Thursday, February 2, 2012

Polymer Clay Dos and Don'ts for Absolute Beginners

This is not a tutorial, and doesn't reiterate very general directions about baking times, comparisons of brands, or things like that which are easily found and researched by a google search or a myriad of books at the library or bookstore. It's also a work in progress, as can be seen by the incomplete last several things on the list. I will be adding to it soon.

This is just a collection of tips--dos and don'ts. It is highly biased and reflects my own tastes, preferences, and experiences. But my beads get some attention and I also get a lot of inquiries and questions regarding my specific techniques and tips. I've been working with polymer clay for about a decade, not extensively, but enough so that I have made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot fro them.

It's my observation that there are a lot of similar things people do with the clay when making beads and components, and these things can be fun to experiment with, but the end result is that they turn out a pretty ubiquitous and mediocre polymer clay bead. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I offer these tips as guidelines for total beginners so you can avoid the common and get straight to the unique and uncommon, while producing a high quality bead suitable for selling.

Dos and Don'ts

1. Avoid marbling.

A marbled effect with polymer clay is appealing because it's very immediately satisfying to see intricate patterns appear so easily and quickly when mixing of different clay colors. It's a natural effect of mixing and is quite fun to manipulate. It's kind of like vacation pictures though--you had to be there. Marbled effects are very common in polymer clay beads and the only truly striking ones are done with specific techniques of manipulation that are developed by lots of polymer clay experience. DO, of course, marble-experiment with color & pattern manipulation while mixing colors (see #3 below;) DO allow yourself to become hypnotized by the all the fun and beauty of marbling.  While mixing colors, notice how color itself can be appropriated to be used to show motion, depth, and line.  Instead of marbling, I suggest starting color patterning using simple cane work...

2. Use canes.

Making canes is as simple and fun as making beads. In its extreme simplest form, it involves rolling a piece of polymer clay into a long snake shapes. In its most complicated form, it involves strategic placement of different shapes, sizes, and colors of clay to compose a single rolled snake. People use these complex canes to create pictures of amazing patterns, animals, scenes, flowers, etc.  Sometimes these complex canes start out as big as industrial paint cans and then they are greatly elongated so they arrive at their final small form.  It's a fascinating process to watch.  Describing it with words is pointless though; you have to see it to believe it.  But using even extreme simple canes can impart truly unique and eye-catching style to your beads. You can check out this really fantastic book, and/or google 'polymer clay cane' to find basic instructions.

2. Always mix colors.

I suggest never using clay straight from the pack. It's the same reason painters usually don't apply paint straight from the tube onto the canvas. It's more interesting to use and see custom blended, non-prefab colors. The exceptions are black and white.

4. Forget the fancy or 'effect' clays.

These clays include transparent, glow in the dark, stone, metallics, and more. One reason is because these clays can be temperamental and require special attention with baking times and whatnot. It's not so difficult to deal with once you have some experience behind you, but why start out with more high maintenance clays?

Another reason is that you may develop a reliance on the effects rather than experiment and create your own unusual textures and patterns. It's easy to tell at first glance beads made straight from the effect clays. Once you get some experimentation down with color and alteration techniques, you'll be able to incorporate the effect clays much better and use them for all they're worth.

5. Forget the fancy tools.

All of the tools you really need to make nice beginner beads you probably already have. The specialty polymer clay tools are helpful and geared for using with polymer clay, but they can be expensive and are unnecessary in your initial attempts. Once you get the hang of working with the clay, you'll start thinking of ways to manipulate the clay and the specialty tools will be better utilized. Simply put, wait until you have some experience until you begin purchasing polymer clay tools.

6. Don't use nail polish on polymer clay.

I have seen suggestions in polymer clay tutorials and books that advise using nail polish as a colorant or sealant. Whatever you do, don't use nail polish on polymer clay beads. I have several that I used clear polish on as a sealant, and they do not age well. They become grotesquely gummy and sticky. And they smell like nail polish. This may be because of the climate I live in, which is pretty humid, but if you're selling items with nail polish sealant, they could be going anywhere. There's really no need to use nail polish for colorants since you can mix any color from the clay itself, and then add colored details with acrylic paint.

Don't use sprays that aren't specifically made for use on polymer clay.  Even if they seem ok at first.  I used Krylon gloss spray on some beads for sealant, and they dried great and look really cool. I had earrings up in my Etsy shop with the Krylon-ed poly beads, and I had to remove them because they became sticky in time. I'm glad I caught that before they sold.

If you like a glossy look, there are specific sealants made for polymer clay. 

7. Make Round(ish) beads

Polymer clay likes to be round and fat. It's very tempting to start out being very sculptural with the beads, since the clay is so easy to work with. But there are a lot of problems that come into play with more exotic shapes.

First, different thicknesses of clay require different baking times. This means if you have a single piece with several thicknesses, the thinner areas are going to be overbaked in order to get the thick parts baked properly, or the reverse. Either way, the piece will be compromised because of incorrect baking.

Also, thin or flatter pieces are very susceptible to bending and breakage even when they are baked correctly. There is often way too much flexibility in these shapes to use in jewelry.

My advice is to start with simple round, nugget, rondelle or other chubby, very centralized shapes, get that down, and then branch out into adding some more exotic ideas once you master the basic shapes that work. There are ways to amend these basic shapes to get more exotic shapes like pods, flowers, and even beads with points and such, while remaining true to the fat and round dynamic.

8. Make and use your own molds.

9. Alter, alter, alter.

10. Condition the clay WELL.


  1. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience! You are so appreciated!
    ...Jackie xo

  2. opps already used nailpolish and already sold them!!! yikes...but I put in on and then wiped it off and then
    sanded and then waxed...fingers crossed that the dang things don’t melt on her neck or that she reads this blog...

    1. Hope not Glad we seen these before we were millionaires :-)

  3. Oh, oops. Well, if you didn't use it for the final coat it should be fine especially if it's sanded after and sealed with wax. The problem was because it was used as a glossy seal. I think what you did was completely a different use of it.

    But...I think the formaldehyde or whatever harsh chemical in the polish just doesn't work with the clay overall. Did you use it for coloring? If so, alchohol inks, acrylic paints, fabric paint pens, and Sharpie markers work really well and both take to sanding and such nicely for effects.

    This info will be part of that "alter alter alter" tip.

  4. I wanted a glossy blood look. I was shocked how good they turned out.. I did rub it off mostly though.. Richelle I am loving making the little things and yes once I ran that clay through the pmachine it works just fine.. Right now I am just so I to using the stuff I have around the house.. Thanks again for helping me

  5. I need help with...when can you start to paint? why do I get white residue from inside the bead holes? How long do you let them cure...I love doing this...thanks Richelle.

  6. Hi. You can paint them as soon as they're cooled down from the oven. White residue from the holes...never heard of that. Is the clay white? If not, what are you using to make the bead holes? Are you using additives along with the clay? (clay softener, glitter or other inclusions?) That stumps me--I've never seen that.
    The directions on the package are good. I tend to bake my thicker beads for a little longer than recommended. I never time it anymore though, because I can tell when they're done. So I probably have bad advice on that aspect. If you follow the package directions they'll turn out fine.

  7. I'm plugging on Richelle. Thanks for all your help.

  8. I was more successful with your advices.Thanks Richele.

  9. Sublime tips, I'm in complete agreement with you esp about aesthetics in marbling vs caning and having to be there and fancy tools and special effect clay (oh and I love, love your polymer beads!).

    Just one question though--I've always heard/read that the propellant in spray sealers can actually melt polymer. I don't know if that's (allegedly) an immediate result or if it's something that can happen over time, and I've never used sprays on my beads so I honestly don't know. Have you heard anything about that? I'm assuming it works fine for you. I'm psyched that micro wax mediums and sealants are gaining so much ground lately because they're wonderful.

    My other big general philosophical issue with polymer involves wondering why so many people advocate for the brown shoe polish to age polymer rather than just using less smelly brown acrylic paint for that. I get that it's wax based which is great, but it's stinky and makes me want to watch Clerks again where he makes the sign with shoe polish and everyone keeps asking him what that smell is.

  10. Tribalis, you're very welcome.

    Carrie--I am also a little stumped over the brown shoe polish. I tried it a long time ago, and found it to be too uncontrollable and kind of pointless. The best use I've seen of it is on really well done transparent polymer clay pieces. There's a delicacy factor that I'm not sure would have been found with acrylic. However, in general, acrylic paints seem to be just perfect for polymer. Also, fabric paint pens are fantastic--they turn out like a 'washed' effect, and it's permanent. and Sharpies too, for easy embellishment work.

    The only spray sealant I've used on polymer is crystal clear krylon. I have some sprayed beads that are 2 years old now, and there's no sign of decay. Some of them seem just fine, but I did have to remove a pair of earrings from my shop because there was a bit of stickiness on the surface.

    I love the wax on polymer--I've used wax medium in the past for painting and mixing stuff into collages, but it really is so useful with altering beads and components too. One wonderful thing I've been mixing it with is mosaic grout. kind of an alternative to paint to get into the textural spaces in the polymer beads for definition. I know people mix actual dirt with wax, but I am reluctant to mix unknown organics into things I'm selling. The grout seems to be a perfect dirt substitute.

  11. Thank you for being so generous with your experiences! I really am gonna have to break down and find me some Renaissance Wax, I'm afraid--for meh metals and meh polymers.

  12. Hi, this is a very nice site, and you make beautiful beads!

    Just wanted to mention that the issue you had with the nail polish has nothing to do with your climate, and everything to do with the fact that nail polish is 100% non-compatible with polymer clay.

    Most things in spray cans have this issue, too (people have theorized that it's the propellant), as well as a few brush-on glazes such as Delta Creamcoat's Exterior/Interior Gloss Varnish.

    Sharpies, and many other markers have been known to cause problems as well.

    Happy claying!

    1. You are so correct. It's not the climate--it't the nature of the nail polish. I still have zero problems with sharpie in the beads. I now have some beads that are 4-5 years old on which I have used sharpie markers in various colors, and there is no sign of bleeding, fading, texture issues, or anything at all.

  13. When using Polymer clay to make figurines, can you make part of the figurine one day and finish it the next day? Will there be problems with it sticking together?

    1. Polymer clay doesn't dry out at room temperature, so it should be fine to attach pieces as long as they are raw.

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  15. can you use a metal mold to cook your polymer clay item?

    1. I've never tried using any kind of molds, so I don't know for sure. But the clay doesn't stick to regular metal when baking, so it should work as long as the finished piece can be popped out of the mold.