How to Prevent Polymer Clay Sticking in Cutters

Are you a jewelry maker who uses 3-D printed cutters to make polymer clay earrings? Are you tired of getting poor results because the clay sticks in the cutters and gets distorted (or worse) when you try to pull it out of the cutters? I’ve been watching on social media for the past few months and been disappointed at the incomplete and misleading advice being given for how to deal with this problem. Hold up! Here’s the scoop on this commonly misunderstood issue of preventing your polymer clay from sticking in cutters or other tools.

Does polymer clay become stuck in your printed cutters?

The Work Surface Matters

Polymer clay is naturally sticky. That’s normal. Because of this, polymer crafters and makers have long used glossy work surfaces to keep their clay under control. Unlike baking cookies (which we don’t want to stick to the table so we use flour), we DO want polymer clay to stick. If the clay is stuck to the work surface, then it won’t stick to your cutter. Working on paper means that the clay has no choice and will jam itself pretty tightly into your cutter. It’s really that simple. The clay should not (generally) stick in the cutters.

When experienced makers suggest that a glossy work surface is best, new makers often object and say they can’t get their pieces off the work surface without distortion. There’s a trick to that, of course, and I’ve explained it (with a video) in a separate article here.

Sticky, but Not Soft!

As I said, polymer clay is normally a bit sticky. But if your clay resembles caramel or taffy and you can’t pick up your pieces without them distorting or twisting out of shape, then your clay is too soft. Part of working with polymer clay is understanding how different brands handle and how clay’s texture changes over time. This is part of conditioning your clay. You should modify your clay’s texture to make it easy to handle without taking fingerprints, losing its shape, or making you afraid to touch it. Fresh clay is way too soft and nearly always needs to be leached. Your clay should be the texture of a nice dry Swiss cheese (minus the holes) not of those sticky and floppy American cheese slices in the plastic wrapper.

If you started working with clay during the Pandemic, you are likely used to using clay that’s way too soft because it was hitting the shelves without any storage time. This was an anomaly. Soon the stocks of clay will be more firm. Some brands will even be quite hard and crumbly. This is normal. Also, that’s what conditioning will address!

The Type of Cutter Matters!

If you’re using a simple cutter shape (such as these circles, arches, ovals, hexagons, teardrops from Hobbyrian) without any problematic areas where clay can become lodged, then just use the cutters and have fun. Simple cutter shapes should release easily. It’s even better to give your cutter a little wiggle before you lift it from the clay. That will help smooth the edges and separate the clay from the edges of the cutter.

These simple cutter shapes are from Hobbyrian.

Intricate Shapes

If your cutter has a really intricate shape, it’s not always possible to keep the clay from sticking inside the cutter. Sometimes a cutter shape is poorly designed and will present problems no matter what you do. Good cutter makers test this before selling their cutters! Additionally, some intricate shapes are just going to be awkward and will always trap clay.

Debossing Cutters

Debossing cutters are cutters with an outer cutting edge and an inner design that only goes part way down the cutter. It is intended to press a design into the surface of the clay while the outer edge cuts the clay shape. The biggest challenge when using debossing cutters is to use a clay sheet or slab of the right thickness. If your sheet is too thin, the debossing lines won’t press into the clay. If the sheet is too thick, the clay balloons up into the cutter, possibly making it difficult to remove.

Debossing cutters from Phoenix & Spruce, Goyna Studio, and Hobbyrian.

Simple debossing cutters should still remove cleanly from your clay. But more intricate or complex designs are going to be quite difficult to remove cleanly. In this case (as when you are using texture sheets, texture mats, or stamps), you will want to use a release of some sort.

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Last Resort – Use a Release

As you will learn from this article, releases are substances you apply to the surface of the clay or to a tool to keep the clay from sticking to the tool. Common releases for polymer clay are cornstarch, water, and Armor-All. They all have their plusses and minuses. I suggest you give each a try so you know how they perform and which one you might prefer to use for a specific situation.

Cornstarch is commonly recommended to prevent sticking in cutters, which is good. It’s a great release. But it’s often demonstrated on social media in a way that harkens back to our childhood cookie-making days. Don’t use cornstarch the way you use flour when making sugar cookies with cutters! It’s messy, unnecessary, and causes you extra work. When properly used, cornstarch does not need to be removed from your pieces! Rather than dipping the cutter into a bowl of cornstarch, use a floofy brush and apply an invisible layer to the CLAY.

Try Armor-All

Armor-All or Son-of-a-Gun are silicone-based leather protectant sprays often sold in automotive shops. They make excellent releases when sprayed on texture stamps. But I recently learned of a great tip from Gillian Wiseman during one of our Blue Bottle Insiders Drop-Ins. Gillian dampens a sponge with Armor-All and then presses the cutter to the sponge. This distributes just the right amount to the cutter and prevents excess from getting all over your clay. She says she only needs to press the cutter to the sponge every 4 or 5 shapes, rather than every time.

Another great article with tips and tricks for using debossing cutters is from The Clay Impress here.

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