Polymer clay is one of the most versatile craft mediums available to the modern artist. It’s easy to work with, appropriate for all age groups (with adult supervision), available in a rainbow of hues (including a sumptuous array of metallic and pearlescent colors), and can be used to make a wide variety of art-to-wear accessories, jewelry pieces, and embellishments. Before you begin using polymer clay for the first time, there are a few things that you should know.
CHOOSING & STORING POLYMER CLAY
Polymer clays are marketed under so many different brand names—Fimo, Super Sculpey, and Premo, to name a few—and in such a wide variety of colors that choosing your clay for the first time can be a challenge.
My personal favorite is Premo, a Sculpey product, because it’s more malleable that other clays and is available in so many beautiful metallic and pearlescent colors. Some artists prefer Fimo or Fimo Soft to Premo because they like working with stiffer clay. And many clay artists start out with the economical Super Sculpey or Sculpey III.
Always store polymer clay in its original packaging away from direct sunlight, heat and dust. Never leave raw clay in the car on a hot day—after art-supply shopping, for instance— because if it gets warm enough inside your vehicle the clay will bake to rock hardness. Once home, you can wrap your clay in wax paper and store it in a plastic container. Beware that polymer clay reacts adversely to some plastics.
POLYMER CLAY TOOLS & EQUIPMENT
You’ll need just a few basic tools to get started: a smooth work surface (marble, Lucite, glass, Formica), a tissue blade, an oven, some shaping tools, and a rolling pin should suffice. If you work with Fimo, consider investing in a small food processor to precondition the clay (see Conditioning Polymer Clay below).
Opinions are divided over which type of oven is best for baking polymer clay. Most clay artists use an inexpensive toaster oven, but some prefer baking their clay in a convection oven. Casual users often start out using a home oven, but this practice is not recommended (see Safety Guidelines below).
Temperature regulation is critically important when baking polymer clay, and since most toaster ovens “spike” during their heating cycles it’s a good idea to invest in an accurate oven thermometer. If you’re concerned about the costs of toaster ovens and related tools, pick them up used at a yard sale or at your local thrift store.
As you become more experienced, you’ll want to invest in a used hand-crank pasta machine, measuring tools, shape cutters (like miniature cookie cutters), knives, carving and sculpting tools, drills, sandpaper, Lucite brayers, a Kemper clay gun, polishing tools, and push-molds. Many more tools and equipment options are available to you, of course. Half the fun of working with polymer clay is discovering new tools to enhance your designs.
THE FUN STUFF
Additional art materials you may enjoy exploring with polymer clay include gold and silver leaf, metallic foils, acrylic paints, inclusions (embossing powders, glitters, colored sand, Pearl Ex pigments, herbs), armature supplies (such as Magic Mesh, used for sculptures), beads, rubber art stamps, dental tools, needle tools, and plastic texture plates.
CONDITIONING POLYMER CLAY
All types of polymer clay must be conditioned before use, but some require more work than others. The purpose of conditioning the clay is twofold: to soften it and make it more malleable (easier to work with), and to activate the PVC particles, strengthening the clay and making it less likely to crack or break after baking.
Fimo can be very hard and even crumbly, so it may have to be broken up into chunks and then chopped up in a small food processor for a few minutes before running it through a handcrank pasta machine. Softer clays can be conditioned by hand (kneading, rolling, and manipulating it like bread dough), but to speed the process, run it through a pasta machine about 20 times.
Should you accidentally over-condition your clay by too much manipulation, rendering it too soft to work or sculpt, allow it to rest for 20 minutes.
BAKING POLYMER CLAY
Always bake your clay in a well-ventilated room. Working without proper ventilation can give you a headache, and it may even make you feel ill.
Once the oven has been preheated to the correct temperature, place your finished projects inside on a baking sheet lined with cardstock or matboard to prevent shiny spots from developing on the clay surface. If baking a large piece, it may be necessary to prop it up and to drape a tent of aluminum foil over it to protect it from the heating element. Clay beads may be baked on a skewer.
Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding baking times and temperatures; generally speaking, most polymer clay projects are baked at 275° for 20-25 minutes. Baked clay can be re-baked as needed.
BUFFING, SANDING & DRILLING BAKED POLYMER CLAY
Once baked, polymer clay may be wet-sanded to polish the surface. Sanding with progressively finer grades of paper as you proceed is the best way to produce a nice finish. Buffing tools may also be used on baked clay. Some artists paint a waterbased varnish (matte or glossy) on the surface as well.
Baked polymer clay can be drilled with an ordinary electric drill (such as a Dremel®) if necessary to create holes for buttons or beads, or to dangle chains, fibers or charms from the piece.
Polymer clay is nontoxic, so working with it shouldn’t pose any problems for adults or supervised children. The clay must not be ingested, of course! But for ordinary crafting purposes, the Art & Craft Materials Institute has certified the clay as nontoxic and it also carries the ASTM D4236 designation, meaning that it can be handled safely by artists of all ages.
While working with raw polymer clay, take care not to rub your eyes. Wash your hands frequently and especially before eating. Tools and equipment (toaster ovens, food processors, pasta machines, knives, etc.) that come into contact with raw polymer clay must never be used to prepare food afterward, and baked clay items should not be used to prepare or serve food, either.
This advice bears repeating: Always bake polymer clay in a room with excellent ventilation. Leave at least one window open and use a fan to blow the fumes away from your work area. This is especially important when clay guilds or crafting parties get together and have two or more ovens baking clay at the same time.
It’s best to reserve a “dedicated oven” for baking polymer clay. Using your home oven is an option for very infrequent baking sessions, but you must thoroughly wash out the inside afterward with baking soda and water to remove any bakedon residue from the fumes, which will re-release when you use the oven later to bake food. Another option is to bake your clay inside a sealed baking bag (for baking turkeys), which should capture any residue released during the baking process. Discard the bag after each use.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Several excellent books on polymer clay have been published of late. The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it will help you start uilding a library of resources.
The Art of Polymer Clay
Foundations in Polymer Clay Design
Barbara A. McGuire
Images on Clay
Nan Roche, Gwen Gibson, Dayle Doroshow, and Barbara A. McGuire
The Polymer Clay Techniques Book
North Light Books
The Weekend Crafter: Polymer Clay
Irene Semanchuk Dean
POLYMER CLAY BASICS by Sharilyn Miller, original text: