From experienced artists looking to improve their skills to novices looking for a way to express themselves, air-dry clay is growing in popularity. It is relatively easy to work with, doesn’t require an oven or kiln, and is very inexpensive.
Like entering any new field, though, it never hurts to get a few tips from those with more experience. Here, we will explain the basics of working with air-dry clay and offer you a little advice to make your crafting journey smoother and less expensive.
How to Use Air Dry Clay
Everything starts with the basics. If you are entirely new to working with clay, here is a short primer on getting started.
Decide on a Project
Your step in working with clay begins with choosing a project. This decision will affect every step from here forward. The type and amount of clay you would use for an earing or bead could be quite different from what would be best for a wall hanging or statue.
Pick the Right Clay
Once you have picked your project, you begin to look for the perfect clay to execute your design. In air dry clays, you have three basic options.
- Paper-based air drying clay– Paper-based clay has paper fiber mixed in with the clay. This gives it a fluffier feel and makes it much lighter. Normally used for larger pieces to reduce weight, paper clay is also ideal for Christmas tree ornaments, jewelry, and miniatures. It remains light when dried and can be decorated with a variety of paints and stains, but it isn’t considered as durable as other sir-dry clays.
- Resin-based air drying clay– Resin-based clays have a feel and plasticity that is closer to regular ceramic clays. The majority of the brands available also dry to a finish, much like fired clay. Heavier and denser than paper clays, resin clay is extremely strong and can be used for making jewelry, figurines, and other projects that will benefit from its smoother finish.
- Epoxy clays– Epoxy clays are a special class of clays that depend on a chemical reaction to set. They come in two parts, and when mixed, they begin to harden. Epoxy clay is very hard and durable and can be used to make almost any type of project. It must be noted, however, that epoxy-type clays begin to set quickly and don’t allow you much working time.
Buy Your Clay
Now that you have decided on a type of clay to work with, it is time to buy it. It can be tempting to load up on clay, but it is generally best to only purchase as much as you will need for your project. Once opened, it will begin to dry out if not properly sealed, and even then, bad things can happen.
There are advantages to both buying clay online and purchasing it from a craft store. Brick and mortar stores are generally more expensive but often have knowledgeable clerks to assist you and answer any questions you may have. Some even offer classes.
Buying online will usually save you some money. True, they don’t have clerks that you can talk to face to face. However, better websites like Blick do have live chat available staffed by specialists that can answer any questions you might have and offer expert advice.
Set Up Your Work Station
Obviously, you are going to need a place to work your clay. This can be as simple as pulling a chair up to your kitchen table. Be aware, though; clay can get messy, so it is best to have a silicon mat, a piece of vinyl flooring, or another suitable surface to work on.
If you are just starting out, you can do many nice projects simply by working with your hands. It is nice to have a few tools, though. Don’t worry. You probably have items around your home that can fill in for more professional tools.
A piece of dental floss can be used in place of a wire clay cutter, the back of a spoon is wonderful for smoothing, and a host of items can be used for texturing your work. Toothpicks, butter knives, and sponges are other items you might find useful.
Now that you are all set up, it’s time to get started. There are so many wonderful craft projects that you can make with air-dry clay that it would be difficult to give much guidance here. That is, except for a few very general bits of advice. Don’t open more clay than you need at any particular time.
- If you have bought multiple packs of clay, open them one at a time as needed. This will help you maximize your working time and reduce the amount of waste you have.
- Make sure you properly condition your clay. Clay that has been warmed and conditioned is a joy to work with. Clay that hasn’t can be a pain. It will crumble crack at be stiff to try and shape.
- Have fun. Working with air-dry cal is a great way to reduce your stress and express your creativity. It shouldn’t be a source of frustration. It takes time to develop skills, so be patient with yourself and enjoy the learning process.
Tips For Working With Air-Dry Clay
Here we offer a few tips that we feel will make your crafting time more rewarding.
1. Don’t roll your clay too thin.
This is probably the most common beginner’s mistake we see. Clay that has been rolled too thin is floppy and difficult to work with. Even worse, it tends to crack as it dries. A good rule of thumb is to never create a sheet of clay thinner than 1/4 inch thick.
2. Wear old clothes.
Air-dry clay will wash out of your clothes, but some will leave oily stains behind. It is best to wear old clothes when working with any clay.
3. Keep lotion on your hands.
Air-dry clay can be sticky and leave a coating on your hands. The worst part is that it will dry very quickly and will leave your work looking dusty. Keeping your hands coated with lotion prevents this from happening.
4. Keep a damp cloth handy.
Even with lotion, you will inevitably end up with clay dust on your hands. Keeping a damp cloth handy and developing a habit of wiping your hands every few minutes greatly reduces the chances of this happening. It is much easier to wipe your hands than clean up the finished on your work.
5. Work on a non-stick surface.
There are few things as frustrating as finishing a piece, letting it dry, and then discovering it has glued itself to whatever is under it. You can use baker’s sheets, a ceramic tile, or any other non-stick surface to work on. Here is an article we published about what clay sticks to that should be of help.
6. Use toothpicks, popsicle sticks, and other items for support.
As your skills develop and you advance into more complex designs, it can become more difficult to get your works to hold shape. This is especially true where fresh clay has been joined to a work in progress. Toothpicks, popsicle sticks, tinfoil balls, and clay posts can be used to support raised areas and prevent them from falling in on themselves.
7. Wrap your clay in damp cloths.
Needless to say, if left exposed, your clay will begin to dry out fairly quickly. Wrapping your clay in a damp cloth will greatly slow this process. Any clay you don’t immediately need should be wrapped and provided your work isn’t too delicate, a damp cloth should be laid over your project any time you take a break. Handy wipes will also work but tend to dry out faster.
8. Smooth your work as soon as possible.
The drier your clay becomes, the harder it will be to get a smooth finish. The sooner you smooth or burnish the surface, the easier time you will have. Damp sponges, paintbrushes, and cloths work well for this purpose, as do your fingers or the back of a spoon dipped in water. Once your clay has hardened, you will have to sand it to achieve a smooth finish.
9. Use plastic wrap to round corners.
It can be very difficult to achieve smooth, even rounded corners. Damp plastic wrap stretched and worked over the edges of your work can make it much easier. The technique takes a little time to perfect but delivers great results.
10. Use cookie cutters for standard shapes.
Cookie cutters come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Instead of spending hours trying to shape the perfect star, grab a cookie cutter and make one in seconds.
A quick pro-tip: Stretch plastic wrap over your clay before using the cutter, and you will end up with a beautifully round surface every time.
11. Properly store your clay.
It can be heartbreaking to have a new idea for a design and discover all of your clay has turned to rock while it was stored. To prevent this from happening to you. Store your unused clay by wrapping it in a slightly damp cloth, wrapping it in plastic wrap, and placing it in an airtight container or ziplock bag. Air-dry clay stored properly will stay pliable almost indefinitely.
12. How to speed up the drying of air-dry clay.
Most works in air-dry clay will be hardened in 24 to 72 hours. If you are in a hurry, you can speed up the process by:
- Placing your work in the sun.
- Using a fan to increase air circulation.
- Putting your work in front of an open window.
You can also use an oven to speed up the drying of your clay but be advised it should never exceed 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Some air-dry clay can be flammable if heated beyond this point.
13. Make your own air-dry clay.
If you are out of clay or just want to stretch the entire DIY idea to the max, you can easily make your own air-dry clay from items you likely have around the house. There are many recipes available online, but our favorite is mixing equal parts of white glue and cornstarch with a little white vinegar and oil. Slowly heat it on the stove till it starts to clump and allow it to cool.
Be warned that this type of clay is very tacky and dries faster than store-bought clay.
14. Don’t leave your work unattended.
Watching mommy or daddy create with air-dry clay can excite the little artist inside every kid. This is wonderful. Most air dry clay is non-toxic and ideal for the little da Vinci in your home to work with. However, if it is your project they decide to play with, it can be heartbreaking. As an aside, pets can be just as dangerous to your work.
15. Have fun.
This is the most important tip we have to offer. Air-dry clay is wonderful to work with. It is inexpensive, doesn’t require a steep learning curve to get started, and can be formed into works of art ranging from earrings to wall hangings. Most of all, it is fun. The feel of the clay between your fingers is relaxing, and creating anything of your own design is very rewarding. Don’t stress. Enjoy the process and learn to laugh at your own mistakes.
Do you need water for air dry clay?
Water can be used to soften most airdry clay and make it more malleable but is not required. If you do add water, do so with caution. Clay that has been worked to wet is prone to cracking as it hardens.
How long does it take air-dry clay to harden?
Other than epoxy clay, you can expect a project created from air-dry cal to harden in 24 to 72 hours. Design, thickness, and humidity are just three factors that can affect the drying time.
How do you keep air-dry clay from cracking when drying?
The secret to avoiding cracks in your air-dry clay projects is to have them dry as evenly as possible. Making sure that you have equal airflow on all sides is best. Place your project on a baker’s cooling rack is a great help to this end.