In this two part article, UK Handmade Portfolio Member, Helen White from Helenka White Design gives us an insight into the world of polymer clay and how this fantastic medium can be used to create gorgeous and quirky jewellery. Part 1 gives an overview of the clays and tools. In Part 2 she shares her own creations and explains some of the techniques used.
In the last 20 years polymer clay has become incredibly popular among crafters and jewellery designers. It is not surprising to see why: the medium is super versatile, affordable and you don’t need many expensive tools to get started. You can make figurines with clay, decorate everyday objects such as note books and diaries, make buttons, Christmas decorations and of course create beautiful jewellery. Not only that you can use polymer clay to mimic other materials such as wood, leather or semi-precious stones and you can also change its surface by applying glitter, paint, foils, texture sheets and all sorts of craft items. The possibilities are endless.
Polymer clay was originally developed in Germany by doll maker Fifi Rehbinder in the late 1930s. She called it “Fifi Mosaik” and used it for her doll heads. In 1964 she sold the formula of her invention to Eberhard Faber (Staedtler) who tweaked it and renamed it Fimo. The clay made it to America in the 70s and American companies began to produce their own brand of clay. Today we have a lot of different types of clay to choose from and they all come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Some of the most commonly known brands are: Sculpey, Sculpey Premo, Fimo Soft and Professional (which has replaced the Fimo Classic), Cernit, Pardo and Kato Clay. I haven’t yet familiarised myself with all of them, though I have most of them in my clay stash.
Fimo Soft, Sculpey and Premo are great clays for people starting out with polymer clay, because they don’t take long to condition (i.e. to make soft and workable). This advantage can also be a disadvantage though- if it’s too soft it can be hard to sculpt or create any canes with it. In this case you can firm it up by simply leaching the clay. Just place thin clay sheets between two pieces of white paper, put some heavy books on top and wait for a couple of hours or longer. This process leaches the plasticiser out of the clay, which in turn firms it up. But be careful not to leach it too much or it gets crumbly.
When working with translucent clays I use Cernit translucent and Pardo translucent as both brands were recommended to me for perfect results.
Fimo has brought out new clay called Fimo Professional which is sold in the main colours and a slightly bigger package (85 g instead of 57g) – I haven’t used it yet as I still have the Classic, but I’ve heard only good things about it. Fimo Professional like the Classic version is harder to condition, but ideal for intricate cane work, as it holds the pattern quite well when you reduce the cane (i.e. make it smaller and longer).
Another superior clay is Kato Clay – which I only discovered earlier this year when I attended Polymania 2015. Kato clay is sold in the main primary colours, translucent and mica variants. Though it is also hard to condition, it is great to work with and what’s more it doesn’t need that much sanding after it comes out of the oven! Kato Clay was developed by my friend Donna Kato, one of the leading polymer clay artists and author of several books on the subject. She also invented some nifty tools such as the Marxit measuring tool.
Apart from the clay itself you need some basic tools to get started.
- A roller to roll the clay out and a ruler for measuring.
- A pasta machine for conditioning the clay - Mine is an Atlas. They are not cheap, but durable and high quality. If you are lucky you can find a second hand machine in charity shops or at a car boot sale. I suffer from chronic shoulder pain so when I have to condition a lot I tend to use a motor – I can attach it to the machine. The downside is – it’s noisy and my cat doesn’t like it! You can find a tutorial on how to attach and use a motor here. If you are not sure if you want to work with clay a lot you can also go without. It’s not essential but it makes claying much easier.
- Various cookie cutters – I have loads, I collect them and because I make a lot of animal themed jewellery I have a lot of animal cookie cutters. I bought most of them from a stall at the Cologne Christmas market.
- Various tools to use for texturing such as texturing plates, shapers and ball pointed tools.
- A sharp stiff blade, a sharp flexible blade and a ripple blade
- A needle tool for creating holes
- A flat even surface to work on – ceramic tiles are perfect for this. You can also bake on ceramic tiles.
- Superglue (I tend to use either 2 part Epoxy or Loctite)
- Varnish that’s compatible with polymer clay. I had a few disasters with varnish that made the clay go sticky and have since tested several varnishes. So far safe to use are: Fimo’s own varnish, Golden Varnish and Vernis by Darwi
- A variety of soft brushes for dusting, applying powders, glitters or acrylic paint.
- Various grits of sandpaper and/or micromesh – for sanding the baked piece.
- Polishing cloth or a piece of denim - or invest in a buffing machine. I use my Dremel for polishing my pieces.
- A thermometer for your oven. Mine is a professional kitchen thermometer and way more accurate than the Sculpey one I bought. I tested them both. A thermometer is really essential, because clay cures at low temperatures and most ovens tend to be very inaccurate. What you don’t want is your pieces being ruined because the temperature was too high – apart from the toxic fumes clay emits when it’s getting too hot.
I mostly use my dedicated toaster oven for small pieces – not our oven. If you only occasionally want to play with clay your normal oven is fine – just make sure you cover your work up properly. I tend to put my items in an aluminium tray I got from the supermarket and cover it with more foil. I also put ceramic tiles on the top and bottom of the toaster oven. And keep checking the thermometer to make sure it stays at the recommended temperature. Most clays cure at 110 to 130 C, while Kato cures at 150 C. So check your clay instructions.
How long should you bake clay? It depends on the thickness of the piece. Thin pieces don’t take as long as thick pieces. I tend to leave them in the oven for longer than recommended, mainly because it doesn’t harm the clay, in fact it strengthens it, and because the temperature fluctuates.
In addition to this basic list of tools you will also invest in things like alcohol inks, acrylic paints, Mica powders depending on what you want to create.
How to get started? Well you could just open a packet and experiment. Or you can join some of the many FB groups which share free or paid for tutorials or you can buy one of the many books available on the subject. I can recommend both books by Donna Kato – “The Art of Polymer Clay – Millefiori Techniques” and “The Art of Polymer Clay – Creative Surface Effects”. Another book perfect for absolute beginners is “Polymer Clay 101” by Angela Mabray and Kim Otterbein.
In the next part I share with you some of my favourite designs and explain what techniques I used with them. In the meantime I leave you with a link to an easy to create project. For this you need Mica powder and a moulding compound such as “Siligum” or “Amazing Mold Putty”.
View Helen's portfolio here.
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