How and why to correctly condition polymer clay

Unlock the secrets to working with polymer clay with these handy tips to perfect conditioning,

Polymer clay is a versatile material that can be fashioned into a myriad of models, ranging from model buildings on a layout to whimsical fantasy creatures, jewellery and craft projects. However, before embarking on any creative endeavour, it’s essential to correctly condition the clay to avoid potential mishaps down the line.

I personally use polymer clay for various projects both on and off my model railway. But, without proper conditioning, the clay can be rigid and almost impossible to shape, carve or mould or even crumble as you use it. Even worse, it may appear workable, but end up containing pesky air bubbles or cracking during the baking process.

The good news is, conditioning polymer clay is not a daunting task but is nonetheless vital for successful projects. It’s a bit like kneading dough – by softening and warming it up, the clay becomes pliable and more manageable.

How to correctly condition polymer clay

To begin, it’s crucial to find a smooth and clean work surface, such as a ceramic tile, a sheet of wax paper, or as I prefer, an old sheet of glass. Don’t use wood or other porous stuff!

Once you’ve got that sorted, take a small piece of clay and start to work it in your hands, much as you would with dough. Roll it back and forth, and press it down with your fingers until it begins to feel more flexible. I find cutting a block up into thin slices and working these easier on my hands. Once the slices are pliable, squash them together and then use an acrylic rolling pin to combine them back into a single piece.

If it sticks to the work surface or rolling pin, use corn starch which will help it lift off.

To expedite the process, a pasta machine or clay conditioning machine, such as this one that I use,  can come in handy. By repeatedly feeding the clay through the machine, you can ensure an even consistency and reduce the strain on your hands. Fold the clay over and feed it through the machine several times, but ensure you feed it fold end first so any air bubbles can escape. As Yonat Dascalu mentions in her excellent book on polymer clay, “the clay is adequately conditioned when you can fold it without cracking”.

There are loads of further resources around on how to condition polymer clay but the video below is one of the most helpful I’ve found.

After your clay is fully conditioned, you’re ready to shape it into your desired design. If you notice that it becomes too soft or sticky, try cooling it down in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

Amongst the many mistakes I’ve learned the hard way to avoid when conditioning is not having a clean work surface and hands.

If your hands or worktop have dirt, hair, dust, or particles of other clay colours present, they will be picked up by the piece you’re working with and embed themselves into it, spoiling the clay. I cannot stress enough the importance of cleaning your worktop with different colours. You may not be able to see them, but colours will bleed off the clay as you use it, and they’ll wait to spoil the next batch of clay. Once this happens, it will be next to impossible to remove, especially if you’re conditioning the clay, so the imperfections will spread. This is particularly true for reds, blacks, and greens, which seem to be particularly good at leaving residue behind.

As mentioned, earlier, I use a glass sheet as this can be wiped clean easily, and use gloves that I can change between different colours of clay to stop contamination.

In conclusion, conditioning polymer clay is like warming up before a workout – it’s essential to ensure optimal performance and prevent injury. By following these tips, you can mould and sculpt your clay projects with ease, knowing that they’ll bake to perfection.

How do you condition your clay? Share your tips below and help others just starting out.

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