One of the saddest things that happens to new makers is when they spend many hours making a precious creation with polymer clay, bake it, then coat it with a paint or varnish that becomes sticky. Days or weeks later, they realize with horror that dust and pet fur are sticking to the surface and handling the item reveals fingerprints pressed into the gloss. Sadly, many paints and varnishes interact chemically with polymer clay and the finish becomes ruined. Many others work perfectly well, however. The challenge is finding paints and varnishes that don’t become sticky on polymer clay. Because of this, it’s imperative that you always test paints and varnishes that you use on polymer clay.
Why So Sticky?
While it’s commonly stated that these finishes “eat” the polymer clay or soften the surface, it’s actually the other way around. Polymer clay is a plastic that contains a plasticizer. The plasticizer’s job is to soften the polymer clay and keep it from being brittle after baking. Many paints and varnishes contain a plastic that, unfortunately, is also softened by the plasticizer in the polymer clay. If the specific plasticizer in a brand of clay happens to soften the specific plastic in the paint or varnish, it won’t fully dry and will become sticky. So yes, the polymer clay (actually the plasticizer in it) is softening the paint or varnish!
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Removing the Sticky Paint or Varnish
But what can you do if the worst has happened and your precious creation is sticky enough that the cat feels a magnetic pull? Is it ruined? Luckily, there are some potential solutions.
If it’s only a tiny bit tacky, here are some solutions:
- If there are no surface treatments under the varnish/sealer, you can sometimes have good results removing a thin layer of varnish with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
- Another solution is to give it another coat with a clay-safe varnish. Good ones to try are Brite Tone, Varathane, and DuraClear Gloss. You can find even more clay-safe varnishes here.
Sadly, if it’s super duper goopy sticky (such as when you’ve used a spray varnish), it’s often easier to just remake the project than to try to save it. (Sorry!)
Both the brand of polymer clay and the brand of the paint or varnish matters. Some coatings will be just fine on one brand of clay and terribly sticky on another. I have noticed that most brands of varnish or paint do quite well on Sculpey III and Kato Polyclay. But for some reason, Fimo Professional will cause many brands of paint and varnish to become sticky. Additionally, the more glossy the coating or paint is, the more likely it will be that stickiness is an issue. I’ve noticed that matte paints and varnishes seldom have stickiness problems.
I’m often asked if a specific brand of paint or varnish will work with polymer clay or not. Several years ago, I tested 41 brands of varnish. I’ve also tested nearly 20 brands of spray varnish. It’s impossible to test all the brands of coatings on all the brands of polymer clay, even if I had unlimited time and budget. Additionally, these types of products are not generally distributed worldwide and availability will vary greatly across the world. Another factor is that ingredients of a specific product can change over time as the product is updated. In short, it’s an impossible task to give accurate info about all of them! Because of this, I strongly, strongly recommend that you test each product yourself.
Testing Paints and Varnishes on Polymer Clay
The only way to know if a specific product will work for your project is to test it out. Here is how I recommend to go about it:
- Don’t test on your precious project! Always do a sample test first, using a baked scrap of the same clay.
- Apply a normal coat of the paint or varnish on a scrap piece of the baked clay. Use the same clay brand as you used for the project.
- You can apply additional coats, but let dry to the touch between coats (consult the label if necessary).
- Let dry 24 hours before touching it.
Evaluating Your Test Samples
- After 24 hours, if a water-based paint or varnish has not dried, that’s a fail.
- Check back in a week, two weeks, then a month.
- Press your finger into the surface of the paint or varnish. If your finger sticks or you see a fingerprint texture, that’s a fail.
- I consider any stickiness at any point after 24 hours to be a fail. Choose another product or brand of clay.
- If you’re using Fimo, Cernit, or Hobby Lobby clays and the product is sticky, try using Premo or Kato instead. But do test!
About Nail Polish on Polymer Clay
“The Internet” will warn you that nail polish will “eat” your polymer clay. Well, it’s another case of “that’s not exactly true” and “it depends”. Here’s some clarity on this common question. Firstly, if it’s gel polish and uses a UV light to cure, then it’s not normal nail polish. It’s essentially UV resin and it’s perfectly fine to use it on polymer clay. You can read about UV resin here. But if it’s the normal air-dry nail polish, there’s more to the story.
Nail polish is, as you’ve probably guessed by now, plastic. And some plasticizers will interact with and soften the plastic in some brands of nail polish. And yes, that means that some nail polish will work and some won’t. If you have a brand of nail polish that works for you, great! Use it and enjoy. But please don’t recommend nail polish to others online where they won’t get the whole story. MOST brands will not be so successful, leaving your project coated in a nasty gooey mess that cannot be dissolved with alcohol. And since acetone also dissolves baked polymer clay, removing the sticky polish with nail polish remover will ruin your polymer clay project.
Because of this and the fact that there are thousands and thousands of brands of nail polish worldwide, it’s impossible to recommend one that works. So for simplicity’s sake, I can’t recommend that you (or anyone) use nail polish on polymer clay and I urge others to not recommend it either. The likelihood of ruining a project is high and that’s just not fair to do that to new makers seeking information. There are better options (see below). But be aware that I’m not saying none will ever work. Some definitely do.
Clay-Safe Varnish and Paint Recommendations
The only way you can test a paint or varnish is to open the package and try it. That’s not always possible to do before purchase! So it would be really nice to know if a product works or not. That’s why this question is asked so much on social media. While there are thousands of products that can be used in this manner and you’ll never find info about them all, there ARE some that clayers have used without trouble for quite some time. Here are some of my suggestions to use.
- For glossy brush-on finishes, I like Brite Tone, Varathane, and DuraClear.
- For matte brush-on finishes, I like DuraClear Ultra Matte.
- For a light-bodied satin brush-on fixative (such as for mica), I like Christi Friesen’s Swellegant.
- For a glossy spray varnish, the only one I’ve found to work well is U-Pol.
- For a matte fixative, I like Helmar Crystal Kote (if you can find it).
- For the reasons mentioned above, it’s quite difficult to recommend specific paint brands.
- I haven’t tested any brands, but clayers do have some favorites.
- Artist’s oil paints nearly always work, but they take a long time to dry.
- Liquitex Heavy Body Acrylics are good, as are Liquitex Basics.
- Cheap craft store bottled paint seldom get sticky (but may not have good coverage).
- Many people recommend Golden artist’s acrylics.
Consider Skipping Varnish and Paint on Polymer Clay
Even if you choose a paint and varnish that doesn’t turn sticky on your polymer clay project, consider whether using them is the best strategy for your project. Be aware that polymer clay does not need to be sealed and varnishes will just accentuate the texture (including flaws) on the surface of your project. Painting polymer clay is a skill in and of itself and you may find that it’s difficult to do well. Additionally, since these products are very thin layers of plastic that may not adhere well to polymer clay, and may abrade easily, you will often find that these products make your item less able to withstand damage from use. You’ll definitely want to skip paint and varnish on high-use items like keychains, toys, and outdoor decor. While paint and varnish are valuable tools in your polymer clay knowledge base, and they do have valid uses, you should be intentional in their use, choosing them with care for the results they bring to your project.
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