How To Guide

How to Soften Polymer Clay: A Comprehensive Guide

Polymer clay is a versatile medium favored by crafters and professional artists alike for its flexibility, vibrant color options, and the fact that it can be hardened into a permanent shape. However, users often encounter one common issue: the clay becoming too hard or crumbly to work with.

This article provides a comprehensive guide on softening polymer clay, ensuring it remains pliable and easy to mold, enhancing your sculpting experience.


Understanding Polymer Clay

Before delving into the techniques of softening polymer clay, it’s crucial to understand this material. Polymer clay is a modeling clay based on the polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It doesn’t dry out in the air and needs to be cured or baked in an oven to harden. Over time or under certain conditions, polymer clay can become hard and difficult to manipulate.

Why Does Polymer Clay Harden?

Polymer clay can harden for several reasons. These include:

  1. Age: Older clay, especially if not stored correctly, can become hard over time. The plasticizers that keep the clay soft can evaporate or leach out, leading to a stiffer texture.
  2. Storage Conditions: Exposure to heat, cold, or dry air can affect the clay’s softness. It’s best to store polymer clay in a cool, dark place, sealed in an airtight container.
  3. Brand Variations: Different brands of polymer clay have different consistencies. Some are naturally softer or harder than others, even when fresh.

Basic Techniques to Soften Polymer Clay

Now that we understand why polymer clay hardens, let’s explore some basic techniques to soften it:

  1. Kneading: Often, all a block of polymer clay needs is a bit of kneading to warm it up and make it pliable. You can do this by rolling and stretching the clay with your hands. This method can be a bit of a workout, but it’s an excellent place to start.
  2. Warming: Warming the clay slightly can make it easier to knead. You can do this by placing the clay in a plastic bag and submerging it in warm water or sitting on it for a while. Be cautious not to overheat the clay, as it can partially cure and become unworkable.

Advanced Techniques for Softening Polymer Clay

If basic kneading or warming isn’t enough to soften your polymer clay, these advanced techniques can help:

  1. Clay Softeners/Additives: Commercial clay softeners can be added to hard clay to soften it. Some of these are liquid and can be kneaded into the clay, while others are soft clay that can be mixed in. Examples include Sculpey Clay Softener and Fimo Mix Quick.
  2. Baby Oil or Mineral Oil: A few drops of baby oil or mineral oil kneaded into hard polymer clay can help to soften it. Be cautious with the amount you use; too much can make the clay sticky.
  3. Food Processor Method: For large amounts of hard clay, some artists use a food processor to chop it into small pieces, then add a few drops of clay softener or baby oil and continue processing until the clay is the right consistency. Remember to clean the food processor thoroughly afterward, and consider having a dedicated machine for clay to prevent cross-contamination with food.

Preventing Polymer Clay from Hardening

Prevention is always better than cure. Here are some ways to prevent your polymer clay from hardening in the first place:

Proper Storage: Store your polymer clay properly in a cool, dry place. Seal it in an airtight container or plastic bag to prevent exposure to air, which can cause it to harden.

Usage: Only take out as much clay as you plan to use immediately. Keep the rest stored away.

Handle With Care: Each time you handle the clay, you warm it, making it softer. If you won’t use it immediately, try to handle it as little as possible.


Tips and Tricks for Working with Polymer Clay

Working with polymer clay can be a joy but also present challenges. Here are some tips and tricks to make your experience smoother:

  1. Condition Your Clay: Always condition your clay before using it. This process, which involves kneading and rolling the clay, softens it and primes it for use. Conditioning aligns the clay’s microscopic particles, producing a stronger finished piece.
  2. Use Tools: Don’t rely solely on your hands for kneading hard clay. Tools like acrylic rollers or pasta machines can make the task easier and more efficient.
  3. Rest Your Clay: If your clay becomes too soft while you’re working with it, let it rest. As it cools down, it will firm up again.

Common Mistakes When Softening Polymer Clay

While softening polymer clay is generally a straightforward process, there are a few common mistakes to watch out for:

  1. Adding Too Much Softener: Too much liquid or oil can sticky your clay. Always start with a small amount; you can add more if needed.
  2. Overheating the Clay: While warmth can help soften clay, too much heat can cause it to partially cure, making it unworkable. Never try to soften clay by microwaving it or putting it in boiling water.

The Importance of Softening Polymer Clay

Understanding how to soften polymer clay is key to a positive sculpting experience. Soft, well-conditioned clay is easier to mold, blend, and sculpt, resulting in smoother, more professional-looking pieces. Moreover, properly conditioned clay is stronger when baked, producing more durable finished pieces.


Selecting the Right Polymer Clay

The hardness or softness of polymer clay can vary between brands. If you’re finding that your clay is consistently too hard for your liking, you might want to experiment with different brands. Brands like Sculpey III and Fimo Soft are known for their softer consistency, while others like Kato Polyclay or Fimo Classic are naturally harder.


Safety Precautions When Softening Polymer Clay

When working with polymer clay, it’s important to prioritize safety. Here are a few safety tips:

  1. Avoid Skin Irritation: Some people might find prolonged contact with polymer clay irritating to their skin. If you experience skin irritation, consider using disposable gloves when handling the clay.
  2. Ventilate Your Space: When baking polymer clay, ensure your space is well-ventilated. While polymer clay is generally safe to use, it can release fumes when baked, especially if it’s overheated.
  3. Dedicated Tools: If you’re using tools like food processors or pasta machines to condition or soften your clay, it’s a good idea to keep these tools dedicated to clay work and not use them for food preparation.

The Science Behind Polymer Clay

Understanding the science behind polymer clay can help in handling it more effectively. Polymer clay is a type of modeling clay based on the polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It contains plasticizers to make it malleable and workable. Over time, these plasticizers can evaporate or be absorbed, leading to the hardening of the clay.


Tools and Techniques for Conditioning Polymer Clay

Conditioning, or the process of getting polymer clay to the right consistency, is a crucial step before shaping it into your desired form. This can be achieved with the help of various tools and techniques.

  1. Roller or Brayer: A roller or a brayer can be used to roll out the clay, helping to warm it up and make it more pliable.
  2. Pasta Machine: A pasta machine is a popular conditioning tool among polymer clay enthusiasts. By passing the clay through the machine several times, it becomes softer and easier to mold.
  3. Acrylic Roller: An acrylic roller is another effective tool for conditioning polymer clay. It allows you to apply even pressure across the clay surface, making the conditioning process smoother.

Softening Agents for Polymer Clay

Apart from the manual process of conditioning, various softening agents are available that can help make the clay more pliable.

  1. Clay Softener/Diluent: These are specially designed products that can be added to polymer clay to restore its softness.
  2. Baby Oil: A few drops of baby oil mixed into the clay can make it softer. However, it should be used sparingly as it can make the clay too sticky.
  3. Translucent Liquid Sculpey (TLS): This is a liquid form of polymer clay that can be mixed with hard clay to soften it.

Reviving Old Polymer Clay

Sometimes, you might come across a block of polymer clay that’s been forgotten and has turned rock hard. But don’t throw it away! Even the hardest clay can be revived with a little patience and the right techniques.

  1. Chop and Soak: Chop the clay into small pieces and soak them in a plastic bag with a few drops of clay softener or baby oil. Leave it for a few days to allow the softener to penetrate the clay.
  2. Warming: Warm the clay slightly (remember not to use direct heat!) to make it more receptive to kneading.
  3. Milling: Run the clay through a pasta machine multiple times. The combination of pressure and movement should gradually soften the clay.

Tips for Working with Polymer Clay

Working with polymer clay can be a delightful experience if you know how to handle it properly. Here are some tips to make your crafting process smoother:

  1. Start Slow: Don’t rush the conditioning process. Take your time to knead the clay properly until it’s soft and pliable.
  2. Warm Hands: If your hands are naturally cold, try warming them before kneading the clay.
  3. Rest the Clay: If the clay becomes too soft and sticky while working, let it rest for a while. As it cools down, it will become firmer and easier to handle.
  4. Clean Workspace: Keep your workspace clean. Polymer clay can pick up dust and debris easily, affecting the look of your finished piece.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The more you work with polymer clay, the better you’ll understand its characteristics and how to manipulate it to your will. Happy crafting!


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the best way to store polymer clay?

Polymer clay should be stored in a cool, dry place. It’s best to keep it in an airtight container or a zip-top plastic bag to prevent exposure to air.

Can I use a hairdryer to soften polymer clay?

It’s not recommended to use a hairdryer as it can unevenly heat the clay, potentially partially curing it and making it unworkable. It’s better to use methods such as hand kneading, a clay softener, or gently warming it in a sealed plastic bag in warm water.

Can I add soft polymer clay to hard polymer clay?

Yes, mixing softer clay with harder clay can help balance out the consistency and make the overall mixture easier to work with.

Does polymer clay harden after baking?

Yes, polymer clay hardens after baking. This is how polymer clay items maintain their shape.

What should I do if my polymer clay piece is brittle after baking?

If your piece is brittle, it might not have been baked long enough. Despite being hard to the touch, it hasn’t fully cured. You can rebake the item for the full recommended time. Remember, it’s hard to overbake polymer clay — underbaking is usually the problem.

Why is my new polymer clay hard?

Even fresh out of the package, some polymer clay brands can be naturally harder than others. Also, it can harden if the clay has been sitting on the shelf for a while. It’s nothing to worry about; some kneading or a clay softener can bring it back to workable condition.

Can I soften polymer clay without a clay softener?

Yes, kneading and warming are simple methods that often soften polymer clay without needing a clay softener. If these methods aren’t enough, household items like baby oil or mineral oil can also be used.

Can old, hardened polymer clay be salvaged?

In many cases, yes. Even old, crumbly polymer clay can often be brought back to life with a bit of work and the addition of a clay softener.

How can I prevent my polymer clay from hardening?

Proper storage is crucial. Keep your clay sealed in an airtight container or plastic bag, away from heat, cold, and dry air. Also, handle the clay as little as possible until you can use it.

Conclusion

Softening polymer clay is a skill that enhances the overall working process with this versatile medium. Whether a hobbyist or a professional artist, mastering the art of softening polymer clay can greatly impact your sculpting experience and the final product’s quality. From understanding why polymer clay hardens, to learning various softening techniques and preventative measures, you are now equipped to handle any polymer clay consistency that comes your way.

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