beginners guide to sculpting clay

Do you want to learn how to sculpt clay but aren't sure where to begin? If you're new to the medium, we've got you covered! This beginner's guide to clay sculpting will walk you through different clay types and techniques to set you up for at-home crafting success.

Ignite your creativity and learn how to sculpt clay with confidence — even with zero experience — using the following tips and tools. You'll be making crafts, jewelry and handcrafted treasures in no time!

What Is Sculpting Clay?

Before you dive into sculpting, let's discuss the differences among clay types.

  • Oil-based modeling clay: Oil-based clays,made from oils, minerals and waxes, won't dry out like water-based options. This material can be tricky for beginners, as it requires heat to soften and mold. A favorite tool among special effects artists, oil-based clay remains workable for long periods but does not harden, making it unsuitable for finished craft projects.
  • Water-based modeling clay: Originally developed for Disney's animatronics models, water-based WED (Walter E. Disney) clay is another material used by entertainment professionals for animation, masks and more. Designed for fast sculpts to make molds, WED clay must stay moist and does not allow for firing. 
  • Water-based ceramic "firing" clay: If you like to create household ceramics, pottery and earthenware, you can shape these water-based clays by hand or throw them on a potter's wheel and fire them at high temperatures in a kiln to cure.
  • Polymer clay: Perfect for crafting projects, polymer clay has a synthetic plastic polyvinyl chloride base and comes in a wide range of colors. Polymer clay remains soft and pliable and won't dry out. You can bake polymer clays in a conventional oven.

Which Type of Clay Is Easiest to Use at Home?

If you want to practice sculpting techniques, soft water-based clays are an excellent beginner option. First-time clayers can effortlessly build simple forms using hand-building and simple tools, and you can quickly clean up with soap and water. 

Polymer clays are the most versatile options for at-home crafters. You'll love that you can bake polymer clay in a household oven or toaster oven so you can make cured, usable pieces at home. 

Sculpey® has polymer clays available for every skill level. For the starter sculptor, try these beginner-friendly products.

  • Sculpey Bake Shop: Make keychains, trinkets and more with the super-soft Sculpey Bake Shop®
  • Sculpey III: Easy-to-knead Sculpey III® captures fine details and is available in bright colors, pastels and even metallics, so you can make accessories to match every outfit!
  • Original Sculpey: Available in granite, white or terra-cotta finishes, Original Sculpey® looks and feels like ceramic clay, perfect for bowls and dishes to decorate your home.
versatile polymer clay

What Tools Do You Need?

You can use household items to roll, cut, shape and texture clay, like kitchen and utility knives, crunched aluminum foil, old toothbrushes and toothpicks. Make sculpting even easier with these tools designed to simplify and improve your process.

  • Rollers: The Rolling Tool from our Sculpey Tools™ Essential Tool Kit rolls out level, flat sheets of clay.
  • Blades: The dual-handled Sculpey Tools™ Clay Blades make straight, curved or decorative cuts and edging. 
  • Needle tool: The Needle End Pointer from our Sculpey Tools™ Clay Tool Starter Set adds tiny details and pierces holes in small crafts like beads, earrings and ornaments.
  • Ball stylus: Use the Ball End embossing tool from our Sculpey Tools™ 5-in-1 Clay Tool set to create a dimpled texture or smooth ridgelines without dragging the clay.
  • Shaper: Do you need to connect two clay pieces, like adding a nose to a figure's face? Use a Flexible Tip Shaper from our Sculpey Tools™ Dual End Detail Tools to blend and smooth seams without leaving a mark.
  • Shape cutters: From stars to circles, making precise shapes is as easy as rolling and cutting sugar cookies with our versatile clay cutters.
  • Sandpaper: Replicate natural textures like skin, grass and stone using the Sculpey Tools™ Sandpaper Variety Pack.
  • Tweezers: Jewelry tweezers can pick up and precisely place clay pieces that are too small to move with your fingertips.

For polymer clays, you’ll need an oven, oven thermometer and the Sculpey Tools™ Oven-Safe Work Mat to bake your clay safely.

How to Set up Your Workspace

Enjoy crafting more by setting up an organized workspace. A clutter-free work area decreases anxietyboosts creative focus and saves you time because you'll know where all your tools and materials are before you begin.

Comfort is crucial, since working with clay can take several hours. Use an ergonomic chair and table set to an enjoyable height to prevent hunching. Add bright lamps or set up near a window for access to natural light so you can see fine clay details.

Clays can stain some furniture surfaces, so protect your work area with a Sculpey Tools™ Oven-Safe Work Mat, aluminum foil, parchment paper, metal, ceramic tile, granite, glass, lucite or marble. Store tools within reach in your favorite mug, or add shelving above your table so you can grab items with ease. 

How to Sculpt Clay: 8 Easy Tips for Beginners

Welcome, new clayer! Now that your workspace is ready, it's time for the fun part — sculpting! These tips will teach you how to bring your idea to life, from initial concept to finished piece.

  1. Envision the completed piece: Before you start, draw several design sketches of how you imagine the final product to look from various angles for reference. 
  2. Test clay for usability: If you're using water-based clay, test the wetness to ensure its moldability. For polymer clay, pull off a small piece and roll it to test its flexibility.
  3. Condition your clay: Knead and warm up the clay to prepare it for use. Conditioned clay prevents breakage and creates a more durable finished product. Ideal for clayers who may have limited hand dexterity or wish to condition larger amounts of clay, the Sculpey Tools™ Clay Conditioning Machine quickly produces even, flat sheets of polymer clay.
  4. Experiment and practice: Get a feel for how different tools affect the material. Practice cutting, poking and dragging tools across a sheet of clay. Experiment with techniques to learn how to build up clay, connect pieces and add details.
  5. Start with simple, contained shapes: More advanced sculptors make clay figures with extended limbs by adding clay to armatures — metal wire structures that support the clay's weight. Before attempting a complex figurine that requires balance and support, begin with simpler projects. Once you've had time to practice basic techniques, you can apply those skills to armatured creations.
  6. Pick an easy starter project: Numerous first-time clay projects are beautiful and easy to make! Flat-backed relief sculptures only have details on the front side, reducing the need to accommodate weight or balance. Recommended beginner projects include earringsmarbled beads, magic wands, keychains, vases and ring dishes.
  7. Follow instructions: When you finish sculpting, bake your clay according to the manufacturer's instructions. Various materials require different temperatures and baking times. Use an oven thermometer to ensure the temperature is accurate.
  8. Have fun: Imperfections are OK! Remember, all artists and crafters improve and grow by learning from mistakes. Working with clay is supposed to be a relaxing, fun experience that inspires you and awakens your imagination. Experiment with different tools, techniques and materials, and don't be afraid to play!

Start Sculpting in Clay Using Tips and Tools From Sculpey®

For more than 50 years, Sculpey® has helped hobbyists, crafters and sculptors learn how to bring their ideas to life in clay. We've designed our tools and resources to work with polymer clay, so even with zero experience, you can create unique jewelry, keepsakes and more! 

We'll supply the tools if you bring your creativity! Explore our wide selection of innovative clay tools to cut, score, texture and blend your clay creations, and visit our how-to page to discover how to use them to make incredible crafts.

start sculpting clay