Polymer clay is one of my personal favorite crafting materials. It is versatile, easy to use, and you don´t need a kiln to cure it, making it accessible to everyone with a regular oven kitchen. I have been working with polymer clay for several years and I will share my knowledge in this guide to help you to get started with polymer clay.
So how do you use polymer clay?
- Choose the right type of clay for your project
- Condition the polymer clay
- Color your clay or use colored polymer clay
- Make the sculpture
- Bake the clay in the oven
- Paint the sculpture
- Seal the polymer clay sculpture
But there are a few things that you need to consider when working with polymer clay so let’s take a closer look at what polymer clay actually is before I tell you how to work with it.
What Makes Polymer Clay Unique?
Polymer clay, also often called Fimo clay, is a type of clay that does not harden until it is baked in the oven.
This means that you have a very long working time with the clay, unlike with air dry clay.
Polymer clay is also less prone to cracking and the cured polymer clay sculpture will be more durable than air dry clay. Polymer clay is also naturally water-resistant once cured.
But basically, air dry clay is a type of earthen clay that is sometimes mixed with fibrous material to make it more durable and easier to work with while polymer clay is a synthetic plastic clay that hardens once it is heated up to a certain temperature for a certain time.
How to Use Polymer Clay Step by Step
Polymer clay is pretty easy to use but there are a couple of things that will make your life easier if you know them before you start working with polymer clay.
Let’s start by choosing the right type of clay for your project.
1. Choose the Right Kind of Polymer Clay for Your Project
There are a lot of different types of polymer clay. From glitter clay to colored clay and from firm polymer clay to very soft clay.
Beginners often like to use soft polymer clay because it Is easier to condition and work with. That is absolutely fine but it is also quite difficult to add fine details to soft polymer clay.
I personally recommend using firm polymer clay for projects where you want to add a lot of surface details to the sculpture and soft polymer clay for projects where you don´t have a lot of surface details.
Soft polymer clay is generally better for making polymer clay jewelry and firm polymer clay is generally better for making figures or intricate sculptures.
When I talk about firm and soft polymer clay then I am referring to how soft or firm it is when you mold it. Both types of polymer clay will be equally as hard once they are cured.
Apart from the softness of your clay, you can also choose different colors or effect clays, like glitter or even glow-in-the-dark polymer clay.
You can use whatever you like here it generally does not matter for the project.
2. Condition the Polymer Clay
Conditioning is the process of making the polymer clay workable. This isn´t as much of an issue with softer clay but firm clay often needs to be conditioned quite a bit before you can work with it.
The easiest way to condition clay is simply kneading it in your hand until it is soft enough to work with. But your hands are going to hurt after a while when you are not used to working with clay.
So a good alternative to kneading the clay by hand is using a pasta machine to form the clay into thin clay stripes repeatedly until the clay is soft enough.
Firm clay is often so hard to knead in the beginning that a past machine is almost required.
3. Color Your Clay or Use Colored Polymer Clay
You can buy polymer clay in a lot of different colors but you can also color white polymer clay in pretty much any color you want by using colored pigments or alcohol ink.
Simply mix some of the white polymer clay with a small number of colored pigments or two drops of alcohol ink. And just like that, you have colored polymer clay.
4. Make the Sculpture
Now that you have your conditioned clay it is finally time to make your sculpture.
I would recommend starting with a very easy project first and then moving on to more challenging projects.
There are a lot of different sculpting tools for making sculptures but you can also start by using your hands and the back ends of brushes for your first project.
Keep it simple and start with a rough shape first.
Then refine the shape more and more as you go by adding more details.
You can add details by carving them into the clay, by pressing something that is textured into the clay to transfer that texture to the surface of the clay, or by adding clay to the sculpture.
You can also sculpt something separate from the main sculpture and then add it to the main body later on.
One trick that can help you immensely when working with polymer clay is that you can make the rough shape first. Add all the surface details to it and then bake it.
Now you have a solid core that you can add more detail to by sculpting pieces separately and then joining them with the baked core part.
Once you are done you can simply bake the whole thing again and you will end up with a fully hardened finish sculpture.
5. Bake the Clay in the Oven
Baking the polymer clay is pretty straightforward but there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, don´t make the clay sculpture too thick or the sculpture might crack when you bake it.
You can use some aluminum foil to create a core for the clay which saves some clay and you don´t have to worry about making the sculpture too thick.
Secondly, build a little tend of baking paper over your clay sculpture to keep it from burning.
If you have a modern oven then this won´t be an issue and you can simply place your sculpture in the oven without any baking paper tend.
But if you have an older oven then the heat distribution is often not very good and the temperature can be much higher at the top of the oven than on the bottom which could burn the top part of your sculpture if you don´t protect it.
Thirdly, follow the instructions on the package to know how long to bake the polymer clay.
Different types of polymer clay and even different brands often have different baking times and baking temperatures.
You also have to calculate how long to bake the clay. This is often done by taking the thickness of the finished sculpture and multiplying it by the time specified on the packaging.
And, yes, you can bake your polymer clay twice or even more often. Even though it is not recommended to do so it is possible and it works quite well.
6. Paint the Sculpture
You can also paint polymer clay after curing it in the oven.
You can use regular acrylic paint for painting your finished sculpture.
You need to apply a primer to the sculpture before painting it because the acrylic paint won´t adhere to the polymer clay directly.
7. Seal the Polymer Clay Sculpture
Sealing polymer clay is rarely necessary but it is recommended if you painted your polymer clay to protect the paint.
You can use acrylic sealer or varnish to seal polymer clay.
I highly recommend using spray varnish or spray sealer because it is easier to apply evenly.
Use Other Materials Together With Polymer Clay
You can use polymer clay together with a wide variety of other materials to make your sculptures unique.
You can use wood, stone, and even porcelain to create interesting sculptures.
But polymer clay will not adhere to all of these materials right out of the box so you often have to bake the clay separately and then glue the finished sculpture to the material after the clay is cured.