If you work with polymer clay, most likely you have (or want) a pasta machine to make conditioning and rolling your clay easier. These labor-saving devices make these tasks much simpler and far more comfortable, especially if you suffer with hand pain. But in spite of being a near-necessity in eyes of most polymer clayers, it’s not always smooth-sailing. Pasta machine problems are very common. I’ll talk about these problems here, give the reasons why they happen, and hopefully can offer some solutions to these most common pasta machine problems.
This is the first article in my series on pasta machines and polymer clay rollers. First I discuss the problems, then I review all the major clay machines on the market. You can find them all here:
- Pasta Machine Problems
- Cheap Pasta Machines (Makins, Amaco, and Sculpey)
- Atlas and the Modified Atlas
- The Dream Machine
- LC Machine
- Summary – What’s the Best Pasta Machine for Polymer Clay?
Why Do We Use Pasta Machines?
In the early days of the emerging craft of polymer clay, there were no commercially available tools to aid with conditioning. All you had was your own two hands and a rolling pin or acrylic rod. Wise clayers soon realized that in addition to using knives, cutters, and other tools from the kitchen, they could also use pasta machines. Yes, our beloved pasta machine is the very same machine that is used to make fettuccine and linguine. In fact, the most popular pasta machines are still imported from Italy.
Pasta machines were a great improvement over using your bare hands. But because these machines were created and designed to use with pasta dough, they’re not actually all that well suited for working with polymer clay. Because of that, we do run into all kinds of pasta machine problems when we use them with polymer clay.
Commercial clay companies realized that pasta machines were popular with polymer clayers, so they started manufacturing their own versions of these ubiquitous workhorse machines. But they didn’t change the design much. In fact, at first glance, the Atlas Pasta Machine is identical to the Sculpey Clay Conditioning Machine, the Amaco Clay Machine, and the Makins Clay Machine. Unsurprisingly, the same problems that plague pasta machines also cause problems for users of these machines, too. The DREAM Machine was the first rolling machine designed specifically for polymer clay, and the soon-to-be-released LC Machine is the next. (I’ll be reviewing all these machines over the next several weeks. Hold tight!)
How a Pasta Machine Works
Pasta machines have two rollers that turn by cranking a handle. The space between the rollers is adjusted, by moving a dial on the side of the machine, creating thicker or thinner sheets. Pasta dough or polymer clay is fed into the top of the machine and squeezed flat between the rollers as you turn the handle. The flattened clay sheet comes out underneath the rollers. Seems simple enough, right? Well, it is! But it’s also where all the problems start.
As the clay sheet goes between the rollers, it will adhere to one of the rollers. All pasta machines have a blade installed along the length of the roller whose job it is to lift that sheet and peel it off the roller as the sheet emerges. The blade does not need to be sharp, but it does need to lie flat against the roller and be at the proper angle so that the clay sheet goes up and over the edge of the blade.
A clay rolling machine doesn’t actually need to have a blade. But without one, the sheet must be manually lifted off the roller as it comes through the machine. Otherwise the clay sheet will roll around and around the roller, making a big mess.
Common Pasta Machine Problems
These pasta machine problems are so commonplace that I was able to create them within just a few minutes while taking photos for this article. Most of us have seen these issues happen and may even struggle with them greatly. Here are the pasta machine problems I see myself and read about most frequently in the claying community.
These evenly spaced horizontal ridges occur when making a sheet of clay at the thickest setting of your pasta machine. They’re not very deep, and you may not have even noticed that your machine does this. This pasta machine problem isn’t really that much of a big deal unless you need your sheet to be completely smooth. Horizontal ridges are caused by the clunking that happens when the teeth of the gears mesh together at the largest setting. The action of the gear teeth tapping together causes an audible tick-tick-tick and the slight hesitation that happens in the rollers actually creates the lines in the clay.
These ridges are “normal”. By this I mean that pretty much all pasta machines do it and there’s not much you can do about it. As you wear out a machine, this effect may intensify and you may begin to see these parallel lines on thinner settings as well.
To reduce the appearance of these ridges, turn your sheet 90 degrees and put it through the machine a few more times. This will greatly reduce their appearance. If you do need a perfectly smooth sheet of clay, lay a sheet of copy paper over the sheet and smooth it by rubbing your acrylic roller back and forth. Peel off the paper, and voilà!
Clay Debris from Other Colors
Sometimes when the blade lifts the emerging sheet of clay off the roller, it gouges a bit of the clay and the clay collects behind the blade. You won’t even notice it happening. But later, you’ll notice that your pasta machine leaves blobs and streaks of old colors on your new sheet. This is especially annoying with white clay!
Clay gets forced behind the blade when you try to push a thick wad of clay through your pasta machine, also. And thicker sheets are more likely to get bits of “pasta machine poop” as well. You can’t completely prevent this from happening, though, so it’s really helpful to be able to clean this clay from the blades. Some clay machine brands are designed to make this cleaning easier. But mostly you just have to put up with this, sadly. I’d venture to say that this is everyone’s most hated and despised of pasta machine problems.
When using very thin settings, you can sometimes get a result called chattering. This is when the clay sticks to the blade, then as pressure builds up, it releases, only to stick again immediately. This back and forth stick/release action causes the emerging clay sheet to have fine accordion folds called chattering.
This happens because your clay is too sticky for use with this setting. Use firmer and less sticky clay if you need thin sheets and your machine tends to chatter.
Remember how I said that clay sticks to one of the rollers as it comes through the pasta machine? Sometimes the clay will stick to both rollers. Since the rollers are rolling away from each other as the clay comes out, this means that sections of the sheet of clay pull apart and stretch, causing a wide ripple. This happens at thinner settings and is worse with sticky and soft clay. Use firmer clay or use a backing sheet.
Sometimes you’ll notice a perfectly straight vertical line that always happens at the same place. This happens because the clay sheet is being scratched. It could be due to a nick on the blade. Or it could be because a piece of something hard is stuck on the blade. Glitter or bits of debris can do this, too. Try using a baby wipe threaded through your pasta machine to “floss” it out. If the problem is a nicked blade, you can sometimes remove it with sandpaper, but that will involved disassembling your pasta machine. A daunting task! (By the way, this photo also includes horizontal ridges…I can’t make a sheet without them!)
These lines can sometimes be caused by scratches in the roller itself. That’s actually what is causing this line you see in this picture. The day I got this new Atlas pasta machine, I turned the handle and a bit of metal shaving inside lodged against the roller, scratching it. Yeah. I was not pleased about that.
Clay Going Round and Round
Uh-oh, this pasta machine problem is a bad one. This means that clay is forced behind the blade, bowing it outward. This causes more clay to catch, pushing it out even more and eventually bending the blade beyond repair. This particular machine of mine only does it with super soft, sticky clay on thinner settings. Again, use firmer clay or use a backing sheet to support the clay.
If this is happens at thicker settings, too, disassemble your machine and clean out the collected clay. You can usually bend the blade back, if necessary.
Thanks to Betty Bolerjack for sharing her photo of this annoying pasta machine problem. Visible on light colored sheets, you will see vertical streaks of oily-looking residue on the surface of the clay. The streaks tend to happen near the outside edges or the rollers. This is not oil leaking from the gears. These streaks are due to a chemical reaction between the metal in the steel rollers and the ingredients in the clay. Assuming you’ve wiped your rollers with a baby wipe and you’re not actually seeing “pasta machine poop”, these streaks can be ignored. They are not visible once mixed into the clay. Pasta machines with aluminum or teflon rollers do not have this issue.
The Handle Falls Out!
Yes, we all know the sudden crash of the handle falling to the floor. It can make cats jump sky-high and cause swear words to be uttered. Not again! This does seem to be a universal pasta machine problem. You can fix this by wrapping a bit of duct tape around the handle before jamming it back in. Or use the finger from a rubber glove. I have even heard of putting a tiny rare-earth magnet in the hole so they handle will stay stuck tight. Your snoozing pets will thank you!
Preventing Pasta Machine Problems
Most pasta machine problems can be prevented by using clay that isn’t too soft and sticky. Firmer clay will sheet better and not get gummed up inside the machine. Also, make sure that you never force thick slabs or wads of clay into the machine. Always use your blade to make slices that you feed through the machine and combine as they soften up and become conditioned. Forcing clay though the machine can damage your machine and make it wear out faster.
Keep your pasta machine clean. Always use a baby wipe or paper towel to clean the rollers between colors, removing all the bits of clay that you can reach. If you do take your pasta machine apart, see if you can’t leave the “fenders” off it. This allows access to the area behind the blades and makes cleaning easier.
If you absolutely can’t prevent bits of other colors being deposited on your clay sheets, a useful strategy is to have two pasta machines. Use one with black and darks and the other with white and light colors.
After reading about how poorly suited a pasta machine is for handling polymer clay, it’s easy to ask…what is the best machine to use with your clay? Like anything else, that will depend on your needs. I have reviewed many different pasta and clay machines, and you can read those articles in my pasta machine series. After reading these reviews, you will have a much better idea of the best pasta machine for you and your budget.