General Polymer Clay Terms
Remember when there was a glossary in the back of your textbook? Here’s your polymer clay glossary! Every hobby has its special words and jargon with unique definitions that are unfamiliar to outsiders. Newbies and beginners struggle with new tools, skills, and materials, so it’s even more difficult when there’s a whole new vocabulary to learn as well. Here’s a list of polymer clay terms (and their definitions) that we commonly use when working with the medium of polymer clay.
Tute is short for tutorial. Sometimes it’s spelled out as tut. Some tutorials are just a quick series of photos that diagram a process like you can see here. Others are comprehensive educational experiences, such as the long-form eBooks that I write.
Translucent or Trans
Polymer clay comes in many colors including pearlescent and metallic varieties. In addition, most brands also include a colorless translucent variety. After baking, the light shines through translucent polymer clay to give an appearance a bit like frosted milk glass. Unfortunately, no brand of polymer clay is transparent like glass. You can see examples of the various brands of translucent here.
This polymer clay term always causes confusion because how can you have a liquid form of clay? It’s no longer clay once it’s liquid, right? Well, sort of. Liquid clay is just polymer clay without the binders that make vinyl “goo” into a putty. You can learn about liquid clay here.
The first brand of liquid clay (and the only one for many years) was Translucent Liquid Sculpey. This same product is still available, but the name has changed many times over the years. But many of us still call the original stuff TLS. Read about Sculpey’s various liquid clays here.
Polymer clay is vinyl plastic and it contains a plasticizer to make it flexible (as opposed to rigid like a PVC pipe). The plasticizer is what allows polymer clay to be strong after baking, rather than brittle. It doesn’t shatter like an old vinyl record because it contains plasticizer.
Terms for Manipulating Polymer Clay
When polymer clay sits around for a while, it sort of gels up and becomes stiffer and more likely to crumble when worked. You always have to condition or massage your polymer clay to make it more workable. While you can use your hands or an acrylic roller to do this, most artists use a pasta machine. You’ll know your clay is conditioned if it can be worked well without cracking or crumbling and seams can be invisibly blended. Learn more about conditioning (and other clay info) in my Polymer Clay Essentials eBook.
Yes, this is the same machine used to sheet noodles and linguine. The most popular pasta machine in the polymer world, The Atlas, comes from Italy and can sometimes be found in second hand shops. Learn more about pasta machines for polymer clay here.
This is like a rolling pin for polymer clay. We use acrylic because it doesn’t react with the clay and doesn’t absorb the clay’s oils the way that wood can do.
If your polymer clay is fresh from the factory, it can sometimes be too soft. You can remove excess oils and plasticizer by leaching. Lay sheets of the clay between sheets of plain copy paper and press under a heavy weight for 10-15 minutes. This will make the clay a bit stiffer.
Sculpey Clay Softener and Cernit Magic Mix are bottles of plasticizer that you can use to make crumbly and hard blocks of polymer clay more workable. Years ago, Sculpey’s Clay Softener was called “Clay Diluent” (DILL-you-unt) and you might still see that term being used.
No, this doesn’t have anything to do with earthen clay. Mud Clay is the blah-colored clay that you get when you mix together all your scraps. It’s usually some dull-colored version of a pinky brown, depending on the colors used in your project.
This tool allows you to squirt polymer clay through a shaped disk, giving you “snakes” of clay that can be round, square, or any number of complex shapes. Depending on the way the colors are loaded into the extruder and the shape of the disk, there’s a huge variety of techniques that can be done with an extruder. Read my review of the community’s favorite extruder, the Czextruder.
A technique that creates an optical illusion in a pearlescent or metallic polymer clay where a perfectly smooth surface looks like it has raised designs. Read my article about mica shift and the best brands of clay for it here.
(Pronounced mo-koo-may-gah-nay) Layers or sheets of polymer clay are stacked, distorted, and compressed into a billet (also called a stack or block). Slices from this block reveal complex wavy patterns and these slices are used to make patterned areas in your projects. Mokume gane is named for similar technique in Japanese metalworking.
A blended color sheet of polymer clay that graduates from one color to another. It’s named after Judith Skinner who developed the popular triangle method of creating this blend. There are other ways to create a blended sheet and we still tend to call them Skinner blends. (Here are some tips for making good Skinner blends.)
A log of polymer clay that has an image or design running the entire length. Similar to slice-and-bake cookies, all slices of a cane will reveal the same image. When you “reduce a cane”, you make this log smaller, so that the resulting smaller slices have a smaller version of the image. In glassworking, these canes are called murrine. Learn more about polymer clay canes here.
Italian for “thousand flowers”, it’s a name for a technique in both glasswork and polymer clay where slices of canes are arranged to create a pretty (often flowered) design. (Note, the cane itself is not called millefiori, rather it’s what you make from cane slices.)
Polymer clay can be pressed into molds or impressed with texture sheets. The clay can stick, however, so we often use a mold release. You can use a spritz of water, a dusting of cornstarch (corn flour), or an automotive spray such as Armor-All or Son-of-a Gun. Note: If you’re using Fimo Professional, don’t use water. Water dissolves Fimo, making it stickier.
This is a general term for any type of unmounted stamp that can be pressed to the polymer clay to give it a texture. Some texture sheets (also called texture mats) can be put through the pasta machine along with the clay, to get a deep impression. (Make sure to use a mold release!
This polymer clay term isn’t obvious at first. No, this has nothing to do with tissue paper or facial tissues. When slicing canes or making mica shift or mokume gane, it’s important to have a super sharp blade. Years ago, before manufacturers sold blades for polymer clay, artists borrowed from the medical field. Tissue blades are the same blades used in histology labs to slice tissue for microscopic imaging. They are incredibly sharp and will slice you just like they slice medical specimens. They also dull quickly. For this reason, save tissue blades for these specialty purposes and use a general clay blade (or scraper blade) for everyday claying. I have used the same clay blades for nearly 20 years. (I do, however, buy new tissue blades as I dull them.)
A technique developed by Lisa Pavelka where a texture sheet acts like a mold and clay is pressed into the design. This clay is then removed and pressed onto another sheet, giving a raised pattern.
In woodworking, thin sheets of attractive (and expensive) wood are often layered over cheaper wood to keep the costs down. Because we use the same idea of layering a pretty sheet over scrap clay, we tend to call pretty sheets of clay “veneers”. It’s common to make veneers and store them for future use. These decorative clay sheets can also be cut into shapes and backed to make pendants, earrings, etc.
There’s some disagreement about what we call this process of making polymer clay hard. There are people who are offended when we say that we bake polymer clay. It sounds amateurish to their ears. Here’s the scoop. Polymer clay gets hard by a process of curing. When you put it in the oven, you’re curing it. Cure is always a correct term for this process. But we cure polymer clay by baking it in an oven. Anything that is heated in an oven is baked. You’ve heard of baked-on coatings, right? Sun-baked earth. Yes, baking is also a correct term. We cure our polymer by baking it!
However, we don’t say that we cook polymer clay. According to the dictionary, cooking is a term applied to food. You cook your dinner. And as a joke, we might “cook the books”. But we never cook our polymer clay. It is not food!
Covering your item during baking. The name comes from the practice of making a little tent shape over your item with cardboard or foil. Learn more about baking polymer clay here.
Plunging hot items straight from the oven into ice water. Some people believe it makes translucent clay more clear (I’ve never been able to demonstrate it, myself). However, it is pure myth that it makes clay stronger. It does not.
Similar to a blow dryer, but with much more heat and less fan power, this tool is used in many different ways when working with polymer clay. Examples are popping resin bubbles, melting embossing powder, drying alcohol ink, and clearing liquid polymer clay finishes. While an embossing heat tool can work for some processes, you might prefer to invest in a variable heat and variable speed model from the hardware store.
A baking technique where the item is placed into a cold oven and the temperature is gradually increased over a long period of time. It’s usually not necessary, but can be a good thing to try when trying to solve frustrating cracking or browning issues.
Gases that collect within the clay mass during baking form small moon-shaped bubbles. Present in all clay, they’re most commonly seen in translucent clay. Additionally, some people call them “moonies”.
A “skeleton” or support that a sculpture is built over. It can be made from wire, compressed aluminum foil, or even cardboard. An armature doesn’t prevent breakage. Instead, it gives the item support so that it won’t droop under its own weight.
A compressed shape made from aluminum foil that is used at the center of large beads or sculptures. A foil core bulks out an item, greatly reducing the amount of clay that is needed. It also makes an item more lightweight.
A process where you add a dark layer of paint (or similar) over the surface of an item and then wipe most of it off. This leaves darkness in the crevices, making the item look old, worn, or antique.
A process where you apply a light or metallic paint (or similar) to the tops of textures to make an item look more dynamic and interesting.
Gilding Cream or Paste
A cream or wax that contains mica (so it appears pearlescent or metallic) that is used to highlight textured areas of an item.
While resin is a very broad name for the components that make up many plastics, we usually use the term to refer to a type of clear material that hardens to a glossy surface. Curing is catalyzed by UV light in the case of UV resin or by adding a catalyst or hardener in the case of epoxy resin. Read my article about using resin with polymer clay here.
Glaze, sealer, varnish
While polymer clay does not need to be sealed and does not need a glaze the way that ceramic does, you can use varnish to give polymer items a glossy finish. Learn about the various types of clearcoats here and then follow the links to other articles about varnishes. You can also use a matte varnish, which is not shiny.
A silkscreen is a stencil that’s attached to a fine mesh fabric. The silkscreen is pressed to the surface of polymer clay and paint is pressed through it, leaving a design. Learn more from my All About Silkscreens eBook.
What other polymer clay terms should I add to this glossary? Are there any polymer clay definitions that you were surprised to learn? Tell me about them in the comments and I’ll add them to the article. And if you’d like to get informative and inspirational articles delivered three times a week, subscribe to The Muse. You never know what you’ll learn next!