint unless the surface has been primed adequately. Before painting, de-grease the baked clay by brushing with methylated spirits or nail varnish remover. For more permanent results and particularly for doll faces, varnish before painting (with either a matt or gloss varnish, see below) and again, when the paint is dry.
Baked polymer clay does not need varnishing unless you want a shiny surface (use gloss varnish) or to protect paints or powders applied to the clay. Use only acrylic or alcohol-based varnish on baked polymer clays. Do not use enamel or oil based varnishes which will never dry properly.
Metallic & Pearlescent Powders / Metal Leaf and Foils
The Jacquard Pearl Ex powders can be brushed onto soft clay before baking and give wonderful effects simulating various metals. They are most effective on black clay but pearlescent powder brushed onto white clay gives wonderful pearl effects. After baking, you will need to apply varnish to protect the powder.
Foils can either be burnished onto the surface of wet clay and sealed with varnish once baked or they can be stuck to the surface of baked clay with foil glue.
In this instance, the foil was burnished to the surface of rolled out clay. It was then rolled again to fracture the foil into a stunning design. The clay was cut out using a leaf shaped cutter.