Tips on carving polymer clay: To make carving easier, try warming the polymer clay slightly under your desk lamp. The tool should move smoothly and easily through the material. Properly cured clay won’t chip when it's carved. Dull tools may be another cause for chipping and rough edges.The angle the carving tool is held is very important. It should be held at a low angle, not perpendicular to the work surface. To lower the angle it may be necessary to move the polymer plate so you can drop the heel of your hand off the edge of the table. This will allow you to lower the angle of the tool.
1) Dockyard Micro Carving Tools are wood gouges that are available in very small sizes. They are very sharp and suitable for harder materials like silver, bronze and copper clay, as well as for polymer. I use the following sizes:
1.5mm and 2mm“U”, 1.25mm “V”, and 2mm “V”. It is important to note that these tools, when found in wood carving supply stores, are sold only in sets. The sets do not contain a group of useful sizes for jewelry scale carving. Therefore it is more economical to purchase the tools individually. Mail order suppliers that sell polymer clay sometimes carry these tools. You can buy them from me, as well. To do so, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Speedball linoleum gouges: These inexpensive tools are an art store staple and have been around since I was in Kindergarten (forever). Unfortunately they do not have a good edge and so are not very useful for carving unless you have the tools and the skill to sharpen or hone the edges of a gouge.
3) Staedtler MasterCarve Tool Set a more recent addition to the market. The 3 tools in this set are a 1mm “V”, 2mm “V” and a 5mm “U”. When they first came out a few years ago these tools had a sharp edge. Unfortunately the 3-packs I purchased recently were dull and not worth using. http://www.stampeaz.com/index.phpmain_page=product_info&products_id=28
4) Carvers from Japan An elegant (and expensive) alternative are the beautiful carving tools imported from Japan and sold at McClains Printmaking Supplies. They are called, Josei Moku Hanga To and are available down to 1mm in size, the smallest “U” gouge I’ve found. http://www.imcclains.com/catalog/woodblocktools/josei.html
Technique: Most people want to get close to what they are carving. To do this they round their backs and bend their heads down toward the desk. Nothing spoils an activity quite as quickly as an aching back. Don’t do it! Raise the piece you are carving; use a dictionary, or a few phone books to raise the height of the piece you are carving so that you can work with a straight back. Observe the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes raise your eyes and focus on something 20 feet away to maintain 20/20 vision for as long as possible. While you're at it, flex your back and your hands, as well.
To carve a curved shape (bracelet, curved pendant), fold a towel (or use a pine pillow) into a square and nestle the object you are carving into the towel. This will give you more control over a curved piece. The folded towel raises the height, as well.
I'm wearing a leather thimble in the picture. It has a little metal piece in it to protect my finger from the gouge. It is essential for this kind of carving (where your finger is in the path of the gouge). You can find them at sewing stores and I sell them in my classes.
Keeping your tools in good working order:
If your gouge is sharp when you buy it, here are a few tips for maintaining the edge. Always protect the gouge tip from knocking around in your work-bag. Clear plastic tube can be purchased at a hardware store and cut to slip over the gouge tip.
If used exclusively for polymer, gouges won’t dull much with use. Metal clay on the other hand, because it contains metal, will dull your gouges over time.
Its not practical to think in terms of sharpening gouges because its too difficult to maintain the angle of the gouge edge against a stone. A special jig is used to sharpen the gouge when its originally made. To duplicate the original angle of the gouge is extremely difficult.
Stropping, however, is relatively easy, and will keep an already sharpened edge in perfect nick indefinitely, whether you use polymer or PMC.
Briefly, stropping consists of pressing/cutting a mirror image of the gouge angle into a soft wood (like bass), applying a compound, and running the gouge lightly down the groove. I have put together a simple stropping kit that is for sale in my classes.
Carved polymer bracelets with carved PMC ring in the front.