Air Drying Clay: 7 Tips To Help Make Better Models, Easier and Faster

Tips for working with air-drying clayWant to use air-drying clay for model making and crafting but put off by your first experiences with it? This is for you.

I recently posted some photos of a dilapidated building I’m making for a diorama to the MRE Community Group.

The model was built from air drying clay and the posts retrieved a lot of complimentary comments including quite a few questions about its construction. Specifically, several members had tried using the material for their own constructions but ran into problems.

I felt their pain.

I’ve been working with clay for years and years and it’s now one of my go-to materials for making buildings and even scenery but I’d be lying if I said it was always this way. I’ve hinted at some of my challenges before.

Here I share my favourite and best tips and techniques, collated from modelling and craft websites across the web, and which have helped raise my game when working with the grey-white gunk.

As background, the building is part of a diorama that will go on my layout. It’s modelled on a ramshackle cabin in the wonderful Luxulyan Valley in Cornwall.

checkers hut luxulyan valley

The oginal for my air drying clay hut.

The building was a ‘checker’s hut’ where workers would check and count wagons in the marshalling yards for a horse-drawn tramway and Carmears rope-operated incline that carried clay, ore and coal up and down the valley to the various mines, quarries and processing buildings. As with all modelling,

Use the right tools

I start with the tip I’d wish I’d been told years ago.

Simply, different materials interact with the clay in different ways so select your tools carefully. I could write a whole article on this – actually I will ha hah – but in the meantime, Australian art products supplier Montemarte neatly sums it up.

“Wooden tools are suitable for shaping and smoothing, while stainless steel tools are perfect for precise modelling, detailing, and removing clay.”

Follow this advice. You’re models and crafts will be better for it.

On the subject of tools…. Keep them clean during carving and etching. Clay build up on your tool blade or point edges will drag and tear the clay you’re working on. Keep a pot of water nearby and regularly clean them. You’ll be surprised how even a tiny spec of glue, paint or clay on a blade can change the way it interacts with the material you’re carving or etching.

> If you don’t already have tools, I recommend this set. It’s got everything you need for smoothing, cleaning, carving, shaping & sculpting.

Apply to a frame or armature

One of the biggest advantages of air-drying clay is its malleability. You can shape it to any form, smooth over mistakes and try again and create big or small objects alike.

But this malleability also has a disadvantage. Your lovingly created model can bend or be accidentally pushed out of shape as I’ve experienced several times before. I completely cottage I was once working on by pressing too hard on wall and collapsing the whole thing. Not funny!

It’s weight also means unsupported parts of a model can be prone to breaking off.


How I strengthen my air-dry clay models.

Using inner support, wire armatures and using other material to build up a none clay core of a model so the clay only forms the surface solves these problems.

Susie Beans has a great article on using wire, Wooden dowels and Aluminium foil amongst other materials as armatures for organic shapes while I use foam board as an inner frame to give my buildings rigidity and strength.

In my case, I make the basic shape in foam board; cover it in my recommended landscape glue and apply the clay in layers. It works a treat and holds the clay in shape while it dries. For the hut seen at the top of this article, I first created it from a foam material – seen above – and then covered this in the glue and finally clay.

Extra tip: Don’t use wood for the underlying support structures if they are for a large area. As Scott mentioned on his war gaming blog, MDF etc can warp which can ruin a model. Foam board or another foam material, such as what I used for the hut seen at the top of this article and in the picture above, is ideal.

Work in layers

When working with clay it’s “much easier to control, shape and spread the clay when you sculpt in thin layers” says clay doll maker and artist Adelė.

Building a model in layers or pieces means your model is less likely to crack. A single large block or section of clay can dry unevenly with cracks appearing when one part dries and shrinks, pulling away from the rest.

tips for self-drying clay - apply the clay in sections

This is a tip I’ve only picked up on recently and it found it makes a huge difference. I now apply clay in sections instead of one large piece, as seen in the photo above. The seam between different parts can be easily covered by sliding a wet tool or finger over the join smearing the clay across the gap. This not only reduced the chance of cracks but also makes it easy to shape clay into otherwise difficult forms.

Preserve your clay and models between sessions

Preserving your clay once you’ve opened the packet seems obvious and keeping it in an air-tight container will help it last but I’d not considered doing this with my models during their construction!

Daft huh? Especially, as models drying out while I worked on them was a real frustration and forced me to rush them. I’d start, run out of time available and put them to one side or nip off to get a cup of tea etc only to find they’d dried out when I came back. I either rushed the construction ending up with poor results or had wait for the clay to soften again after I’d sprayed water on it.

I wish I’d thought about this earlier or seen this tip which, again, comes from Montmarte.

“Sometimes you won’t have enough time to finish your sculpture in one session. To keep your piece workable for the next session, wrap it in a damp tea towel and then wrap it in cling film to make it airtight. If you use this method properly, the clay will stay in a workable state for up to four days.”

It’s completely changed how I model as I can now take as long as I need to get a model just right instead of skipping bits in the rush before it dries.

Add detail once piece at a time

The tip above about layers suggested creating a clay model in pieces to reduce cracking but you can also use a variant of layers to add detailing.

As Tony over at dampfpanzerwagon explains in a post on making a stone warehouse, just add a drop of glue to the model and glue on a small amount of clay which you texture or shape for extra surface patterning or detailing.

In the case of my model, I added small thin pieces of clay to the wall tops and then shaped and carved these to create the sharp edges and uneven surface look of hewn Quartz and smaller broken stones along the top of the walls. You can see the results of this in the finished picture at the top of this article and the half-way product photo in the ‘Work in Layers’ tip. Trying to carve the main stonework and extra detailing all from one piece would have been far more difficult.

Speed up clay drying time

To me, one of the advantages of model making is that it’s a slow game. It’s a chance to disappear into my own little world, free of distractions, and spend hours, days, weeks and even months – obviously not continuously 🙂 – creating something, letting my imagination run free and learning new things along the way.

But while these long creation times are a plus, I don’t like delays when not actually making things, waiting for paint and clay to dry being chief amongst unwanted time hogs.

If like me you want to speed up the process, try this tip from craft subscription biz Home Made Luxe.

“There are few tricks to help speed up the drying process…. Make sure to flip your craft. If part of your project is against your work surface the entire time, moisture is trapped underneath and it will take even longer to dry. So, flip it over halfway through the drying time or use a wire rack for drying. “

Covering up mistakes and imperfections

If you make a mistake in the surface carving, it can quickly be corrected.

Simply wet the existing clay until it becomes pliable, smooth over the area in question and carve it again. If you have cracks, again moisten the area – if the clay is dry let the water soak in and the clay will soften again – and then push in a small amount of new clay into the crack. Smooth over the surface with a drop of water to blend the new clay with the old and no one will ever know about the original blunder.

I hope this article encourages you to try making your own models in air drying clay. It’s an enjoyable and cheap way to make all manner of buildings and objects around your layout, diorama or your own home crafts and ultimately rewarding when you look back at a completed project and realise you’ve made it from scratch.

Get yourself some clay now from your local craft shop and have a go at making something. When you’re done, come back and share what you made in a comment below.

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    • Hi Chris, probably not. Off-the-shelf air-drying clay has properties that allow it to dry in room temperature; traditional clay would need far higher temperatures. But give it a go. The worst that can happen is you waste some from your garden.

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