UPDATE: The Atlas pasta machines are still my top pick for clay conditioning machines, but the design has been updated to include removable blades and an updated handle design. Please go read that article first! I will update this article as I have time. GO READ THIS ARTICLE PLEASE!
When working with polymer clay, one of the most important tools to help you with conditioning, mixing, and sheeting polymer clay is the trusty pasta machine. Now there are other kinds and brands of clay conditioning machines, both from the craft store and from polymer clay tool companies. But originally, pasta machines were all we had to use. This is the third in my series of reviews on clay conditioning machines and pasta machines for polymer clay.
Here is the lineup:
- Pasta Machine Problems
- Cheap Pasta Machines (Makins, Amaco, and Sculpey)
- Atlas and the Modified Atlas (this article)
- The Dream Machine
- LC Machine
- Summary – What’s the Best Pasta Machine for Polymer Clay?
Atlas Pasta Machines
Marcato, an Italian company sometimes misspelled as “Mercato”, makes the Atlas pasta machines, which are actually designed to make sheets of pasta dough for lasagna and ravioli. It is the basic design of the Atlas that generic and cheap craft machines imitate. Unstable on its own, you need to clamp an Atlas to the table with a C-clamp that fits into a round hole on the right side of the machine. Also on the right is a hole where you insert the crank handle.
Atlas pasta machines come in two size models, the 150 and 180. Those numbers roughly correspond to the roller lengths in millimeters. Aside from the roller length of the two variations, the two sizes are identical. Some people say that the 180’s longer rollers make for a less stable machine, but I have not seen any evidence of this being the case. Marcato also makes a machine called an Ampia that is very similar but has noodle cutters integrated into the body of the machine.
Atlas Pasta Machine Accessories
On the back of an Atlas pasta machine are two slots where you can install an optional cutting attachment for making fettuccine and linguine. These noodle cutters are essentially rollers themselves, which have blades cut into them, and each cutter also has a hole for the crank to be inserted. (You can use the cutters with polymer clay, by the way. They make nice, even strips.) Another optional accessory is a sheet feeder. It holds the sheet as it goes into the rollers, giving you a free hand to grab the thinner sheet as it comes out.
You merely remove the crank handle and attach a Pasta Drive motor to use a motor with the Atlas machines. You’ll notice there are holes on either side of the handle hole. These allow pins from the motor to slot in, holding the motor stable. You can’t use a Pasta Drive motor with pasta machines that don’t have these extra holes.
The Pasta Drive motor has a chrome coated plastic housing made from a plastic that is not safe for polymer clay. Because of this, the clay from your hands can collect on the housing and it becomes difficult to remove. It doesn’t affect the function of the unit, but it can be ugly.
Atlas Pasta Machines for Polymer Clay
At some point, polymer clayers realized they could use pasta machines for sheeting and mixing polymer clay. Pasta machines are not perfect tools for use with polymer clay, however, and there are frustrations that arise such as rippled clay sheets and transfer of colors. But it’s still far better than using your hands and a rolling rod! Frustrated with the limitations that a pasta machine has for using with polymer clay, there is great demand for better-designed clay conditioning machines. Both the Dream Machine and the Lucy Clay Tools LC Machine promise to address some of these limitations. I’ll be reviewing them shortly.
Atlas Wellness Pasta Machine
The Atlas pasta machine now on the market is the Atlas Wellness. Available in eight colors or with a snazzy chrome body, this model is sturdy and well-made. It is nearly identical to earlier models of the Atlas pasta machine (more on those below), but has anodized aluminum rollers and plastic-edged blades. The company boasts that the term “Wellness” refers to the plastic blades eliminating metal shavings falling into your food. The Wellness model has black plastic on its crank handle and C-clamp. It is available in both the 150 and the 180 size models. The aluminum rollers are better for polymer clay because they don’t make black streaks on the clay like the steel rollers of earlier models.
The Atlas Wellness has 10 thickness settings on the knob, ranging from #0 (thickest) to #9 (thinnest). The numbers are well-marked. I measured the thickest setting on my 180 at 0.100″ (2.54 mm) and the thinnest at 0.011″ (0.279 mm). The rollers of the 150 are 5 5/8″ (143 mm) long and the 180’s rollers are 6 3/4″ ( 171 mm). The clearance under the rollers is 2 1/2″ (63.5 mm) and the clamp can accommodate up to a 2 1/4″ (57.2 mm) table thickness. I found the #0 setting to have an audible ticking sound (as with all pasta machines), but it was nearly silent on the #9 setting.
The thicker settings of the Atlas Wellness do leave wide horizontal ridges (as with all pasta machines). I did get wide rippling at #6 and thinner with soft clays and with #8 and above with Kato. All clays and all thicknesses displayed scraping on the face of the sheet to an extent. This wasn’t substantial but can cause clay to build up on the blades.
Older Atlas Machines – Good with Polymer Clay!
Because pasta machines are sometimes purchased as a gift and never (or rarely) used, they often show up at thrift stores, garage sales, and auction sites. These older Atlas pasta machines have metal blades and steel rollers. I also think they seem to be more sturdy than the modern Atlas Wellness, with a smoother action. If you can find one of these gems, snap it up! The steel rollers can cause streaking on light-colored polymer clay (more about that here).
These older Atlas machines have yellow plastic on the handle and clamp. Also, their numbering system may vary greatly. Some machines have 7 settings, some have 9. Both my 150 and 180 machines have identical measurements to the Atlas Wellness. Not sure if the pasta machine you have found is one of these older, better machines? You can tell by turning one over. On the underside, you can find the date of manufacture and you can see what the blades are made of.
Because I’ve worked in polymer clay for many years, I have both a 150 and 180 Atlas from 2002 and 2003 respectively. These machines function beautifully and have very little trouble with rippling or chattering polymer clay sheets, even at thinner settings. I have used (and abused) them so much, however, that the horizontal ridges are now showing in multiple settings. I may go back to using them, however, because they don’t have any scraping on the face of the sheet. This is just my experience, of course, and yours may vary.
Removing the Fenders
You may notice that the pictures of my Atlas pasta machines look different from what you see elsewhere. This is because I have removed the “fenders” for ease of cleaning. The fenders are covers on the machine, similar to the fenders on a car, fitted in front of and behind the rollers. They serve no functional purpose. Removing them allows you to reach the area behind the blades of the pasta machine. Yes, polymer clay can collect there and find its way back out to be deposited onto sheets of another color (usually white…sigh). If enough clay collects, it can even push the blades away from the rollers, allowing your clay sheet to go round and round on the rollers.
You can remove the fenders yourself and I do recommend that you do this. Take pictures as you go, so you have a reference if you get confused. To do it, remove the screw holding the right-side panel and the screw holding the rubber foot plate underneath. Then loosen (but do not remove) the nuts holding the machine together. Loosen them just enough so that you can pop the fenders out and remove them. Replace and tighten the nuts and screws, replace the side plate, and you’re good to go.
Now you can reach that area behind the blades. Use a tool to reach in there and scrape out the collected clay. Be careful, however, to avoid nicking the blade or scratching the rollers as this will ruin them.
Modified Atlas, aka “Monafied” Atlas
Remember how I said pasta machines aren’t designed to work with polymer clay? Well, Mona Kissel is a polymer clay artist who has developed a way of modifying Atlas pasta machines to make them work better with polymer clay. The modification involves replacing the blades with an all-metal blade that can be removed quickly and easily by removing just a single thumb-nut per blade. You can remove the blades, wipe them down, and return them in about a minute. You do not need to unclamp the machine to do this.
Here is my “Monafied” Atlas 180. Note how you can see those brass thumb nuts under the right side? Those are the nuts that secure the blades.
And here is what the blades look like once they’re taken out. It’s hard to see the details with all the reflections of chrome, so click to make the pictures bigger if you need to see more detail.
Mona and her husband will modify your Atlas (both the Wellness and older models), or they can sell you modified machines. There are more details on their website. They will also leave the fenders off the machine unless you prefer to leave them on. The machine pictured above has had its fenders removed.
Customized Atlas by Ed Street
In addition to having the blades modified by Mona Kissel, there’s another service you can have done to your pasta machines. Ed Street will strip your machine, tune it up, send it off to be “Monafied” and then powder coat it in custom colors. Then he’ll put a new acrylic base on it. The acrylic base is really nice because it’s smooth and you can easily wipe the clay crumbs from it.
Ed can modify your Atlas pasta machine, or he can sell you one directly. You can learn more from Ed Street by visiting his website. I chose to have my machine blue (of course) and raspberry to match the purple walls of my studio.
By the way, you will still have to use a clamp to hold this to your table if you use a handle to crank the machine. But if you use a motor, the wide base holds the machine stable. That means you can use it anywhere on the table. And if you live near the sea where the air can cause your tools to rust, the extra protection of the powder coating will give you years more life to your machine.
I will write an article at the end of this series that gives my overall recommendation for getting a clay conditioning machine. But if you want to stick with an Atlas, I recommend that you get an older (pre-2008) machine and then remove the fenders. This is often the cheapest route as you can find these machines on eBay or at thrift stores quite cheaply.
If you like the way the machine works, but want to have removable blades, I recommend sending the machine to Mona Kissel for modification. If you can’t find an older Atlas machine, then I would buy a new, modified Atlas from Mona. The ability to clean the blades quickly and easily takes this machine to a higher level.
The next review in this series is the Imperia pasta machine from Italy. Find out what makes it different from the Atlas.
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