The beginner’s guide to polymer modelling clay
Polymer clay is a versatile modelling medium that is suitable for use by crafters of all experiences. But what is polymer clay exactly? Unlike the natural clays you see being spun on a potter's wheel, polymer clay is a man-made substance based on polyvinyl chloride that is easy to work with and can be baked in your home oven.
It is a great choice for making jewellery, figurines, decorations, accessories, dishes and more! There is a large variety of clay making colours available, and some brands even have special translucent, glitter, glow in the dark and imitation stone effect clays that can inject something special into your crafts.
Intrigued? Read on to discover everything you need to know about using polymer clays, and how to care for and store your modelling clay once you're finished.
- Key terms to know in clay work
- What you need for modelling clay
- How to set up your clay modelling work area
- Variations in polymer clay colours
- How to use polymer clay
- How to bake polymer clay
Key terms to know in clay work
Let's go over some of the technical terms in clay modelling - don't worry, you'll be an expert in no time!
- Armature - a wire model used like a 'skeleton' for a clay project.
- Condition - when you 'condition' clay, you are working it to make it more pliable. You can do this with your hands, tools or even a machine.
- Acrylic roller - a rolling pin made of hard plastic. Better to use than wood, which can react to your clay and absorb the oils from it.
- Glaze/varnish - a product you use to coat finished clay with to 'seal' it for protective and/or decorative purposes.
- Tenting - the act of covering your clay while it bakes in the oven to stop any burns.
What do I need to get started with modelling clay?
There are many different kinds of colours, tools and accessories you can find available for clay modelling. Some are must-haves, many are helpful and there are plenty that you won't need unless you're undertaking specialised clay making work.
Here is what we recommend for those of you just starting out:
- Sculpey Polymer clay - this clay is great for beginners and comes in many beautiful colours.
- Acrylic rolling pin - use this to condition, blend and roll out your clay.
- Sculpting tools - if you want to make anything with detail, special clay modelling tools are perfect. Indent, inscribe, pierce and shape your clay with confidence!
And that's it! You can make gorgeous clay projects using only these items plus your home oven, which can all be found either in Spotlight shops or in our online store.
You may be thinking 'hey, I have a rolling pin and knives at home I can use!' While it may be tempting to use your kitchen tools, it should be avoided at all costs. Most polymer clays are certified non-toxic, but because they are made from plastic you don't want them anywhere near your mouth. So the rule is, if it's related to food prep - don't use it for your clay!
If you want to go the extra mile, here are some extra tools you can use as well:
- Cutters - much like the ones used when making cookies, clay cutters are great for creating specific shapes out of clay.
- Sandpaper - special clay sandpaper can be used to smooth and buff your baked clay piece for a professional finish.
- Armature wire - if you are creating a large model or one with extended parts, armature wire will help your model keep its shape.
How to set up your clay modelling work area
It is important to have a properly set-up workspace when you are working with modelling clay, not only to prevent stains and damage to your space but also for the quality of your clay project!
Some clay brands can have strong smells while others won't smell at all. While none will create dangerous fumes if you use them correctly, proper ventilation will help if you are sensitive to the smell of your clay. However, if polymer clay burns in the oven it can give off caustic fumes - so either make sure you set it correctly to the recommended temperature or have an exhaust fan nearby!
Work on a non-porous surface like glass or ceramic. You can cover a porous surface with baking paper as well if needed. Clay can stain porous surfaces, so protect them well and save yourself a lot of scrubbing.
Do not work somewhere incredibly hot, as it can cause your clay to cure prematurely. Keep your workspace out of direct, harsh sunlight as this can also cause the colours of your clay to fade.
If you are sanding or buffing your finished clay, wear a mask and safety goggles so small particles stay out of your eyes and mouth.
Polymer clay colours, effects and textures
Polymer clays can come in a rainbow of colours, but that's not all! Polymer clays are so versatile that all sorts of creative variations have been made to enhance your crafting. Varieties include:
- Glitter, iridescent and shimmer clays will have varying levels of shine to them, from large glitter chunks to a subtle pearl-like luminosity.
- Glow in the dark clays will light up after being charged under a regular light for a few minutes. You can mix glow clay with regular polymer clay, but be aware the amount of glow you get will decrease as you add in more normal clay.
- Leather effect clays will have a textured appearance very similar to leather, allowing you to make imitation crafts that are cruelty-free!
- Granite effect clays will dry with a porous, stone-like appearance useful for making dishes and jewellery.
- Transparent and translucent clays are see-through to a degree and can be mixed with other clays to combine colour and effect.
You can mix clays with different visual effects together, but be aware that the more you add of a different clay, the more noticeable its effect will be compared to its counterpart.
How to use polymer clay
Let's get sculpting! We'll take you through the steps of creating a simple polymer clay sphere.
- Condition the clay you want to use by kneading it in your hands. The natural warmth of your hands plus the motion will help make the clay pliable and easy to shape. You can also use your acrylic roller to help with this process. If you are combining two or more colours of clay, mix them together now.
- Use your hands to roll the clay into a smooth ball. If you want any designs, use your modelling tools to engrave them into your clay ball.
How to bake polymer clay
The process of baking polymer clay can be a bit fiddly, so follow the instructions on the packaging of your clay well! The temperature to be set should be around 135°C - if your oven gets much hotter, it can cause your clay to discolour and it may even burn.
- Tent your clay with a piece of cardstock or a foil tray. Make sure the 'peak' of your tent is away from the heating element of your oven.
- Preheat the oven to the recommended temperature and once it reaches it, place your tented sculpture on the middle rack of your oven. You may like to use a separate oven thermometer to make sure the displayed temperature from your oven is correct.
- Set a timer and keep an eye on your clay as it cures. If it starts to brown or droop it means the temperature of your oven is wrong - get it out of there before it burns! Otherwise, you can take it out when it has baked long enough.
- Let your cured polymer clay piece cool before moving.
Once it has cured, you can display it on any surface without fear of colour running or oil absorbing. Cured polymer clay is hard and durable, so feel free to show it off almost anywhere!
How to store polymer clay
Before it has been cured, polymer clay needs to be stored in specific conditions so it doesn't become hard or leech into other surfaces. Wrapping individual colours in cling wrap is a good idea - while polymer clay won't dry out, it can bond with other colours and even cured clay pieces over time. So keeping them separate is a must! Also keep them out of polystyrene and styrofoam containers, or anything with a recycling symbol around the #6 or #7, as it will start to bond with the plastic. Numbers 1-5 should be fine.
You should also make sure to keep your uncured clay in a cool, dry place. Next to a window, near a heater or above a lamp can all cause enough heat to make the clay begin the curing process.
After it has cured your clay will be hard and solid, but there are a few things you can do to enhance its look.
- Sand and buff your piece to make it smooth and shiny. Wet/dry sandpaper is best, as it will work the surface without scratching it.
- Varnish your piece for an extra protective layer, but only if you really think it needs it. Varnish can peel off or leave visible brush marks if you're not careful, so only use it if you're putting your polymer clay piece in a position where it may be damaged.
7 common polymer clay mistakes to avoid
- Not cleaning your utensils and surface - keeping your modelling clay tools clean is incredibly important, for a number of reasons. And this includes your hands! White, yellow and translucent clays can be easily tainted by dirt, dust and hairs, and if you bake them into your clay there's no removing them.
Transferring colours from your tools and hands to other clays can happen easily, so make sure to clean them thoroughly between colour changes.
- Not pre-heating your oven - getting your oven up to temperature before putting in your clay can be the difference between an undercooked, crumbly product or a perfect one.
- Not conditioning your clay - even if your clay is soft straight out of the packet, it still needs to be conditioned! Conditioning clay gets the chemical components inside moving and mixing, plus it will remove any air trapped inside.
- Scorching your clay - we've mentioned it before, and it's so important we're mentioning it again. Tenting will prevent scorching and discolouration of your clay, and it can make the difference between a piece coming out a rosy red or a charred brown. Do it!
- Using the wrong kind of colourant - if you want to colour polymer clay before curing it, there are some colourants that are better to use than others. Dry colourants, like mica powdered pigment, are best because they contain no liquids, as liquids can cause bubbles to form in the baking process. If you want to use alcohol ink or acrylic paint, you will need to knead in the colour and wait for the alcohol/water to evaporate before you bake it.
If you want to colour your modelling clay after you have baked it, acrylic paints, dyes and inks are all suitable, but you will need to use a high-quality varnish as the colour will not bond with the clay - it will sit on top and can be easily peeled or scratched off if you're not careful.
- Using nail polish as a glaze - shiny with bright colours, nail polish seems like an easy choice for adding a glossy coating onto polymer modelling clay. Unfortunately, nail polish will soften and dissolve both raw and cured polymer clay, making it sticky and unstable.
- Making utensils and dinnerware - while it is non-toxic, polymer clay shouldn't be used in situations where you will be putting porous foods from it straight in your mouth. So wrapped lollies and oranges sitting in your polymer clay bowl? Totally fine! Stew from your polymer clay bowl served with a polymer clay spoon? Not fine.
Find everything you need for modelling clay at Spotlight
Are you ready to start creating incredible polymer modelling clay crafts? Find all the clay and tools you need online, or head to your nearest Spotlight store, where our crafty team members can help you find what you need.
If you find you enjoy making polymer clay accessories, why not try some of our other jewellery and beading projects? And if you're confused about what to get, our jewellery-making buying guides will help you make the best choice for both your project and your wallet!