Which Pens to Use on Polymer Clay – A Comparison

Whether you’re marking your signature, adding design elements, or drawing designs, people always want to know which black markers or pens to use on polymer clay. A quick internet search shows that Sharpie markers are the most commonly recommended for drawing designs on baked polymer clay, but as I’ve mentioned previously, Sharpie will fade and bleed over time (see picture below). And then there’s the question of sealing over and protecting the marker you use. Many common products that are used to seal or finish polymer clay can cause markers to bleed. Now that Zentangles and doodling are trending designs on fimo and polymer clay forums and blogs, the question is even more relevant. So I gathered a collection of black ink pens and ran a comparison. Seeing the results side-by-side was quite surprising, and we do have a new marker that may become a favorite for polymer clay artists.

What pen writes on polymer clay?

  • Sharpie markers write well on polymer clay, but they fade to a purple color over time.
  • It’s best to use archival or pigment-based markers to write on polymer clay.
  • Alcohol ink markers such as Copic also work well, but will fade in the light with time.
  • Most varnishes and sealers will cause these inks to run and smear.
  • PITT markers give a good result, but they tend to dry out quickly.
  • Best results are with acrylic inks, but they’re not usually found in fine marker form.

Comparison of the best pens to use on polymer clay. By The Blue Bottle Tree.

Pens and Clays Tested

I used white Kato polyclay rolled out in sheets and fully cured. I also ran the same tests on sheets of white Sculpey Premo. Here are the pens that I tested:

  1. Sharpie permanent marker, ultra fine point, black
  2. Sakura Pigma Micron, 08, in black
  3. Sakura Microperm, 05, in black
  4. PITT Artist Marker by Faber-Castell, fine point, in black
  5. Liquitex Acrylic Ink, carbon black, used in a blank Copic Sketch Marker
  6. Montana Acrylic Paint Marker, extra fine, in black
  7. Speedball Super Black India Ink, black, applied with a dip pen
  8. Ranger Adirondack Alcohol Ink, pitch black, applied with a dip pen

***Note: All of these materials were recently purchased from stores in the US. Your mileage may vary and forumlations in other areas of the world may give different results.

Black inks were tested for how well they write on polymer clay. See TheBlueBottleTree.com for more information.

How the Pens and Inks were Tested

I thoroughly cleaned the surface of both clay sheets with alcohol to remove any oily residue that might cause the pens or inks to write unevenly. Then I used each pen and/or ink to write on the baked polymer clay sheet. I used both print and script to show how well each pen performed as a writing instrument. I allowed the ink to dry for one hour and then used a heat gun to set the ink.

I ran the following demonstrations on both Kato Polyclay and Premo:

  1. Covered the right half the sheet with Varathane to check for bleeding.
  2. Wiped the line of text with a water soaked paper towel.
  3. Wiped the line of text with an alcohol soaked paper towel.

Comparison of black markers on Kato polymer clay by The Blue Bottle Tree.Comparison of black markers on Premo by The Blue Bottle Tree.

Comparison of water and alcohol resistance of black inks on Kato Polyclay by The Blue Bottle Tree. Comparison of water and alcohol resistance of black inks on Premo polymer clay by The Blue Bottle Tree.

Results: Which pens to use on polymer clay?

First off, a word about Kato Polyclay. The surface of Kato Polyclay seems to be hydrophobic and both the Varathane and several of the pens beaded up on the surface of the polymer clay sheet. Premo didn’t have this problem. This suggests that what works for one polymer clay might not work for another brand, so your mileage may vary. In general, inks didn’t stick as well to the Kato clay as they did to the Premo clay. And any marker that didn’t work on Premo certainly didn’t work on Kato. Here’s what I found about each brand of marker:

Sharpie Permanent Marker

Sharpie permanent marker writes well on both Premo and Kato Polyclay. But this dye-based marker doesn’t write very dark and has a purpleish tint. Sharpie held up to thin coats of Varathane fairly well but thicker coats gave the ink a chance to bleed before the Varathane dried. Sharpie did smudge and smear a little bit when wiped with a damp cloth, but only on Kato. And it dissolved and wiped away, but not completely, when wiped with alcohol. This is because the Sharpie ink does penetrate the clay. I suspect this is why it also fades over time. It’s my guess that even once dried the ink diffuses into the polymer clay, giving the appearance of fading. **See below some examples of Sharpie left on various clay for six months.

Pigma Micron

Pigma Micron is often recommended for use on polymer clay because it uses an archival, pigment based ink. However, I found that on Kato Polyclay, and to a lesser extent on Premo, this pen wrote poorly. The ink beaded up and never fully dried leading to smearing when I applied the Varathane. Even after heat setting, Pigma Micron Ink smeared and wiped away with water. Alcohol also dissolved most of it away, leaving only a small amount of the ink present on the clay.

Sakura Microperm

Microperm writes on both Kato and Premo very well, giving a medium dark blue-black line. Microperm did not bleed or smear appreciably with application of Varathane. It also did not wipe off or smear when wiped with a damp paper towel. Alcohol did dissolve some of the ink. However, even after alcohol removed some of the ink, enough still remained to be plainly visible. Microperm appears to be a dye-based marker like Sharpie, but the ink is more black and only turns slightly blueish when wiped off with alcohol.

PITT Artist Marker by Faber-Castell

This pigment based, archival ink wrote very well on both Kato and Premo leaving a dark black fine line. PITT ink did not bleed when coated with Varathane. It did not smear or bleed with a damp wipe on Premo, but smeared with a damp wipe on Kato clay. Alcohol did smear the ink and cause it to dissolve somewhat, leaving a line of lighter writing.

Liquitex Acrylic Ink in a Copic Marker

Did you know that you can put Liquitex Acrylic Inks into blank Copic Markers to create a permanent pigment based marker? I did this with black ink with the hopes of finding a good marker for polymer clay. It does work great on paper and fabric, but not so good on polymer clay. On Kato Polyclay, the ink beaded up and would not make a clean line. On Premo clay, the line was smoother but still beaded up a bit. It didn’t work as a drawing pen. Blank Copic markers don’t come with a fine point, so this strategy is better used for large areas.

Liquitex Acrylic Ink did smear slightly with a coat of Varathane. However, it was absolutely waterproof and did not smear or smudge or come off at all with a damp cloth. Alcohol dissolved it completely leaving only faint mark on the polymer clay.

Other brands of Acrylic Ink to try are F. W. by Daler-Rowney and the Bombay India Inks by Dr. Ph. Martin. Both can be painted well onto baked polymer clay but do tend to scratch off.

Montana Acrylic Paint Marker

My local Michaels store just got these markers in and I’m already impressed. This is a line of professional, refillable illustration markers with replaceable nibs that range from extra fine to 20mm. The extra fine size nibs are not felt, they are a hard plastic with “petals” that hold a droplet of the ink giving a really great flow. The ink is supplied by a pump action, essentially you push the nib down on the surface to refill the tip.

The pigment based acrylic ink is very dark and opaque and forms a clear, solid, dark black. The flow is fantastic. The ink does not smear or bleed at all with either Varathane or a damp cloth. It’s fully waterproof. It does, however, dissolve with alcohol and wipes away somewhat. I found that it dissolved complelety and wiped away cleanly when used on glass.

Speedball Super Black India Ink

Writing with a dip pen on polymer clay does not give a great line. But I did this mostly as a comparison. This india ink, as the label says, is super black. The ink beaded up a bit on both polymer clay brands tested. The ink did smear with application of Varathane and when wiped with a damp cloth. Alcohol dissolved the ink completely.

Ranger Adirondack Alcohol Ink

Alcohol ink does not have the right surface tension for use with a dip pen, so this was an exercise in futility. A brush would be better. Or an alcohol marker like Copic or Prismacolor. The ink, however, flowed beautifully onto the polymer clay and gave a nice dark black line. But when covered with Varathane, the ink bled immediately. This alcohol ink isn’t really black, it’s a dark maroon, so it bled a reddish color. It is, however, completely impervious to water and held up well to the damp cloth on Premo. There was some smearing on Kato. As expected, though, it dissolved completely in alcohol, leaving behind an intense maroon stain.

Recommended pens to use on polymer clay

I cannot recommend Sharpie, Pigma Micron, or India Ink for use on polymer clay. Sharpie bleeds and fades. Both Pigma Micron and India Ink wipe off with a damp cloth.

I tentatively recommend alcohol ink, but not on Kato Polyclay and there is the problem with both application and sealing. It’s hard to draw a line with alcohol ink and sealing with Varathane causes it to bleed.

Liquitex Acrylic Ink seems to have some promise, but not as a drawing ink. It might be better suited for use as a painting ink.

Sakura Microperm and PITT Artist Marker both have excellent performance on polymer clay. They both hold up to water and alcohol and neither bleeds when coated with Varathane. Microperm markers can be a bit pale and PITT is probably better if you want a dark line.

If you want a really dark, intense black line, I heartily recommend Montana Acrylic Markers. The only drawback is that the extra fine marker is still quite thick. It would be great for bold dark lines in a design, but not so great for signing your work. For that I’d get a PITT marker. They come in many nib sizes.

Bleeding and Fading with Sharpie

Polymer clay artists have reported that Sharpie bleeds or fades over time. I didn’t see that in this experiment, but the marker has only been on the clay a short time. However,  I remembered that I DO have some polymer clay sitting around that was labelled with Sharpie six months ago. Remember the article I wrote comparing different brands of translucent polymer clay? Well I still have those tiles. And here they are, six months later. You can certainly see fading. It looks like Sharpie held its color best on Sculpey and it faded the most on Pardo Art Clay. When I compare the tiles now to the original picture (see the other article), I can also see how both Fimo and Sculpey had some bleeding of the marker into the clay.

Fading of Sharpie marker on various brands of polymer clay. Article by The Blue Bottle Tree.

There you have it. Sakura Microperm, PITT Artist Markers, and Montana Acrylic Paint Markers are my top picks for drawing and writing on polymer clay. The Montana Markers are a new one that I’d not heard of before and I think they hold great promise! I’ll keep these tiles around and see what happens in six months and a year down the line. It will be interesting to compare. And if you have a favorite marker that I missed, please let me know in comments. Likewise if you’ve had failures, too. That will help others avoid markers that don’t work. Thanks!

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82 thoughts on “Which Pens to Use on Polymer Clay – A Comparison”

  1. Thankyou for taking the time to do this experiment. I was wondering, the sharpie you used. was it just a regular office supply sharpie? I know there are now water based & oil based sharpie pens. Do you think these might work better? have you ever tried these?
    Thank you! 🙂

  2. Hi this was very helpful. I do have a question because I wanted to buy a few pens this week. How has the microperm held up over the last few months. Has there been any bleeding into the clay and spreading? Since you said is dye based I was worried the dye would spread. Hope to hear back from you , since your advice will help me figure out what to buy.

    1. Hi Marcy,

      I had a look at the samples I used for the article. They’ve been sitting in a drawer. None of the pens have bled, and the Microperm still looks as good as new. The Sharpie has faced to purple, but I expected that. I’d say that Microperm is looking to be a good choice. No dye bleed/spread. I wrote that article in August 2013, so we’re coming up on a year now.

  3. I have been using Permapaque — opaque pigment marker and find it works well. It has two tips – one end is chisel angle and the other end is more of a point. But they aren’t fine points. And guess who makes them ? Sakura!!! Ive also used identipen with success. But I have been unable to find a good white marker (the sharpie paint pen, in my experience, tends to be uneven and sometimes too much comes out and puddles. Permapaque’s white is very pale. Maybe Montana makes one?
    Thank you for all your experiments!! They are priceless!

    1. Ooh, lots of good information, thank you! Yes, Montana does have a white marker. I even have one, but I’ve not tried it yet. I found it in my drawer this week, unopened. Oh yes, I’ve come to that point, so much stuff that I forget what I have!

  4. I have been using this for several years now, Identi Pen. Its a Fine/Extra Fine dual tip. Says – Permanent ink, dual-point marking pen. And…lo and behold further looking showed it to be made by Sakura color products corporation in Japan!

    I have 2 ornaments that I made. 1 signed with a black sharpie in 2010 is now faded to a pale purple. The ornament I signed with the identi Pen in 2012 is still a nice dark black.

    1. I’ll check them out, thanks. Sharpie is definitely not the way to go. Years ago when I worked in labs, we had markers that were alcohol resistant and could write on anything. That ink stayed through anything and had to be scrubbed off the glassware. I should look for those, too.

  5. If I do not have a heat gun how can I set or make sure the ink won’t run with Sakura or PITT marker pens on Premo! Scuplty?

    1. Just rebake your piece. That being said, I’m not sure that you really need to heat set those inks on polymer clay. I only included that step in case anyone questioned “why didn’t you heat set the ink”.

      1. I will experiment, BTW I just wanna say you have really inspired me. Your articles were one of the first things I ever read when I started with Polymer clay a couple weeks ago. So thank you <3

  6. Oh yes such wonderful advise and so well written, I am most grateful for Bonnie letting mo know about the smell of Kato Clay smells give me migraines too! I accepted a repair job from my mother-in-law but there was so much perfume on it that it made me sick for a week, have to be so careful.
    So I thank everyone who replies to comments and info and you Ginger the this fantastic blog.

    1. You’re most welcome, JanieBlue. Kato doesn’t really bother me so much except that it reminds me of formaldehyde and reminds me of working in anatomy labs. I actually find the smell of baking Premo to be more disagreeable. Isn’t that funny!

  7. Hi there, Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to write this review! It’s extremely helpful. I was wondering if you had to seal any of the markers that you chose as your favourites? Sakura Microperm, PITT Artist Markers, and Montana Acrylic Paint Markers ? And if so, do you mind sharing what kind of sealant you used? Thank you so much again. Kind regards, Dani

    1. Hi Dani,it’s probably not very clear in the article, but I did test all the inks by swiping them with a damp paper towel and with an alcohol soaked paper towel. The Microperm, PITT, and Montana all help up pretty well to the water. None held up perfectly to the alcohol, there was some bleeding, but Sakura and PITT held up the best. So I wouldn’t say that any of those three would need any sort of sealer. When I do use a sealer, though, I most always choose Varathane or another water-based polyurethane varnish. I’m starting to experiment with artist’s acrylic varnish but am getting inconsistent results and reports from others.

  8. Ranger used to have empty markers that were to be filled with the Adirondack alcohol inks. I haven’t seen them in a while, but they were around.

    1. Copic sells blank markers, I’m sure you could fill them with Ranger alcohol inks as well. Also, you can use Copic Various ink refills as alcohol ink. Versatile stuff!

  9. I found the answer to my open stock Montana question. Amazon! I do, however, have an additional question. Any chance you could explain to me the difference in size between the tip of the MicroPerm 05 and the Montana Acrylic Extra Fine (.7mm). (I’m numerically challenged) It sort of seems like trying to compare two marking system that I’m not familiar with. I’m thinking that the .7 Montana would be WAY thicker? Thanks!

    1. Sent you an email. I’ll be responding here on the blog in a few days with a comparison. But yes, the 0.7mm Montana is way thicker than the Microperm 05 (which I think is a 0.45mm).

  10. Ginger, I was wondering it you might have you found any online source of open stock Montana Acrylic Paint Markers or at least good buys? (No craft stores around here.) They sound great and I would love to try a red one without having to purchase other colors that I don’t need. I’m currently using a red Pigma Micron 01 to draw the tiny stitching on cured fluorescent yellow PREMO softballs. I find that if I’m careful not to smear it with my hands as I apply the stitching and then heat cure (200 F. for 10 minutes) the ink can be made stable enough so that GENTLE dabbing with undiluted Varathane doesn’t smear it. I then heat cure (200F. 10 minutes) again and add a second coat of Varathane. It’s A LOT of extra work, but it’s the only way I had found so far to apply the red stitching. It would be GREAT if I could just use a fine tip red Montana! Thanks for letting us know about it.

      1. Yes, they do, and you have to scroll down the page to see the open stock markers…all colors and sizes, even the ones that aren’t in sets. I love Blick. I think going there would be like a kid in a candy store. Heaven.

  11. Thank you so much for another well written article. I, too worked in a lab for more years than I can count. Your articles remind me of the experiments I carried out. :-))

  12. I use the Micron black pens but you cannot press very hard on the tip or they become blocked. Have been looking for another black pen to use so thank you! I don’t use Varathane to seal. I use PYM Acrylic Sealant which works well with no bleeding of color.

    1. Yes, that’s a drawback with many of the markers. And you can’t write on raw clay with them at all. The Varathane didn’t so much cause bleeding with Micron as it did cause smearing. Since PYM is a spray, that would fix that problem. I have a can of that…I keep meaning to play with it! I need more time in the day, LOL.

      1. The only trouble with PYM spray is that I can’t get hold of it here in the UK, and I NEED a sparay sealant for polyclay.
        Thanks so much for doing all that work, and for remembering (and saving) the 6 months sharpie tests.
        If you do get the coloured markers I’d love to see the results of your tests on that.
        P.S. we can’t get Varathane here in the UK either – wish we could!
        Fran

    1. No, I’ve actually not seen that one yet. Will keep my eyes peeled. When I worked in labs there were alcohol-fast markers that we used on glassware (because in a lab you use so much alcohol to clean and sterilize everything) and I’ve always thought about trying to find some of those to use. I wonder if the Sharpie Industrial markers are the same thing?

  13. WOW, Great research AND organization/presentation! Thanks so much for sharing this helpful info! I love the black Microperm for signing my work on PREMO and have found it holds up very well over time. The Montana Acrylic Paint Markers sound very interesting! I need to check them out.

  14. Ginger, this is incredible information and it’s so concise and easy to understand. I always wanted to try Zentangle on clay but never knew where to begin because of the pens. I can’t use Kato clay because of the smell. I’m very sensitive to smells and I get headaches from it. You’ve given me some great encouragement to try this now. Thank you for all the work you put into this.

    1. Seeing how well those Montana pens worked, it makes me want to buy the colored set and play with Zentangles, too. I’ve always been a fan of Kato, but it’s sure got some irritating things about it. One of which, yes, is the smell. I usually bake everything covered but yesterday put some Kato in the oven and my husband complained about how the smell was burning his nose. Interesting, because he never says a word, normally. Even after baking, Kato smells like a new vinyl shower curtain!

    1. I’m glad it came across clearly. That’s where I was struggling while writing this. Sometimes what’s in your head doesn’t always come out in words!

  15. Thank you for sharing the results of this experiment! You have become my favorite blog to read. You always have such interesting and helpful content. In reference to your post yesterday about having trouble finishing this post – sometimes when I am stuck working on something, I find that if I do some menial task like washing dishes or pulling weeds, the thoughts and ideas start flowing again, and I am able to get back on track.

    1. Thank you, Diane. It’s always nice to hear such great words. Good idea about taking a break while writing. My mother always said that when I get frustrated (or angry, whatever) that I should go “accomplish something”. She jokes that during bad times in her life the sink was always spotless.

  16. You said the alcohol ink wasn’t black but rather dark maroon. I’m not sure that’s accurate. Most black or dark inks are formed from many colours. When they are dissolved by water or alcohol, they often fracture or break apart back into their constituent components and one is often bigger than the others making it look like it was just a darker version of that colour. You weren’t far off. Just not quite on point. You are very sweet to do all that work for your readers. I’m sure they appreciate it!

    1. You are absolutely correct. I was writing for brevity. The bulk of the color is maroon, and that’s the part that stains the clay and probably is more soluble in both the plasticizers of the clay and the alcohol. There is also a navy blue fraction that comes off with water. You can see both colors on the alcohol soaked paper towel. I didn’t notice any green fraction, like I’ve seen with other black colorants. Regardless, it’s fascinating to me that the chemists of each of these ink companies created the color black in different ways to suit the particular chemistry of the markers and the carrier solvents that they used. This reminds me of doing filter paper chromatography experiments in botany class, watching the separation of the pigments in spinach! Great fun. Thank you for commenting. I hope people do enjoy this. My goal is to give answers for those endless questions we see on forums and all think “I outta try that someday”. Well…I did!

  17. Thank you so much for doing this experimentation. I really value the time and thought you put into these posts.

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