A reader on my Facebook Page wrote to ask a very good question this morning. Can old, hard, crumbly polymer clay be given new life? You see, for some reason, some brands and formulations of polymer clay get hard and crumbly if they’ve been sitting around too long or stored at high temperatures. Some people say it’s because the clay is partially cured. Others say that the plasticizer has evaporated or leached out, essentially leaving it dry like a week old loaf of bread. I don’t know the cause, but I do know that it’s not all brands, not all clays, and not all the time. It’s really hit and miss. I have clay that’s six months old and too hard to be very workable. I also have perfectly supple and nice, soft clay that’s nearly ten years old. So go figure. Who knows. But if you’re in the midst of a project and pull out the color you need and it’s hard as a rock, what do you do? Can the clay be saved?
How to soften hard polymer clay
Unless clay is already cured, it can be brought back to life with enough work. The way you soften hard polymer clay is a combination of working (conditioning) it and adding new materials to make it more supple and workable. In general, the basic procedure is to chop up the clay in tiny bits (with a blade, crumble it up, or use an old thrift store food processor). Then add some Sculpey Clay Softener, mineral or baby oil, or liquid polymer clay to it. Mix it up, put it in a ziploc sandwich bag, and leave it alone for a few days. During that time, the liquid will seep into the hard clay and soften it. You should then be able to get it to hold together and run through the pasta machine repeatedly to get it conditioned. You might need to repeat the process with more liquid. If given enough time, it’s not terribly difficult to do it this way. Thing is, I never realize I need that color until I’m ready to use it and find that it’s crumbly. Then I try to rush the process and that always requires a lot of elbow grease. If your clay is only a little bit too stiff and is cracking more than you’d like, you can easily work some softener into it or even add some translucent clay. Translucent clay is typically softer than opaque clay and will give a bit of smoosh power to slightly hard clay. There is also a product called Fimo Mix Quick that helps soften hard polymer clay. Another favorite product to add is called Sculpey Mold Maker. I’ve read that lots of people like to whack the clay with a rubber mallet to “get things moving”. It is true that the more you work the clay, the better it behaves, and certainly giving it a few good solid whacks will help get that process started (and can be a lot of fun). But if the clay is very crumbly, even this won’t be enough and you’ll need to add one of the above materials to help further soften your clay.
Can all hardened polymer clay be saved?
Is polymer clay ever too far gone and impossible to be saved? Yes and no. Unless the clay had truly been cured, perhaps by being left in a hot car in the sun in the summer in Phoenix, given enough time and work most hard clay can be softened. Adding the solvents and additives does change the way clay behaves, though. You might find that the clay doesn’t perform as well as fresh, new clay. If you’re doing highly technical work, I’d stick with fresh clay. But if you’re just making bead cores and playing around for fun? Why not try it? But the question really needs to be how much is your time worth? Is it worth it to you?
Fun Projects for Hard Clay
I used a tutorial from Rebekah Payne to make these opulent faceted beads with some old crumbly translucent clay, some black clay, and some gold paint. Kathy from Flowertown Originals had a slightly different twist on the same tutorial when she made these square mosaic beads. Kathy then discovered these great multi-colored stripes when she was softening some more old clay. So she used that clay to make these really great striped beads.
There is a tool called the NeverKnead. It’s a modified arbor press that is used to smash polymer clay, allowing you to condition it without hurting your hands. It’s not a substitute for a pasta machine, but it does allow you to condition and mix clay, or add softener, without as much hand fatigue. You can read a great review of the NeverKnead on Kater’s Acres. Katie bought hers in yellow to match Parker, her little character that she makes.
My Favorite Solution: How I soften hard polymer clay
So what is my favorite way to soften hard polymer clay? I am an impatient person, so my solution is to put the clay in a specially dedicated “old clay” shoebox, grab my purse and keys, and go to the craft store. It is surprisingly effective at producing soft clay. 🙂 Life is short. I don’t like hard clay. I know, I know, some of you find it meditative to spend time working with it. But I rarely take the time for it. Have a great day everyone, and thank you Tondy for a fantastic question. Happy Claying!