In recent years, it’s become very popular to make polymer clay pieces glossy by adding a layer of resin. Often seen on polymer clay earrings, a thick coating of resin is a great way of disguising flaws and making a glossy surface. This practice has become so ubiquitous that many new makers are not aware that there are alternatives to using resin on polymer clay.
While both epoxy and UV resin have broad acceptance and use in the polymer clay community (read my article on resin here), more people are becoming aware that resin isn’t the perfect solution. Resin can be messy, it has a short shelf life, and it eventually turns yellow. In addition, many people are looking for resin alternatives because of the health concerns that come with using resin. Resin can be highly allergenic and cause serious reactions. So this article discusses several alternative ways that you can create a glossy surface on polymer clay that doesn’t use resin.
There are two types of resin, either 2-part epoxy resin that cures in about 24 hours (such as these on Amazon) or UV cure (again, on Amazon) that cures with UV light in minutes. Both are thick, hard, very glossy, and can appear flawless. Resin is thick enough that it covers any flaws or slight texture (aka fingerprints) that the face of your clay might have. However, resin will fill in and hide any intentional texture from texture sheets.
Resin has a bit of a learning curve, and many people prefer not to use it because it can trigger intense allergies. It eventually will turn yellow. While it’s usually easy to remove bubbles that rise to the surface, it’s not uncommon for more bubbles or odd swirls to form during curing. Once coated with resin, you cannot rebake your pieces.
Resin contracts as it cures, often pulling the resin away from the edges of your polymer clay pieces. Both UV and epoxy resin have a short shelf life, so buying in bulk isn’t always wise. Frankly, there are poorly performing resins out there, and you won’t know they don’t work well until you have ruined your pieces.
Pros: Thick, super glossy, magnifies glittery effects, hard.
Cons: Health concerns, yellows with time, annoying to use, cannot be rebaked.
Visual Comparison of Resin Alternatives
Here is a video showing the way each of these resin alternatives looks when applied (or used) on polymer clay. Each has a very different appearance and feel, so make sure to choose the one that gives you the appearance you want for your polymer clay earrings or other artwork.
Resin Alternatives for Polymer Clay
Varnish (sometimes called glaze or sealer) is just wood varnish or the varnish that’s used to coat acrylic paintings. On wood, it soaks into the fibers to form a super-durable surface. On polymer, however, it merely forms a super thin skin on the surface of your clay. A popular brand of varnish is Varathane. I also like a newcomer on the market, Brite Tone, that you can read about in my article here.
Because it’s just a thin skin, varnish conforms to whatever texture or flaws you have on the surface of your clay and can therefore accentuate flaws. You should make your surface quite smooth before baking and applying varnish. (You can also make your polymer clay smooth after baking by sanding it.)
Brush strokes and any dust specks from your brush can make this finish nearly impossible to make smooth and flawless. Some varnishes become sticky on some brands of clay, which means you should always test your varnish before using it. Additionally, many varnishes don’t bond well with the surface of the polymer clay and can easily be scratched from the clay’s surface. Varnishes are available in varying levels of gloss, from super shiny to flat and dull. Varnish-coated pieces can be rebaked. Multiple coats can be built up to create a thicker surface, but never as thick as resin or liquid clay.
A better use for varnish is to seal surface effects such as mica, pastels, or complex color treatments. In this case, the varnish protects the stuff that’s ON the clay. Varnish is also your best choice when you want a textured surface to have a glossy or shiny finish.
Pros: Inexpensive, readily available, works well to seal surface effects. Can be rebaked. Great for making textures glossy.
Cons: Difficult to make smooth, easily scratched off. Some brands can turn sticky.
Dimensional glazes are a type of thick, water-based gel (more like a syrup) that dries clear. This product can appear similar to resin, but it is not as hard and absorbs humidity. This type of product takes several days to dry fully and can shrink during drying to leave a dip in the center (making a second coat a good idea.) Dimensional glazes turn white when they’re in contact with water and can turn cloudy in high-humidity areas. You can still dent the surface with a fingernail months later, and this soft surface means that anything you leave touching the surface will “melt” into it slightly, leaving a mark. Items stored while touching will stick together. I’m not a fan of this product as a resin substitute. Items coated with dimensional glaze cannot be rebaked.
Since dimensional glaze tends to stay slightly milky, especially when thick, it tends to obscure the shine of glitter or mica rather than magnify it.
Many people discover this product and are thrilled to see that it’s thick like resin and makes a glossy surface. But their joy fades once they see how this finish performs and how many problems it causes with time.
Pros: Thicker than varnish. Makes good raindrops on roses.
Cons: Many. Save this product for your paper projects.
Liquid clay is just that, a liquid version of polymer clay, and it must be heated to cure. Most brands of liquid clay cure somewhat cloudy. There are a few brands of liquid clay that cure crystal clear and glossy and can therefore make an excellent alternative to resin.
Kato Liquid Polyclay, Sculpey Liquid Clear, and Fimo Liquid will all cure clear and glossy when they’re fully cured. They do, however, need to be cured quite hot to create this effect. You just apply the liquid clay to the surface of the clay and then bake it in a hot oven, about 300F/148C. In most cases, though, a heat gun is required for the best clarity. It’s a process with a steep learning curve (here’s a paid tutorial from Debbie Crothers), and it can be quite difficult to avoid getting bubbles and blisters, especially if an item is large.
I also find that Kato Liquid coated pieces can develop an oily surface with time (it does wipe off). You can apply multiple coats to create a thick, glossy surface. Liquid clays cure smooth and glossy, but it can be tricky to achieve a flat surface.
Pros: Easy to do once you know how, forms a hard surface, very glossy when done right, can be rebaked. Thick, magnifies glitter and shine. Makes really nice faux lampwork.
Cons: Tricky to learn, bubbles are easy to make with a heat gun, lots of ways to do it wrong. Usually needs a heat gun.
Sanded and Buffed
Polymer clay is plastic, and it can be sanded smooth and buffed to a glossy shine. This technique just takes some sandpaper and a polishing wheel and is easy to do, but most of the online information out there is incomplete and even misleading. Sanding and buffing doesn’t add any materials or coatings, and it’s just the clay itself. There’s no coating to peel off or get sticky.
Any baked clay can be sanded and buffed to make it shiny. This process can’t be used on surface treatments because it will sand them off. This process leaves a warm, burnished, pleasing feel to the clay’s surface that is a sensory delight. You can buffy a texture to create a warm, burnished appearance. Since there are no coatings or products on the clay’s surface, you can rebake it.
If you’re new to the process of sanding polymer clay and buffing it to create this kind of shine, you can learn the entire process here in my tutorial/course.
Pros: Easy once you know how, has a wonderful feel. Removes flaws and textures. No worries about chemical incompatibility.
Cons: Can’t protect surface treatments. Takes more time than varnish.
Sand better, not harder
Everyone loves a perfectly smooth, glassy finish, but it seems to be elusive. Does your polymer clay look scratched and rough after sanding? This course will change everything.
Choosing a Resin Alternative for Polymer Clay
Please know that resin isn’t necessary when working with polymer clay. In fact, before polymer clay cutter earrings became a “thing”, makers seldom used resin as a coating. (It was more often used to create a magnifying surface, to embed inclusions, create water effects, or in molds.) If all you’re doing is making a shiny surface, there are other methods that are less problematic than using resin.
When to Use Resin
Resin is a wonderful material to use when you want to make a thick, magnifying, perfectly smooth, very glassy and smooth surface on your polymer clay pieces. It intensifies the appearance of metallic clay and glitter. But the thick coating can look very plasticky and produce earrings that look mass-produced. Resin is best on perfectly flat pieces. In short, use resin when you want the unique appearance that resin creates.
When to Use Varnish
Use varnish when you need to change the gloss level of the surface of your polymer clay pieces. Varnish is the perfect material to protect surface treatments like powders, paints, or metal leaf. Varnish doesn’t obscure unwanted texture (ie. fingerprints) but that same property makes it the perfect coating to make intentional texture shiny (such as when using a texture stamp).
When to Sand and Buff
If you want to create a shiny surface on plain, smooth polymer clay, there is no better approach than to create a sanded and buffed finish. This technique enhances the natural beauty of polymer clay, has a wonderful tactile feel, and avoids the chemical and performance issues that you face when adding a product to the surface of polymer clay. Metallic clays are enhanced and come to life when they’re sanded and buffed, too.
Resin is a wonderful material that does what it does very well. There is no substitute that matches it exactly. But by understanding which features you’re seeking, such as gloss or protection, you can make a better decision about which resin alternatives you want to use for your polymer clay work. Personally, I use all of these finishes (including resin) for different projects because they have such different features, results, and appearances.
And just to be clear, the Amazon links in this article are affiliate links and are only shared for ease of explaining more about the product. Please purchase the products that make sense for your project from wherever works best for where you live.
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