Wondering how to get your polymer clay pieces gleaming with a professional sheen? Whether you’re crafting intricate jewellery or detailed figures, discover how to make your pieces truly shine with this comprehensive guide to polymer clay polishing and buffing.
What is buffing and polishing and why do it?
Buffing is the process of smoothing out the surface of polymer clay, removing any fingerprints (although fingerprints can also be removed with this alternative technique) or blemishes and combines with polishing to giving the clay a smooth, shiny finish.
After I’ve spent time molding and sculpting my polymer clay, I sometimes notice it’s a bit rough and uneven, with imperfections caused during shaping and sculpting, such as fingerprints or tool marks, or perhaps sneaky air bubbles that rise to the surface when baking.
The buffing process helps to smooth out these imperfections and create a smooth, even surface. After this, you can polish the clay to give a shiny look, useful for jewellery.
For my figures and models in polymer clay, I prefer a rougher, organic, finish so only smooth the surface but for jewellery, buffing, and polishing are a must, giving the objects a lovely sheen and finish.
I’ve found two main ways to get the job done: the good old-fashioned hand method and using a Dremel-style rotary tool.
First, when doing it by hand, you need to smooth out the surface.
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How to smooth polymer clay with sandpaper
Before buffing your project, look over the surface and identify scuffs, fingerprints, tool marks, or air bubbles. These need removing and my preferred technique for this is to use sandpaper.
But not the usual rough type used for DIY.
Choosing the right sandpaper grit
Sandpapers come in different grades of coarseness, typically 100 to 2000. The lower the number the larger the grit particles, the more material is removed when using it, and the rougher the finish. Lower grades, 100, 200 and 300 will be familiar for anyone who has sanded wood around the home during decorating.
For smoothing polymer clay, however, finer grades are needed to give a smooth finish. Using low grades will scour and scratch the surface. Instead, I start with 600 grit, stepping up through 800 and 1000 using each for a few minutes before finishing with 1,500 grit to get the silky skin-smooth finish.
So far so good but if you’ve just jumped in and started sanding, you’ll notice that the fine particles of sanded polymer clay will clog up the grit and you get through a lot of sheets of sandpaper pretty quickly.
The answer is to wet sand, done by applying water to the clay surface as you work, and in so doing washing away the clay dust and keeping it from clogging up the grit.
What is wet or dry sandpaper and why do you need it?
But soaking normal sandpaper in water will often end up with the paper backing peeling off.
Instead, what’s needed, is a particular type of sandpaper called wet or dry. This can be found in many DIY stores or online such as this pack from Amazon.
Wet or dry sandpaper can be used dry as normal but it also works just as well in water and crucially doesn’t peel apart. Using this with polymer clay and water prevents the grit from clogging and aids the sanding process, making it easier.
Work in circular motions, applying water as you go or doing so in a bowl of water. Don’t worry, the water won’t harm the clay.
Extra tip: nail files make a great alternative for when control and precision are needed
High-grit nail files can be useful if you need to sand edges or find working with sandpaper rough on your hands but remember to get those with a high grit factor and step up to get the smooth finish.
When doing this, wear a mask; the sanding process releases fine particles into the air, even if using water, and you don’t want these getting into your lungs. I now use a mask for many aspects of my model making and over the years have settled on a particular mask, described in this post on the best mask for model making and which protects against clay dust.
This approach to smoothing polymer clay is my preferred technique and gives the best results but can take a lot of time to get the desired finish. If you’re looking for the fastest results, a Dremel, or equivalent rotary tool, is what you want.
How to smooth and buff polymer clay with a Dremel rotary tool
Buffing with a Dremel rotary tool, the read my review of the Dremel 3000, is a faster and easier way to get a smooth, shiny finish on polymer clay but is problematic and for this reason, I now rarely use rotary tools for buffing.
If you do want to use one, however, you will need a variety of buffing wheels. You can also use a polishing compound to help give the clay a deeper shine.
When buffing polymer clay with a rotary tool, it is important to use a light touch and to move the tool in a circular motion. If you press too hard, you can disfigure or even rub away parts of your model or jewellery piece.
I’d recommend practicing the technique on a spare piece of clay until you are familiar with the technique – all those scraps you have lying around do have a use after all 🙂
Tips for buffing polymer clay with a rotary tool
- Use a variety of buffing wheels and bits to achieve different finishes. For example, a felt buffing wheel will give a smooth, high-gloss finish, while a muslin buffing wheel will give a more matte finish.
- If you’re using a Dremel, use the lowest speed available.
- Be careful not to press too hard when buffing, as this can damage the clay.
- Given the friction that can occur when using a power tool, the clay may start to melt. If this does happen, stop immediately and sand the area smooth using the wet sanding technique above.
Dremel buffing accessories
- Dremel Cleaning and Polishing Set: This set includes a variety of buffing wheels in different shapes and sizes, so you can achieve the desired finish on your polymer clay. Buy it now.
Polishing polymer clay to get a sheen finish
Once the surface is smooth, with sandpaper or a rotary tool, it’s time to buff and polish it. Buffing is, as Lisa Pavelka put it in The Complete Book of Polymer Clay, “the continuation of the sanding process to bring out the optimal shine and smoothness”.
To polish polymer clay take a micro-fibre cloth and rub the surface in small circular motions until you get the polished surface required. Adding a small amount of a buffing compound to the cloth helps but isn’t strictly necessary.
Drilling polymer clay
Drilling is the process of creating holes in polymer clay. This can be used to add details to your pieces, such as eyes or holes.
Unlike a number of websites across the web, I don’t recommend using a Dremel or other rotary tool for drilling into polymer clay. The rotation speeds are far too fast. And when you have drills running at 3000 or 5000 RPM, one slip can be catastrophic and given the weight and cumbersome nature of a Dremel or other rotary tool, this is easily done, even if using the flexible shaft.
Instead, when I need a hole in a polymer clay product, perhaps for eye sockets on a figure or holes in polymer clay jewellery for the metal components after baking, I make a hole with a toothpick or a tapestry needle (as suggested by Katherine Dewey in Creating Lifelike Figures in Polymer Clay, page 30) before baking it and then, if necessary enlarge this later.
To enlarge it, I use a pin-vice or small hand drill such as the Tamiya mini drill. This is a hand-sized unit that rotates the drill at a low speed, making it far more controllable and safer for working with polymer clay.
Polymer clay drilling tips
If you do want to use a rotary tool, here are some tips.
- Work at a slow speed (rotary tools can be too fast) to prevent the clay from melting or cracking.
- Drill the holes away from edges, the closer to the edge the more likely the clay will crack.
- If you’re drilling through multiple layers of clay, make sure to drill through each layer slowly and carefully.
In this guide, I’ve covered making polymer clay pieces shine with a professional sheen. Whether you’re crafting intricate jewelry or detailed figures, the right polishing and buffing methods can make a significant difference and I hope you found it useful in achieving this. If you have any suggestions or further questions, please share them in a comment below.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.