When I started working with polymer clay, I made a lot of mistakes. (I still do, by the way.) But experience has taught me a few things and here are some mistakes that I no longer make. (These tips apply to all brands of polymer clay, not just Sculpey. Read on if you use any oven-bake clay brand!) Nobody likes to have their work break, burn, melt, get sticky, or fall apart. Ruined projects are disappointing, but it’s even worse when we’ve given things as gifts or sold them to customers only to realize they’re falling apart over time. So whether you’re new to the world of Sculpey, Fimo, and polymer clay or whether you’re an old pro, it doesn’t hurt to take a moment to check these out. Avoid these 10 Sculpey mistakes and spend more time enjoying your work with polymer clay.
1. Using Weak Polymer Clay for Thin Pieces
It is so sad to work hard creating something that breaks when it’s worn or used. It’s even more horrifying to realize that you’ve sold something that is made from weak clay and won’t be durable. Not all polymer clay brands are created equal and each has its uses and purposes. For making things that are thin or have areas that are thinner than 1/4″ (6mm), make sure that you’re using a strong clay such as Premo, Fimo, Pardo, Kato, Cernit, or Souffle. Sculpey III, Original Sculpey, Super Sculpey, and Bake Shop are all quite brittle after baking and should not be used, unsupported, in any area thinner than 1/4″ (6mm). These weaker brands do have their uses, however, so save them for other projects. Here’s more about choosing the best brand of polymer clay for your project.
The stronger brands of polymer clay are durable enough that you cannot break them with your hands, even when used as thin as 1/16″ (1.5 mm). Of course to have this kind of durability the clay must be properly baked, which leads us to the next point.
2. Underbaking Polymer Clay
Polymer clay is made from PVC powder, plasticizers, binders and fillers, lubricant, and pigments. As the temperature increases during curing, the powdered PVC softens in the plasticizer and the particles begin to absorb the plasticizer. Optimally, the particles will eventually fully fuse together and form a solid mass of plastic. If polymer clay is underbaked, the fusion will not be complete and the resulting clay mass will be weak. Underbaked clay is not only less flexible, it is susceptible to breaking and crumbling. Underbaked polymer clay can also have excess free plasticizer that can lead to cure inhibition in paints and glues, causing them to remain soft and/or sticky.
To properly bake polymer clay, you must consider both time and temperature. The temperature on the package is a guideline, and you do have some leeway. But you really do need to bake at a sufficient temperature for at least as long as the time stated on the package. Most ovens are inaccurate and it’s important to use a separate oven thermometer to know what temperature your oven actually is. (I like this inexpensive digital probe thermometer, but there are many others.) In the real world, even accurate ovens fluctuate during the baking cycle (and when you open the door). It’s therefore best to bake quite a bit longer than the label suggests to make up for this.
Polymer clay should be baked for at least 30 minutes for each 1/4″ of thickness. This means that a 1″ thick bead will need to be baked for two hours. Yes, this is correct. If your oven is truly baking at the correct temperature, your clay will not burn. Lighter colors may, however, discolor, so it is always better to do multiple bakings of thinner layers. Want to learn more? Here’s my class on baking polymer clay that gives more info about choosing an oven, baking temperatures, and knowing if you’ve baked your clay long enough.
3. Burning Polymer Clay
Let me be very clear. Polymer clay does not burn unless it reaches temperatures near 350°F (176°C). (Fimo is a bit more sensitive.) If your project actually turns black and bubbles, then your oven is way too hot! As already state, ovens can be wildly inaccurate. When the oven’s heating element cycles on and off, the heat radiating from it can be tremendous. If your project is close to the element, your thermometer could be reading the correct temperature but your project could still bubble and blacken. If you have burned polymer clay, you need to address your oven, not your baking times.
Many people assume that baking longer times at lower temperature settings will solve this problem. It’s common to read recommendations in forums to set your oven to, for instance, 215°F (100°C) and bake for an hour or so. Will this work? Well, it might work for a specific person because they’re compensating for an incorrect oven. What they think is 215°F might actually be 275°F in their oven. But when others follow this temperature advice, they end up with fragile, brittle, underbaked clay.
Light colored or translucent polymer clay will commonly discolor and darken during baking. This is not the same thing as burning. To prevent this, first make sure that your oven truly is baking at the correct temperature. Then cover your pieces to prevent the oven’s element from toasting your polymer clay project. For more info on covering clay and preventing browning, see my class on Baking Polymer Clay.
4. Using Nail Polish as a Polymer Clay Glaze
It’s very common to see polymer clay projects, especially on craft blogs, that recommend using nail polish as a glaze or gloss finish on polymer clay. It’s convenient, it’s simple, and seems like such a good idea. Except that it’s not. As many, many people have found out, nail polish on polymer clay will very often turn sticky and goopy over time. Not all nail polishes are bad. Some work just fine. But there are thousands of brands of nail polish around the world and there is really no way of knowing which ones will work on which brands of polymer clay. Don’t risk it. Use a proper polymer clay sealer. If you need to use one at all. Yes, that’s right. You don’t actually NEED to seal polymer clay. Read more and learn which sealers are the best to use when you do want to use one.
5. Using a Spray Varnish on Polymer Clay
It also seems like such a good idea to buy a can of spray varnish and give all your newly made Sculpey creatures a nice glossy coat of spray varnish. So simple and so easy. Except that the varnish never dries. There are very few spray varnishes that are compatible with polymer clay. And what works with one brand of clay won’t work with another. I tested many brands of spray sealer on polymer clay and only found two brands that consistently works with all brands of clay.
What if you’ve used a spray sealer and now your charms are sticky? Can they be saved? In some cases, yes. I found that 91% isopropyl alcohol removed most sticky spray sealers. It’s worth a try.
6. Storing Polymer Clay Open to the Air
Years ago, one of the best things about polymer clay was its shelf-life. You could stock up and as long as you stored it away from heat, the clay would be ready for you to use anytime you wished. It never dried out and would stay fresh and workable for years. Decades even. I have 15-year-old packages of clay that are as workable as the day I bought them. But in 2008, everything changed as the manufacturers changed the formula used in polymer clay. Nowadays, we find that clay will get stiffer over time as it “ages” on the shelf. Some brands and some colors within a brand seem to be particularly susceptible to this issue, namely translucent and metallic colors within the Premo and Fimo lines.
Because of this, it really does seem that clay stores better when kept air tight. I keep opened bricks in a Ziploc sandwich bag and then store those and the unopened bricks in one of those plastic shoeboxes with a lid. I also make sure that I use my clay as soon as possible and don’t buy more than I can use up in a reasonable time. Polymer clay changes consistency over time and a bar of clay that is almost “wet” and mushy-soft when you buy it can be dry and crumbly a year later.
Polymer clay stored open to the air, or loosely thrown into a bin will collect dust, airborne dirt and fur, and fibers from your clothing and environment. Here’s more info about dealing with lint, dust, and dirt in your clay.
7. Not Washing Your Hands Before Working With Clay
Related to the dust issue is one of making sure that your hands are clean before working with polymer clay. Even when you think your hands are clean…they’re not. And when working light colors such as white or yellow, or translucent, dirt that’s invisible on your hands can end up in your clay, giving your work dirty streaks. Even the blue residue from wearing blue jeans will coat your hands and show up on light-colored clay. So before working with polymer clay, wash your hands well, and don’t forget to clean under your fingernails.
Another trick is to have a ball of scrap translucent clay at your work desk. Roll this clay between your hands before working. It will pick up any loose skin bits, fiber, dirt, and dust. It’s also a great trick to do when switching from working with a dark color to a light one. When the clay gets too junk-filled, just toss it and make a new one.
8. Buying Too Many Tools…At First
It’s all too common for a newbie to find out about polymer clay and buy everything in the clay aisle at the craft store, assuming that it’s all required for working with polymer clay. Not only can this be very expensive, but you really don’t need most of the tools you’ll see for sale there. Start with some basics, then add more as your experience grows and you have a better idea of what you like to make.
There are plenty of polymer clay tools out there, and you want to leave enough money (and space) so that you can buy the things that will bring you the most enjoyment. So, what are the essentials? Here’s what I recommend to buy for your Polymer Clay Starter Kit. And when you do start buying tools, you can often find them quite cheaply when you start looking in creative places. Here’s more about finding cheap polymer clay tools.
9. Embedding Eyepins Without a Kink
When you make polymer clay pendants and charms, you’ll want to include a hanging loop. A lot of clayers take a commonly available jewelry eyepin, cut it to length, and insert it into the raw clay. But after baking, the straight wire of the eyepin readily pulls out of the clay. Some people glue the pin and push it back into the baked clay. That will often hold, but not always.
A better way is to create a small kink in the end of the eyepin, before you embed it into the raw clay. This way it cannot pull out after baking. Here’s an example of what I mean:
10. Using the Wrong Glue with Polymer Clay
Superglue is magical and it can be an incredible glue in the right circumstance. But it’s not the best glue for polymer clay. At least not the usual inexpensive superglue that we all know and love/hate because the cap gets glued on (so frustrating). It is a very brittle glue and polymer clay is flexible, so when the clay flexes, the hardened glue will pop right off and the bond fails. It’s better to use a gel version such as Loctite Gel Contol or a higher end version such as Lisa Pavelka’s PolyBonder.
Another often recommended glue, especially for jewelry use, is E6000. While it can be a very good glue for some uses, it does tend to remain gummy never and fully harden on polymer clay. Many people DO have good results, but many others do not. I suspect the issue lies with the brand of polymer clay or perhaps the age of the E6000. But don’t be surprised if you find that this glue fails for you.