Polymer clay is a versatile and creative material for crafting. How to use polymer clay can be quite challenging. It is inexpensive, easy to find, and can be molded into anything that you want to craft.
The clay is used by hobbyists and professionals to craft everything from decorative pieces and artwork to science projects and prototypes.
In this blog, we will take a detailed look at how to use polymer clay for your projects and what makes it different from regular clay or Air Dried Clay.
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What Is Polymer Clay?
Polymer clay is the generic name used for a variety of artificial clay that is produced from synthesized material like plastics. The clay is soft, pliable, and easy to mold.
Once it has been baked, it becomes permanently hard.
The clay has a relatively low baking temperature of 265 degrees F. You can easily use a regular kitchen oven. Very few tools are needed to begin working with polymer clay, therefore making it ideal for kids’ projects and hobbyists alike.
What is Polymer Clay Made Of?
Basically, Polymer clays are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and a plasticizer that is ground into a fine powder and mixed together. PVC is a type of rigid plastic that is commonly found in households. Look under your kitchen sink and you might find white drain pipes made of PVC.
Polymer clay does not contain any natural clay elements. Therefore you won’t find it in nature. It is created from man-made chemicals in such a way that it has the characteristics that artists want in polymer clay.
Manufacturers add plasticizers to the clay to make it more flexible. Most polymer clays that you can buy use a class of chemicals called phthalates as a plasticizer.
When the PVC is mixed with the plasticizer, the mixture is called a plastisol. Additional substances are added to this plastisol mixture that helps to hold it together and give the polymer clay its other characteristics, such as color and texture.
How To Use Polymer Clay
Polymer clay is fairly non-toxic and safe to mold with your hands. For added safety, make sure to wash your hands after working with it.
The clay has been tested for safety and is currently listed as safe for use as long as a few precautions are followed.
- Don’t burn it. The burning fumes may cause irritation to your breathing passages. Use an accurate oven. If yours is questionable, use a separate oven thermometer.
- Don’t eat it. Supervise the use of polymer clay with small children. Use separate crafting tools for polymer clay that are dedicated just for the artwork. Keep it away from the jaws of your pets as well.
- Don’t create any polymer clay object to use with serving food. Remember polymers are petroleum based, and while non-toxic to handle, they should never be ingested.
- Wash your hands when you are done sculpting
- It’s a good idea to vent your room and open a window when baking polymer clay. There are definite fumes that are created during the heating process. Don’t take chances with your health!
Some artists who make regular contact with the polymer clay are concerned about skin irritation and/or cumulative effects, so they prefer to use latex gloves while crafting. Others who bake for long hours use a vented oven or bake in a separate room with an open window.
How to Prepare Polymer Clay
Before you start working with polymer clay, it must be conditioned. Conditioning requires you to make the clay very soft, pliable, and easy to work with. If the clay packages are old or have been stored in a warehouse for long periods of time, they may feel very stiff and unmoving. The more you knead and condition the polymer clay, the softer it will get.
A variety of polymer clay is being sold these days that is pretty soft and does not require much conditioning. Popular brands of polymer clay include ‘Sculpey’ and ‘FIMO’. These brands sell pre-conditioned clay that is ready to mold and craft right out of the box.
Even if the clay is soft right out of the package, it is still important to condition it for a few minutes before you start crafting. Conditioning helps form bonds in the clay and prevents it from breaking after it has been baked.
Conditioning By Hand
In order to condition the clay properly, break off a small piece from the rest and kneed it with your hands. The clay will begin to get soft due
to the warmth of your hands.
Conditioning Using Machines
If you are working with a large sheet of clay you can also use a pasta machine for preparing it.
The pasta machine can help condition the clay if you run it at the largest setting. Take the cut sheet, roll it in half and run it through again.
You can also break up the clay in a food processor, but I would only use an old processor that you intend to never use for food preparation. It chops the clay into sub-tiny pieces that you can’t see well with your eyes and it will be difficult to clean it thoroughly enough to be completely safe for food prep again.
As the blades rotate, they generate heat and it helps the clay to soften up. Thereafter, all the bits of clay can then be combined and worked with your hands.
If the clay is old or has been slightly exposed to UV light, it may have become hard. In that case, it takes longer to prepare and condition it for molding. Therefore, make sure to always store polymer clay in a dark, cool place to avoid it from becoming hard.
Rescuing Too Old Clay
If the clay is too hard to work with you can also put it in a Ziploc bag. Let it sit in some warm water for about 20 minutes before working with it. This helps speed up the conditioning time. Adding a tiny dot of oil may help recondition your hard clay as well.
You’ll know if the clay has been conditioned properly when it doesn’t crack or crumble easily in your hand.
Work Area Surface
If you are using polymer clay for crafting, it is highly advised to set up a crafting area for the task. Something similar to a granite or glass countertop is best. You should put cardstock or wax paper under your craft as it provides two main benefits.
My favorite surface is a silicon craft mat. Once you try one, you will be hooked! Here’s an example:
First, it is a smooth surface that makes it very easy to roll balls or logs and make smooth-sided shapes. It minimizes the risk of putting fingerprints on your project.
Second, you can leave the piece on the paper and put it directly on a cookie sheet for baking. The paper will not burn at 270 degrees F and this is a good way to protect your cookie sheet.
How to Use Polymer Clay and Avoid Finger Prints
One big problem with polymer clay is that it is very sticky and you will find it hard to remove your fingerprints from the clay after you have shaped your project. There are three ways to avoid fingerprints:
- Wear tight-fitting latex gloves while working with the clay to avoid this problem.
- Dust your piece with a little talcum powder to help keep prints off.
- Use a very finely-grit sanding paper on your piece after the clay has settled a bit. The soft side of a fingernail file is the perfect grit as well! The fingernail allows the clay to be buffed smooth.
With some practice and time working with polymer clay, you will find it easier not to leave fingerprints at all.
If you work on a piece of cardstock or a ceramic tile as the base, maneuvering your piece by rotating the base. As a result, that will also help you avoid making fingerprints on your piece.
Tips and Techniques
Here’s a bead made from many layers then sliced and carved into a flower shape!
Here’s one of my favorite brands:
Hand embed lines using a needle or nail:
Sculpting in Parts
Working with polymer clay is not easy as it looks. Sometimes, you will accidentally hit a piece of the project and see it fall out of place.
To make the process easier, you can break your project into several sections and then bake each part separately. Once the base is completed and hardened, you can attach other parts together with a bit of strong glue. That’s how most complicated scultpures are completed, regardless of the medium!
It is also possible to add more clay to a baked creation and rebaking it!
Baking Your Project
There are plenty of variables that can affect the outcome of your polymer clay project’s baking. For example, changing the heating times, or using polymer clay that has a higher concentration of water can give you different results. I was very surprised how rock-hard my sculptures came out of the oven! They are heavy too! The properties of the polymer clay really transform once baked. They don’t shrink and crack like air dry clay. They are super durable once baked to the proper time length and temperature.
Make sure to check your oven with a separate thermometer to verify that the temperature you set is accurate. Always bake your project at the temperature recommended by the manufacturer, never lower. Using a thermometer is much more accurate than relying on the oven temperature gauge.
You can even mix polymer clay from one manufacturer to the next, but bake your creations to the temperature and length of the brand with the longest time/temp in their instructions.
Lower temperatures cause incomplete curing. Once your oven is preheated, begin timing and bake for at least as long as the manufacturer recommends.
It’s okay to bake longer. In fact, most artists agree that longer baking leads to a stronger finished product.
Your craft will crack when is baked too quickly. Also at temperatures that are too high or too low. This is something you will learn with trial and error. It takes some patience and planning. Eventually, you will start making projects that do not crack or warp and come out great.
Make sure you vent out the oven thoroughly before you use it again for baking food to eat!
My Favorite Brands of Polymer Clay
My favorite brands are easy to soften, bake consistently well and are beginner-friendly. Let’s face it: sculpting has a long learning curve. You can watch lots of videos, take some online video classes and still have a difficult time getting your projects to turn out as good as the professional. That’s ok! The learning and the journey has to be part of the fun! It truly is a learn by doing thing! The good news is that each little thing you finish will help you get better and better.
and here is a huge budget set with tools and extras:
Here’s some projects my granddaughter and I did. (She is seven). We learned a lot and laughed at our mistakes all along the way. It is a good lesson for anything in life! Keep going and have fun. Soon you’ll be an expert too.
We can’t wait to create more! Her dolls are going to love the teddy bear and the food. The first thing she wanted to make was a cheeseburger and fries. That cracks me up! Me, I went for a doughnut. Hey, I have a sweet tooth!
Here’s a very informative tutorial for beginners with lots of tips:
I’m loving my pasta machine for polymer clay. It really thins it out and softens it up easier for me! I keep this craft roller exclusively for polymer clay, not for food, just to be safe from cross-contamination.
And these slice super well, but watch it! They are razor-sharp and not for children!
If you want to make strings for hair or uniform tube of all sizes, this is a great tool to get precision. For this to work, just make sure your clay is kneaded SOFT.
For uniform shapes nothing beats kitchen hors d’eouvres cutters! I like this set for my tiny ornaments and shapes:
And for great inspirations on advanced technique, these books are a favorite:
When crafters start working with a new medium, they are often worried that they’ll do something “wrong”. Keep in mind that polymer clay is a relatively new and evolving medium.
Artists are discovering new ways to work with it every day. Each new technique that someone develops was unknown and undocumented a few years ago. Don’t be shy about trying out new things.
Let your imagination be your guide and try combining your projects with materials from other crafts. As long as you are not burning your clay or making it sticky with paint thinner, it’s really very hard to go wrong with polymer clay.
In this article, we shared some tips on how to work with polymer clay. If you have more questions or want to add something let us know!