(This will be a long and detailed post. Basically an info dump for everything you need to get started in polymer clay. Feel free to skim for what you need. Or for a very brief overview scroll all the way to the end for the link to the video. Also, I’m not being paid to make any recommendations. These are strictly the things I prefer to work with.)
I know, I know, you can find a million different blog posts and videos on what a beginner polymer clay artist should have in their tool chest. I’ve used so many over the years and have about three I consistently use on every project. But that doesn’t stop me from buying or making new ones. It’s a problem but I’m ok with that.
Ovens and Baking
What I love about polymer clay is that you don’t need anything fancy to use it. Once you get a hold of the clay you only need your hands, an oven, and something to bake the clay on. So we’ll start with ovens … and the never-ending debate over whether to use your home oven or buy a dedicated polymer clay oven (toaster oven.) I prefer my home oven. I can time my bakes to coincide with cooking dinner so I don’t waste electricity heating the oven up again. I let the oven cool down after baking food to a more appropriate clay temp and pop in my project. If it’s something that needs a little more care I still prefer the big oven. I’ll put the piece in a cold oven, turn it on, and leave it to cool in the oven as well. That way there are no sudden temperature shocks. I do this for big, solid pieces or the rare time I use transparent clay.
I find that small ovens heat up too quickly and the piece is too close to the heating elements which can scorch the clay. It’s harder to know how even the heat is in a smaller oven. The argument for the dedicated ovens is that some people get nervous using their home ovens. They worry about residue from the clay getting into their food. Polymer clay is certified non-toxic but it is still plastic. What many clay artists do to mitigate the smell and any residue is to bake your piece inside two cheap aluminum pans.
Place your work inside and use a second pan as a lid. It holds in any fumes and also has the added benefit of keeping the temperature even.
All that said, baking is important. It’s how you make your creations durable. Under-baking is just as bad as over-baking. You don’t want to end up with a brittle piece after all of your hard work. Each brand of clay has their own recommended baking times. If you are making thin pieces those times and temps will probably work for you. Thicker pieces usually require more time than is recommended. The good thing about polymer clay is that it’s temperature, not time, that determines if the clay will burn. Yes, transparent clays are more sensitive so I recommend making test pieces to determine how long you can bake those at different thicknesses. So long as you stay under 300° F for the opaque clays you should be fine and can bake for extended periods, but please test your preferred brand so you get a feel for how to bake each piece. One thing I love about polymer clay is how flexible it is. You can bake a piece multiple times in order to protect the delicate parts you don’t want to accidentally squash.
Above are the most common brands of clay in the craft stores. They each have their pros and cons. When I first started playing with polymer clay I had two choices: Sculpey and Fimo. I’m not even sure if it was Sculpey III yet or not. Sculpey is easier to work with. It is soft and easy to condition, but even after being properly baked it is brittle and easy to break. It’s great for children though because it is so easy to work with. Fimo is stiffer and takes quite a bit of work to be able to condition. It is much stronger after baking though not truly flexible. They do have a Fimo Soft now but I think that might take away from the strength of the original product. Sculpey has a few different varieties. Souffle is the softest. They also have a blend specifically made for doll sculptors not shown here. Kato Polyclay is the “newest” brand to join the line up. It’s been several years since it was introduced but it hasn’t been around as long. It can also be a little stiff to start with but it’s strong after baking and has colors specifically designed for artists. Cernit is another brand but to be honest I haven’t noticed it in the stores and I’ve never used it.
For me though, I prefer Premo! by Sculpey. It is strong and flexible after baking and has so many different colors to play with. They have metallic varieties, pastels, neon, and you can buy the white, black and transparent in larger blocks. It’s not difficult to condition and it holds up well for wearable pieces.
Conditioning is key. The plasticizers in the clay will need to be redistributed throughout the clay unless you manage to buy it fresh from the manufacturer. Most clay has been sitting in warehouses and store shelves long enough you’ll need to work with it first. My favorite method involves putting a lump of clay in my bra while I do other things in order to warm it up first. You can sit on it or buy a clay warmer. You do want to be careful though. Don’t expose the clay to temperatures high enough to start baking it.
When it is warm and if the clay is soft enough just knead it in your hands for a bit. You’ll get a feel for conditioned clay the longer you play with it. It’s hard to describe but you can try stretching the clay like we all used to do to Silly Putty when we were kids trying to make long strings. Polymer clay isn’t that stretchy but unconditioned clay just breaks, while conditioned clay will stretch a bit before breaking.
If your hands aren’t strong enough to knead the clay for that long you might want to think about investing in a pasta machine. There are cheap machines on Amazon but you have to disassemble a traditional machine so that you don’t get a bunch of clay stuck inside. Also, the cheaper machines have been known to shed metal slivers and have uneven or blemished rollers. Find a coupon and buy a Makins clay machine. The link takes you to Amazon but I got it cheaper with a craft store coupon. This is only a mid-level machine but it is fine for just starting out. You may want to invest in the motor if turning the crank is also difficult for you.
In order to use the clay machine take a small piece of clay and flatten it enough to feed into the largest setting. Setting 1 is the widest, 9 is the thinnest. Roll the clay through. Fold the clay in half, but try not to trap air inside. Feed the clay through fold side first. Do this a few times, then skip to setting 3. Repeat at that setting a few times. Skip to setting 5. Repeat. I actually like to go back to setting 1 and start again. The clay should go from dull to shiny as it becomes conditioned. Some colors will show streaks of plasticizer at the beginning that will disappear. Different colors react differently. Some condition faster than others, some stay conditioned longer. If a clay is too soft you can leach out the plasticizers by sandwiching a sheet of clay between some plain printer paper. You’ll see grease spots on the paper after it sits for a little while.
Sometimes clay becomes so brittle that normal conditioning methods don’t work. In these cases I tend to throw it out and buy new clay but if you really want to it can be revived. I’m not sure if this effects the strength of the clay but you can make it workable again. I suggest using a food processor for this but you can use your hands. It’s just messy and takes longer. I like this little processor.
It is only a cup and a half so it’s less to clean and it has the biggest motor I could find for a mini food processor. Break up the old clay and add it to the processor. Pulse until it looks like crumbs. Add a few drops of mineral oil. You can use baby oil in a pinch but they add other ingredients. Pulse the clay until it starts to ball up. Start with only a few drops of oil, pulse, then check the clay. You have enough oil when the clay starts to stick together. Knead the clay with your hands and then condition in your preferred way. Mineral oil replaces the lost plasticizer. The food processor can also be used for different faux techniques so it has other uses. If you are new to polymer clay you probably won’t need this though unless faux techniques are of real interest to you. As with everything you use with polymer clay, don’t use any of your tools with food once you’ve used them with clay.
Work and Baking Surfaces
This leads us to work surfaces. My preferred surface is a simple, cheap glazed ceramic tile. It’s smooth, doesn’t react to the clay, and it’s easy to move from my desk to the aluminum pan to go into the oven. I do add a sheet of printer paper under my work if I don’t want a flat shiny spot after baking. For pieces that need to stay rounded on all sides I bake it on a pile of cotton batting. You can also use glass baking pans but again, don’t use them for food after you’ve used them for clay. If you use metal baking sheets you may have issues with scorching the clay. Some people use glass sheets as a work surface. That has some interesting benefits like being able to place a pattern underneath in order to trace it in clay snakes. Just make sure the glass can handle going in the oven and make sure to cover the edges in tape or something to prevent cutting yourself. Work surfaces aren’t complicated. Just be careful leaving the clay on a wooden table, desk, or cutting board. Wood will leach out plasticizers just like paper will. Also, clay can have reactions to plastic surfaces. To test that so you don’t end up storing your clay in the wrong containers or use the wrong tools leave some clay on it overnight. The surface of the plastic will have an obvious reaction if you shouldn’t be using it with polymer clay.
Whew! That’s already a lot of information. Feel free to get up, get a cup of coffee, do some jumping jacks before continuing …
Let’s start with household items you probably already have. I say this because you probably got so excited you bought the pasta machine and have to wait to buy anything else. I did that once so I get it
The most useful items in your house in my opinion are aluminum foil and toothpicks. Foil is great to use as an armature under your clay so you don’t have a solid mass of clay to try to bake. That can get heavy and can also have issues with cracking if the temperatures aren’t kept even on the inside and outside while baking.
Toothpicks and popsicle sticks can also work as supports under the clay. But they also make handy clay tools. You can use them to texture, smooth, and make holes. I use an old needle tool I had lying around but a toothpick works fine. You can use sewing needles but I’d make a handle with some polymer clay first. Makes it easier to work with and find if you drop it.
Straws are also a useful thing to have a around. You can use them to make curved shapes or use them to cut out holes. A coffee straw makes a good sized hole if you are making a pendant and want to use a jump ring to attach it to a chain.
I’m also a big fan of homemade tools. I made this after cutting circles from aluminum. I have no idea why I was doing that originally but I made this fun texture tool so I could make scales quickly.
If you do have money to spend on tools get some dotting tools. I’ve always called them embossers but whatever you call them they work great for blending two pieces of clay together. I also have some silicone shapers (shown below with the black handles) I bought near the scrap booking section but there are some near the polymer clay now, too. I recently bough this set and I’ve been pretty happy with them even though I don’t use the brushes.
The clay machine I referenced above in the conditioning section can also be used to roll out clay sheets but I also have an acrylic roller. It’s inexpensive and easy to use if my clay machine isn’t set up. Before everyone started using old pasta machines for clay some of us would use stacks of playing cards to get consistent thicknesses. A few people still refer to machine settings in card thickness. Not all machines are the same, nor are playing cards, but they are usually close enough. An acrylic roller is something I would consider an essential tool no matter what else you have.
Cutting tools make life easier. They are very sharp though so be careful. I use an x-acto knife for 90% of my cutting needs. But every now and then I use a clay blade. Man, I’ve been doing this forever. When we first started using these you bought them from medical supplies and they were called tissue blades. These work great fro cutting cane work into slices. It has less chance of squishing your clay as you cut. The stiff ones work good for canes, the flexible ones cut nice curves out of clay sheets. There are also wavy blades that make for interesting patterns.
Shape cutters are great for jewelry and decorative pieces. The kemper tools are the ones with the buttons and springs. I’ve used the tiny tear drop and heart shapes to make mini flower petals. The larger ones I’ve used to make pendant shapes. These aren’t necessary but they can make certain projects more consistent.
Another tool you can purchase is a clay extruder. I have the Makins one and have only used it once. It’s terrible to clean so I just use shape cutters and roll my own snakes by hand. If you can’t make constant snakes on your own though you might like it. But I do recommend cleaning it in between each use. It takes time but if you use colored clay and don’t paint your pieces like I do you will contaminate your clay colors.
Now for the really unnecessary. I have an entire box full of texture sheets. Some are specifically for running through a clay machine with the clay. Some are basically just rubber stamps, some are for other crafts entirely. I love them. I don’t need them but I love them. Some are clear plastic, some are brass, some are rubber and silicone.
If you are going to play with molds and polymer clay you might want to invest in a small spray bottle. Fill it with clean water and use it as a mold release. I prefer this method to using corn starch or baby powder because I don’t have to worry about powder residue sticking to my clay.
One reason I like painting my projects is that I can’t seem to keep my clay from getting full of dust and lint. I’ve tried deep cleaning my entire house, wearing old clothes that don’t shed as much lint anymore, making sure I wipe down my desk and work surfaces right before I work, as well as washing my hands thoroughly and making sure not to touch my clothes. Nothing helps me. But then, I have dogs and they are a disaster if you want to keep dirt out of your house. Still, every now and again I try to work with colored clays. I have a bottle of alcohol, some alcohol wipes, and a spray bottle. I use them to clean clay residue off of my tools as well as wiping my clay down to remove fingerprints. You can use alcohol to clean dirt off of your clay if it’s not mixed throughout the clay as well. Just be careful. The alcohol dissolves the clay.
I do a variety of finishing techniques to get the results I want. One thing I use is Pearl Ex powders (I don’t remember paying so much but you can buy smaller amounts. There are various pigment powders in the craft stores to check out, too.) You use a brush to apply it to raw clay. I will use colored clay if I know I’m using the powders because the clay color shows through and effects the pigments but the powder covers up the lint. For surface finishes a lot of mini food artists use colored artist chalks. Again, you use a brush to apply to the raw clay.
With either of these materials I suggest using a clear finish on your baked piece. I use the Sculpey glaze, usually satin because I prefer it to gloss. You can use most water-based finishes. Many polymer clay folks recommend using Varathane waterbased polyurethane. It’s cheaper and durable and shouldn’t yellow over time. It can take awhile to cure so you can do a second bake for 10 minutes or so to speed it up. If it’s beading up on your clay wipe the baked clay with alcohol first. Some varnishes can have chemicals that don’t play well with everyone so if you are concerned wear gloves. Older polymer clay artists used Future floor polish as a finish but those pieces yellowed and aged over time. There are also various water-based sealers in the paint area of the craft store. I don’t suggest using Mod Podge if the piece is going to be handled much. Mod Podge is basically a glue and is water soluble even after drying. Also, do not use clear nail polish on your clay or any oil based product.
In the picture with the Sculpey glaze is Sculpey’s liquid clay. You can use the liquid clay as a clay softener for crumbly clay instead of mineral oil but that can get a bit expensive. If the clay just needs a tiny bit of help I’ll use it though. Liquid clay also makes a great glue to connect clay pieces or fill in cracks. Most people use it for image transfers (I can do a tutorial on that later.) I’ve used it to make mini stained glass windows before. That was fun. Taped a line drawing to the underside of some glass, made the leading from tiny ropes of black clay in order to trace the outlines then colored liquid clay either with pigments or small amounts of regular clay and filled in the spaces. Baking it makes the clay touching the glass very shiny like real glass. It also kind of looks like glaze on a donut if you are into making mini food. I’d call liquid clay more of an advanced toy and not essential but it can be fun.
I hope this wasn’t too overwhelming. This post was meant to be a broad overview of basic materials just to give you a sense of what you can work with. I’ll have actual tutorials coming up. The video is below.