An Overview of Basic Skills and Tools for Sculpting in Polymer Clay
I have many lenses here on Squidoo about sculpting in polymer clay but none that really give a good overview of what you need to get started. This lens is about the essential information you need to get started sculpting in polymer clay, then you can move on to my other lenses for more in details on specific sculpting topics.
What is Polymer Clay?
Polymer clay is a non-toxic man-made sculpting material which stays pliable until cured at relatively low temperatures, typically between 265 and 275Â°F (129-135Â°C).
There are a number of brands and specialty clays with different properties.
For more in depth information see the Wikipedia Polymer Clay article.
- Sculpey III
- Super Sculpey (Original and Firm)
- Premo! Sculpey
- Translucent Liquid Sculpey
- Sculpey Super Flex
- Sculpey UltraLight
- Sculpey Clay Softener
- Fimo Soft
- Fimo Classic
- Doll (Puppen) Fimo
- Fimo Liquid (Deko Gel)
- Fimo Lacquer
- Fimo Effects
- Fimo Mix Quick
- Kato Polyclay
- Kato Liquid Polyclay
- Prosculpt Clay
- Prosculpt Smoothing Oil
Other Brands: Cernit, Pardo
Which Brand Should I Choose?
Most polymer clays are good for sculpting so it's mostly a personal choice as to which one you use.
Clays that work well for sculpting include Super Sculpey, Super Sculpey Firm, Premo! Sculpey, Fimo Classic, Puppen Fimo, Prosculpt, and Kato Clay. Generally you can mix different colors and brands of polymer clay together to get custom mixes.
Clays that don't work particularly well and should be avoided include: Original Sculpey, Sculpey III, and Fimo Soft are not durable enough for sculpture. Specialty clays like Granitex (which has a gritty rock-like texture) and the liquid clays are not for general sculpting but work well for certain effects.
The most important thing to know is...
Anyone can sculpt. How well you sculpt is related to how much time and effort you put into learning and your own creativity.
Is Sculpting in Polymer Clay Different than Sculpting in Other Clays?
The modeling properties of polymer clay are similar to working in oil based plasticine clay. Polymer clays are a little more rubbery and less sticky than plasticine but otherwise you can generally sculpt in polymer clay like you would with oil based clays.
There are a few things with polymer clay that differ from other clays:
Smoothing - Unlike with natural clays polymer clay can't be smoothed with water. Instead isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol at 90% or 70% solution, sculpey clay softener (also called diluent), acetone, or turpenoid can be used for smoothing. Acetone and turpenoid are both highly toxic chemicals so I don't recommend using them but they do work. Always leave a sculpture to dry at least overnight after smoothing before curing the clay.
Leaching and softening - Sometimes polymer clay can be either too soft or too dry, both can be remedied.
If clay is too soft you can leach it, this is done by laying rolled sheets of polymer clay between plain white paper (colored or printed paper will transfer ink to the clay), stacking books or other heavy objects on top, and leaving it for several hours or overnight. The paper absorbs the excess plasticizers in the clay firming it up.
If clay is too dry you can mix a few drops of sculpey clay softener (diluent) or a small piece of fimo mix quick into the clay. This will soften the clay by adding more plasticizers.
Basic Polymer Clay Safety
Sculpting tools should be dedicated to clay work and should never be used for food afterwards. That includes rolling pins, baking sheets, and knives. I also recommend using a dedicated toaster oven and if you must use your kitchen oven (say for sculpts that don't fit in the toaster oven) you should either clean it afterwards or enclose your sculpt in a roasting bag/aluminum foil.
Clean your oven thoroughly after baking polymer clay unless it is dedicated to polymer clay use or if clay was baked in a sealed container like a roasting bag.
Follow common sense when handling sharp or hot objects. Always wear safety glasses if using a powertool such as a dremel.
Polymer clays are certified non-toxic but there is some controversy over the presence of pthalates in polymer clay. The jury is still about on how harmful the pthalates used in polymer clay really are but they are in some polymer clays to make them more pliable. These chemicals can enter your skin while you are handling the raw clay (however no evidence exists that these chemicals can leach from cured clay into skin). If you are worried about it you should wear latex or nitrile gloves, barrier creams may also work.
Due to concerns about pthalates and new European Union regulations most polymer clays will be changing their formulas within the next couple years. Kato Clay will be the first rolling out the new formula in the US. Read more about it from Katherine Dewey.
Beginner's Tool Set
My recommendations for a very basic tool set to start with. You can then build on this set either buying or making more tools as you go.
Polymer clay isn't as messy as some clays but it can make a mess and it can damage wood furniture so you need a dedicated work surface for sculpting. Good options are:
Glass - This can be a plain sheet of glass (put masking tape on the edges if they're sharp) or a glass cutting board. I even found an old round glass table top that was going to be thrown out that works great. One of the benefits of glass is that you can slip reference diagrams and photos under it.
Craft Mat - Self healing craft mats are typically sold for scrapbooking or quilting but they also make good surfaces for clay. They usually also have a measured grid that can be useful.
I recommend a good sharp craft knife such as those by x-acto. A dull knife will work but you won't get good crisp edges.
This can be a rolling pin, acrylic roller, heavy drinking glass, or a pasta machine. Anything that works to roll out sheets of clay.
Simple Modeling Tools
You can get a basic set of 6 wooden sculpting tools at just about any art store. Get the wooden ones, they aren't much more than the plastic sets and they work much better.
Loop tools are for removing fine bits of clay from your sculpts. You can buy these at an art store or make them with dowels, music wire (like from guitar strings), and glue. See my Polymer Clay Sculpting Tools lens for more about making tools.
Needle tools are exactly what they sound like, a needle-like metal spike on a wooden handle. They are useful for scribing lines and poking holes in clay. You can buy one from an art store or make one using a dowel and a heavy tapestry needle.
I use a small toolbox for my sculpting tools but a desk drawer, pencil box, shoe box, etc. all work well for keeping tools organized and in one place.
What is an Armature?
The armature is the skeleton of your sculpture. It's an internal structure that gives added strength and support your sculpture to keep it from breaking and also reduces the amount of clay you need to use. Armatures can be made from a variety of materials such as wire, crumpled up aluminum foil, sculpting epoxy such as Aves ApoxieSculpt, Sculpey Ultralight clay, or a combination of materials.
Do I need an armature?
If you are doing any complex figure with thin extremities such as arms, legs, tails, etc. or a large figure you need an armature. The reason large figures need armatures is that any layer of polymer clay thicker than 1/2 inch is difficult to cure thoroughly and evenly so a large sculpture should be bulked out with some other material such as aluminum foil or epoxy.
The Basic Techniques of Sculpting in Clay
There are three general techniques for sculpting in clay which all other techniques fall under. These are my own terms.
This is adding clay to your sculpture. Taking little bits, they can be balls, snakes, sheets, chunks, etc. You layer pieces onto your sculpture until you get the rough shape you want.
This is taking your fingers and/or sculpting tools and pushing, pulling, blending, raking, and otherwise moving the clay around to refine the shapes of your sculpture.
Taking away clay, carving it, removing sometimes tiny slivers to refine shapes or add texture.
Isn't there more to it?
Of course there is. There are hundreds of things to learn about sculpting specific subjects from people to animals to fabric. However no matter what you sculpt you are going to be using these basic ideas of adding, subtracting, and pushing around clay and there is no way for me to teach you to do this in an article, it requires getting your hands in the clay, playing with it, practicing creating shapes and textures to figure out what works for you.
You have to practice constantly to improve your ability to shape clay, the same way a musician practices playing scales. Its not because a scale is a piece of music anyone wants to listen to but because it's a basic skill that improves their ability to play.
Don't imagine I think learning things like proper anatomy, studying your subjects, etc. aren't important. They are vital skills themselves but no amount of knowledge of anatomy is going to help if you don't have the skill to translate that anatomy into the clay.
What Do I Do When I've Finished My Sculpture?
Polymer clay never dries out, in order to harden your sculpture it needs to be cured. Polymer clay cures at a fairly low temperature of around 275Â°F (135Â°C) generally in a conventional or toaster oven. I recommend the ramp method of curing sculpture which can be found on my Techniques for Curing Polymer Clay lens.
After your sculpture has cured you can choose to either leave it the color of the clay or paint it. There are many techniques you can use for painting polymer clay sculpture from light washes of color, to brushing thicker paint on, sponge painting, airbrushing, liquid polymer clays, applying soft pastels, or mica powders. My lens on Painting Polymer Clay Sculptures goes over the most common techniques.
Avoid lacquer based enamel paints, they will not dry properly on polymer clay and remain sticky. Acrylics work best, oil paints especially heat set oils are also effective.
Feedback? Comments? Questions?
matt-werner-75 on February 18, 2014:
Your thoughtful and extensive tutorials are the best I have found on the net. Great information, well presented, orderly and concise. Thank you so much, it means a lot to me to be able to
RussnJo on October 27, 2013:
I enjoy working with polymer clay, and have wanted to branch out with sculpting, you've given some really great information here.
GreenfireWiseWo on August 24, 2013:
Wonderful ideas and information. Thank you.
seodress on July 12, 2013:
Informative and helpful.
tfsherman lm on March 21, 2013:
Thanks a lot for this starter info, just what I needed.
justramblin on October 31, 2012:
I love polymer clay. Didn't know about putting clay in roasting bag before placing in oven. good tip. Thanks
Thomo85 on August 05, 2012:
Hi your lenses are extremely informative, excellent content, would love your opinion on my lens and my most recent polymer clay project, the spider.
CatJGB on July 25, 2012:
We have both regular clay and polymer clay, and the kids use both for different purposes. When I want less mess because we have limited time.....ie when they HAVE to make themselves a Ben 10 figure before school....polymer clay rules the roost.
Carmen Perdomo on June 04, 2012:
Loved the article, however, I'd gave up polymer clay for earth-based clay, time and time again. I see the benefits of working with polymer clay, but terracotta is much easier to work with and it give me more peace of mind (less to worry about).
anonymous on May 24, 2012:
I am a beginning artist and thought this was a great lens with great explanations. Thanks!
Kathleen Hiler on April 16, 2012:
Very informative lens :) I made several sets of flower faces with ribbons and beads on them..floral stemmed and wrapped in the greenfloral tape..put them into painted watering cans..was great fun and ended up selling one of the sets;0
anonymous on April 15, 2012:
@Sheryl Westleigh: I just dug my daughters old fimo clay out of the attic, and it is dried out. I tried to soften it with water, which did soften it, but, it still crumbles. What if anything can I use to make this clay plyable again. I want to use it to practice making pieces for jewelry. Any help will be greatly appreciated.
Sheryl Westleigh (author) from Maine on February 21, 2012:
@anonymous: I disagree, polymer clay isn't water based so it doesn't really dry out. I suppose you could leave it out long enough for the clay to lose a lot of the plasticizers in it but it would take a long time. I've left pieces out unbaked for weeks while I work on it. You should cover it with plastic though so you don't get dust or pet hair on it.
anonymous on February 18, 2012:
@anonymous: Well clay takes many days before drying and many months before completely crumbling. What you can also do is cook a part and then add clay onto it and cook it again. So you don't have to worry about it drying in on you. It also helps if you put your project(if small)in a plastic bag to keep it soft and pliable. I hope I helped you out and good luck with whatever you are making.
anonymous on January 24, 2012:
How long can you work on/ leave a clay project before baking.
anonymous on January 24, 2012:
When working on a clay project how long can you leave it before it gets to hard to work with again? Is it something that once you start you must finish to bake?
Ann Hinds from So Cal on January 21, 2012:
I can't find what I want to decorate cigar boxes in shabby chic. I ran across polymer clay and then remembered that I had also seen it on Squidoo. This is very helpful and now I am ready to move on to your other lenses. I want to make cameo frames and buttons. Angel blessed for the very clear and concise information.
anonymous on January 14, 2012:
Hi, I just came across this article or, lens, while searching the internet for instructions on sculpting with polymer clay. Thanks so much for the info! I began "reborning " dolls about 5 months ago, and although I haven't perfected the art, I fell in love with it, but really ,really, want to learn how to sculpt a baby! The main reason being, I love painting all these details, but I would really love to create all the features also. Sorry, I'm rambling :) Anyhow, thanks again :)
anonymous on January 09, 2012:
thanks so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience! This lens is great help to me as I'm just starting to get into working with clays :) god bless you!
crstnblue on November 07, 2011:
Informative lens - it would be a nice experience to let lose one day and be creative with polymer clay :)
gottaloveit2 on July 30, 2011:
I used to use polymer clay to jazz up the bottom of wine glasses or vinegar bottles. Nice lens.
Jen from Canada on June 03, 2011:
Great information on working with Polymer Clay. I'm just learning about the medium, so this was extremely helpful.
ludyshubs on May 07, 2011:
I am glad I found this lens. I will be back. It contains very useful information.
John Dyhouse from UK on April 09, 2011:
I would love to try sculpting, this lens may just be the thing to get me to stat actually doing something about it.
durtydog on March 15, 2011:
Do you know of any workshops or instruction books using polymer clay with metal clay?
anonymous on January 25, 2011:
this is an immensely interesting & helpful site. Thank you.
irenemaria from Sweden on October 17, 2010:
I would just love to try!
Sheryl Westleigh (author) from Maine on March 04, 2010:
@anonymous: Polymer clay should work fine for that, you will want to build a good armature (I'd go with steel or brass rods instead of wire if you want the joint to move) and bulk up the form of the bones with aluminum foil or sculpey ultralight. If you want a static knew joint you can sculpt the tendons and ligaments in polymer clay as well with wire support inside.
If you need it to be a working joint I'd consider using large stretchy rubber bands or tubing, say like the kind used for resistance exercise. You can find those cheap at walmart and cut them up using screws to attach them to the sculpted bones. Use the stretchiest ones you can, too stiff and the tension could crack the clay where you've secured it
anonymous on March 03, 2010:
hello, i am doing a project where i have to create a model of the knee joint. which type of clay would work best? also, any ideas for what i can use for ligaments, tendons etc.?
anonymous on January 22, 2010:
Santa brought me some clay and a pasta machine, been wanting to sculpt for quite a while! I will surely refer to this great lens for much needed help and advice, thanks for a super lens!
Sheryl Westleigh (author) from Maine on January 07, 2010:
@anonymous: Polymer clay is ideal for small figures, it's quite lightweight. You do want to use a wire armature for some added support inside.
anonymous on January 07, 2010:
I have longed to make a nativity scene. I am an amateur, but love to sculpt. I have only done the lost wax method, then bronze. I need a lighter medium as the scene would have approx. 3' high figures. Have not figured out what medium for the bodies. They can't be too heavy. I found this sight very informative and would love to hear any comments.
PKsToy on November 16, 2009:
Very informative. I'm a real green horn when it comes to this medium, but so love it. I love wire work and want to incorporate the two. Your words are so on it's mark. Mahalo.
dustytoes on June 07, 2009:
Your lenses have caused me to want to try my hand at this. I'll be referencing your lenses for answers to my many questions...great job!
anonymous on April 16, 2009:
Lots of great info. I make many figures out of clay but needed certain tips and got them here. thanx.
anonymous on April 02, 2009:
Thanks so much for the concise info -- the best on the web
anonymous on February 23, 2009:
Thank you so much for taking the time to write about the basics of polymer clay. I'm just
getting started. I have Premo in hand as I type (well, I put it down to type). I'm excited to
try this fascinating art form!
anonymous on January 31, 2009:
Thank you so much, this is wonderful !!
sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on December 26, 2008:
really a great lens with good information, nice tips and valuable guidance. thks
Delia on November 02, 2008:
great lens! years ago i made jewelry from polymer clay, I enjoyed it but was time consuming for me...too many interests I can't keep up with....5*
anonymous on October 08, 2008:
Thank you so much for this lens. I am a beginner and have found this information invaluable in helping me get started. Thanks!
anonymous on September 27, 2008:
Hi Sheryl, you're a resourceful creature indeed! I like the way you put things together here and on your site...I found you thru the ooak guild, XRuth
WritingforYourW on September 14, 2008:
Looks like a fun hobby to try. Great information!
Kiwisoutback from Massachusetts on August 19, 2008:
I sculpted some things in high school, I'm a much better painter though. It's really difficult for me, but you've made some excelllent suggestions. Nice work here on this lens!
The Homeopath on August 08, 2008:
I'm not very talented in the sculptin department, but I have made some 1/12 scale butterflies for my dollhouse - they came out very well. Polymer clay has been an absolute godsend to the miniatures community.
Teacher Adez7 on August 03, 2008:
Hi Noadi, Found this lens on Stumble and I just love it. So here is my two cents and my star dust to help it along its path~~! :)
Tony Payne from Southampton, UK on July 30, 2008:
This is a really nice detailed lens. 5***** well deserved. I always wanted to work with clay, just never had the chance, and I'm not that artistic either.
Ruth Coffee from Zionsville, Indiana on July 26, 2008:
Interesting, certainly easy to understand. Now all I need is eye hand coordination and like 40 billion hours of practice. You have impressive work!