Air-dry clay is probably the most accessible clay overall. Just open the package, make your sculpture, and then let it dry in the open. No oven or furnace is needed and the clay is relatively cheap too.
In this guide, I will show you how to use air-dry clay and share with you everything you need to know to successfully create your first air-dry clay sculptures.
What is Air Dry Clay
Air dry clay is a type of clay that dries as soon as it is taken out of its package.
This makes it very easy to use and no additional steps are required to harden it. So no baking or burning is needed.
But the strength of air-dry clay is also its weakness. Air dry clay hardens when the water that is present in the clay evaporates. But when it gets into contact with water after it has hardened then the clay will become soft again.
This means that no mugs, vases, or other items that hold water can´t be done with air-dry clay.
It is possible to waterproof air-dry clay with some workarounds that will allow you to make mugs with air-dry clay but they are not really recommended.
If you are curious, however, then you can read my article on waterproofing air-dry clay right here, and a guide on how to make mugs with air-dry clay by following this link.
Choosing the Right Type of Clay for Your Project
There are quite a few different types of air-dry clay on the market. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and has its own use cases.
But how do you know what kind of air-dry clay is best for your project?
As a whole, the two most widely spread types of air-dry clay are earthen and paper-based clay. Paper-based clay is best to use for most projects because of its strength, durability, and ease of use. Air-dry polymer clay is also a good alternative but it is also slightly harder to shape.
Earthen air dry clay is the most common type of clay. It is made out of a natural clay body that is mixed with water to make it malleable.
When it dries the water evaporates from the clay body leaving a solid clay body behind.
This clay is often brittle and can crack and break easier than other clay types.
Paper-based clay is basically earthen clay but with some type of fiber material mixed in. This fiber material is often some type of paper.
This mixture will give paper-based clay much more strength than pure earthen clay and makes it a good fit for most projects.
It is easy to sculpt with and doesn´t crack as easily as pure earthen clay.
Another advantage of earthen and paper-based air dry clay is that it can be revived after it dried. I have a full guide on how to revive air dry clay if you want to know more.
Air-dry Polymer Clay
Polymer clay is usually cured by baking it in an oven but there is also an air-dry polymer clay that simply dries on its own without the need to bake it.
This clay is more expensive than other air-dry clays and it is a little harder to shape in form. But it is way less likely to crack than other air-dry clays and it is very durable and naturally water-resistant.
Alternatives to Air Dry Clay
You might have a project where air dry clay is not the best choice.
If you plan on making something that will sit outside where it is exposed to the elements, for example, then air dry clay would be a poor choice as it would not survive direct sunlight or contact with water at all.
Air dry clay is also not the best choice for making jewelry.
But there are quite a few alternatives to air dry clay that will help you realize your projects.
The best alternatives to air dry clay are polymer clay or epoxy clay. You only need a regular kitchen oven to cure polymer clay and epoxy clay will cure as soon as the clay is mixed with the hardener. Both alternatives are more durable than air dry clay and naturally water-resistant.
Polymer clay is probably the best alternative to air dry clay because it is easy to find and easy to use.
How to Work With Air Dry Clay
Working with air dry clay is pretty easy.
Here are all the most essential tips and things that you should keep in mind when working with air dry clay.
If you follow these then you will be able to create great-looking sculptures fairly easily.
1. Air Dry Clay is Sticky
A common problem you might run into is that your air dry clay is so sticky that you can hardly work with it.
This can often be avoided by buying paper-based air dry clay. Earthen air dry clay is often very sticky and hard to work with in the beginning but paper-based air dry clay isn´t.
If you have bought earthen air dry clay, however, then simply leave the clay out in the air for 3 or 4 minutes. Some of the water inside the clay will evaporate and this will make the clay less sticky.
2. Control the Thickness of the Sculpture
the more even the thickness of the sculpture is throughout the less likely it will crack.
Cracks appear when water evaporates unevenly from the clay sculpture and the tension inside the sculpture gets too great. If that happens it will crack.
You can avoid this issue by keeping the thickness of your sculpture as evenly as possible.
You can have thinner or thicker parts on our sculpture but then you should let it dry slowly and in a controlled environment to keep it from cracking.
3. Sculpt Parts Individual and Then Join Them
It is often easier to sculpt a base and then add details by sculpting the details individually and then joining them with the base of the sculpt.
This can easily be done by scaring the surface of the base and the detail pice on the side where you want to join them. Then apply a little bit of water to both sides and add a bit of slip to the base.
Slip is basically just watered-down clay that is used to fix cracks, join clay, and smooth the surface of air dry clay.
Then press both parts together gently and use a tool or your finger to blend the edge of the two pieces together.
4. Use an Armature if You Have to
If you plan on making a sculpture that is quite intricate or needs to be balanced on thin clay pieces then you need an armature.
An armature should be used when you want to make an animal or a human that is standing upright, for example.
Air dry clay simply won´t be strong enough to carry the weight so you need an armature to support it.
An Armature is easily done by using a thick and a lot of thin wire.
First cut the thick wire to size and bend it into the shape you want. You can think of an armature as the bones of your sculpture.
Once you have the right shape use the thin wire to join the thick pieces of wire together and then wrap the thin wire all around the whole armature.
This will ensure that the clay has some texture that it can grip on to.
Then simply add your clay and shape it as usual.
It is recommended that you fix the armature to a piece of wood to give the sculpture something to stand on.
5. Use Foil to Safe on Clay
Making a thick sculpture out of one solid piece of clay has some disadvantages.
For one, the clay cracks easier when it dries and you are wasting a lot of clay.
You can avoid this, however, by simply using some aluminum foil as the core of your sculpture.
Just crumble the aluminum foil up until it has a good base shape to work from.
Then apply thin layers of air dry clay and then shape the sculpture on top of the aluminum foil core.
This will save clay and make it easier and faster to dry the clay later on.
6. Smooth the Clay Before and After it Has Been Dried
Smoothing air dry clay is pretty easy but you have to do it from the start or you will have a lot of work to do later on.
You can smooth air dry clay while it is still wet by dipping your finger in some water and then gently running it over the surface to smooth it.
Don´t use too much water or you will deform the clay.
Then let the clay dry and once it has dried simply use very fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it even further.
This way your sculptures are going to be perfectly smooth every time!
You can also carve air dry clay if you want to change something after the clay has dried.
7. Use Other Materials With Air Dry Clay
Air dry clay can also be used together with other materials like wood, or stone.
You can stick stones or pieces of wood inside in the air dry clay or you can create a sculpture directly on a wooden surface.
You can use a lot of different materials with air dry clay because it will not be baked or put in a kiln.
How to Dry Air Dry Clay and Avoid Cracks
Drying air dry clay is where most people run into issues. If you do this incorrectly then you will have issues with cracks.
But if you follow these 3 simple steps then you will have little to no issues with cracks appearing on your clay sculpture during the drying process.
- Cover thin parts with a damp towel
- Cover the whole sculpture with a piece of plastic
- Place the sculpture in an area away from heat and air drafts
Drying air dry clay will take quite a long time. On average it will take around 72 hours at least for a medium-sized sculpture to dry completely.
There are ways to speed up the drying process but I generally don´t recommend them.
If you worked with air dry clay before then you probably encountered this issue. The sculpture cracks during the drying process.
Don´t worry if this happens to you, this can happen to everyone even the pros.
There are a few things you can do to keep air dry clay from cracking like drying it correctly, don´t try to speed up the drying time, and keeping the clay equally thick all over the sculpture.
But if your sculpture cracked then don´t worry. There are a couple of things you can do to fix cracks even after the sculpture has already dried completely.
The best method involves using something called “slip” which is basically only watered down air dry clay that can be used to fill in the cracks easily.
Air dry clay is not very durable so it comes as no surprise that air dry clay often breaks or cracks if you are not careful.
Painting Air Dry Clay
You can paint your air dry clay sculpture after it is dried with acrylic paints or other water-based paints.
You don´t need a primer to paint air dry clay but you can use one to ensure that your paint job will have a long life span.
I personally just paint the clay directly with acrylic paints and seal the whole sculpture after I am done.
You will probably need multiple coats of paint until the paint covers fully. Just apply the paint in multiple thin coats until you are satisfied with the paint coverage.
How to Seal Air Dry Clay
The last thing left to do is seal your air dry clay sculpture.
This can be easily done by applying acrylic sealer or varnish to the dried clay sculpture. It doesn´t matter if the clay is painted or not.
There are ways to seal air dry clay in a way that makes it possible to use it for pottery but it isn´t really beginner-friendly and I generally don´t recommend it.
You can find a guide on how to use air dry clay for pottery on my site right here but, as I said, I don´t really recommend using air dry clay for making usable pottery in the first place.
How to Store Unused and Open Air Dry Clay
You most likely did not use all of the air dry clay up so you want to store it properly so that you can use it for a future project.
Air dry clay can easily be stored in an air-tight container. Simply wrap it up in some plastic foil and put it in an air-tight container.
Air dry clay stored this way will live for at least two or three years. I have air dry clay from four years ago and it’s still good.
Air dry clay can get moldy if you are not careful so make sure to keep your sculpture away from any water even if it has been sealed and store your clay correctly.