9 Important Tools for Polymer Clay Sculpture

There’s a wide variety of polymer clay sculpting tools available on the market today. Which ones do you really need? I have experience with just about all of them. Here are nine tools I use the most in polymer clay sculpture.

Using your hands for polymer clay sculpture

Your two most important (and obvious) tools are your hands. While I didn’t include them in the following list, your hands and corresponding eye coordination are the keys to success in polymer clay sculpture. As important as they are, different tools are eventually needed for various tasks, especially when it comes to detailing. Still, I use my hands by themselves often and one advantage in doing so is the natural moisture our flesh secretes. It’s perfect for blending two pieces of clay together. There are two negative issues with using hands exclusively for polymer clay sculpture. First, sometimes an area is simply too small for your figures to get into. Secondly, the natural moisture our skin secretes sometimes plays against you when the clay becomes too moist. This most certainly leads to smears in the clay.

The following list isn’t in numerical priority. There’s no one single tool I prefer over all others.

Polymer Clay Fantasy Figures
Various polymer clay sculpting tools.

1. Wooden match

Yes, a wooden match, who would have thought of it? Buying a box of wooden matches is cheap, and you’ll probably only have to buy one during your entire career of polymer clay sculpture. I’m still working on the first box I bought in December of 2014. Reason being, each match lasts a really long time. How do you use it? For one thing, you’ll never need to light the match so no fires.

Making a polymer clay hand - Part 4

You use the match head. A wooden match is often used with polymer clay in various situations. Probably the most important function a match head performs is blending layers of clay together, especially of the same color. An example of this is when you add a nose to a face. You have to blend the line where the two layers meet. This is efficiently done with a match by lightly rubbing the line until it disappears. I also use a match for poking out the eye sockets.

2. Toothpick

The toothpick also comes in handy in many situations. Probably the most important is it’s ability to get into extremely tight spots. When I place an iris and pupil on an eye, I use a toothpick to place the two teeny tiny parts. As long as your hand doesn’t shake excessively, it becomes very easy to achieve this minuscule yet important task. The toothpick is also great for detailing hair and other situations that call for tiny lines.

Common polymer clay tools
A lollipop stick, a toothpick, and a match.

There are all sorts of unexpected situations that pop up during sculpture that a toothpick comes in handy with. Like the matches, a small box of wooden toothpicks costs very little and an investment that will last possibly decades to come. Just don’t use them on your teeth after you used them on clay.

3. Lollipop stick

I’ve been using the same plastic lollipop stick since December 2014. I got it from a bag of my sons leftover Halloween candy. The lollipop stick comes in handy specifically for a certain detail I use often when creating polymer clay fantasy figures. Wrist, armbands, and sometimes belts look better when I poke the lollipop stick repeatedly in a line completely around the circumference of the prop. It leaves a circle with a tiny dot in the middle making it pop visually. So, the next time you or someone you know has a lollipop, you may want to save the stick. 

4. Wire brush tool

The wire brush tool is great for detailing hair and other surfaces which need a more unkempt look. This adds great texture to the surface giving it a more realistic effect. The wires of the brush are extremely rigid so take care when adding minute details. Since the brush is made of wire, it’s easier to clean than the fork or pipe cleaner. The one drawback is that you must pull the clay gently off the brush.

Wire brush

If you pull forcefully, the wires may come off the tool. It’s put together rather delicately. When using the wire brush for detailing, small specks of clay fall off the figurine. I clean this mess by taking another small gob of clay of the same color as the specs which I use to pick them all up. It’s a very way of cleaning such a mess.

5. Pipe cleaner tool

This is what I refer to as the pipe cleaner tool. It has brushes on each end. As you can tell from the picture, I’ve used it many times. It’s another great tool for detailing hair and other surfaces needing a rough texture. Use the pipe cleaning tool with great care because too much pressure will damage tight surrounding areas. The only other problem with the pipe cleaner tool is that the clay sticks to it, ultimately staining it.

Pipe cleaner tool

It’s difficult to clean this tool and that’s the only drawback I see with it. I also use the center of the pipe cleaning tool as a roller when need be. Actually, most of my tools get used as rollers which is why they’re all clay stained. Unlike the tools previously mentioned up until this point, the pipe cleaning tool needs replacing after a while.

6. Trimming tool

There are many types of trimming tools when it comes to polymer clay sculpture. Since I create action figure prototypes the most, I tend to use the smallest size trimming tool. This is simply a small circle of metallic wire that is used when trimming back excessive clay. They also come larger which are actually used more with full-sized facial clay modeling. This is a completely different approach to how I do polymer clay sculpture.

Trimming tool

While the trimming tool comes in handy in various situations, the majority of my work is finished (by layering, not trimming). The small trimming tool is valuable in many odd situations where a tight area needs some clay removed. Generally, the larger trimming tools are for much larger projects. I bought an entire bag of the big ones years ago and still haven’t had a need for them.

7. Pottery tools

Pottery tools is a blanket term for many sorts of polymer clay sculpture tools. They have two useful ends and either side. One is usually a blunt edge that’s slightly curved while the other side varies. In this picture, a stunted fork-like tool is available for special detailing. When I need lines on a belt or a piece of clothing for the sake of texture, this tool comes in handy. Unfortunately, like the pipe cleaning tool, the fork also gets clogged with clay.

Pottery tool

It’s easier to clean than the pipe tool but not by much. The blunt side is also used sparingly when I need detail in something like around the rim of a witches hat when I made the polymer clay refrigerator magnets. Perform such details sparingly as less is more in polymer clay sculpture.

8. Plastic cutting tool

You’ll find yourself needing to cut polymer clay in clean pieces often. In such situations, especially in the company of children, it’s safer to use a plastic cutting tool and not an actual steel knife. While the plastic cutting tool is blunter, it’s still sharp so use it cautiously. The other end of the plastic cutting tool is usually a generic blunt pottery tool like the one pictured on the right.

Plastic cutting tool

I find I use the plastic cutting tool more towards the end of the project as I’m adding the final details by layering. Such layers need cleaner cuts than when you’re first adding gobs of clay to the body of your skeleton.

9. Double-end sculpting tool

As I alluded to earlier, pottery tools come in various forms and usually have a blunt, slightly curved tool on one side. The other side consists of various tools which include everything from miniature drill bits (which I’ve yet to find a purpose for) to variously snapped cutting tools and other objects. The picture on the right shows just such a tool.

Double-end sculpting tool

This one doesn’t have a blunt side, rather two unique tips used for various situations under different circumstances. While this list isn’t numbered by the level of importance, it isn’t the tool I use consistently. It does, however, come in handy from time to time and I do use them. For example, the right side is a flat steel triangle which I use to cut open the mouth of most clay faces. I refer to this as dental work on my YouTube tutorials.

Summary

When performing polymer clay sculpture, you need tools to help you meet your goals. This is especially the case when adding fine detail to your polymer clay creations. Whether it be pendants, ornaments, or figurines, tools make your job easier. In fact, I couldn’t do what I do without them. Feel free to experiment. What works for me may not work for you. You can buy various tools for minimal amounts of cash and they’re readily available online and at craft stores. If you’re working on bigger projects, larger trimming tools are a must. I like smaller projects which call for smaller trimming tools. Tools such as the toothpick, match, and lollipop stick may have surprised you. I use them because they work. They definitely have a place in just about all calls of polymer clay sculpture.

9 Important Tools for Polymer Clay Sculpture

9 Important Tools for Polymer Clay Sculpture

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