Layering Versus Trimming in Polymer Clay Sculpture

Layering and trimming are two different techniques in polymer clay sculpture. Layering is adding clay to the sculpture while the technique of trimming removes clay from it. I use a combination of the two although I lean heavier towards the layering technique. I’ll discuss both techniques.

Layering in polymer clay sculpture

Layering is done by starting out with a gob of clay and adding more clay layers which add the necessary details. Essentially in layering, one builds-up and doesn’t cut (trimming) back.

Layering polymer clay is the technique I use the most in polymer clay sculpture. I find it easier as there’s much more room for error when compared to trimming. In some cases, a trimming mistake is so severe, one might have to start all over again. This is hardly ever the case with layering. In fact, after layering is complete, I sometimes need a small trimming tool to remove excess clay. Layering is the more common technique in the type of polymer clay sculpture that I do. With layering, one can easily build facial features and other similar details. One thing to remember while layering, less is usually more. In other words, if the layers you add are too big or thick, you’ll end up having to do more trimming. Less is more.

An example in layering polymer clay

The pictures posted below demonstrates the layering techniques. Start out with a gob of clay. The goal here is to create a face. First, I poke two holes in for eye sockets. This gives me a guide on where the rest of the clay goes. Next, I add another gob of clay and shape it into the nose. This is the very first layer I’ve added. From there, I add more layers which include the forehead and eyebrows, bags under the eyes, wrinkles in the forehead, eyes, and eventually a beard. Detailing at this point is minimal and not complete until the end when the last tweaks are finally added.

For the complete tutorial, click here.

How to make a polymer clay face Part 1
How to make a polymer clay face Part 2
How to make a polymer clay face Part 3
How to make a polymer clay face Part 4

Trimming in polymer clay sculpture

Trimming is done with a tool, especially for the purpose. Basically, you start out with a gob of clay and trim clay away from the sculpture, giving it all of its detailing. In some cases, layering isn’t needed in this kind of clay sculpture.

I recently wrote an article on my most commonly used tools for polymer clay sculpture. In the article, I talked about trimming tools and how larger sculpting tools are primarily used for larger projects such as creating a bust. Such projects are sometimes life-sized. In this kind of sculpture, large trimming tools are necessary. An earth-based true clay is often used in this case. The sculpture is ultimately created by trimming clay off of it, adding whatever details that’s needed. While I do occasional trimming, it’s not my preferred method. When I need to trim something, I use the smallest sized tool for the task. It does come in handy sometimes but not something I use regularly.

Trimming tools

Below are two trimming tools. The first one is as small as I’ve ever seen one. This is the trimming tool I use the most. The second trimming tool is much larger and is almost always used for much larger projects such as busts. I do smaller projects such as action figure prototypes, Christmas ornaments, refrigerator magnets, and the like.

Small and large clay trimming tool
Two different extremes. The smallest trimming tool and a large clay trimming tool.

When to layer and when to trim polymer clay

I’m going to use a polymer clay witch’s face as an example here. In this particular case, layers include the chin, cheekbones, nose, eyebrows, lips, hair, warts. and bags above and below the eyes. For the mouth, I make a single slice and then begin working it up and down until it looks right. I then add a small red tongue and yellow teeth individually. No trimming for this one.

How to Make a Polymer Clay Witch Tutorial

In my How to Make a Yeti tutorial, I did a lot of trimming. The only thing is, you can’t see it because it’s covered in long, white hair. Some trimming was needed to the body because of the extra clay that I added to it. I’m a situation like this, I added large clay balls to the legs, arms, and body. I trimmed away any excess clay sculpting it where in needed before adding hair. The yeti needed a broad chest yet a thin waist. The shoulders are muscular and protrude forth. All this was first set before adding the long hair strands which I did by layering. All in all, I’m happy with the way it came out but I think the hair could have used a bit more detail.

Trimming and detailing

In the case of the yeti, I trimmed excessive clay off of it. In other cases, trimming is ultimately done for the sake of detail. In such an event trimming is usually performed sparingly since it doesn’t take much when working on such small projects. Experience is important in polymer clay sculpture and you will need to experiment with both techniques before knowing which one is best to use in different situations. Don’t get frustrated, it’ll come along.


As you can see, these two techniques in polymer clay sculpture differ greatly. It’s not really a matter of preference but what is needed to get the job done. For smaller projects, layering tends to be the main technique used although exceptions do occur. When trimming is needed, a smaller tool is used and not the large sculpting tools that are typically needed when creating busts and similar projects. Remember, layering gives you more wiggle room when it comes to making mistakes. You can always trim back excessive clay that you add but if you’re trimming detail out of a limited gob, mistakes aren’t as easy to fix. I’ve never had a situation where I completely blew a project due to layering.

Layering Versus Trimming in Polymer Clay Sculpture

Layering Versus Trimming in Polymer Clay Sculpture

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