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Polymer Clay Lesson Plan One

Polymer Clay Lesson One: Introduction and Making Textured Beads
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In this lesson we will learn the basics of working with polymer clay and experiment with textures and inclusions.

  1. Materials Needed
  2. Safety
  3. Conditioning and Mixing the Clay
  4. Formation of Beads
  5. Applying Texture
  6. Baking
  7. Resources

1. Materials Needed:

Polymer Clay: Sculpey III assortment, Granitex, plus some blocks of transparent Sculpey
Inclusions and Texturizers: Glitter, colored sand (can be found in craft supply stores), salt.
Waxed paper: for work surface and for storage
Pieces of cardboard: To be covered with waxed paper for work surface
Tape: To fasten waxed paper to cardboard
Corn starch: To keep rubber stamps from sticking
Paper towels and hand lotion: For cleaning hands when finished

Blades and knives for slicing clay
Rubber stamps and texture tools
Wooden skewers (can be found in grocery stores) for making holes in clay
Portable oven for baking the beads
Extension cord, tray and folded paper for oven
Disposable rubber gloves

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2. Safety

Polymer clay is PVC and contains a plasticizer - a chemical that keeps the clay soft until it is baked. The book "The New Clay"1 gives more details about the chemical composition of the clay if you want to learn more. Although the packages of clay are marked non-toxic, it is generally agreed among those who work with polymer clay that the following precautions should be followed to avoid any possible problems from the plasticizer (plus a few additional opinions of my own):

  • Never use the tools you use for clay for food ever again. This includes trays, knives, etc. It might be a good idea to mark these tools in some way so that they are not used with food by mistake.
  • Never make a vessel with the clay that might be used for food or drink.
  • Never breathe the fumes from baking the clay. The fumes are believed to be particularly noxious if the clay is overbaked and burned. Some people bake the clay in their home ovens and ventilate the room while baking. I don't feel comfortable doing that - I bake outside in a portable oven always. One book I have2 recommends cleaning your home oven periodically to get any residue from baking polymer clay out of it. I prefer to avoid the problem altogether by baking the clay in the portable oven. Pets and children should not be anywhere near the baking clay.
  • Never make an ashtray or any other item that might be burned from polymer clay. This is for the same reason that we were taught not to throw plastic trash in the campfire at summer camp - toxic fumes. Some people make incense burners or candle holders from the clay. I personally prefer to stay away from those kinds of items.
  • In my opinion the beads should be kept away from small children. Kids love the bright colors and I've seen them grab the beads and try to eat them at shows.
  • The plasticizer in the clay has the ability to soften or mar some plastics or other surfaces. Wrapping it in waxed paper first is one good way to store it because the clay can react with some plastic boxes or bags. Test if you're not sure. Reactions sometimes take several weeks to become apparent. The clay should be covered when not in use because it attracts dust like crazy! Never set the unbaked clay on good furniture or any other surface that might react with the plasticizer.
  • If you want to varnish your beads, it's best to use a varnish that is sold to use with that brand of polymer clay. Some other varnishes react with the clay and become sticky over time. If you want to paint the clay, acrylic is a good choice.
  • Clean your hands thoroughly after working with the clay. I find that a scrubbing or two with hand lotion and paper towels, followed by a good washing with hand soap works well. I also clean under my fingernails if there is clay under there. Some polymer clay artists wear disposable rubber gloves. Besides protecting your skin, the gloves keep your fingerprints off of the clay items. Some artists feel more comfortable working that way. I'm not one of them, but if I have a cut on my hand I cover it with a Band-Aid so I don't get clay in it.
  • Sometimes you will need to use sharp knives to slice the clay. Be very careful with these. Some artists mark the blades to indicate which is the sharp end and which is not. That's a good idea because it's really easy to press on the wrong end of the blade by accident. Ouch!

Since this article was originally written in 2001, there is more information available about safety aspects of polymer clay. For more opinions see this discussion on the Glass Attic web site.

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3. Mixing and Conditioning Clay

Each participant will start out by mixing one batch of translucent clay with an inclusion in it, and then one color of his or her choice. By doing this the participants will become familiar with conditioning the clay and see how the colors mix.

Step 1: Take some translucent clay, and knead it until it is warm and soft. Choose an inclusion, either glitter or colored sand, and mix a pinch into the translucent. Set this clay aside.

Step 2: Decide what color you would like to mix for your second batch of clay. Even if you wanted to use a color "straight" and not mix your own color, you would need to knead the clay for a short while to condition it, which will improve the strength of the finished piece. By mixing a color, you can condition the clay at the same time, while you learn how the colors mix together. In general, if you are mixing a dark and a light color together, you will need a lot less of the dark color than the light color. For example, a tiny pinch of blue clay will make green in a large chunk of yellow clay. Try mixing Granitex and regular color Sculpey, metallic or pearlized Sculpey with regular color Sculpey, or translucent Sculpey with regular Sculpey colors. The combinations will all give different effects.

Step 3: Once your color is mixed, you can add sand or glitter inclusions if you want to. Or leave it as is.

Note: If you mix inclusions into the clay, it will be unsuitable for millefiori, or cane work. In this type of work, a log of clay is formed with designs in it, which will show when the finished cane is sliced. Inclusions will cause the blade to drag and ruin the design. We will not be doing cane work in this class, but if you ever do try it, be sure to keep clay with inclusions out of the design. This includes the pre-mixed Granitex colors, which contain tiny little fibers which also cause the knife blade to drag. What kind of knife blade do I mean? For this lesson you won't need anything terribly sharp but if you want to try cane work, I've had good results slicing small canes with an Ex-acto knife or a utility knife. For larger beads you might want to get one of the blades you can find in the craft store that are made specifically for polymer clay. And as always, respect the sharp knives and be careful how you store them. They are thin and it's easy to overlook them and leave them lying around.

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4. Bead Formation

At this point, the clay will probably be very soft. The heat from your hands softens the clay as you work with it. Sculpey is a very soft brand of polymer clay. If it is too soft to work with at this point, you can chill it down for a few minutes in the refrigerator or freezer. (Make sure it doesn't get mixed up with or touch any food.) It will also cool down if you set it aside for a few minutes. Some people set the clay on a piece of paper to absorb some of the plasticizer and stiffen the clay. This takes several hours or days and if you do this be sure to throw away the plasticizer-soaked paper.

Note: It's ok to let the clay freeze - that doesn't seem to hurt it. If you are freezing it in order to cut nice clean clay slices, I've found that I get the best results when I remove one piece of cane from the freezer at a time, wait a few seconds until I see beads of "sweat" form on the clay, and then slice quickly before the cane gets too warm. While it's okay to get the clay cold, it's not okay to let it get hot before it's time to bake it. Never, for example, leave the clay in a hot car. While it may not get hot enough in the car to bake the clay at 275 degrees, it can get hot enough to ruin it. I've seen it happen!

Once the clay is workable, we will make assorted bead shapes. Some shapes you might want to try are spheres, discs, cubes, triangles, rectangles and cylinders. Or you can try some more organic forms, inspired by stones, invertebrates, wood, or seeds. Try to avoid long and very thin forms, or spiky or pointy objects. Unfortunately polymer clay is not usually strong enough for shapes like these - they break very easily. Sculpey is not one of the stronger brands of clay. Inclusions such as we are using in this class will weaken the clay further, but unless you use too much the clay will be strong enough for beads.

The easiest way to get holes in the beads is to skewer them before baking. Again, you might want to let the items cool before you make holes so they don't become distorted as you handle them.

To make a hole in a bead, pick it up gently between your fingers. Poke the skewer into the bead and rotate the skewer as you push it in. Drill until the point of the skewer just barely pokes through the other side. Turn the bead around and poke from the other side to finish the hole. This will give you a nice smooth finished hole on both ends. The bead is now ready to be baked.

A faster way to make holes works well if you want to make a bunch of small disc shaped beads:

  1. Roll out a cylinder of clay: about as long as a finger is a good start.
  2. Drill a hole all the way through the cylinder as if you were drilling a very long cylinder bead.
  3. Let the cylinder chill in the refrigerator until it is very stiff.
  4. Slice the cylinder into a bunch of small discs. If the clay is stiff enough, the holes will remain and not be distorted.
  5. Finish the beads by smoothing the sharp edges with your fingers.

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5. Applying Texture

If you want beads with a surface texture, it's best to apply the texture before you drill the hole so that the hole doesn't close up as you press objects into the clay. I'll show you three different ways to put texture on the beads.

Rubber stamps: Dust the bead with corn starch, the press the rubber stamp onto the clay. The corn starch can be washed off after the bead is baked. You can also press the clay between two rubber stamps to make textures on two sides at once.

Variation: Cover a dark color clay bead with a layer of translucent. Coat with corn starch then press in rubber stamps. The dark clay under translucent clay will show more where the impression is deepest, creating another kind of interesting effect.

Found objects: Press interesting textured objects into the clay after dusting the clay with corn starch.

Salt: Roll or press the bead in salt then bake. When the salt is washed off with water, the surface texture will resemble stone, cement, pitted metal, or coral.

Try combining the above techniques if you like. Once the bead is textured to your satisfaction, drill a hole then bake.

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6. Baking

These baking instructions are based on my personal experience with portable toaster ovens. As I stated in section two, I feel more comfortable baking the clay outside. That way I don't have to worry about fumes or getting clay residue in the oven we use for food. I use a heavy-duty outdoor extension cord that is adequate for the task and needless to say I only bake in dry weather.

The temperatures at which polymer clay matures vary slightly by brand, but generally range from 215 degrees to 275 degrees. The lower temperatures are usually for transparent or very light colored clay. Follow the directions for the brand of clay you are using regarding baking temperatures and times, but experiment. The temperature gauges on ovens are not always accurate and the temperatures inside ovens can vary from one part of the oven to another. Following the directions on the clay package to the letter does not always guarantee that you will not accidentally burn the clay. The translucent clays are the most vulnerable to burning. If the oven is unfamiliar for baking polymer clay, I've found it works well to bake a test batch or two before baking anything really important. The first few times I baked in a new oven, I checked my test batch frequently and adjusted the times and temperatures until I found a setting that worked consistently well. A strategy many clay artists use if they have problems is to use a slightly lower baking temperature but bake for longer times to make sure the clay matures properly. The clay will be weak and could leach plasticizers if it is not cured enough. Very thick pieces of clay have to be baked longer than tiny ones.

A lot of artists bake their clay pieces on paper because a metal or foil tray will leave shiny spots on the beads if it touches them. I've tested my oven enough to know that the paper I use won't burn at the temperature I use for beads if I put it on the very top shelf of the oven. If you ever try this be very careful - make sure no parts of your oven get hot enough to burn paper. I have books that recommend the use of an oven thermometer, but I personally would still use experimentation and close observation along with the thermometer to make absolutely sure it's safe. I've heard that some clay artists use convection ovens. I have never tried a convection oven myself, so if you are interested be sure to get instructions from a knowlegeable source.

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7. Resources:

Polymer Clay Books
  1. Roche, Nan. The New Clay: Techniques and Approaches to Jewelry Making. Rockville, Maryland: Flower Valley Press, 1991.
  2. McGuire, Barbara A. Foundations in Polymer Clay Design. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1999.

Jewelry Books:
    Moody, Jo. The Book of Jewelry. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
    "Create your own jewelry with beads, clay, papier-mache, fabric, and other everyday items."

    Gayle, Katie. Snappy Jazzy Jewelry. New York, New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1996.
    Geared toward kids, but I like it for wacky, fresh, mixed media ideas.

    Fitch, Janet. The Art and Craft of Jewelry. New York, New York: Grove Press, 1992.
    "A practical guide to high-style, low-cost design." Another good mixed media book. Adult, but still wacky.

    Poris, Ruth F. Advanced Beadwork. Tampa, Florida: Golden Hands Press, 1989.
    Ornament, P.O. Box 2349, San Marcos, California 92079-2349. 800-888-8950.

    Bead & Button, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. 800-446-5489.

      June 1999: "Altering Polymer Clay with Inclusions: Make sand jade or crayon brights pendants." Lindly Haunani.

      December 1998: "Impressed Mokume Gane: Use rubber stamps and patinas for ancient effects." Nan Roche.

And don't forget to check out the polymer clay sites on my links page.

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