Getting Started: How to Use Polymer Clay

By now, you must have noticed all the fun and flirty polymer clay earrings, cute necklace charms and adorable character figurines posted all over social media. If you’re a fan but have not yet used polymer clay to express your own creativity, this blog is for you. We’ve compiled a quick guide for beginners to get you started, so read on!

What Is Polymer Clay?

It’s a modeling medium that is pliable and workable like mineral clay but entirely synthetic, made up of polyvinyl chloride, commonly referred to as PVC that also contains plasticizers that make it flexible. It’s easy to work with, available in a multitude of colors and consistent in mass and texture. Basically, it’s ready to use right out of the wrapper every time and remains workable for a long time until it’s baked. More on that later.   

You can find polymer clay at practically every arts & crafts supply store, and there are several brands out there to choose from, including Staedtler Fimo, Sculpey and Kato Polyclay by Van Aken.

Each brand has unique formulas that set their clays apart, like the Staedtler Fimo Effect, which has additional additives that create a range of effects like metallic shine, pearl luster, translucent or granite speckle.

There are many polymer clay tools. Important first-step tools are your hands and a rolling pin. Kneading the clay with your hands softens it up and by rolling it out, it becomes smooth and uniform throughout. This is referred to as conditioning. A clay conditioning machine is also available on the market. It resembles a pasta machine and works very much the same way. It conditions the clay quickly, and it’s perfect for making even sheets in various thicknesses. Donna Kato, a longtime polymer clay artist and expert, has a helpful step-by-step tutorial on her website for conditioning clay.

When creating patterns and motifs for jewelry or other small items, you’re going to have to work the polymer clay into sheets, so a good rolling pin is necessary. Acrylic Rolling Pins are a popular tool among polymer clay artists because they have a very smooth surface and are lightweight. Rolling pins with engraved textures, like these found on Etsy, can also be fun to use, but you’ll still need to start with a smooth sheet and then use the patterned rolling pin.

a set of rolling pins next to a piece of polymer clay that someone is cutting

For your work area, you’ll need to find a smooth and even surface. A glass cutting board, a fresh cutting mat or sealed stone countertop are all good options. Parchment paper or wax paper are both good to work on and provide a quick cleanup option. Cut either paper to size and using masking tape, attach to your work area so that it stays in place. Remember to cut the masking tape off before placing parchment paper into the mix to cure your clay.

It also helps to have a cutting blade, sometimes called the tissue slicing blade, especially when making canes. This tool allows for precise smooth cuts when layering and creating larger sheets. Shaping tools, like awls and ball-tip burnishers, carving routers or spoon styluses, are all helpful tools when creating Polymer Clay characters or three-dimensional designs. 

We Offer a Wide Selection of Polymer Clay Tools

Clay cutters, which look like small cookie cutters, are widely available and new ones are released seasonally. These are often sold in sets with the same shape in several sizes or a multi-piece dangling earring design. 

The tools you’ll need to invest in depend on the type of project you’ll be working on. For example, when creating dangling polymer clay earrings, you will need an awl tool to make holes for jump-rings connecting the clay pieces or drill bits to create them after the clay is baked. 

an open metal tube with a set of small drill bits

Check Out the Pin Vises and Replacement Drill Bits We Offer

When creating polymer clay beads, you’ll need tools like bead pins and a bead baking rack, as well as supplies like wire, specifically for this type of clay project. Think about what you want to make before making all the major purchases. 

Lastly, you will need an oven to bake the clay. Baking hardens the clay so that it is no longer pliable and therefore a finished permanent item. A small toaster oven will also work. 

Always follow the temperature settings on the packaging of your clay as they vary slightly depending on brand and thickness of the clay and avoid burning the clay. Polymer Clayer put together a helpful chart on their website to use as a guide. 

Don’t use anything that you use for cooking or baking foods with for curing your polymer clay. Cover trays in parchment or wax paper and discard after use. 

Now that you have a general idea of the tools you’ll need, below is a quick summary of general polymer clay terminology.

  • Armature is a framework or a foundation for a clay sculpture or character.
  • Bead Pins are stiff wires used to create holes in unbaked beads. Beads are also cured on these and are removed after baking.
  • Burnishing is a technique used for finishing, smoothing, joining or polishing the clay surface. 
  • Cane. In the polymer clay world, a cane is a log made up of at least two colors in a two-dimensional design, where the design runs the entire length of the cane. Intricate designs are made larger in scale and then evenly rolled into a thinner log. This is sometimes referred to as “reducing a cane.”
  • Clay Softener is a plasticizer additive to soften dry, uncured clay.
  • Conditioning, as described earlier, is the first step done by warming and prepping the clay.
  • Curing or Baking is the final step where, due to high heat, the clay becomes hard and is no longer malleable.
  • Extruder is a device for creating long and narrow strands of clay. Some offer interchangeable discs with shapes like stars, hearts or half circles. There are many techniques developed for creating with the use of an extruder.
  • Foil Core is a shape made from compressed aluminum foil to which clay is applied onto, reducing the amount of clay used and the curing time needed. It is often used in character sculpting and bead making.
  • Glaze or a finishing sealant can be used after the clay is cured to add a glossy or matte finish.
  • Inclusion is a general term used to describe any additions like glitter, metal leaf, fibers or sand to the clay for added effect or texture. 
  • Marbling is a technique of mixing two or more colors of clay by distorting, pulling and folding so that the final effect resembles natural formations found in stone like marble or other metamorphic rocks.

excel blade clay leaf crafts

  • Relief is a term to describe a raised design on a flat surface. This technique is used in polymer clay jewelry design.
  • Sheet is a flat smooth layer of clay. It can be paper thin or ⅛” thick, depending on the designers' preference. It should be flat and smooth on both sides. Some clay artists cut their sheets to a rectangle or a square.
  • Slab is a decorated sheet, usually thicker and from which final pieces are cut out using either a craft knife or cookie cutters.

We hope this clears up some of the mysteries behind this fun hobby and you are inspired to create with polymer clay. Don’t forget to tag us in your posts. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!