Polymer clay is an increasingly used element, very versatile and resistant. Very affordable to work it at home and make crafts.
It forms part of countless complements and accessories, as well as small sculptures, and is becoming more and more appreciated.
In this complete guide you will be able to clear all the doubts about the differences between polymer clay and other countless materials that we see on the Internet. You will learn about the main brands, we will talk about baking and you will have the necessary tips to get started with this magical clay and avoid mistakes that are often made at the beginning.
Don’t miss the surprising sample of fascinating results achieved with this synthetic clay at the end of the guide.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
WHAT IS POLYMER CLAY?
It is a PVC-based modeling material. It is also called polymer clay, moldable paste, moldable plastic, Fimo, or bakeable plasticine, as it resembles plasticine, although it is not baked, of course.
It is widely used for modeling artistic figures and other handicrafts. It is not very useful in industry or construction. However, crafts with polymer clay are becoming increasingly popular.
In reality, this compound has little clay, since it has no mineral or organic components as clay can have.
In addition, it does not have to be fired at the temperatures required by most clays (often over 1000º), nor does it require a kiln with different characteristics than a home kiln, since it is fired at a temperature about 10 times lower than that sometimes required for ceramics. However, the fact that it requires firing has colloquially earned it the name of “clay”.
It is not a toxic material, it is safe to work with, however, it is not advisable to use it in the creation of objects intended for food. Obviously, due precautions must be taken when it is used by children. In any case, do not forget that it is a product made of PVC.
It is not advisable to bake it directly in the same tray that we are going to use to heat the pizza…, it is best to cover the tray with something like aluminum foil. Wash your hands after handling it, and in general, do not use utensils for working with clay with food.
You have in our blog another specific article about modeling polymer clay. In it we explain everything you need for this task and you will have the necessary tips to get the best out of it, we also talk about the tools that are used.
It is sold in an infinite number of colors and different pastes can be combined with each other, creating very nice effects. This is one of its advantages.
If we want to paint it we can also do it, there are many ways to do it and it will depend on whether we paint before or after firing. There are different pigments and suitable materials in the stores, the most common is to use acrylic paint.
FIMO: THE HISTORY OF THIS PASTE
Polymer clay was born as a candidate to replace Bakelite, which was a plastic designed for industrial purposes but had the drawback of its flammability. However, the new material (what today would be the famous Fimo paste) was discarded as a substitute, as it was not very suitable for the required use.
It was a German doll maker in the 1930s who, after trying to make use of it in industry, ended up giving this material to his daughter Fifi to play with, as it was completely safe.
He observed that, like any child, what he did was to model it to make figurines (today we have countless examples of materials discarded for one purpose and that have triumphed for other applications, such as “post-it notes”, which use a “bad” adhesive).
After discovering this new utility and a “second life” for this polymer, the formula was sold.
From the name of this girl Fifi and the use for modeling (MOdeling) with which it was first marketed, comes the name of one of the best known polymer clays: FIMO paste.
Nowadays this material is often colloquially known as Fimo, (the same happens as in the case of the Post-it notes we mentioned before, or Kleenex).
HOW TO FIRE POLYMER CLAY
WHICH OVEN TO USE
You can use a conventional oven, as long as, very importantly, you have the ability to accurately control the temperature.
The big advantage: You already have the oven!
And just three issues to keep in mind:
- It can be more expensive than desirable to bake a small piece unless you have several to bake at once.
- If the oven is large, it may have different temperature zones from each other.
- Depending on the time, you may have to choose between firing your precious work in polymer clay or heating up your lasagna.
Some people keep an extra of these small convection ovens (heated by air) or older ones, those with a heating element on top; which is a very good option to have a “dedicated” oven to bake this material if you work with it on a regular basis.
However, most of the old furnaces do not allow the temperature to be regulated accurately, so you should be cautious. In addition, it must be taken into account that many do not provide a constant temperature throughout the area, and parts of the piece may be too close to the heating element.
Neither do they maintain a constant temperature throughout the cooking time; their thermostat system means that there is a big difference between the temperature at which the electric current enters and the temperature at which it stops.
These ups and downs of heat that can lead to a less than desirable result.
SAFETY OF YOUR BAKING
Polymer clay does not produce toxic fumes when fired at the recommended temperature. If exposed to temperatures above 170°C, it may release irritating hydrogen chloride fumes. If this should occur, it will be unpleasant to breathe, it is not excessively toxic, but should be ventilated.
The curing of this material, under the recommended conditions, leaves no residues in the oven. This comprehensive article provides an in-depth analysis of the safety of firing and the tests carried out on this composite.
Curing this material at the recommended temperatures is safe, however, there are those who notice a certain odor during cooking. There are also those who even find it unpleasant. Well, for the same reason that there are people who do not like a certain perfume and may even get a headache from a scent that others find very pleasant.
To prevent this from happening, you can cover the pieces, for example, with a baking bag.
The proper way to bake polymer clay is to strictly follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
AT WHAT TEMPERATURE TO FIRE POLYMER CLAY
Logically, there is no set temperature for all types of all manufacturers on the market. The temperature range can be from 110º C (some types of FIMO) to 140ºC.
Two important indications:
- First: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the specific type of paste used.
- Second: This should be left over if we have followed the first one, NOT to exceed 170º.
Controlling the temperature well is very important, we have already talked about having a good temperature selection system. As you will have to rely on what the oven says, A good trick is to use a separate oven thermometer, since this way you will take the pulse of the real temperature that your oven “says” it has, and you will control the time it takes to heat up to that temperature and the time it takes to cool down. As we were saying, the disadvantage of electric ovens are the ups and downs of temperature between off and on.
The curing temperature of the polymer clay must be the one indicated by the manufacturer. Many agree on the upper limit of 170º C (e.g. Sculpey Premo, Kato Polyclay).
It will also depend on the type of material used. We continue to insist on sticking to the manufacturer’s instructions. We advise, however, to take into account the variables of the actual oven temperature, as we mentioned before, and also the thickness of the piece, the times usually range between 15 and 35 minutes, with an average of 30 minutes. It happens that for pieces with a thickness of less than 6 mm, some brands such as, for example, Sculpey PREMO indicate that 15 minutes are enough.
However, as a confidence, I can tell you that a lot of artists let the clay bake for longer than what they indicate (even double or triple the time!), but there are not many guidelines on this, only experience will give you the time you like for the pieces.
If you do not exceed the recommended temperature there is no risk of burning, however if you exceed the recommended temperature, what can happen is that the pieces may darken or lose color. So why take the risk of leaving them longer?
Many artisans complain that, after taking the piece out of the oven after the recommended time, they are still undercooked and may even fall apart (it would also be necessary to know the real temperature of those ovens). So they leave them longer and see that the final result is much harder and more resistant.
There is an “even more difficult”, which is to know how to bake those pieces that we make when we mix different clays of different brands, either for aesthetic reasons or simply to recycle them.
The decision may be, as many do, to take the highest temperature of all the different brands that are in your mix, even then we would still be in a “safety margin” and there will be no danger of burning.
BRANDS AND TYPES OF POLYMER CLAY
This part can be of special help especially if you are thinking of starting to work with this material to make your own figures, but you still don’t know which one to start with. We are going to talk about different types of materials and their differences, to be clear about which one is which, and then we are going to review the main brands.
CLARIFYING SOME DIFFERENCES
There are different kinds and brands, but not as many as popularly believed, that is, what happens is that they are confused with other types of materials and it seems that they are all the same. Although they are often lumped together as “modeling clays”, the defining feature of a polymer clay is that it is a synthetic material that has to be fired in a kiln.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CLAY AND POLYMER CLAY
Well, the difference is that, although they share the term “clay”, the former is what we call mud, that is, a material of natural origin and the latter is of artificial origin. Apart from its industrial origin, it is made from a base of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). That is, it is a mass of plastic origin, containing polymers, dyes, resins and bulking agents, hence the term polymeric. On the other hand, it is true that they have in common being a clay for baking.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POLYMER CLAY AND COLD PORCELAIN
Here they differ, on the one hand, in the composition, since the so-called cold porcelain is a preparation, often of homemade origin, of corn starch, vinyl glue and other ingredients (once again there is another misunderstanding with this name since it is not porcelain either, it is not ceramic).
On the other hand, cold porcelain does not require baking.
It is also associated with other types of materials such as plasticine, and we see it on the Internet interchangeably with the words flexible paste, modeling paste, sculpting dough, no-bake polymer clay, etc.
Nor should it be confused with what is called air-drying clay or paste, they are different materials, their composition is different and the latter, as its name suggests, does not need to be fired. If you want to know more about this other material, we have a complete guide that explains everything you need to know about air dry clay.
In many occasions, those who are starting to model and are looking to choose material, find a lot of confusion in this indeterminate use of a lot of different terms.
HOW CAN WE BE CLEAR ABOUT THIS? Let’s keep in mind that it is a synthetic material based on PVC, which needs to be baked in the oven in order to harden.
LIQUID POLYMER CLAY
It started in the 1990s, so it is relatively new. It is also available from major manufacturers and is also available in colors and translucent. Its price is higher.
Even though it is liquid, it bakes the same.
It is used as an adhesive or to soften normal clay, to soften it and make it more modelable, also to give transparent layers.
It is more complicated to work with due to its liquid state, but once mastered, spectacular results can be achieved.
The polymer clay brands with the greatest presence in the market are perhaps, among others: Kato Polyclay, FIMO, Cernit and Sculpey, although there are many more, such as Du-Kit or Pardo.
It has a reputation for being a brand whose final result, once the clay has been cured in the oven, is flexible and of good resistance.
It is the German brand we have talked about before, developed in the 30’s. Although we have not mentioned that it was not until the 60’s with the sale of the formula when this brand was really born. Within it you will find: FIMO Classic, FIMO effect, FIMO Kids, FIMO Soft, FIMO professional. It belongs to Staedtler.
You have here a video about the best polymer clay brands for beginners.
This manufacturer stands out for using very appropriate colors to work with human figures.
It has a wide variety of products whose differences lie in the ease and smoothness of modeling and their characteristics after baking.
The composition of each type changes from one brand to another, even within the same brand there is a great variety of products, with different modelability and properties.
WHAT TO DO WITH POLYMER CLAY
It is a very resistant material so it is widely used in costume jewelry and to make all kinds of ornaments, pendants and beads. The infinity of color mixtures that can be obtained with this paste is perfect for beautiful and showy complements. In rings they give a great result.
Also for other everyday objects, there are plenty of ideas to make with this clay: decorating pens or paper clips, on key chains, or for photo frames.
More things that can be made are incense or incense holders, ashtrays, the exterior decoration of glasses and cups, etc.
They are one of the most popular elements among all that can be made with this paste, sometimes using cutters to obtain the pieces of the shape we want, sometimes making figures by hand.
Why is it so popular to see it in these accessories? Because in addition to its resistance and chromatic possibilities, it has an advantage over other materials, such as rhinestones or metal, and that is that it weighs much less, so the earlobe will appreciate it over time.
The weight motif is something that also influences the choice of a brooch, ring or pendant, especially nowadays when more avant-garde and casual accessories are worn.
We have more posts where you can see examples, ideas and find out how to make polymer clay earrings.
Here are some examples of the beautiful things that can be made with this material.
It is very versatile and you can create from crafts to start to small works of art, the size is limited by the oven, of course, so it will not allow us large formats.
Below is an example of the work done by Patrizia Cozzo, a beautiful job!
You can see more works and learn the steps to make your first sculptures in our publication on polymer clay figurines.
Here are some frequently asked questions as a summary:
What is polymer clay and what is it used for?
It is a synthetic paste made from PVC and other additives.
It is used for modeling, being able to create all kinds of decorative figures or functional pieces.
It is relatively light.
It must be fired in the kiln, although at much lower temperatures than ceramic.
What is needed to work with polymer clay?
Adequate surface area.
Tools to cut and to work the shape (you can consult them in our article on how to model).
If the piece needs it, elements to make a base structure.
Homemade oven, a high temperature oven is not necessary.
How is polymer clay baked?
A homemade oven will do. If we are also going to use it for food, we will take some additional precautions (we talk about it in detail in our guide).
The temperature, depending on the type of clay, will be around 110-140ºC. DO NOT exceed 170ºC.
Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the precise time and temperature.
For this purpose, it is very useful to have an oven thermometer.
How long should polymer clay be fired?
Keep in mind 3 things: the manufacturer’s indications, but also the thickness of the piece and the exact temperature of our oven. It is usually 30 minutes.
If we spend too much time, the piece may darken or lose color.
If we have mixed brands and types, keep the longest time of all.
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