13 things you should know about working with polymer clay

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Anyone who enjoys any creative endeavor — whether that’s painting, writing, dancing or sculpting with clay — knows there’s no such thing as achieving perfection. No matter how much we practice, we’ll never get to a place where we know everything and all our creations are perfect. There is always more to learn, and the best creators are the ones who are willing to continue learning new techniques, skills and perspectives.

Whether you’re new to crafting with clay and are just working your way through some basic techniques, or you’re a skilled sculptor with years of experience behind you, we think there’s plenty of tips and tricks to learn. Our list of top tips about working with polymer clay will help you do just that.

Top 13 Things to Know About Working With Clay

Depending on how much experience you have, you may be familiar with some of these ideas, but we’re willing to bet there are a few nuggets of advice here that will benefit everyone, no matter where they are on their creative journey. Here are our top 13 polymer clay tips to help you take your sculpting skills to the next level.

1. Don’t Buy Everything at First

If you look at any store or website that sells clay sculpting supplies, you will quickly get the impression that there are dozens of tools you need to begin learning this craft seriously. The number of different tools out there can feel overwhelming at first, and you can easily start to believe that unless you have every gadget on the shelf, you’ll never be able to sculpt anything.

This idea is completely false. When you’re first beginning to practice sculpting, don’t be afraid to keep things simple. Buy the basic tools first, like this Sculpey 5-in-1 tool, and begin practicing fundamental techniques.

From there, you can buy new tools on an as-needed basis. For example, if you’re embarking on a new project that requires a specific tool, like these Sculpey Texture Wheels, then that’s the perfect time to head out and buy it. Or, if there’s a device you’ve been interested in experimenting with for a while, you should feel free to explore it. But starting out with a mountain of unfamiliar tools before you even learn the basics will do little but overwhelm you.

2. Clean up After You’re Done

If you have even the slightest experience with working with polymer clay, then you know all about the residue it can leave on your skin. After working through your clay, some color residue can linger on your hands and fingers — if you’re working with multiple colors of clay in your project, you’ll want to make sure you stay clean. By cleaning your hands after handling one color and before moving on to the next, you’ll reduce the chance for any accidental mixtures or transferring of colors.

clean up after you're done working with clay

One of our best Sculpey clay tips is to thoroughly wipe your hands with baby wipes or sanitizing wipes, as these are soft and gentle on your skin while effectively cleaning. If you don’t have any wipes on hand, a squirt of hand sanitizer or even a soap wash can clean you up in a pinch!

3. Make Cornstarch Your Friend

If you have yet to discover the power of cornstarch as it relates to your sculpting, then we think this tip just might be life-changing. You can use this substance in your sculpting in multiple ways. For example, did you know cornstarch serves as an excellent mold release for your texture sheets and molds? Most flexible molds will release your clay quite easily, but for those trustworthy molds you use again and again, your clay may become a little resistant. Sprinkle a bit of cornstarch over the mold and the active ingredients can help release your clay creation.

4. Preheat Your Oven

Just as preheating your oven is a crucial step when baking food, it too is an essential step when baking clay. An oven that’s shifting from its cold resting temperature to its fully heated state doesn’t always heat up evenly. Instead, the temperature will often spike at rapid levels, rarely staying at the same temperature for longer than a few seconds.

If you put your clay in an oven that’s still heating up, the clay will likely burn due to spiking and uneven temperatures. Perhaps the entire piece will burn, or you may have a situation where half the piece burns while the other half remains spongy and runny. Instead, take time to preheat the oven before you put in the clay. This method ensures the clay bakes evenly and steadily.

5. Invest in an Oven Thermometer

You might think you can get along without an oven thermometer. After all, you can just as easily estimate the oven temperature for yourself, right? And if it’s a few degrees off, maybe it’s close enough? As it turns out, neither of these statements are true. Just a few degrees can mean the difference between a sculpture that comes out scorched and one that comes out spongy. Accuracy is extremely important when it comes to baking your clay, and you don’t want to risk ruining your creations. We recommend getting an oven thermometer to avoid this disappointing outcome.

6. Skip the Sharpies

Sharpies are a terrific crafting tool in many circumstances. Long-lasting and available in a rainbow of colors, they’re seemingly perfect for every situation. One situation where they won’t fare quite so well, however, is when you use them on polymer clay. Because the ink of a Sharpie marker is solvent-based, it won’t react well with the clay. Over time, the ink will bleed into the clay and blur, turning once-sharp designs into blurry, faded-out smudges.

Rather than using Sharpies, choose pigment-based markers. These will last much longer and maintain their original lines without blurring or fading.

7. Be Careful With Accents and Glazes

We all want our clay creations to look as beautiful and polished as possible. For some of us, it may seem like an easy solution to use common household items or craft supplies to add a little extra pizzazz to your sculptures. Nail polish is a common solution many people use to paint or accent their sculptures, but we strongly recommend against this. The solvents in nail polish can soften and dissolve polymer clay, making it gooey, sticky and even runny.

Varnishes and spray paints that seem like they would be safe for clay are also detrimental to your sculptures and will break down the quality of the clay. Solvent-based paints are not a great idea, as they will take a very long time to dry and may never fully do so, due to their incompatibility with the clay. A good rule of thumb to remember is that unless the paint, varnish or stain is specifically intended for clay, or you’ve found research that confirms its use won’t harm the clay, don’t use it.

8. Play Around With Your Clay’s Texture

Did you know you can change the texture of your clay? If you find your clay is either too soft and mushy or too hard and brittle, both states are easy enough to change if you understand the process.

play around with your clay's texture

For clay that’s too hard, you can soften it by mixing in a small amount of liquid polymer clay or other products specifically marketed as clay softeners. Be careful not to use too much, or you’ll quickly have the opposite problem, as the clay becomes too wet. Mix the clay and the liquid as much as possible before letting it sit for a few days — this allows the liquid to disperse throughout the clay until it’s softened and easier to work with.

You can also harden soft clay using a process called leaching. Leaching involves sandwiching sheets of clay between ordinary paper and placing a heavy book on top. Leave this to sit for a few hours, checking every so often to see how the texture is changing. This process works because it causes the clay’s natural plasticizer to disperse into the paper, which, in turn, helps the clay harden.

9. Stock up on Ziploc Baggies

Because polymer clay reacts with and even dissolves many different types of plastics, it can be tricky to know where to store this clay between uses. The good news is that a plain old Ziploc sandwich bag will do the job perfectly. Not only is this plastic safe to use with clay, but the baggies also do an excellent job of keeping dust and dirt off the clay while you store it. Ziploc bags are easy to label with pens and markers, making it easier for you to remember exactly what you have stored inside.

At Sculpey, we recommend using containers or bags that are specifically made from polypropylene plastic. The best way to identify if a plastic product is safe to use for storing clay? Check the bottom of the container — if the triangular recycling symbol contains the number 5, it can safely store your clay.

10. Keep Your White Clay Clean and Fresh

The difficulty with using white Sculpey clay in your projects is that it’s tricky to keep clean. It’s extremely easy for clay to pick up tiny particles of dirt, fuzz or grime, and while darker shades of clay hide these particles so well that you may not even notice them, white clay doesn’t let you off the hook so easily. White clay displays every tiny speck there is to see, and unless you manage to keep the clay absolutely pristine, these spots and specks can become glaringly obvious.

To fix this problem, use a spare scrap of white clay that is the same type of clay you’re using for your project. Before you begin handling the project clay, roll this scrap around in your hand so it can pick up any dirt that may be on your hands. Then, before you place the project clay on your work surface, roll your scrap clay around to pick up any pieces of fuzz or dust. Finally, before you use tools like a pasta maker with your project clay, run the scrap through it to pick up any stray contaminants.

11. Use Crumpled Aluminum Foil as Your Core

If you’re building a solid figure, bead or shape out of clay, it’s easy to underestimate how much clay that will require. For a shape to be solid all the way through, you’ll use tons of clay, which makes your endeavor expensive and also causes the sculpture to be very heavy. An easy way to cut down on both the amount of clay you’ll use and the final weight is to avoid making it solid all the way through.

Instead, crumple up some aluminum foil and use it as the core. Cover the outside in clay, sculpt it into the design you want and then bake it just as you normally would. From the outside, no one will ever know the difference, and you’ll have saved clay in the meantime.

12. Avoid Bubbles in Your Clay

It’s common to find bubbles popping up in your clay after you’ve run it through a pasta machine. While this is a problem many crafters run into, the good news is that it’s also easily solvable. It all has to do with the way you feed your clay through the machine.

avoid bubbles in your clay

When you fold your clay to put it through the machine, look at the shape your fold has made. At one end, the clay is folded over itself. At the other end, you have the two edges lying one on top of the other. If you put the end with the two edges through the machine first, you’ll almost certainly get bubbles. To avoid bubbles, flip the shape around and put the folded end in first. This pushes any potential bubbles out toward the flat edges, where they dissipate without forming in the clay.

13. Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things

No matter where we are in our creative journeys — whether we’re just beginning or we’re well on our way — there often comes the temptation to sit back and be complacent. Maybe we have a few techniques we excel at, and we feel comfortable there. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the areas where you excel, there’s a greater reward to be gained from exploring new techniques as well. Not only will you learn a new skill, but you’ll also have the satisfaction of stretching yourself, and you’ll experience personal and artistic growth from the experience!

The next time you begin to feel too settled as an artist, look to see what boundaries you can push. What new skill can you experiment with? How can you challenge and push yourself toward that next level?

Shop Clay and Sculpting Tools Today

Without overwhelming yourself at the beginning of your sculpting journey by purchasing tons of tools, you’ll still want to find a place for shopping. You’ll need the essentials, as well as plenty of clay to experiment with and begin practicing. If you already have a bit of experience working with Sculpey clay, then maybe it’s time to take that next step and try a more specialized tool!

shop clay and sculpting tools with sculpey

So why wait? Shop our clay, tools and accessories today. Here at Sculpey, we’re also a community of sculptors, crafters and artists who love sharing inspiration and ideas. To learn more about us, our clay and the world of sculpting, check out our FAQ section. Don’t forget to browse our site for more sculpting inspiration, too!