Polymer clay is naturally sticky and readily sticks to your tools, work surface, hands, and pasta machine. Learning to manage this stickiness is an essential polymer clay skill. Sometimes the best strategy is to manage the clay by using surfaces with varying degrees of stickiness (such as non-stick surfaces). Other times, the best strategy is to apply a non-stick release to the surface of the clay that prevents it from sticking to your tools. This is broadly called a “mold release” because similar materials are used to prevent sticking when casting molds. I prefer to just call this substance a “release.” Here is more info about the types of releases we use to keep polymer clay from sticking to tools, molds, cutters, textures, and stamps.
When you should use a release with polymer clay
You should use a mold release with polymer clay anytime you work with an intricate tool where the clay might get stuck. Examples would be texture sheets, stamps, or press molds. This also goes for debossing cutters or cutters with intricate or tiny cuts that trap clay. A few minutes of care and the quick application of a mold release will allow you to press these textures into sticky polymer clay without the clay becoming stuck in the fine details of the tool.
When you should not use a release
On the other hand, if your polymer clay is sticking to your pasta machine rollers, your acrylic roller, your hands, your blade, your work surface, or simple cutter shapes. In these cases, you’re facing a technique or skill problem, not a problem that needs a release. In these cases, it’s best to address the core problem causing the polymer clay to stick. Some things to look at include:
- Your clay is too soft or sticky and needs to be leached
- Your pasta machine has clay jammed behind the blade, which you can learn about here.
- You’re working on paper instead of a glossy surface
- You’re trying to roll a super thin sheet with your pasta machine, and you need to use deli papers on the sheet
Water as a Clay Release
Polymer clay is an oil-based putty. Raw, unbaked polymer clay repels water. This means if you wet your clay or wet your tools, the clay won’t stick to the tools. The easiest way I’ve found to apply water for this purpose is to use a small spray bottle, filled with water. I keep this on my work table. To use, I just give a texture sheet a spritz of water and shake off the excess. I then apply the texture to the clay. Polymer clay will not stick in finely detailed areas. You can remove the remaining water by blotting the clay (very) gently with a paper towel or Kleenex.
You can also wet a sponge and press your tool into the damp sponge each time you press it into the clay. This might be a great approach when using debossing cutters or small stamps.
Don’t Use Water with Fimo
While polymer clay is oil-based, you’ll find that Fimo Soft and Fimo Professional will mix with water. It’s not a good idea to use water as a mold release with Fimo because it will make the clay sticky and gummy. If you do decide to use water as a release on Fimo, make sure you blot it off right away, before it can become sticky.
Cornstarch as a Clay Release
Cornstarch (also called corn flour) is a white powder that many clayers use as a non-stick agent. (You can also use rice flour or talc.) While it works really well, there are some things you’ll want to be aware of. You want to avoid dipping your tools into cornstarch because it’s super clumpy and you’ll end up with too much on your tool. In the case of cookie cutters, this leaves piles of excess cornstarch on your clay. Not only does this make a mess and is wasteful, but you also have to remove it, which is an extra step. A water rinse of the baked pieces usually removes the excess cornstarch.
Excess cornstarch can sometimes be pressed into the clay, embedding it in. You sometimes see this on the edges of dark pieces, leading new makers to wonder why their clay is looking dusky and patchy. (Poor sanding also causes white patches, so be sure of your cause.)
Cornstarch prevents your clay from sticking to tools, which is great. But it ALSO prevents the clay from sticking to itself. If you’ve used too much cornstarch, you’ll find that additional details won’t stick properly to your clay. Avoid excess cornstarch!
Applying Cornstarch to Polymer Clay
Rather than dipping your tools and cutters into cornstarch, instead, try brushing a very light dusting of the powder onto your clay with a big fluffy makeup brush. It doesn’t need much cornstarch! The surface should not be white. You can also use something called a “pouncer,” which is a small bag filled with cornstarch. You can use a small cloth bag, a piece of cloth tied with a ribbon, or a baby sock tied with elastic. Just dab this onto the clay’s surface or the texture tool, and it dispenses just the right amount of powder. (This will also leave a slight mark on the surface of the clay, so save this for when you’re also adding texture.) Remember, the proper amount of cornstarch should be invisible!
Armor-All as a Clay Release
Armor-All is the brand name of a leather protectant spray that you might use to clean and shine your car’s leather seats, dashboard, and interior trim. Another, similar, product is called Son of a Gun. These sprays contain an emulsion of silicone oil, which is a non-stick, non-greasy oil. I keep a small spray bottle on my work table filled with this stuff. I spray it on texture sheets or stamps before pressing them into the clay. Armor-All also works well when applied with a brush to the inside of molds when your clay might get stuck inside. There’s no need to blot or remove this oily material before baking. But it may prevent later clay from sticking to itself if you’ll be adding more details.
One note, don’t spray Armor-All where the overspray will fall on the floor. It will make the floor slippery!
Armor-All and Son of a Gun will not leave a white cast the way that cornstarch will.
Knowing which clay release to use and how to use it for each situation is a valuable and important skill for working with polymer clay. I hope this helped clear things up!
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