Some of my favourite tools for working with air dry clay
I recently got into a friendly chat with some attendees at a ceramic art show. When I started talking about the materials I use for my sculptures there was immediate interest – You don’t fire the clay at all? How does it work? Where can I get some?
These sorts of questions aren’t unusual because air dry clays are a relatively recent development in the art world, and using them in sculpture is newer still. With that in mind, I’m sharing the knowledge I have acquired about this awesome material, and spreading my love of this versatile medium.
I use Creative Paperclay for the majority of my work, but the techniques I describe here can be used for a variety of other artist-grade air dry clays. The great thing about Creative Paperclay (CPC, for short) is that you don’t need any specialized tools to start making beautiful objects.
Two Basic Things You Need to Begin Sculpting
There are 2 things that are absolutely necessary to have when working with air dry clays: a small bowl or cup for water, and a lint-free rag.
Air dry clays are usually water-based and need to be moistened regularly, otherwise they will dry out and crack.
The bowl is used to keep your hands moist and also to moisten and wash any tools. Find a bowl that is a good size to dip your fingers into and won't tip over easily.
The cloth keeps pieces of clay I’m not using at the moment from drying out. I can also wipe my hands and tools so they aren't clogged with clay.
What You Need and When You Need It
I should mention that tools are based on personal preference and sculpting style. There is no right and wrong, and tools that work for me may not be what you're looking for. Experimentation is key to finding your favourites.
There are three basic things I do to my clay to create a horse sculpture: shaping, carving, and smoothing. So, let’s break down the tools by task they are needed for.
Tools for - Shaping
I do most of the shaping using my fingers. When I'm working in a tight spot or need to create details, I find the most effective tools are metal and wooden ceramic/pottery tools. It often help to moisten the wooden ones slightly before using them to prevent them from sticking to the clay.
Nail art tools are also awesome for shaping - a trick I learned from polymer clay artists. I bought my set on Amazon for a pittance.
My absolute go to tool: are small brushes. They’re perfect for detail work, and can be used to smooth clay and get into tight areas. They are just flexible enough and can be moistened to help “wake up” the clay while shaping it.
You have to be careful to not over-wet the clay as it starts to lose its ability to hold its shape. Brushes should be moist, but not wet. This is when the moist cloth is handy: I dip a brush into water and then “dry” it off on the rag, providing just the right amount of moisture.
Tools for - Carving & Cutting
CPC can be carved once dry. This is useful if you need to reduce clay in an area and re-shape it. It can also create effects and textures, such as faceting. However, you must ensure your sculpture is really dry before cutting, otherwise you'll just tear the clay.
The primary tool I use for this is an X-Acto knife. Use safe carving techniques because CPC is quite hard once dry (imagine a soft wood) and you can cut yourself easily if you’re not careful. Make sure your blade is sharp: Just like with paper, a dull knife won't cut cleanly.
An example of "faceting" made using an x-acto knife
Tools for - Smoothing
So, now that you’ve finished your sculpture and you would like to make certain areas smooth. We're talking baby's bottom smooth. The good news is it can be done, and there are several approaches to smoothing air dry clays.
Raw, un-sanded sculptures. Notice the patchy texture from layering clay.
Wet Techniques for Smoothing Air Dry Clay
- Your fingers - You can use your fingers to smooth a piece while you’re working on it. Don’t use too much water though as it will be more like to crack. You will not get an absolutely smooth surface with this approach because CPC can capture details such as fingerprints (another reason to love it!)
- Spoon - You can employ a smooth, hard tool, like the back of a spoon, to push down the texture and burnish the clay. This can work both wet and dry. If you do it when the clay is dry you can get a real shininess to the clay.
- Paint on clay - Another technique is to take a bit of CPC and mix it with enough water to make a sort of liquid paste that you then brush onto the sculpture. I find this quite painstaking and does not necessarily deliver consistent results. When I need real smoothness, I go for =>
Dry Techniques for Smoothing Air Dry Clay
- Sanding – I find this to be the most effective method to get a super smooth finish. I start off with 60 grit and move all the way up to 400 grit for a velvety soft surface. Sanding can also create cool textures depending on which grit you use. The only downside of sanding is that it is extremely messy and should really be done outdoors (and preferably with a mask on).
Sanding air dry clay is a messy business and best done outside
These basic tools and techniques are a great starter kit to sculpting in Creative Paperclay, or any air dry clay for that matter.
My essential tools for air dry clay sculpting:
- Small bowl
- Lint-free rag
- Clay sculpting tools (wood and metal)
- Nail art tools
- Small brushes
- X-Acto knife
- Sandpaper (I use the following grits: 60, 80, 120, 200, 400)
I hope these basic techniques will help you take the leap into artist-grade air dry clays and find out what a powerful medium they are. The key to mastering the techniques is practice, so don't worry if you're first sculpture doesn't turn out. Keep on working at it!
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