Sit on it? Sit on what? Hang on, folks. It’s a long story.
Recently I ordered a crafty little polymer clay kit from Amazon. Now, let’s start from the beginning with the understanding that I know absolutely nothing about polymer clay, other than the fact that playing with it sounded like a lot of fun. Polymer clay, I soon learned from a quick bit of Google research, is a PVC-based modeling clay. PVC, I then learned, stands for polyvinyl chloride, although I’m not sure how important it is to know that. The main point here is that this clay is much like plastic when hardened. Unlike other clays that can harden simply by exposure to air, polymer clay requires baking.
Well, so far, so good.
Next, I learned from crafty friends that (a) polymer clay can be used to make beautiful pieces of jewelry, (b) I’ll probably want to buy a pasta-making machine at some point, and (c) polymer clay is a lot of fun.
So they say, so they say. I’m referring to the fun part.
Not knowing what polymer clay crafting truly involved, I browsed Amazon for something akin to a “starter kit” — a fairly inexpensive introduction to what might or might not prove to be an enjoyable and rewarding hobby. That’s how I found this 46-color clay set, complete with tools, a few jewelry parts, and a handy little carrying case for it all!
Looks nice, doesn’t it!
I had a project in mind. An easy project. A simple incense holder. Now, the project instructions I read were for using air-dry clay, but, really, would that make a big difference? I decided to take my chances, and I ordered the kit. That isn’t really as unreasonable as it might sound. I’m currently doing a mixed media course at The Virtual Instructor, and polymer clay is one of the items on the course supply list. We haven’t gotten to it yet in the lessons, but I like always being prepared ahead of time.
Now, having completed my first project, let me just say this: Working and playing with polymer clay is nothing like I’d imagined it to be.
Do you really want to see how my first project turned out? Are you sure? My incense holder is functional, and it is somewhat interesting, but it’s definitely not a work of art.
Here it is, sitting on my desk, ready for me to light a stick of sandalwood incense. It’s useful. It serves the purpose. It holds a stick of incense, and it catches the ashes when they fall.
But, next time I’ll do a few things differently.
Actually, the holder looks better than the photo. It looks good enough that my husband was impressed, but then again, he’s my husband, and you already know he’s my biggest fan.
In the interest of helping anyone else who might be tempted to order polymer clay and start playing with it, and maybe thinking, “Well, gee, if I don’t like it, the grandkids will have fun with it,” let me say again, it’s not as easy as it looks. In fact, this was a lot harder than I’d expected.
Again, polymer clay is PVC-based. What that means is it is very stiff when you unwrap it. Before you can do anything with it, you have to first condition and soften it. I was surprised when I picked up my little strip of white polymer clay and found that it’s not squishy and pliable. Not at all!
Realizing that I needed to learn a little more before I could even attempt my simple project, I went Googling again. I was disheartened to read a lot of things I didn’t know before I bought my clay, things like “You’ll have to have a pasta-making machine,” and “Don’t even think of baking polymer clay in your home oven.” What? Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before? Well, I was told about the pasta-making machine, but no one explained why. Silly me, I should have asked!
The pasta-making machine, I’ve now learned, is used to condition the clay so that it becomes soft, squishy, and pliable. In other words, so you can do things with it! Trying to condition it by hand is hard, frustrating, time-consuming, and can be very painful. I consider myself somewhat fortunate in that being a classical pianist, I have a lot of strength in my fingers and hands, despite being old. I pushed, pulled, kneaded, and — following a tip I found online, added a bit of Vaseline — and finally ended up with a softer clay than what I started with. I don’t think my clay was as soft and pliable as it should have been, but I was pushing the limits of my patience at that point.
This was the point at which I was starting to see another little flub-up on my part. I was enticed by the prospect of 46 different colors when I ordered my little kit, and I had no idea how much of each color I would want or need for different projects. The single little strip of white clay I received wasn’t really enough for my project. I made do with it, and that’s one reason why my incense holder isn’t all it should be.
What I should have done instead of getting this kit was to simply buy a single package of white clay. I didn’t know at the time, of course, that I could use acrylics to paint the clay, so I mistakenly believed I needed lots of colors.
Here’s what I probably should have purchased: Polyform Sculpey III Polymer Clay – 8 Ounces White.
The next thing I discovered was that working, sculpting, playing, modeling — whatever you want to call it — with polymer clay, really does require special tools. In addition to that pasta-maker you’ll need, and that small oven you’ll want — we’ll discuss that in a moment — you can’t enjoy polymer clay without a set of tools for rolling, measuring, molding, cutting, and carving. You’ll probably want a large acrylic cutting board to work on. You’ll definitely want an acrylic roller or two. And, by the way, in place of an actual pasta-making machine, you can get a clay rolling machine that comes complete with a table clamp.
Having read all of this, yeah, I was getting discouraged. Had I known how much time, effort, and money was required to even get started with polymer clay, I would never have even considered it. But, oh, well. There I was with a strip of white clay in hand — not nearly enough for my project — and a determination to do something, even if it was wrong.
So, about that oven. My heart sank when I read this:
This is the one area of polymer clay creation where you will need to make a small investment, which is unfortunately unavoidable. You will need some sort of an oven. Polymer clay must be baked. It cannot be air-dried, and it cannot be microwaved. You also cannot use your regular food oven, since polymer clay emits rather nasty fumes as it bakes.Kuman Mullangi: Polymer Clay for Beginners
Remember this, please, because we’ll come back to it later.
I frantically went searching on-line again, and yes, I found dire warnings about toxic fumes, about the importance of having good ventilation when baking polymer clay, and I was ready to throw up my hands and say, “Forget this!” But then I found other websites that said, “Hey, it’s all right. Yes, you can bake polymer clay in your oven.” There are precautions to take, but that’s true in all we do. Basically, you want to have the right temperature, be careful not to burn the clay, and yes, adequate ventilation is probably a good idea.
I figured for a small little project requiring about 15-20 minutes baking time, I’d be just fine using my oven. And so, that’s what I did.
Once my incense holder had been shaped and baked, I allowed it to dry overnight. The next morning I used a small spray bottle filled with black acrylic paint mixed with a little water and sprayed the holder. You don’t need a spray bottle. You could create interesting effects by simply “splattering” paint with a brush. Once the paint had dried, I did seal it with a coat of spray varnish.
When all was said and done, I ended up with a serviceable incense holder. In the end, though, my incense holder is not all it should have been for a number of reasons.
- I didn’t have enough clay for the project
- I didn’t really have my clay well-conditioned
- I didn’t have good tools. The little plastic tools that came in my kit aren’t too useful.
- I used a kitchen rolling pin after first covering the clay with parchment paper. Rolling it out wasn’t easy, and I had to roll it much thinner than it should have been.
- I didn’t have a way to “form” the shape I wanted, or at least, I didn’t know quite how to do it.
On that last point, the original “air-dry” instructions were to mold the clay over a small bowl and then allow it to harden. I wasn’t sure if I could do that in the oven. I tried “molding” it and “shaping” it a bit with aluminum foil. I managed to get a slight curve, but not the actual “bowl-like” shape I’d wanted. Oh, by the way, it’s advisable to have a ceramic tile to bake polymer clay on. If you don’t have that — I didn’t — you can use aluminum foil.
Despite all the problems, the good news is that I still came out with something that resembles an incense holder. I’ll admit my clay is probably not completely baked/cured enough, but thankfully I didn’t end up with a kitchen filled with toxic fumes. And here’s the crazy thing… read this:
Is clay toxic? Polymer clay has been tested and is certified as being non-toxic and safe to be used as a normal crafting material. Touching polymer clay, working with it, and even baking it in your home oven is not dangerous. Polymer clay is not a food, so you don’t want to eat it, of course. And it’s not the right material for using to make food-safe items such as plates or bowls. But don’t be worried about any scary stories you might read on the internet about toxic fumes. There are no toxic fumes. Be logical when working with polymer clay, though. Use dedicated crafting tools, wash your hands when you’re done, and don’t eat snacks while you’re working with clay. And have fun with it!
And what’s the source? Why it’s from the very same book I quoted previously. Polymer Clay for Beginners by Kumar Mullangi.
So, is it, or isn’t it safe to bake in your home oven?
After this first experience, I still want to learn more about polymer clay and how to work with it. I do want to make lovely little beads and even try making more incense holders. I want to take what I’ve learned and go from here. I know I’ll do better on my next project.
The most important tip I found came from a video tutorial on conditioning polymer clay. If you’re thinking of trying it, you’ll probably want to watch this short video. In it, Carolyn Lietz shows you what conditioned clay looks like and gives a simple tip. Start with warm clay. To warm it up? Just sit on it. Yep, just sit on it. Warm it up. I’m going to do that next time. I really am.
One other afterthought I want to add is about kids and grandkids. Polymer clay could certainly be a fun project — with adult supervision, of course. But it could also be very difficult and discouraging. Don’t turn your little ones loose with polymer clay that’s not conditioned and ready to use. Warm it up first. Soften it up. Please, just sit on it before you try to use it.