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 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, commonly known by the Daz, Fimo and Sculpey brand names, 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 constructions but ran into problems.

I felt their pain.

I’ve been working with air-drying 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. While I find it great for holding the detail necessary for 1/76th scale, OO gauge, structures, it’s taken a long time to get to the point where I’m happy with the results. I’ve hinted at some of my challenges before and for a long time struggled to get the results I wanted when sculpting it.

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 original, prototype, building on which my air-drying clay hut is based. It’s still there today in the Luxulyan Valley, Cornwall.

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,


The right tools

I start with the tip I 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 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. Your models and crafts will be better for it.

On the subject of tools… Keep them clean during carving and etching.

Clay buildup 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 scoring the clay, perhaps carving a stonework pattern, I find wrap a sheet of clingfilm over the clay first. This provides a smoother surface on which to drag the blade of the tool, reduces the chance of the clay tearing as you pull the tool through it, and also keeps it clean.

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

Use 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 ruined a cottage I was once working on by pressing too hard on a wall and collapsing the whole thing. Not funny!

Its weight also means unsupported parts of a model can be prone to breaking off.

Air-drying-clay-strengthen

How I strengthen my air-dry clay models.

Using inner support, wire armatures, and other materials to build the 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 and other cards 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 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.

Speaking of cleanliness, a tip I should have mentioned at the start is to always keep your work area clean when working with clay. I mentioned this in this article’s companion guide on working with  polymer clay and it’s just as important for air drying clay. Otherwise, dust and dirt will stick to your clay and mar the surface.

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 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 joint smearing the clay across the gap. This not only reduces the chance of cracks but also makes it easy to shape clay into otherwise difficult forms.

If cracks do appear, simply damp a finger or tool and smooth over the crack gently. For stubborn cracks, add a touch of water to the area to soften the clay slightly. You can then use a small amount of fresh clay, smoothed with a wet fingertip, to fill in the gap.

Preserve 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 to 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, one 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 suggested by inspirational artist Forest Rogers in this post. He works in polymer clay but the practice is just as appropriate for air drying clay.

Tony over at dampfpanzerwagon explains the technique in a post on making a stone warehouse. Just texture or shape a small blob of clay for extra surface patterning or detailing, apply a tiny amount of glue and position it in place. 

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. For other models, I’ve made each stone of individual pieces of clay and added these individually to the core frame. This gives arguably the most detailed finish but takes forever. 

You can see the results of this in the finished picture at the top of this article and the halfway 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. I also use this technique for making rocky outcrops and gardens for OO gauge layouts. 

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 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. All reasons model railways make a great retirement hobby.

But while these long creation times are a plus, I don’t like delays when not 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. It’s one of the reasons I like working with clay. When you make as many mistakes as I do, a forgiving material like air-drying clay is vital 🙂

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.

Extra: carving and sculpting brick, stone, rock and wood in air drying clay

As I mentioned earlier, this article pulls together some my tips I’ve picked up from scouring the web and books over the years. But there aren’t tons of guides out there for working with clay on a small scale, especially when it comes to mimicking stuff like brick, stone, and wood. So here as an extra are some techniques to help when making small scale models.

Rock and stone textures: Take some aluminium foil, scrunch it up and lightly press it against the surface the clay to create the random little indentations of rock and stone. Let the clay dry a little bit before hand will help it hold the patterns created.  I’ve tried the texture rollers

Brick outlines: The ferrule of an old paint brush is ideal for imprinting the shape of bricks on clay.   

Brick texture: The texturing of brick is very slight but its still there.  Aluminium foil, used above, is too pronounced. Instead, use a sea sponge or old paint brush. Softer than foil they don’t make the prominent deep marks of foil but will still give an uneven surface.

Brick mortar lines: The mortar lines of brickwork in small scale modelling, such as that needed for OO gauge, are very fine. On my house for example, mortar lines are half an inch; at 1/76.2 4mm to the foot scale this will be 2mm so use a fine flat ended tool, I use a tooth pick, and draw it across the clay in horizontal lines – use a steel ruler to keep the line straight.  

Wood grain: For most wood on my models, such as the timbers in the brazier and bonfires, I use balsa or lime wood but for large areas of wood clay can still be used. To create a grain, an old toothbrush can be dragged along the surface. Before doing so however, let it dry slightly and wrap the clay in clingfilm. 

Concrete texture: For making modern buildings, I needed a way to create a concrete look. Air drying clay is close but lacked the roughness of concrete finish and no matter what tools I used I couldn’t match that finish. In the end, I cheated and sprinkled plaster over the wet clay.  It worked well and once painted (a dark base coat, wash and dry brushed) it produced a look I was happy with.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article encourages you to try making your 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. If you’re looking for more tips on working with clay, I recommend Beginner’s Guide to Sculpting Characters in Clay and Clay Sculpting with the Shiflett Brothers. Both books are packed with tips, advice and inspiring pictures. While not focusing on buildings and structures, the guides included are still very relevant and I learned a lot from both.

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. If you don’t feel up to making your own model but want a building ruin for your railway, I’m now selling them on my model railway buildings page.


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> 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.
Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

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.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
2 comments
    • 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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