Polymer clay is an extremely versatile medium which is perfect for beginners and professional artists alike. It can be a challenging and complex medium for those who want to push the limits. But it is also very easy for beginners and newbies to get good results, once you know a few tips and tricks. Here are some helpful polymer clay tips for beginners. If you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion of these topics, several of them link to longer articles.
Sealing Polymer Clay
Because polymer clay is a durable, water-resistant plastic after baking, it is plenty strong and does not need to be sealed for protection. In fact, polymer clay itself will withstand water, weather, and wear better than any sealer. The sealer will break down before the clay will.
Sealers, glazes, and varnishes can very often become sticky, peel, become cloudy, or suffer from annoying brush strokes. Only use them if you really, truly need to, and always test your chosen varnish before using it on a large or important project.
But there are times when you do want to seal your polymer clay creations, however. If you use surface embellishments with your polymer clay such as mica powders, foil, or metal leaf, then you will need to use a sealer to protect them. Acrylic paint used to decorate your polymer clay will only need to be sealed if there is risk of it being scraped or rubbed off.
You may also want to use a sealer to change the gloss level of your polymer clay creation. Depending on your desired result, you might want to make a bead more glossy or a figurine more matte. Sealer can be used to create the result.
You can use most water-based varnishes to seal your polymer clay. Many people like to use the acrylic varnishes that are sold to protect fine art paintings. They come in gloss, satin, and matte finishes. But be aware that some varnishes may never fully dry on some brands of polymer clay. And putting varnish over acrylic paint can cause even more stickiness issues. Learn more, including which sealers to trust, in Do You Have to Seal Polymer Clay?
Do you want to check out other clear-coat options besides varnish? Read my article comparing the various glazes, sealers, varnishes, resins, and clear-coats.
Hard, Crumbly Clay
Polymer clay sometimes gets crumbly as it gets old. Although it can be more difficult to work with, the clay itself is not damaged and can almost always be softened with a little work. If you warm the clay slightly, but not enough to cause it to cure, the clay will soften and become easier to work. Try placing the package of clay in your pocket for 30 minutes or so. Some people like to place the clay in a ziploc bag and then submerge the bag in hot tap water.
Polymer clay can also be softened by mixing in a few drops of mineral oil or liquid clay. Many clayers report excellent results by adding in small amounts of Fimo Mix Quick, Sculpey Mold Maker, or a very soft translucent polymer clay. You can find more solutions for working with crumbly clay in Can I Soften Hard Polymer Clay?
If you don’t follow any of these polymer clay tips for beginners, make sure you follow this one. I can’t stress that enough!! Polymer clay must be properly baked to ensure your project will be strong, durable, and attractive. Underbaking leads to breakage, and improper baking can cause color changes.
All ovens need to be checked with a separate thermometer to verify that the temperature you set is, indeed, the temperature that’s being reached. Always bake your project at the temperature recommended by the manufacturer, never lower. Lower temperature causes incomplete curing. Once your oven is preheated, begin timing and bake for at least as long as the manufacturer recommends. It’s okay to bake longer. In fact, most artists agree that longer baking leads to a stronger finished product.
To protect your project against browning and color changes during baking, make sure to cover your project inside the oven. I like to use two aluminum foil pans, one inverted as a lid, and clamped shut with a binder clip. This will prevent the oven’s heating element from “toasting” your project. Read much more, including advice on ovens, temperature, and baking tips in Baking Polymer Clay.
Paints to Avoid
Never use nail polish to color or add gloss to any polymer clay project. The chemicals in the nail polish can dissolve the polymer clay and/or cause it to turn sticky over time. Most acrylic paints work very well for painting the surface of polymer clay, but some of them do get remain a bit sticky. Always test your paint with the clay brand that you’re using. Fimo is known for having a lot of paint incompatibility, whereas Sculpey III can often work better.
Polymer Clay is Non-toxic
Polymer clay has been tested and is certified as being non-toxic and safe to be used as a normal crafting material. Touching polymer clay, working with it, and even baking it in your home oven is not dangerous. Polymer clay is not a food, so you don’t want to eat it, of course. And it’s not the right material for using to make food-safe items such as plates or bowls. But don’t be worried about any scary stories you might read on the internet about toxic fumes. There are no toxic fumes. Be logical when working with polymer clay, though. Use dedicated crafting tools, wash your hands when you’re done, and don’t eat snacks while you’re working with clay. And have fun with it!
Polymer clay can burn at temperatures over 350°F (170°C). If this ever happens, turn off the oven, open all the windows, and leave the room until the air clears. The acidic gases produced smell awful and are irritating to your lungs and you don’t want to breathe them. For more thorough discussion on this subject, make sure to check out Is Polymer Clay Safe?
Use a Quality Clay
There are many brands of polymer clay and they all have their good and bad features. Some clays are better for caning, others are better for sculpting. Some are completely unsuitable for jewelry making, others work very well. It’s best to use a major name-brand clay such as Fimo, Premo, Kato, Pardo, Cernit, and Filani. There are some no-brand clays available on the internet and sold as children’s craft clays. Many of these clays will give inconsistent or even disappointing results. It’s best to avoid using them and stick with the main brands, even if their price tag seems appealing. Are you curious about the differences between the brands of clay and which you should use, don’t miss What’s the Best Brand of Polymer Clay.
Sculpey III and CraftSmart brands are soft, weak brands of clay that are known for breaking and cracking after baking. They have their purpose, perhaps for making children’s figurines. But they are best to be avoided if you’re needing strength in your finished piece.
If you are using a quality clay brand and are experiencing breakage, then it’s most likely due to underbaking or incomplete curing. Read the section on Baking Polymer Clay to make sure you’re covering the bases there.
Storing Polymer Clay
When storing polymer clay it’s very important that you keep it away from sources of heat that can lead to it being cured or hardened. Avoid storing near radiators and heaters, in cabinets above a lamp, or in a hot sunny window.
It’s also best to keep dust and pet hair from settling on your polymer clay. Many artists keep their clay in partitioned plastic boxes, like is sold for embroidery floss. Sandwich bags also work great to keep your colors separated. But be careful to only use “clay safe” plastic boxes with polymer clay. How will you know if it’s clay safe? Just look on the bottom for the recycle number “5”. This is a slightly cloudy plastic called polypropylene and works very well with polymer clay. Avoid the brittle, clear plastic with the recycle number 6. That is polystyrene and unfortunately polymer clay will dissolve and melt polystyrene. Polymer clay will also melt styrofoam in the form of packing peanuts and packing foam, so be careful to keep uncured clay from those materials. Read more about the various plastics used with polymer clay here.
Some brands and colors of polymer clay within a brand seem to dry out if not stored tightly sealed. This didn’t used to be necessary and you’ll read in older articles that polymer clay never dries out. It won’t completely dry out in the way that paper clay or Play-Doh will. But recent changes in the chemistry of some polymer clay means that you’ll most likely have better results if you store your clay tightly sealed in bags or in plastic boxes. Avoid storing in cardboard boxes or open to the air.
Tools and Starter Kit?
So…you’re ready to get going with polymer clay, but what do you need to get started? Just as with any new art or craft, there are always plenty of things to spend your money on, and the temptations at the craft store are huge! But you really don’t need to spend very much money to get started creating with polymer clay. I wrote an article about creating a polymer clay starter kit, and it will give you an idea of the things you need, that you might want after you get going a bit, and things you’ll want to put on your “someday” list. As you’ll see, you don’t need those expensive kits to get busy playing with clay.
Use Other Art Materials
Polymer clay works very well with other art materials and many of the products you already have for other crafts can be used with polymer clay. Experiment with mica powders, chalk powders, foils, acrylic paints, alcohol inks, Copic or Spectrum Noir markers, and acrylic inks. Rubber stamps, shape cutters, paper punches (on paper-thin sheets of baked clay), glitter, colored pencils, silicone molds, and epoxy resin are all commonly used with polymer clay and give you endless ways to create interesting results.
When crafters are new to working with a medium, they are often worried that they’ll do something “wrong”. You have to remember that polymer clay is a new and evolving medium. Artists are discovering new ways to work with it everyday. Each new technique that someone develops was, at one point, undocumented and unknown. Try new things, try combining your projects with materials from other crafts, and let your imagination be your only limit. As long as you are not burning your clay or making it sticky with paint thinner, it’s really very hard to go wrong with polymer clay. You might not like what you make, but then again maybe you will discover something that no one has ever tried before. There are no limits. Enjoy and have fun working with polymer clay!
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