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. Barbara Brookens says:

    Hi, I love your sight I’m new to this too.
    I have a conventional oven i use for regular cooking I read somewhere that roasting bags can be used over the pieces being baked so that the oven does,nt need to be cleaned each time. right now I place it on a glass dish, should I cover the dish or the piece. or is this even a good tip at all? thanks Barb

  2. Oliver says:

    I am a big fan of sculpting hero figures and characters for my son. I was wondering if you could offer some advice on muscle sculpting techniques from the more surreal and overly massive visceral hulk type effects to the smoother more realistic looks. If this is not something you are familier with is there any books or websites that you can recommend. I am an anotomy fanatic for drawing and have gone page for page learning to draw with Burne Hogarth so any thing like that for sculpting.

    Thanks in advance.

    Oli

  3. Claire says:

    Thank you so much for the advice. It really helped me with my project!

  4. Melissa says:

    What is TLS or PK? I am just testing the water. I am looking for clays and ways to create dolls. I would like to create peemies and new born babies. Once I am comfortable with making the peemies and new borns, I may venture into doll fanticies. I am a creative person. I hope to show my passion in my creations and add a personal touch. Can I use clay to mold porcilain? Tips are welcomed. I will heed your advise.

  5. Sheryl says:

    TLS is Translucent Liquid Sculpey, it’s a thick milky white liquid form of polymer clay that cures clear and flexible. It’s often used thinky as a surface treatment over other polymer clay to give a more skin-like texture or more thickly to create other effects ot for image transfers. Not sure what PK is other than the username of someone who posted earlier.

  6. Maya says:

    Hey! thanks for the great tips :)
    I painted the clay before i baked it….but its STILL wet after. should i cook it again or put gloss over it??? im very confused on what to do. Your advice is greatly appreciated. Thanks and have a great day!

  7. Sheryl says:

    I have absolutely no idea because I paint after baking. However if it’s still wet the absolute worst thing you could do would be to try to paint gloss over the top of it. Either you’re going to trap moisture underneath the varnish making it cloudy or it won’t dry either.

  8. cat says:

    Hi there I’m looking to use the polimer clay to make some ball jointed dolls, but the pieces would have to be not too thick,. So I was wondering would an underwire structure be the only way of strengthening the pieces or could I mix somwthing in with the clay like sawdust or sand? And I’m sure sawdust wouldn’t be the best answer, but would sand work to strengthen a piece from the inside if mixed in with the inner layer?

  9. Sheryl says:

    Mix ins like sand will weaken not strengthen polymer clay, it would likely just crumble if you did that. Polymer clay isn’t like plasters which can bond to sand, since it won’t bond to the sand it would be like making a piece with lots of tiny holes in it. A wire form under the clay is the best way to reinforce polymer clay, if you need the ball joint to be stronger you might want to use a different material like a sculpting epoxy like Apoxie Sculpt or Magic Sculp.

  10. cat says:

    Oh I didn’t know that, and I’d nev er considered that, thanks a lot, I apreciate the prompt responce.

  11. Hekikuu says:

    I’ve created a bust of an elf-like character and I’m ready to bake it, but the head has ears and bangs that are way thinner than the rest of the sculpture. Should I take those pieces off and bake them separately to avoid over baking? Or is there some trick I can do to leave them on and have them not sag or crack and explode?

  12. Sheryl says:

    Sagging, cracking, and exploding are not really risks with polymer clay (especially not exploding). The only real risk is that the ears and bangs might become darker than the rest of the bust. You can reduce the risk by making sure your oven does not exceed the recommended baking temperature of the clay you are using and cover the thinner areas with a little bit of damp (not wet) paper towel. Polymer clays all bake well under the ignition temperature of paper so fire is only a risk if the paper is very close to the heating element.

  13. Hekikuu says:

    Thank you! I was very worried about this! Thank you also for the quick response!

  14. Gina says:

    I have been painting my recent sculptures with acrylic paint then sealing it with the Sculpey Gloss Glaze and/or an acrylic spray laquer…I looked at them yesterday and noticed that all my white paint is now yellow. Is there a better glaze, laquer, varnish, sealer or finish I should use to keep my white paint from yellowing only days after sealing it.

    Gina

  15. Mars says:

    Have you tried using clear, WATER BASED polyurethane? It can be painted or sprayed on. It comes in both regular can and spray paint containers. But the stress here is on WATER BASED polyurethane. The oil based polyurethane somehow reacts to the polymer clays and becomes sticky over time. I get it at Home Depot. The help there always says there is no such thing. So just make a point of taking the time to find it. You can probably get it online if you cannot find it locally. The brand I have found is Varathane – Water Based, Clear Gloss, Varathane, Diamond Polyurethane. I think they also make a satin version. Good luck.

  16. Bryana says:

    I am having a problem with my finished pieces :( Even after they have been cured they are in a way flexible and not hard solid pieces. I can actually bend and move some of the thinner things I have made. Can any one tell me why this is and how I can get it to not happen any more I want all my pieces to be hard and solid not bendy and flexible. Thank you for any answers :)

  17. Bryana says:

    To Gina I have found the best Glaze EVER!!! it’s made by Deco Art and it called Triple thick, It will not react with the cured clay and it never becomes Sticky or changes any colors it gives a very glassy finish and only requires one coat and dries rather quickly I think depending on how much to paint on it should only take about ten minutes to set up and its dry enough to handle. Also lets say you use in on something you need to then later re bake I make mini plates and dinner ware for my mini food and my finished glazed and fully dried dishes can get there food servings and be re baked. It is absolutely the best Glaze I have ever used! I get it at Hobby Lobby or Micheal’s in the acrylic paint section Deco Art Triple Thick crystal clear glaze.

  18. Sheryl says:

    Bryana: Basically you can’t, polymer clay has some flexibility after curing, this is totally normal and helps prevent breakage of thin pieces. Some brands have more flex to them than others, Kato clay is both the strongest and most flexible of the normal clay brands (some specialty clays like Sculpey Bake and Bend are more flexible). Honestly the less flexible clays like fimo soft and sculpey 3 are actually much more breakable than the more flexible brands like kato, premo, and fimo classic.

  19. Edna Holt says:

    How can I prevent a dark color from staining a lighter color when I am layering clay figures.

  20. Sheryl says:

    You can pre-bake the lighter color clay and then layer on the darker colors. Wipe away any streaks of color that get on the lighter clay with a bit of rubbing alcohol on a cotton swap. However it’s still possible to stain the baked clay especially with colors that bleed a lot like Alizarin Crimson so you still need to be very careful and wash your hands and tools between colors.

  21. katherine says:

    Hi there,
    I am working on a project that is kinda large and also has some smaller pieces attached. I was wondering if i could pre bake the larger structure for more strength before applying the smaller pieces. I seems to smudge and leave finger prints when trying to attach some of the smaller pieces. And if so what temp and for how long.

  22. Michelle says:

    Hi there,
    I just discovered your sight and am finding it very helpful. I am just starting out in the art and could use any help and/or hints at all. I know I am being very vague, but what advice would give to a beginner?

  23. Anton says:

    I am very very new to this. I haven’t done anything yet except get some sculpting tools. I have a small bucket of Sculpt-it! that i was going to use on pieces of a Megaman helmet that I was making for Halloween. I have very recently gotten interested in making mini statues and busts but do not know where I should start. Are there any good no-bake options? Super Sculpy Firm looks pretty awesome to me if there are not any no-bake options. Any advice to a complete begginer would be greatly appreciated. :)

  24. Dolly says:

    Just checked out your site and i see you answer all questions rather quickly, and thats what i need a quick aswer. ” what sealer do i use on my baby sculpt? She is the size of a new born, it came out really great! But she seams to have a white residue on her, i was told it’s because she’s not sealed, is that true? I really i need your help so what sealer do i need? Thank you so much. Dolly

  25. Sheryl says:

    Hi Dolly,
    The white residue is probably because you sanded it, sealing will deal with that. You have a number of options, but since it’s a baby and you’ll want a skin-like finish I would suggest using Translucent Liquid Sculpey or if you don’t want to bake the piece again a very thing matte clear acrylic like Delta Ceramcoat will work but TLS gives a better approximation of skin.

  26. Jonathan says:

    my son is tying to model a wolf and is struggling with the weight of the clay of its body on thin legs. What is best to use as a skeletal structure – wire?and how best to fix the Fimo to the material.

    Thanks

  27. Russell says:

    Is there a way to make your created sculpey figure posable. Is there a way to make the arms,head, and legs move once its hard?

  28. Sheryl says:

    @Russel: You could create posable joints for the figure however I have no experience with joints so I can’t give you much guidance on the subject.

  29. Lily says:

    will my piece be ok for baking if some parts of it are 2 inches thick while other parts imitate fur and are quite thin? If not, what should I put inside it? wood?

    • Sheryl says:

      You should bulk up pieces that are very thicks for a couple reasons: 1) There’s a chance you won’t harden the clay all the way through which can cause it to break later on and 2) There’s a chance the longer baking time will cause the thinner areas to darken. I recommend not having a difference in thickness between the thinnest and thickest areas of more than 3/4 of an inch. You can use a lot of materials for bulk up the inside, my personal favorite for sculptures is aluminum foil. Make a tightly packed ball of foil roughly the shape of what you are making and cover it with clay, For more on armatures check out this link: http://www.squidoo.com/armatures

  30. Tianca says:

    I was wondering,

    Could you use TLS as a glaze for that shiny after effect?
    Also,
    if you can, do you apply it before or after you bake it??
    Thanks so much :)

    • Sheryl says:

      You can use TLS as a glaze either before or after baking (though you have to bake a second time if you apply it after a first bake). However TLS doesn’t give a shiny finish, it’s more matte to satin finish. What I’ve found it particularly good for is as a realistic skin finish for sculptures, use light washes of acrylic paint over a flash toned clay to give it some depth (for example a little pink to cheeks and lips) then a glaze of TLS to seal it.

      If you want really shiny finishes though you need to go with an acrylic varnish.

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