Signing my artwork is usually done as the last step in the sculpting process. Often it feels like putting the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae, but getting nice clean marks in air dry clay can be challenging. I have tried various things over the years, and thought it might be interesting to share these options for those of you just starting out.
Please note that most of my observations relate to working with Creative Paperclay, which has a soft consistency and a bit of a texture. Creating crisp lines in ceramic clay is often be easier because the clay body is very dense and stiff, and some air dry clay brands can behave the same way.
Epoxy clays can also be similar to ceramic in that they are stiffer and will hold detail better when uncured. Though once dry, epoxy clays are rock hard and will be very tough to carve.
All this to say that this is by no means a definitive guide, but hopefully a resource to help you make the best choice for your sculptures.
From left to right: Signed on wet clay; signed on semi dry clay; carved into dry clay.
Methods for signing air dry clay sculpture
Use a pin or ribbon tool (or even the tip of a wooden skewer) to simply write your name in the clay when it's wet. Some people use ball point pens with great success as they allow you to sign more naturally (since you're used to it) and do not go too deep into the clay
This is the most straightforward method, but on a soft air dry clay body like Creative Paperclay, the edges of your signature can look very rough. If you like this method, I recommend you don't try and fix the edges while the clay is wet, wait for the clay to dry and then clean up the signature by removing the burrs and using water and a brush to smooth the edges.
Carving your name into dry clay can be done with a variety of tools, as long as they are hard enough to make a mark in the clay. Creative Paperclay dries to the consistency of a soft wood, so using a pin tool works quite well as you can make a soft mark and then go over it to make it deeper.
The challenge with this technique is that the clay is dry and therefore can be pretty unyielding, especially if you are trying to sign in an awkward area. Using a dremel tool to carve the signature can produce good results, but means that you will probably have to choose an easily accessible signature location. And will require a dremel.
Paint / Marker
The rough surfaces of my sculptures make this very difficult, though I have done it on very small works where a carved signature would not be possible.
I also find this approach not permanent enough for my liking. The only time I use this technique is when signing pieces that are mounted on wooden bases. I sign the bottom of the base in a permanent, oil-based marker.
A custom made stamp with your signature can be a pricey option, but it guarantees consistency and clean results. It also saves time because it's fast and I don't have to "clean up" any rough signatures. Simply press into wet clay and let it dry.
I like my signature to not be overly apparent on a sculpture. I think it can detract from the work, especially on smaller pieces. Generally, I sign my work on the underside. In order to see the signature, the viewer has to be looking for it.
This means that I'm often working at odd angles or narrow spaces to place my signature where I want it. My preferred method of signing has been using a tool to carve the clay once it's dry. I find it gives a cleaner look than writing into wet clay.
This was of course before I had custom clay stamps made, and they will now be my go-to. I waited almost 7 years before I ordered my custom stamps, and seeing the results, I probably should have done it sooner :)
Want to get your own custom clay stamp?
Here are some options (not an exhaustive list by any means):
4Clay - One of the better known & where I got my stamps
Check out the Differences between Air Dry Clay and Ceramic