I’ve been working with polymer clay for over thirty years now. I’ve learned a few things in these first 30 years and I’d like to share some information with you about work surfaces and baking tips.
I have a beautiful studio in our home that has everything I need. But I realize that having a permanent studio might not be where you’re at. You might need to set up and tear down a creative space from time to time and need surfaces that can be quickly adjusted to your environment. Since oven bake polymer clays do have some restrictions as to what they come into contact with, having a polymer compatible surface is really key.
My favorite surface of all time is laminate countertops. My home studio has lots and lots of laminate countertops and I love them because laminate is absolutely worry-free when it comes to polymer. They can be wiped down with paper towels, wipes, or even stronger cleaners like 409 to keep them looking new. Polymer clay has no effect on them whatsoever. Plasticizers don’t change the surfaces at all. Even acrylic paints, permanent marker, mica powders, rubbing alcohol, and Liquid Sculpey do not damage these countertops. If you would like to try a piece of laminate but don’t have room for a whole countertop, you can often times find a small piece at one of the DIY stores. If the DIY store is making a counter with a sink cut out, you might be able to purchase just the piece of laminate that is removed for the position of the sink. I suggest talking to someone in the countertop order department and see if they have a suggestion about how you can get your hands on a piece of laminate. I have several of these large pieces that I used many years ago to put up a make shift studio in any room I wanted. Then the laminate piece could be stored flat under a sofa or stored vertically between the cabinet and my fridge in the kitchen.
I also like laminate for it’s sticking quality. If I want an item to stick down to my work surface, for example when I’m texturing, it’s very easy to make the clay stick down with pressure. But it can also be easily removed and repositioned with an artist’s spatula or your blade.
Silicone Work and Bake Mats
Silicone mats are also extremely handy. They come rolled up and you just unroll them and lay them into place. The ones that Sculpey® makes have a non-skid backing that keeps them from sliding around as you work on them. The silicone is unaffected by plasticizers so you can work on them over and over. These mats can be placed on any level surface and you have an instant workplace. When the project is finished, you can also use them to line your baking pan to protect your pans. Sometimes when I have lots of different projects going, I use silicone mats to stay organized. I use one mat per project and that way if I need to switch out what’s in front of me, I can just lift the whole mat with a project on it and trade it for a different one .
I also use silicone mats under my pasta machine to protect that part of my work space. My pasta machine is on a rolling cart that has a wooden butcher block top. I want the butcher block to stay as nice as possible, so I placed silicone mats on top of it then mounted my pasta machine right on top of them. And here’s a bonus tip. To keep my pasta machine secure, I have double mounted it to the butcher block with industrial style clamps.
When I travel to retreats, I bring lots of silicone mats along. They travel easily because they are so thin and flexible. They are easy to put into place and just as easy to remove. And they protect whatever surface they are placed on from blades and clay.
Later this week I’ll be teaching a women’s group of eight ladies. I will bring one silicone mat for each person to use as their work surface. We will be setting up in a location where I’ve never taught before. But no worries what types of table are there. I can protect the tables and provide a polymer compatible work surface for each student easily and quickly with the silicone mats.
Deli sheets are thin papers that you can buy in large quantities at your local club stores. I keep a box handy for lots of reasons. If I have a clay project that I turn frequently when I’m working on it, a deli sheet underneath will make the piece easy to turn.
I use deli sheets for burnishing veneers together too. Just lay a deli sheet over the clay and use your favorite burnishing tool to smooth the seams together. Even finger buffing over a deli sheet will remove a lot of fingerprints and inconsistencies in the surface of the clay.
If I’m doing a terrazzo project that involves chopping clay up into tiny bits; doing the chopping on top of a deli sheet keeps the pieces all together and organized.
In the case of a large piece of clay that you don’t want stuck to your work surface, a deli sheet can be used as a barrier. When you are ready to reposition the clay piece, just lift it up and the deli sheet peals easily from the back.
I also use them to line my photo booth so that raw pieces of clay don’t stain my background. The deli sheets placed on top of solid white paper in my photo booth are not even noticeable but they keep the clay from marking my nice white background. There are so many uses for these inexpensive sheets that I now keep them in two sizes: 4” square and 8” square.
Glass Work Surfaces
Lots of artists like to use glass work surfaces. They are easy to clean, easy to find, and work well with oven bake polymer clays. I do have one glass work surface that I use more often when I’m traveling than I do at home because it is very small and easy to pack. This glass work surface is marked out with rulers in two directions which is very handy. It’s also tempered so in a pinch, I can use it as a baking surface.
Glass is also very handy for tracing Liquid Sculpey projects onto. In fact, if you are making window clings with Liquid Sculpey you will want to make them on glass so that they will be smooth enough to stick to windows when they are done.
Another glass like surface is a large ceramic tile. These too are easy to get and not too bulky to move around. Some artists prefer glass or tile as a work surface because they can help keep clay cooler if the artists has rather hot hands. They can also go directly into the oven with your project. In fact, at lots of retreats, small tiles are used as baking surfaces, because several can be placed in the oven at one time.
There are lots of things you can bake your polymer projects on. I keep my baking pans lined with silicone baking mats. This protects my pans from wet Liquid Sculpey® and from the other things I use with polymer like paint, powders, glitters, and alcohol inks.
You can bake on index cards. Index cards work well if you are in an environment where lots of people are going to be baking pieces together in shared ovens. The cards are easy to write names on making baked pieces identifiable. They are also very small which means many people can bake at once.
If you have pieces that are curved, you can bake on a piece of batting like the one that comes in the Sculpey Bead Making Kit. The batting will keep your piece off of the pan and allow the curves to stay curved and not flatten out like they would if they were laying directly on the hot pan.
For bead making, the Bead Baking Rack is very important. It keeps beads suspended on skewers during the baking process. Inconsistent shiny spots can be seen on beads that have been baked directly on a flat baking pan, glass, or tile.
Metal, glass, and even wood can be used as forms for baking clay on. It’s especially important to have these types of forms if you want to make curved pieces like bowls. I use metal bowls all the time to form my bowl shapes over. Be sure that when using a large form like the one shown that you place the rack lower in your oven, so the clay is not close to the top baking element. Here’s a look at one of my ovens. I have more than one because I bake almost every day. I have one oven dedicated to solid oven bake clays like Premo, Soufflé, and Sculpey III. And I have a second oven in my garage that is dedicated to Liquid Sculpey. Both ovens are Bake/Convection style models with built in timers. I’ve placed an oven thermometer inside the oven and it lives in there permanently. That way if there is ever any question about the temperature, I can easily double check it with the thermometer inside. The racks are positionable and here you can see that I have lowered the baking rack so that the piece of clay on the top of the curved bowl form is still a couple of inches away from the top heating element. The Hollow Bead Maker is the perfect baking tray for making lots of small curved pieces. Pieces can be assembled directly on the Hollow Bead Maker and the whole thing placed directly into the oven.
I’ve covered Surfaces and Baking Surfaces from my perspective. I know there are probably lots more possibilities for making and curing oven bake polymer clays but I’m most comfortable talking about the ones I use most in my studio. In my next Blog Post I’ll be talking about “Getting Started in Polymer Clay”. I’ll reach way back in my 30 year history with this fantastic medium and try to pull some nuggets out that will encourage you on your creative journey and also try to help you not make the same mistakes I did as a beginner.
Having fun rolling clay!