Hi all, budding sculptors! Let’s discuss the best sculpting tools for working with polymer clay! It’s versatility, strength, and many multitudes of colors and styles make it fun and enjoyable to work with, but we need to have the right tools in our toolbox to enhance our experience further.
When you’re first getting started you might find that a plastic knife will get you through some parts but after awhile, why stop there?
Bakeable polymer clay has a rather dense feeling to it, due to its plastic/PVC (polyvinyl chloride) composition which you notice right away after you start to knead it and get the “newness” worked out.
Pin to Your Clay Board 😊
Therefore, conventional sculpting tools may not always work as well (some will, but others, not so much.)
Because there’s lots of tools out there and it can get overwhelming, I’m starting this list with the most essential tools….and then the ones you’ll want to think about later on after you get some experience under your belt. So without further ado let’s dive in!
An X-acto Knife (Or Similar…)
An x-acto knife is good to have for the obvious reason they are super-sharp for slicing out slabs of clay. It should come with a protective cap and perhaps a replacement blade. There are other types of knives that can work well, too.
Polymer clay can be kind of stiff and a sharp knife is essential. Also, long blades can be even better for making precisely cut slabs lengthwise, so you’ll want to have an assortment of knives and cutting blades which will make cutting clay slabs much easier prior to kneading.
Make sure you use the plastic tools for adding detail only, They will not slice the clay properly the way a knife or cutting blade will!
I use my plastic knives to embellish a design, like I’m doing in the image above, beveling the edge of this piece. I made the mistake one time of using it for something else and one end snapped on me! Unfortunately taping it back on didn’t really work, but the good part is that it had another shaped end that is still useful.
Now you may notice in one of my pictures , the knives in my collection, and that they look a little different from what I’m describing to you. I have a good story about those. A friend of mine’s roommate moved out and he left his wood sculpting tool set behind (along with sculptures in progress…why?) My friend said it was OK to keep the tools. They are actually made for wood carving, but as I’ve found they seem to work very well for slicing clay!
This transparent cylinder shaped object is what I use to roll out perfect slabs. A must-have if you plan to focus on things like making jewelry pieces, and other things that are slab-based , like decorative bowls, wall hangings, ornaments for your Christmas tree, and more.
It’s pretty much a smaller version of the rolling pin used for baking . If you really wanted, you could use one of those, but this nice little acrylic one is a much better size which is all you need for the smaller batches that polymer clay comes in. Another thing about conventional rolling pins is that they are mostly made of wood, which is semiporous and clay will have a tendency to stick to it, which may cause no harm, but it could get annoying.
It measures about 8″ so it won’t take up room in whatever place you choose to store it.
A sharp point tool like this one I found, is important for poking small holes in objects you plan on hanging up, like wall decorations or ornaments (one exception – I did use a gem clip inserted into the back of one of my wall hangings to serve as the built-in hanger, which is another good option…)
But you’ll still need to have something that can pierce teeny holes or allow you to carve tiny details into your work in progress.
Clay Softeners and Conditioners
One of the drawbacks of working with polymer clay is there are times when it can become stiff and harder to work with if it’s a little older or not properly stored. It can get dry under good conditions, too…just par for the course. From time to time you will probably need to reach for something you can easily work into it to make it more pliable.
There are proprietary softeners available, but I’ve also found that oil-based household products, such as mineral and olive oil, can work great as clay softeners. All I need is a few drops to a teaspoon, depending on the amount in question, a little kneading action, and I am back in business!
A piece of fine grit sandpaper can be helpful before you paint your objects, applying light pressure as it will help them stick better. Generally, “wet-dry” sandpaper is the best option, as it helps prevent particles of dust from marring your projects, so it may be a good idea to pick up some of these at your local home improvement store.
You also want to look for a certain “grit’ like about 400 for best results. You can go up a little more, gradually. I give some advice about the sanding process more in this post so be sure to read up on it there!
Wax Paper and Aluminum Foil
These two things will be very important as part of your work surface. I always spread out wax paper over my work area. Clay won’t stick to it and can handle all the rigors of rolling and kneading. (sometimes I use two layers just in case – a sheet can get worn out after awhile)
For the obvious reason you can’t use wax paper as a liner in the oven, I line the dish with aluminum foil; clay never sticks to foil. I think you could also use parchment paper, as I believe it has a heat tolerance of up to 300 degrees and polymer clay needs 275.
Whew…that was a lot of territory to cover, am I right? Now we’ll get into the “less necessary” and more “nice”…at least in the beginning. As time goes by and you hone your practice more these are some tools that will be great to make use of.
Amaco Clay Oven
A Separate Oven For Your Polymer Clay Projects?
I have heard a few professional clayers say that it’s a good idea to have your own small oven as the fumes from the clay as it bakes could permeate through. Now me, I always use my good ol’ conventional oven and if I want to eliminate the fumes I just turn on the fan above for a few minutes.
Whether or not you think you’d be sensitive to the smell is really up to you in which case, you may want to consider a small oven to use exclusively for your Sculpey work. A toaster oven, which I use, has small volume and may only accommodate small items easily. This one here is recommended the most as it has a temp max limit of 300 degrees and a 30-minute timer so you won’t have to worry about burning or unevenly baked areas.
Sculpey Gloss Glaze
Paints and Glazes
Some of your objects, you may want to leave alone if you’re using one of those awesome premade colors, or the kind with the metallic sheen to it – but others, painting will really bring it out. Here are all the types of paint I recommend that work best, speaking of which if you’d like to learn more.
Varnishing of your finished projects can be a good idea too. Most things I have made, I have finished them off with a coat of glaze like one of these.
They come in satin and glossy finishes, and are water-based and non toxic. Sometimes it can bubble up a little while drying, which I used a toothpick to break them up. It will give your items an extra layer of protection, plus they will have a nice finish, too!
Shape Cutters and Molds
These can be great for making figurines. Whenever I would go shop at places like Michael’s I would always see all these different molds next to the clay which enable you to create cute and funny faces. I used to make all my figurine parts from scratch but these little anatomy molds are really cool!
Examples of shape cutters I have found while shopping; also the proprietary brand. Notice concentric shapes for the oval and square?
These are some shape cutters I’ve found that are typical of what you’d use to create basic shapes that would work for jewelry parts and fine details for decorative pieces of work.
If you’ve got a few cookie cutters laying around, scoop those up – they can also work great as clay shape cutters! Or if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, check out this post for some ideas for homemade clay cutters.
Molds can be helpful too, and can help to close the gap when making figurines. and mainly 2D objects with a certain amount of detail, but a little less legwork. There are lots of high-quality molds available in a variety of designs. For some good recommendations, you can check out this post I did not too long ago.
These tools can be good for creating very refined shapes such as coils, ropes, and ribbons. You can use one to help produce fine details for a project with less time. An extruder looks a little like a miniature version of a caulking gun, and includes interchangeable disks with different shapes on them that you can swap out as needed.
A similar tool that can also work well for creating these fine details is a garlic press. You can read up on my favorite extruder tools here!
And now we get to the last item on the list…
A Pasta Machine…to Condition Your Clay
That’s right, an actual culinary tool! Surprised? Don’t be…a lot of professional clay artists swear by one of these to keep their clay in tip top condition. Its not necessary to get started, but if you’re thinking about more advanced techniques that involve clay canes – elaborate rolled designs like mokume gane and millifiori …this will be a must.
You roll of clay will be the perfect consistency each time. Although I have found the conditioners I mentioned earlier do work well, the use of a tool like this will enable you to do more things with precision. This machine above has a hand crank, table clamp and attractive finish. And it’s RED…it would look dynamite in my own kitchen as I have a lot of red accessories present, but you could choose a different color if you wanted.
Well I hope this list helps you out! This was a lot of territory to cover, but I’m glad if I was able to clarify anything, and give you a good idea of which tools will be the most necessary and useful, and which you might want to hold off on until you get a little more practice under your belt. Happy claying!