Just like an old game of “telephone”, people share information to help each other and as the information spreads, it changes. Over time, details change or people misunderstand. Soon there are “facts” that people have “heard” that get repeated over and over. This phenomenon is part of human nature and found in every culture, age group, and community. The crafting community is not immune, of course, and that means that polymer clayers do also spread polymer clay myths. Most of these myths do have a kernel of truth inside of them, however. Here are some common polymer clay myths and the truth behind them.
1. Polymer Clay is Toxic
This is the single most prevalent polymer clay myth that I encounter when visiting online groups and forums. All major brands of polymer clay undergo testing to certify they are non-toxic materials suitable for craft use. Yet many people mistakenly believe that polymer clay is dangerous. When used as directed (eg. don’t eat it, put it in your eyes, use as diaper cream), it is perfectly safe for contact with your hands and to bake in your home oven. Polymer clay, when it’s cured, is actually just vinyl plastic. This the same material used to make a baby doll, kiddie pool, tablecloth, and shower curtain. It’s not good to burn polymer clay (or vinyl baby dolls for that matter), but it has to get to 350°F (176°C) for that to happen. For a more complete discussion of this most prevalent of polymer clay myths, read my article on Polymer Clay Safety.
2. Polymer Clay Burns Easily
It’s so disheartening when you work hard on a beautiful dragon, put him in the oven to cure, and he comes out black and bubbly. Because this is SUCH a frustrating issue, many assume that polymer clay burns easily. They reduce their baking temperature to prevent this problem. However, this particular polymer clay myth is a case of mistaken identity. It’s not that polymer clay burns easily. It’s that ovens lie to you and aren’t very good at doing what you tell them to do. If you use a digital oven thermometer to track the actual temperature over a bake cycle, you’ll find that the temperature will fluctuate greatly. If your oven gets hot enough, your clay will burn.
Always use a separate oven thermometer to verify what your oven is actually doing in there. It’s your way of keeping your lying oven accountable for its actions! Feel free to adjust the setting to give you the temperature that you actually want to use.
A word about burning. You will know if your clay burns. The clay will bubble and blacken and there will be profuse and terrible smelling smoke. This won’t happen unless your clay reaches 350°F (176°C), however. Far more common is the situation of browned or darkened clay. This happens when the heat from the oven’s element toasts your clay. It can even happen when the oven is at the correct temperature if your oven’s element has long cycles. It’s always a good idea to cover your clay to protect light colors against darkening. You can learn all about this, including how to choose an oven, all about temperature, how long to bake your clay, and tricks to help bake your clay well in my series of articles on Baking Polymer Clay.
3. Polymer Clay Breaks Easily
Equally horrifying to watching your dragon go up in smoke is when you create something as a gift to someone and find that it breaks while you are wrapping it. Or worse, you realize that items you have sold are breaking. Why is polymer clay so fragile? Well, you guessed it. This is another polymer clay myth. Manufacturers make polymer clay from PVC particles that need to fuse during baking into a solid mass. If you don’t bake the clay long enough and hot enough, the fusion will be incomplete and your creation will be fragile. Make sure that you are baking your clay properly.
Also, there are dozens of brands of polymer clay and they’re all made with slightly different formulas. Some are stronger than others. Some are better for jewelry, others are just fine for making cute little chibis and figurines. Some brands that work beautifully for chunky pieces will be far too brittle for making anything that will be extensively handled or will be thinner than 1/4″ (5mm). Make sure you choose the Best Brand of Polymer Clay for the kind of work you like to do.
4. You Need to Seal Polymer Clay
I’m not sure why this polymer clay myth is so popular lately, but it sure is a hard one to overcome! Polymer clay is vinyl plastic and therefore is already waterproof, washable, and durable. It does not need sealing and in many cases adding a sealer, varnish, or glaze can ruin your piece. These brush-on products can sometimes remain sticky, get cloudy, peel off, or deteriorate over time.
Sometimes, however, it’s not the polymer clay that you want to protect, but rather the surface treatment that you’ve applied. If you’ve used mica powders, metallic pastes and creams, glitter, or foils and metal leaf, you will likely want to protect the surface. Choose your varnish wisely, however. Always test a new varnish with the brand of clay that you’re using before applying it to a project that you’ve spent a lot of time on. Also, know that most spray-on sealers are completely incompatible with polymer clay, leading to sticky results. There are exceptions, however. You may also want to change the level of gloss on your piece by using a varnish. Read more about sealing polymer clay and learn which brands of brush-on and spray sealers and varnishes I do recommend in my article Do You Need to Seal Polymer Clay?
5. You Should Sand and Buff Polymer Clay
This one isn’t so much a polymer clay myth as it is an assumption. A sanded and buffed polymer clay finish is truly wonderful. It feels warm, smooth, silky, and invites your touch. But it’s not the only way to make something from polymer clay! Polymer clay creations can still be “finished” and “professional looking” when painted, textured, distressed, or even just left au naturale. Sanding will ruin some projects, so don’t think that you need to apply sandpaper to everything you make.
Sanding and buffing, however, are excellent techniques to have in your repertoire. A perfectly sanded bead can rival glass in its smooth beauty and you truly must sand and buff mica shift to get that incredible sparkle and the illusion of depth. If you’ve tried sanding and aren’t happy with your results, you will certainly find my Sanding and Buffing Polymer Clay eBook to be indispensable. It is over 120 beautifully formatted pages and it covers everything you could ever imagine about sanding, buffing, tumbling, tools, tips, and tricks. Even the most seasoned clayer learns new things from reading this book!
6. Polymer Clay is a Child’s Toy
We all played with modeling clay when we were in primary school, and in many ways polymer clay certainly resembles the oily Plasticine clay that most of us used. And polymer clay does make a wonderful modeling clay for children, especially the softer brands aimed at them such as Bake Shop and Fimo Kids. But polymer clay is oh so much more than that! Because you can clay mold, extrude, sculpt, carve, drill, sand, paint, roll, knit, layer, twist, texture, and chop polymer clay, it lends itself to use in every kind of art imaginable. Yes, it makes great Minions and hair bow centers. But it also makes vessels, brooches, shrines, mosaics, paintings, collages, jewelry, and even art installations. (Do take some time to explore the work in each of those links…they are luscious.)
Polymer clay is arguably the best art media for exploring the use of color. Because you can mix colors of clay together in the same way you can mix colors of paint, it’s the perfect medium for teaching yourself the mechanics of color mixing. But unlike paint, you can use polymer clay in three dimensions to extend color’s expression beyond a flat surface and into the sculptural realm. That doesn’t sound like a child’s toy to me. 🙂
7. Polymer Clay is Tacky and Tasteless
Now this rather unbecoming polymer clay myth isn’t one that most polymer clayers hold, but the general public often does. Perhaps because polymer clay is plastic or maybe because it’s such an accessible medium for beginners, many people do have the unfortunate impression that polymer clay is garish, cartoonish, and ugly. Well, frankly, some of it is. Like crocheted toilet paper cozies, any craft can sometimes be taken too far and polymer is no exception. But that’s not a fault, or even a defining characteristic, of the medium. As I mentioned above, polymer clay is also used to make great art. I wish we didn’t have to overcome the stereotype that polymer can have, but my solution is to just ignore it and make great polymer clay art. Keep doing what you’re doing, and show them how fabulous this medium is!
8. You Can Make Polymer Clay at Home
On Pinterest there are many recipes explaining how to make your own polymer clay. Like the other polymer clay myths, this one has a nugget of truth and a lot of misunderstanding. Manufacturers make polymer clay from materials that you cannot purchase in quantities suitable for home use. You cannot buy the ingredients in a store or even online to make polymer clay. What those recipes actually make is an air dry clay that’s commonly known as “cold porcelain”. There are some commercial products called “air dry polymer clay”, but please understand they have their own characteristics and are not interchangeable with oven bake polymer clay.
While there is much overlap in the ways that all you use all modeling clays, air dry clays are very different from polymer clay because there is substantial shrinkage and you can’t get the precision in caning that you can get with polymer clay. In short, some things are similar, some things are very different. But please don’t fall for the click-bait that promises recipes to make your own polymer clay. You can’t, really.
If you live where polymer clay is not readily available and is a luxury-priced import good, cold porcelain is an affordable medium to create with. Enjoy using it to create things from polymer clay tutorials. But do be aware that your results may differ.
More Polymer Clay Myths
Here are a few more polymer clay myths or at least misconceptions that I wanted to add while I’ve got you here:
Don’t Store Polymer Clay in Plastic – Polymer clay can degrade some types of plastic, but others are perfectly safe. Find out which plastics are safe to use with polymer clay.
Don’t Bake Polymer Clay Multiple Times – It doesn’t hurt to bake polymer clay over and over, as long as it doesn’t get too hot (though it may darken). In fact baking a piece in stages (body, then muscles, then skin and details) is the best way to create without messing up earlier sections. Some sculptors bake at the end of each day’s work.
Spray Sealers will Degrade Polymer Clay – Actually, it is the other way around. Something in polymer clay (likely the plasticizer) causes the plastic in most spray sealers to soften and become sticky. Learn more about using spray sealers with polymer clay here.
You Shouldn’t Wash Polymer Clay – Why not? It’s plastic. It’s so durable you can even run it through the washing machine. Here’s what happened when I washed polymer clay buttons.
Translucent Polymer Clay Should be Clear – Actually, it will be translucent, which means that light will come through it but you cannot see through it clearly. Not sure how clear your translucent needs to be? Have a look at my comparison of various brands here.