One of my favorite and most used tricks is to use rubbing alcohol in the craft studio. It’s cheap, available, and it just plain works wonders. Read on to see why I like it so much.
The most readily available and reasonably priced alcohol is isopropyl alcohol. Also known as rubbing alcohol, you can find this in the first aid section of any pharmacy, grocery, or discount store in the US. It generally comes in concentrations ranging between 70 and 91% isopropyl alcohol and water. A small amount of a bittering agent is added just to make sure nobody takes a swig. Outside of the US, rubbing alcohol can sometimes include other chemicals so to be sure try to get the kind that says it’s “isopropyl alcohol”. In the UK, you will find “surgical spirit” to be the good for cleaning alcohol-soaked brushes, but make sure you aren’t getting white spirit, which is paint thinner! You can usually buy ispropyl alcohol online in most places, or go to the chemist (pharmacist) in more specialized stores and you should be able to find or order it.
Isopropanol is toxic when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed though the skin in large doses, so you don’t want to be bathing in it. (Drinking about 20 ml (4 tsp) at once would be toxic to give you an idea.) But it relatively non-toxic when compared to other solvents such as acetone or methanol. It also evaporates quickly and leaves little residue, which makes it quite useful for industrial and yes, craft uses.
Isopropyl alcohol is a solvent that dissolves many oils, glues, and various sticky things that you’re going to encounter in an art studio or craft room. The same properties that make isopropanol excellent for cleaning electronic equipment make it fantastic prep for getting a grease-free surface prior to painting. It does a lot of the same things that acetone does, but is much less toxic and won’t ruin your manicure.
Rubbing Alcohol with Alcohol Inks
Alcohol inks such as the brand names of Ranger Adirondack and Pinata are made from dye dissolved in alcohol. Because of that, rubbing alcohol will also dissolve the colors. I use rubbing alcohol to dilute and thin alcohol inks much in the same way that you would use water to work with watercolors. It also will dissolve and clean up any spills on non-porous surfaces. You can use rubbing alcohol to clean your brushes and tools, too. It also works well to thin and clean up after alcohol markers such as Copic, Prismacolor, and Spectrum Noir. And because Sharpie is a dye-based marker, you can “erase” the marks with rubbing alcohol as well.
Polymer clay with Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol will dissolve polymer clay, so it makes a fantastic cleaner for your hands, your tools, and your work surface. An alcohol-soaked paper towel makes cleaning your pasta machine much nicer. I always use alcohol to wipe down my tissue blades after using them with polymer clay.
You can remove the fingerprints from unbaked clay by smoothing it with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. The alcohol will slightly dissolve the clay and any marks will be erased. It’s best for single colored clay areas, though. The colors in a patterned area will smear.
If you’re going to paint your cured polymer clay or give it a coat of varnish or sealer, you might find it helpful to give your cured clay a wipe-down with some rubbing alcohol on a paper towel. It will remove surface oils or residue that the clay has. Some brands of clay (such as Pardo and Kato) are known for having surfaces which cure with an oil and/or waxy residue. Isopropyl alcohol will remove it.
Rubbing Alcohol in a Spray Bottle
On my work table I always have a spray bottle filled with 91% isopropyl alcohol. I prefer the higher concentration of alcohol because the 70% variety is 30% water and that doesn’t evaporate as quickly. I get mine at WalMart in a quart bottle for a couple of dollars. This stuff is very inexpensive! If I have to clear a large area I’ll use it directly from the bottle, but most of the time I use a small spray bottle. By the way, do you know what’s one of the best sources of spray bottles with a dripless, fine spray? I love using travel size hair spray bottles! There is no leaking, it sprays in a fine mist, and it’s cheap. I typically just pour out the hair spray (I don’t use it), rinse both the bottle and the pump thoroughly, and fill the bottle with rubbing alcohol. I do make sure that I label it correctly, though. I have similar bottles with water and mold release on my work table and yes, I have grabbed the wrong bottle!
Every time I clean my work table surface, I use this spray bottle of rubbing alcohol. It dissolves all sorts of fingerprints off class, bits of paint from tile, gunk from stickers and tape.
Another neat thing you can do with a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol goes back to the alcohol inks. Make a design with alcohol inks on a non-porous surface such as a ceramic tile or glass. Once the ink dries, it is waterproof. But you can, of course remove it with alcohol. But if you spray alcohol in the surface, it makes crazy designs in the ink! Totally fun.
A couple more thoughts. Hand sanitizer will work to dissolve clay from your hands and tools, but it does leave a residue from the gel. It’s not much and some brands have more of an issue than others. But for this reason I prefer to use the plain isopropyl alcohol. Also, any alcohol dissolves oils, including body oils, and may leave your hands a bit worse for wear. Make sure you use a good hand lotion when you’re done working.
Oh! I almost forgot this one! When you use epoxy resin, it tends to be pretty messy. The uncured resin is hard to get off your hands because soap and water will not work. But alcohol does! Yippee! In short, if you’ve got an issue with something sticky or difficult to remove in the art studio, give rubbing alcohol a shot. It won’t fix everything, but just often enough, it is pure magic.
This article is part of my Indispensable Tool Series, an ongoing series of articles where I talk about the various tools and materials that are indispensable in my polymer clay studio.
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