Polymer Clay
Written by Maureen Carlson

polymer clay

Polymer clay is the generic term for a family of man-made clays that are soft and pliable until they are heated, or baked, at which point they become permanently hard. The low baking temperature of 265 degrees F means that the baking can be done in a regular home oven. Because very few tools are needed to begin working with polymer clays, they are well suited for use by kids and home hobbiests.

But this is not to assume that polymer clay is limited to that use. One has only to see the Super Sculpey, Cernit and FIMO dolls made by Diane Keeler and Annie Wahl or the FIMO jewelry of Tory Hughes, illustrated in her videos to know that this can be very sophisticated stuff indeed.

Polymer clay is a polyvinyl chloride compound mixed with a plasticizer for flexibility and various fillers for texture and color. Common brands used in the USA are Cernit, FIMO, FIMO Soft, Friendly Clay, Granitex, Premo, Sculpey, Super Sculpey and Sculpey III. Each manufacturer has specific directions for the conditioning and baking of their brand, so do read those package directions before you toss them in the waste basket. See our Tips Sheet for more information.

The polymer clays have been tested by the Arts And Crafts Institute for safety and are listed as safe for use as long as a few precautions are followed.

Some artists who have constant contact with the clays are concerned about skin irritation and/or cumulative effects, and so prefer to use latex gloves while conditioning. Others who bake for long hours use a vented oven or bake in a separate room with an open window. While I do not feel that the test evidence calls for these extra precautions, I personally find that the baking smell is unpleasant, so I choose to bake in an oven that is attached to an exhaust fan. I would do the same if I worked continually with any material with a strong odor.

I first used polymer clay in the mid 1970's when I picked up a package of Sculpey at the local craft store. At that time I had no idea that in 15 years this innocent looking material - and others in the polymer clay family - would be the basis for my whole professional career. But that is what has happened. In the 20 years since that first experience I have done a lot of experimenting and learning - but this material is so versatile that I feel like I have just tapped the surface of what can be done with it.

The beginnings of what we now know as polymer clay are lost somewhere in the records of countless research chemists who did their own experiments with synthetic plastic compounds. But some information is available.

As early as the late 1930's, the forerunner of FIMO, which is now produced by Eberhard Faber, was being used by a dollmaker in Germany (the daughter of famed dollmaker Kathy Kruse). The story goes that her regular dollmaking supplies were disrupted due to the political upheavels in that country, so she began experimenting with a plastic clay. Eventually this compound was purchased by Eberhard Faber, who still produces it today.

In the United States there were similar experiments happening. Ellen Rixford, in her book, 3-D Illustration (Watson Guptill, publisher) tells of clay illustrator Gordon Swenarton's (Page 40) use in the 1950's of his chemist father's vinyl dough. The story is similar for the Polyform family of products, which, beginning in the late 1960's, were the first readily available commercial polymer clay products in the USA. Polyform, or Sculpey as it was also called, was originally formulated for potential use as a thermal transfer compound - to conduct heat away from the cores of electrical transformers. This formulation was not successful for that particular purpose, so the compound was temporarily shelved. The use of Sculpey as a modeling compound was "discovered" by the owner's young daughter, who played with it one day while visiting his office.

To these early polymer clay pioneers we are indebted. They have opened a whole realm of possibilities for artistic expression for all of us.  If you are new to the polymer clays, you're in for a treat.  If you are already a polymer clay fan, please write, fax or e-mail us and tell us about your favorite polymer clay projects.


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