How to lift polymer clay without stretching and distortion

Polymer clay distorted during liftingAvoid distorting your polymer clay when lifting it from your work surface. These three steps will help lift it without stretching.

If you attempt to remove polymer clay from your work surface using the same method you would use for other materials, you run the risk of harming the edges and altering the clay’s shape.

This is particularly challenging when working with thin rectangular pieces like walls and doors for buildings and where straight edges and consistent sizing are needed.

Indeed, when I first started using polymer clay, I started with model buildings – fantasy hobbit houses and the like and then later model buildings for my railways. I’d condition the clay, flatten it on a worktop and then carve it to the rectangular, circular or arch shape required for the doors, windows and walls I was making.

The problem came when I lifted these shapes up. The clay stretched as it was pulled free and ended up with distorted edges, spreading out in uneven directions, as seen in the photo above.

How NOT to lift up polymer clay

How NOT to lift polymer clay; rolling and picking at the edges.

After some trial and error, I learned what not to do, such as prying the clay off the surface with my fingernails or rolling up the edges which can cause stretching and dents on the edges but not how to stop it happening.

I went in search of a solution.

Having watched dozens of YouTube clips and worked through my supply of polymer clay reference books, I’ve eventually settled on a three-step technique for lifting clay off my workbench without trashing the size, shape and surface pattern.

3-Step Method for Lifting Clay without Stretching

1. Use a firm clay

Many polymer clays are made to be easy to work with, particularly for children, which means they are soft and pliable. But for many projects where detailing and precise size and shape are important, this softness is a disadvantage as it doesn’t hold. Instead, use firmer clays. I use Super Sculpey Prem. For other makes/brands that are too soft, leach them first to remove oils and other agents. This will firm them up making them less prone to unwanted expansion and compression.

1. Work on a Smooth Surface

Since clay can easily adhere to porous materials, it’s best to work on a smooth, glossy surface, such as a sheet of tempered glass or a large glazed ceramic tile. This reduces the impact of any clinginess and allows the clay to disengage freely. Sculpey covered this in more detail.

2. Use a Blade to Slide Under the Clay

Use a rigid blade at a 45-degree angle to the work surface, and slide it under the clay in a single continuous movement. Using a rigid blade, as opposed to a tissue blade that may bend or flex, will ensure that the edge is against the work surface and will lift the clay evenly along the length of the blade.

There’s a helpful overview of different polymer clay blades below.

Working in a single continuous movement at a consistent speed also prevents the clay from attaching itself to the blade in the process and tearing bits off the surface. It’s also important to support the blade at both ends, applying equal pressure along the edge. I’m sad to admit even now I still occasionally get carried away and rush this step, moving the blade too quickly or using one hand and then regretting it.

3. Remove the Clay

Once all of the clay has been lifted from the work surface, lift it vertically away while using the blade to support the underneath. Avoid holding it at the edges, which may cause pinching or stretching.

If the project is large, more than a couple of centimetres, has multiple blades and supports it diagonally in an “x” pattern can help with sagging and resulting stretching – like a Dali clock.

Additional Tips for Lifting Polymer Clay

  • Cool the clay in a fridge for a few minutes before attempting to lift it. The temperature drop will make it less sticky while making it firmer. For small projects, I do this by working on a small tile that I can slip into the fridge I use for glues and the occasional beer 🙂
  • Ensure that your work surface is stable and won’t move under the clay. I use an old glass shelf that I’ve repurposed.
  • Use both hands on your blade, supporting each end.
  • Keep the blade at a 45-degree angle, it doesn’t have to be precisely 45 degrees but it mustn’t be flat to the work surface or perpendicular to the clay.
  • Watch out for fingerprints after lifting the clay. I avoid them by using nitrile gloves, but fingerprints can also be removed if you have an accident.
  • After lifting, support the clay from the underside, and don’t hold it by the edges or pinch it.

By following these tips, you can lift your polymer clay with accuracy and ease, without affecting its form or structure.

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