Quick Tips for Sculpting in Polymer Clay

Here’s a list of some quick tips for sculpting with polymer clay. I hope this list will be ever growing. Also in the works is a list for painting your sculpts too.

1: Keep a wet washcloth or wet wipes (baby wipes) on hand to keep you hands clean while sculpting. Any little piece of dirt of pet hair your hands pick up will stick to your sculpt.

2: Get a lazy susan, it’s a simple thing but being able to turn your sculpts easily is really helpful. I found a great 14″ diameter bamboo one for $10, so not a big investment.

3: Mirrors are your friend. A great way to tell if you have something lopsided is to look at it reversed in a mirror, it really brings out any problems.

4: Smooth out your polymer clay by brushing it using isopropyl alcohol. 90% will smooth more aggressively than 70%. I keep both on hand to use depending on what I need. You can find it in any drug store around the first aid supplies.

5: Get a pasta machine. They are the perfect tool for mixing clay and of course rolling out sheets of clay. Mixing clay by hand takes forever and leaves your hands too sore and tired to actually be able to sculpt.

6: Wet wipes are also useful for keeping our pasta machine clean. Just run one through on the smallest setting a few times until the rollers are clean. If you don’t have wet wipes a piece of folded paper towel wetted with window cleaner also works quite well.

7: Make/find your own tools. Sculpting tools can be expensive so I only buy what I can’t make or find. A few examples are:

  • Knitting needles
  • X-acto knives
  • Paintbrushes
  • Sewing needles can be glued into the end of pieces of dowel (tapestry needles come in the perfect sizes)
  • Steel guitar strings are perfect for homemade loop tools. One package comes with 6 sizes of music wire for around $4 and it’s enough wire for literally dozens of tools. Just glue a loop of the wire into a hole drilled in the end of a dowel.
  • Dowels can be easily carved with a multi tool x-acto knife and fine sandpaper into endless shapes.
  • Anything that has an interesting texture can be made into a stamp. Just press a blob of epoxy putty (such as ApoxieSculpt, milliput, hard setting plumbers epoxy) onto the object you want to make a stamp of. Some examples would be an orange, cantalope, bark, basketball, etc.

8: Save your eyes. If you are sculpting a lot of fine detail get a magnifier of some sort. I have a desktop on on a bendable arm but a lot of sculptors prefer wearble magnifiers.

9: If your clay isn’t the consistency that you want there are a couple things you can do. If it’s too soft you can leach the clay, roll out thin sheet of the clay, place it between two sheets of white paper, and stack a couple books on top. Leave it there checking the consistency ever couple hours until it reaches the firmness that you want. If the clay is too hard or dry, you can use either sculpey clay softener (previously called diluent) or fimo mix quick to soften the clay.

10: Bake your clay thoroughly at the temperature indicated on the package. Underbaking can leave your sculpture weak and in some cases it make actually break down due to uncured plasticizers. The process I use is to ramp bake, this was originated by Katherine Dewey who’s a genius. This means I first bake for 15-20 minutes at 225, 15-20 minutes at 250, then depending on the thickness of the sculpt for between 20 and 60 minutes at 275.

About

I'm a sculptor and jewelry designer from Maine, I sell my work at Noadi.etsy.com. I work primarily in polymer clay and mixed media. My work is inspired by science, nature, and my beloved cephalopods.

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75 comments on “Quick Tips for Sculpting in Polymer Clay
  1. linda harrison says:

    Thanks for the tips,I’m new to this craft and I can’t wait to create!

  2. venessa says:

    how can i roll noodles?

  3. venessa says:

    like… evenly?

  4. Sheryl says:

    Roll the clay into a thick rough noodle then use a sheet of glass or acrylic to roll the noodle. With practice you should be able to do it evenly but you can use a couple pieces of square dowel as a thickness guide.

  5. Another excellent source for tools is your dentist. Just ask him for any broken tools he has and you could find yourself with a fine assortment of varied sizes and shapes for all sorts of detail work.

  6. Sheryl says:

    Absolutely, every time I go to the dentist they let me rummage through the old tools. They sterilize even the ones they’re going to throw out so no worries about germs.

  7. La Woodstock says:

    Thanks for sharing the tips!! :)

  8. Judie Burge says:

    Regarding the use of “Rubbing Alcohol” to smooth out clay. I’m assuming you mean to use it after completing your polymer clay project………..my bottle says it’s “flammable”…is it still safe to put into the oven???? I always try not to overwork my faces, but still always need to smooth out areas, such as the eye lids etc…….I’ll try the Alcohol if it’s safe to put in the over; do you have any other suggestions?

    Thanks,
    Judie Burge

  9. Sheryl says:

    When the alcohol dries it’s actually evaporating into the air so once the raw clay has dried it no longer has more than a slight trace of alcohol left on the surface and it’s perfectly safe to bake. Never put a piece in the oven that still has liquid alcohol on the surface, likely nothing dangerous would happen (you’d need a lot for that) but a flare up would probably ruin the surface of the clay.

  10. Teeko says:

    I am new to this field, have a feeling I am going to love it, and have been reading up on it before getting really started. Sandra McCall, in her book, “Stamping Effects in Polymer Clay,” says that blasting a piece with a heat gun after it has been baked will create a “great shine without sanding and buffing”–an idea that greatly appeals to me.

    However, she does not specify the lowest acceptable temperature, and looking at heat guns I might buy, I see that many do not even mention temperature or wattage. There are some heat guns at a reasonable price listed on eBay, but they only mention embossing, not use on polymer. Would they be all right? Here is the URL for seeing one that I am considering (the Stampabilities Embossing Heat Tool Gun):
    http://crafts.shop.ebay.com/i.html?_nkw=heat+gun&_sacat=14339&_trksid=p3286.m270.l1313&_odkw=milwaukee+heat+gun&_osacat=14339

  11. Sheryl says:

    Embossing heat guns are pretty low temp as heat guns go, between 400-600 degrees Fahrenheit at the nozzle. However the heat falls off quickly so holding it 5-6 inches from the piece and keeping the heat gun moving will work without burning it. This takes a little practice so try it out with some pieces of scrap clay first.

    I’ve never used a heat gun for shine but I’ve used it to cure small pieces or set up a detailed surface like a face so I won’t smoosh it by mistake. If you do this don’t try to cure a piece unless it’s very thin or you plan to bake it thoroughly later because it doesn’t cure very deeply into the clay.

  12. Teeko says:

    Thanks, Sheryl, that was very helpful. I bought that embossing gun and it is doing what I wanted it to.

    Now, about to order from a few online places, I find myself wondering what “interference” means in regard to polymer clays. Can you enlighten me as to how interference powders are different from embossing powders, for instance, and what effect they produce in the finished object?

  13. Sheryl says:

    Embossing powders have a reaction to heat that changes their appearance. Mica powders are totally inert, can be mixed into clay, paint, dye, etc. without their properties changing even when heated. Best way to get started with them are to buy sample packs of small jars, the powder lasts a long time and then when you run out you can buy the larger more expensive jars just of colors you use a lot. Jacquard Pearl Ex is the brand I use and they have 12 color sample packs that run about $18 each.

    Interference is actually a term that describes certain types of mica powders that the color looks nearly white or clear until light hits it just right and then it flashes color. These are great for subtle opal-like color effects. Other types of mica powders look like metals, pearl, bright sparkley colors, and even some that color shift from one color to another depending on the angel of the light.

  14. Teeko says:

    Wow! Thanks so much. Just in time for an order I am about to send! I love opal effects. Thanks also for telling me about the Jacquard Pearl Ex samples.

  15. Teeko says:

    Heeeelp! I just painted TLS on some little flat pieces and am baking them now, but I can’t get the brush clean. I thought water would dilute TLS and so the paintbrushes could be cleaned in water, but the TLS is very stubborn. Can anyone tell me, please, what will act as a solvent on TLS?

  16. Sheryl says:

    Try a little dish soap and if that doesn’t work try some rubbing alcohol. I buy those terrible super cheap plastic bristles brushes that are like a dozen for $1, they’re usually sold for kids crafts. They are perfect for applying TLS because I can just toss them once they’re too gummed up with TLS to use anymore.

  17. Teeko says:

    Thanks for the quick response. I’ve never come across those cheap brushes–probably because I never had kids–but I’ll take a look around for them. There is nothing to beat cheap and tossable! I have just realized that I must have had a false memory telling me that TLS could be diluted with water. Can you tell me what will dilute it, because the coats I applied this evening were too thick? Meanwhile, I will try that dish soap and/or rubbing alcohol. Many thanks!

  18. Sheryl says:

    I have no idea what can dilute it. You could try alcohol but I don’t know if that will work.

  19. Teeko says:

    Dawn dish soap worked on the brush like a dream! As for the TLS, guess I’ll have to get some Sculpey Diluent. I think I saw it at JoAnn’s, but was hoping something around the house might do until I can make the trip there. Oh well! There are other things to make. Thanks.

  20. Faith says:

    so after i’ve sculpt and i want to paint it, should i paint it before or after i bake it? and is there a certain paint i should use?

  21. Sheryl says:

    You should paint after baking. I’ve found acrylic paints to work best for me. Other paints that work are heat set oils and water mixable oils. Steer clear of lacquer based enamel paints, they can react to the clay and remain sticky forever.

  22. Karen says:

    Great advice! You make everything sound so simple. I was wondering if you can use TLS to dilute Fimo or Sculpey to make an icing like substance for icing on donuts or cakes or the effect of melting ice cream??

  23. Sheryl says:

    I’ve never tried it but I did a little looking and this project for a cake uses clay mixed with TLS for icing http://www.cdhm.org/tutorials/making-a-miniature-cake.html so it’s worth a try.

  24. Diana says:

    HI, thank you for all those tips.
    does the heat gun or embossing gun really add the shine if used after baking on beads? ( or only over paint? )

  25. Sheryl says:

    The heat gun works best on unpainted clay or clay that has been painted with heat-set paint like Genesis oils. I tend to worry about the heat gun making non-heat set paints blister.

  26. Diana says:

    thank you for quick respond!
    do I need to sand beads first for shine or using heat gun alone will be enough?

  27. Sheryl says:

    Wet sanding and buffing with cloth will result in shinier beads than the heat gun alone. Try it out on some test pieces to figure out the level of shine you want and how many steps it will need.

  28. JERRIE says:

    Thankyou for the tips I so appreciate you taking the time to let beginners into short cuts etc., of the sculpting world. I too am new to sculpting and after reading up on this craft cannot wait to try my hand.

  29. Pam says:

    I have been sculpting since 67. But I am new to the internet. Information lilke this is worth my laptot being tossed across the room more than once in the learning process. Thank you for the good tips.

  30. PK says:

    Love the details. I’m so excited to jump in. Mahalo for the sharing PK

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