What is polymer clay?
Polymer clay is a hugely popular and versatile type of modelling clay. It comes in a wide range of beautiful colours, and can also be hardened in the oven to produce a long-lasting and durable piece of art. Because it is basically made of vinyl plastic, once it is set, it is strong, waterproof and washable. Similar in texture to normal plasticine modelling clay, polymer clay can be shaped and molded into a variety of forms and doesn’t stick to fingers in the same way that natural clay does, meaning it’s less messy to work with. And good news – it’s non-toxic too! The clay remains workable until heat-set in the oven, so you can take your time with a project, and store leftover clay to be used again later. We’ve put together a few tips to get you started…
Tools for getting started
At The Deckle Edge we stock two brands of polymer clay – FIMO and Cernit. Both are high-quality clays but have slightly different baking times so it’s best not to mix the two together. It’s always a good idea to set up your work station before you get started. Make sure that you are working in a clean environment free of dust, dirt and pet hair – you don’t want bits getting stuck into your clay! There are various surfaces that work well for sculpting on – such as a sheet of glass or a cutting mat. Ideally you want something smooth and non-porous to work on.
You should also gather a few tools to use for sculpting – these can be proper clay sculpting tools or bits and bobs that you find around the home; cutlery, toothpicks etc. Just note that any items you use for sculpting should be kept in your sculpting kit and not returned to the kitchen, just for health and safety. Objects with interesting textures can make for fun debossing techniques. Polymer clay can be baked in a regular oven; following the baking instructions provided by the clay manufacturer. It is advised that sculptures should be baked in aluminium foil pans (the kind you get takeaways in) or something similar to protect both your project and your oven – sometimes ovens can brown or burn the top layer of the clay, so covering it will prevent this.
Working with the clay
Polymer clay can start off quite firm or hard – to condition or soften it you will need to work it with your hands or roll it through a clay roller (similar to a pasta machine). Gently warming the clay in your hands can help soften it too. If your clay is particularly dry or hard, clay softener can be added to get it to a more manageable consistency, although care should be taken that you don’t add too much as this can make the clay sticky and difficult to work with. If your clay does get too oily and soft you can put a rolled-out layer of the clay between two plain sheets of white paper. Place a heavy book on top and leave for a few hours until the paper has absorbed the extra plasticizers and the clay has reached a firmed consistency. Colours can be mixed to create unique, custom shades as well as interesting marbled effects.
Finishing your project
The clay holds shape and texture well and won’t shrink during baking, but you might notice a slight shift in colour – this ultimately depends on the colour and brand of clay. Translucent colours will become more translucent after baking. Once the clay has been fired, it becomes stronger and resistant to scratches and breakage, but it’s important to make sure the clay has been baked for long enough to ensure that it is fully cured.
Even after you’ve baked your clay there is still plenty that you can do with it – sand it, carve it, varnish it, file it, paint it, drill holes in it – the list goes on. If you are planning to paint anything over your baked clay, make sure that it has cooled down completely first and then clean off your sculpture with alcohol – this will help your varnish or paint stick.
In terms of varnish, polymer clay varnish is recommended and it has been made specifically to suit the clay. These varnishes are usually water-based and come in a satin, matt or gloss finish. While it is not necessary to varnish polymer clay, it can be helpful in changing the finish of your work and adding extra protection. Both acrylic and oil paints have been recommended for painting onto polymer clay, but it is important to test out your paints and experiment first to see what works! Not all polymer clays are the same and some might react differently to paints and become sticky over time.
There are so many wonderful artists out there doing exciting and varied things with polymer clay. Here are just a few examples we’ve found.