How to Use Polymer Clay: A Tutorial on Clay Sculpture

Learn how to use polymer clay with this tutorial on polymer clay sculpture.

What is polymer clay?

Polymer clay is a modeling clay that hardens after you bake it. To be more precise, the hardening actually occurs after the clay is taken out of the oven and cools down. This is why you shouldn’t handle any polymer clay creations until after it’s had plenty of time to cool. I usually leave mine on the cookie sheet for two hours after taking it out of the oven. That’s actually more time than needed but better safe than sorry.

Polymer clay
Polymer clay

Depending on your experience level and the specific project determines how much time you spend on making it. Don’t rush, you’ll make mistakes and it’ll be sloppy. Only work with polymer clay when in a creative state of mind. Never force it, allow creative energies to flow out from you.

I usually break mine up into two to three days although I have completed figures in one day when extreme inspiration flowed. Under normal circumstances, this is the breakdown:

  • Day 1. Create the skeleton out of craft wire and cover it in tinfoil.
  • Day 2. Cover the entire body with clay and mold the basic body features and structure.
  • Day 3. Begin sculpting. Add style and detail including the face and head. When finished, into the oven it goes.

Safety warning

This particular modeling clay is PVC (Polymer Polyvinyl chloride) and has no actual clay minerals. It’s a form of plastic and not a true clay. It’s only used for arts and crafts. This clay is not food safe so avoid making cups, dishes, and mugs out of it. When baking, keep the oven fan on and have adequate ventilation. Making visual figurines is fine but avoid making toys that children will play with. Children shouldn’t put polymer clay items in their mouths. Do not ingest polymer clay.

Children should not use the oven and must be supervised by an adult. Sharp tools are not for the use of children. Adults must supervise children during polymer clay sculpture, using sharp tools, and baking in the oven.

A hot oven causes serious burns to people. Ovens are for adult use only. Use oven mitts to handle the cookie sheet after baking to avoid burns. A polymer clay sculpture is hot when it comes out of the oven. Allow the figure to cool down completely before handling.

Polymer clay tools

There are many useful tools for sculpturing polymer clay. As you can see by my own clay-stained tools, I used all of them from time to time. Still, two of your most useful tools besides your hands is a wooden match and toothpick. Plastic lollipop sticks also come in handy.

Polymer Clay Fantasy Figures
Polymer clay tools

Wooden matches are good for blending polymer clay together. For example, if you add a nose to the face of your figure, use the (unlit) match head to blend the clay making the line between the two separate pieces of clay disappear. A match is also useful when adding skin and other textures. The more detail, the better the result. Check out my recommended products page for polymer clay tools.

The recreation of Gulik Horridus

The idea of recreating Gulik Horridus of the Troglodytaum came long before I decided to do a website on polymer clay sculpture. This was my very first attempt at working with polymer clay and I was truly inspired. For a first attempt, I thought he came out great and I found a form of art I could do. Since he was my very first figure, I feel especially attached to him. Still, I wondered if I could make a better version. I created Gulik Horridus during the last days of December 2014. I worked throughout 2015 creating many new figures. To be honest, I’m not completely sure how many I created but there are many.

Polymer clay hobgoblin
The original Gulik Horridus. This is my first polymer clay figure I created back in late December 2014.

After my inspiration began to run dry, I took a break from polymer clay in 2016. My last polymer clay figure was a tribute to the old school Beastman from The Masters of the Universe. Actually, I think I made a bunch of Christmas ornaments that year which I gave out as gifts. By that point, I needed a break. I had all my polymer clay figures registered with copyright protection and thought I would push them as action figures. In 2017, I also created a digital promotional comic book and contacted a toy broker. Then Hurricane Irma hit and although my property didn’t get damaged, I put the entire project on the shelf for over a year.

Once I had the idea of getting back into creating polymer clay fantasy figures, I figured why not create a website with tutorials and put those figures I made back in 2015 to good use. That’s when I knew a remake of Gulik Horridus was definitely in the works and felt such a tutorial could serve as an example of how to use polymer clay. The basics, nothing terribly complicated.

When it comes to working with polymer clay, there is no right or wrong way, it’s what works for you. I have my style and you will find yours. Still, you have to know the basic fundamentals. This includes making a skeleton out of craft wire and wrapping it with tinfoil. Once that’s complete, it’s time to add polymer clay, forming the basic structure of the figure. After that, detail and style are effectively added. From there it’s into the oven and giving it time to properly cool. Once the figure cools off, you have the option of painting and/or glazing it.

So, I attempted to recreate my first polymer clay figure. To be honest, I don’t know if I’d call him the new Gulik Horridus of the Troglodytarum. I think he looks more like his henchmen, one of the Trogs. Still, it’s a good tutorial to get you started. The idea isn’t to copy what I did. There’s no need for you to recreate a new Gulik Horridus, (although it might be flattering). I want you to create a fantasy figure of your own, completely from your imagination. There are no limits for your creation, especially when sculpting fantasy creatures since the rules of human anatomy don’t apply. Just make sure to make a skeleton and wrap it properly with tinfoil. Then get to it!

Wrapping the skeleton with tinfoil and adding polymer clay

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Creating the fingers and hands

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Creating the face and head

The final steps and comparison

Baking polymer clay

When ready, put the figure on a cookie sheet with tinfoil. Place it between to ceramic coffee mugs keeping it upright during baking. I baked this figure at 275°F for forty-five minutes. Allow the figure at least an hour to cool before handling. This is the hardening process. Handling too soon could cause the figure not to stand upright. Don’t throw the tinfoil away when finished baking. Reuse it for the skeleton of your next project.

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Three part video tutorial

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Time for you to get started on your own polymer clay creation!

If I can do this, you can too! It’s time to give it a try. Remember, you’re only limited by your imagination. You got this!

How to Use Polymer Clay: A Tutorial on Clay Sculpture

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