Recently I’ve been involved in several conversations about baking polymer clay. It seems like it should be simple, and it is, but there is a bit more to it than just putting some clay in your oven to cure. In this series I’ll also discuss some tricks that I’ve found to make baking and curing polymer clay easier and more effective. I started to write this all in one post, but it’s getting a bit long. So I’ll break this up into several posts. Today, in part one, I’ll talk about polymer clay ovens. Part two will be about temperature. And part three will give tips and tricks for baking your polymer clay.
Do I need a dedicated polymer clay oven?
For some reason this subject brings up some mighty strong opinions. Some people will only use a dedicated polymer clay oven to bake their creations. Others only use their home oven. There are legitimate reasons for doing it either way, but let me state this up front and center. You CAN safely and effectively cure your polymer clay creations in a home oven, toaster oven, tabletop convection oven, or roaster oven…assuming that you are using it correctly and following some recommendations that I’ll discuss below. You cannot properly and safely cure polymer clay in a microwave oven or by boiling in water. (Though, boiling does have its uses in some situations, it does not give a complete cure.)
There is an “old wives’ tale” circulating in the polymer clay community about how polymer clay leaves a “residue” when baking. Some people fear that this supposed residue will then burn and release toxic vapors if the oven is then used to bake food. I’ve even heard of people cleaning their oven (hopefully not with toxic cleaners!) after using polymer clay in their home oven. I always cover my clay when baking and there is no residue or build-up inside the cover. Even after many years of use with the same cover. Also, refer to this excellent list of health and safety questions and answers put out by Polyform, the maker of Sculpey and Premo. Note in particular the question about the clay leaving a residue in the oven. There is no such thing as “contamination” by polymer clay. That’s just plain not true. Read here for another article that goes into more detail about the testing regulations and what they mean. In short, though, it’s going to say the same thing I do. Polymer clay is safe.
Polymer clay does not produce toxic fumes when baked at the recommended temperature. It can burn, however, when exposed to temperatures in excess of 350°F (177°C), and that does release irritating hydrogen chloride fumes (not chlorine gas as some sources have stated). If that happens, turn off the oven, open the windows, and leave the area until the fumes clear, just as you’d do if you burned your pork roast. Hydrogen chloride, by the way, the same chemical as hydrochloric acid, the very same chemical that our bodies produce in stomach acid. It’s nasty to breathe it, but it’s not cancer causing or something that requires decontamination. Baking polymer clay at regular temperatures can occasionally create a smell that can irritate sensitive people. Much in the same way some perfumes give you a sore throat or headache if they’re too strong. For this reason, many people choose to bake their clay away from the main living area. Here’s a tip. Covering clay during baking greatly reduces the odor.
Using your home oven to bake polymer clay
The best advantage to using your home oven to bake your polymer clay creations is that you already have it. No purchase required! Typically most homes have an oven with a dependable heating element that reaches the correct temperature and holds it without large fluctuations. If your oven isn’t dependable, you likely know it already and finding another oven would be great. Home ovens are large, you can put lots of trays of clay in your oven to cure at once. And you can bake large and tall items.
There are, of course, disadvantages to using your home oven to cure polymer clay. A large oven is more expensive to run than a small toaster oven. Plus if you do a lot of food baking, you end up with traffic jams at your oven, trying to finish your clay bake cycle before it’s time to cook dinner. Some large ovens have hot or cold spots, too, and don’t heat evenly. If you have several cooks in your home who might disturb your clay during baking (by preheating for a pizza!), then using your home oven might not be the best tactic.
Using a dedicated polymer clay oven
Many people prefer to use a toaster or tabletop convection oven to bake polymer clay. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to this. Certainly the convenience factor is high. Small ovens preheat quickly, they take less energy to run, and if the smell of baking clay bothers you, you can put a small oven outside on a patio or in the garage. They’re also portable. You also have to find a place to put them and that can be a real problem for the space challenged among us.
It can also be exceedingly difficult to regulate the temperature in a small oven. Some brands have a tiny dial without fine control and they have rather temperamental thermostats. Small toaster ovens have, by design, a small area to heat up with an element rather close to the rack. So the element can sometimes scorch the clay when it’s heating up and then the oven cools down to below curing temperature before the thermostat kicks back in to heat the oven up again. While that works for cooking pizzas, it doesn’t work so well for polymer clay, leaving underbaked and scorched projects. A lot of people overcome this by putting ceramic tiles in the bottom of their toaster ovens in an attempt to help it hold the heat. Toaster ovens also tend to be quite small and you’re really limited on the number and size of polymer clay items you can cure in one. If your project is large, it might end up being too close to the oven’s elements and could easily burn. So toaster ovens are really only good for small projects.
Tabletop convection ovens, however, heat by blowing hot air. This gives a much more even and reliable heat and many people love and swear by their convection ovens! These ovens also tend to be a bit larger and give more vertical room if you like to work with sculptures. But not all brands work well. I can’t recommend a specific brand, unfortunately. I use my home oven.
There are several brands of small inexpensive ovens marketed to polymer clay enthusiasts. Let me be perfectly clear here. You do not need a special oven to bake polymer clay! If you want one, great. Especially if you use a coupon they’re very inexpensive. But you do not need one. And remember that you can often find used toaster ovens at thrift stores for even less money.
A note about those who work professionally with polymer clay and who cure large amounts of clay frequently. A stated on the Polyform website, polymer clay is safe, even for those who work with professional volumes of material. They do recommend a professional oven, though they say it’s for temperature control reasons. Bottom line, you have to do what you’re comfortable with. For a lot of people that means getting a dedicated clay oven. For others that means using the home oven. Each person knows their own routine and know that works best for them.
Next up, I’ll go on to Part 2, where I talk about temperature and why it’s so important for curing and baking polymer clay. By the way, I always post a link to new blog posts on my Facebook page, so if you’re not already a fan, come on over and join us. And if you join the mailing list, you’ll get an email when I make a new post. It’s not a newsletter or list, though, so you’re not signing your life away. Don’t worry, it’s just for new posts.
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