Thursday, February 25, 2010


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.

Carving tools:

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

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Polymer Clay texture plates

Making Polymer Clay texture plates.
What you'll need: Polymer (I use Premo: Metallic Blue and Gold*), pasta machine, rolling tool, blade,1/4" plate glass, cut into pieces (see below), wax paper, oven with accurate heat control.
The following is a technique I developed in the early nineties when I was carving polymer clay, with gouges, almost daily.  I needed a way to warm up in the mornings before I actually began to carve on a piece into which I'd already put many hours of construction.  I used these baked polymer rectangles to practice on (back then for polymer, now for polymer, PMC, BronzClay and CopprClay), to develop ideas and imagery, and eventually as texture plates to use with polymer, and with the metal clays.  I still use these texture plates, both the ones I made 15 years ago, and also new ones; to practice carving as warm ups before work, and as textures.  
  I make a reversed plate by conditioning polymer, rolling out a sheet (thickest setting on pasta machine), dusting it with talcum powder as a mold release, then rolling it onto the  carved texture plate.  If you've used the right amount of mold release, you should get a nice even impression that can be baked and itself used as texture.
Polymer clay texture plates:  Whether you are planning on carving polymer clay or metal clays or you just want to make your own texture plates for either material, this technique will help.  
Condition metallic polymer clay** (recommended brands: Premo, Kato) by putting it through the pasta machine 15-18 times at the medium setting.  Next, put the sheet of clay through the pasta machine at the thickest setting then cut it into rectangles, approximately 4 x 3 1/2" (or smaller). 

Cleaning your hands: It's difficult to wash polymer clay residue off your hands.  Polymer resists soap.  Better to first slather your hands with hand lotion, any brand, then wipe down vigorously with a paper towel.  Now soap and water will finish the job.

Bake the rectangles in the following way:  Use a perfectly flat oven proof surface (I use 1/4" plate glass**) onto which you've placed a sheet of waxed paper.  Group several polymer rectangles onto the waxed paper, leaving 1/8" between them.  Put another sheet of waxed paper on top of the polymer rectangles, and on top of that put a sheet of 1'4" plate glass (or other heavy flat surface). Bake this 'sandwich' (plate glass, waxed paper, polymer, waxed paper, plate glass) for 45 minutes to an hour.  The weight of the glass keeps the polymer perfectly flat and free of air bubbles.  Heated along with the polymer, the waxed paper deposits a fine layer of wax onto the surface of the polymer: The wax lubricates your carving tool, making this surface a joy to carve.

These polymer 'plates' can be used as warm-ups or practice plates before carving metal clay, for working out your designs, or for carving your own name stamp.  Carved with your own unique designs they make great texture plates for texturing polymer or metal clay (use mold release appropriate to the material you are texturing).

*Although Kato and Fimo will also work, I prefer Premo metallics, especially blue mixed with gold (to make green).  Premo is more flexible than Fimo and I prefer it over Kato.  These 3 clays are the strongest, an important attribute if you plan on using this process to make texture plates.  Many people ask me why I prefer metallics for carving.  My (not particularly edifying) answer is that metallics are better.  I'm not being evasive; I'm just not sure how to account for the preference.  It's possible that the microscopic metal particles in metallic clay do something akin to lubricating the tool as it slides along its path.  It's possible that there's some other ingredient in metallic clays that account for it.  Regardless of why, I do prefer metallics, but don't take my word for it.  Try it your self and tell me what you think.

**Note on plate glass (aka "Float" glass).  This is cheap and easy to find at any auto glass store (although they call it different names in different parts of the country): it's strong and lasts a long time if handled with reasonable care, even when used for baking palettes.  The store will cut it into any size you want (I use 6x6" pieces and 7x9" pieces).  Ask the glass store to smooth the edges so they won't be sharp.  Don't go too much larger on the size as it gets harder to handle safely.  Plus, it insulates the polymer from the heat and that translates into much longer bake times.

Ovens:  This deserves a lot more space, but I'll just make two points: The oven you use must be able to maintain the correct temperature (see polymer  package).  Burning polymer is toxic to breathe.  I have never seen a toaster oven that will do a decent job baking polymer.  They either under bake it or burn it.  Convection ovens are better.  You can also do what I do, in my kitchen oven:  I invert a disposable turkey pan over my tray of polymer so the plasticizer goes onto the turkey pan, not my oven's walls.  My stove is circa 1940's and is a Speedy Baker.  It's very accurate so I use it for everything.  Bear in mind, I don't do production baking, either polymer or food, and after the polymer baking cycle, I leave the oven on for 10 minutes to burn off any additional yuckiness from the plastisizers.

Additional tips on carving polymer clay: Warming the baked polymer slightly under your desk light makes carving smoother.  Raise the piece you are carving to the right height for your neck.  You won't want to continue any activity that results in neck or back pain. I keep whatever I'm carving on a little sachet pillow placed on top of a big dictionary on my desk.  This allows me to keep my back straight and my neck in the right position.
Use the best tools you can afford.  Your carving will reflect your choices.  I use two types of gouges: Dockyard, which I also sell, and a truly lovely brand from Japan available from McClain's printmaking supplies in Seattle.  

Next blog post I'll write about carving...stay tuned!