No matter if you’re someone totally new to sculpting or if you’re someone who is very experienced and you want to branch out to other types of sculpting clay, this quick guide is going to outline everything you need to know about sculpting clay. The goal is to give you the exact idea on which options are available.
The best thing about sculpting clay is that some of the sculpting clay types available don’t require that you have professional-grade equipment. It’s even possible to create some sculpting clay out of things you have around your kitchen or home. Depending on the type of project you have in mind, some sculpting clay types may be more suitable than others. Read on to find out more.
Finding out which type of clay will work best for your projects can help ensure that you have a better time with the whole process and get better end results. Clay by Jussi-Pekka Erkkola / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Defining Sculpting Clay
Better known as modeling clay, sculpting clay is a pliable substance that you use to create models, sculptures, or buildings. You can find it used in a huge range of settings. One popular use is to help children develop sensory skills or help them learn through playing. You’ll find it used in schools a lot for kids of all ages to help enhance their creativity levels and create art projects. Clay modeling and sculpting is a very popular hobby for people of all ages, and it can even become a career.
Most people have at least one example of sculpting clay around your garden or home. For example, you could have a stoneware garden sculpture or a terracotta plant pot. Maybe you turned an earthenware jug on your table into a centerpiece by adding dried jasmine flowers, or you have a ceramic dish that you eat your lunch in. If you’re someone who has kids, maybe you have artwork scattered around your home that are made from sculpting clay.
Since there are many types of sculpting clays available, you should note that a few have qualities that make them suitable for a broad range of use while some are for professional use. We’ve listed the most popular types for you below.
Ceramic clay features a combination of substances like glazes and powders and natural clay materials. All clay is a type of ceramic, but not every type of ceramic gets made using clay. The ceramic category name refers to the end result of your sculpting clay project instead of the actual clay you use. There are a few options available, and we’ve outlined them below.
Ball clay is better known as plastic clay. This sculpting clay is mostly sedimentary clay that is useful for adding to other clay types to make them more malleable and easy to work with since it’s easy pliable. You don’t want to use this type of clay alone if you can help it because it shrinks a decent amount as it dries. Once it hardens, this clay will turn a pale gray color that is almost white because it contains a very small amount of mineral impurities.
This sculpting clay type is one of the earliest known types that people used to create pottery or sculpt with. It has a very pliable feel, and this makes it very easy to work with. It also has a sticky texture to it that results in a decent amount of cleanup due to the mess. You fire this sculpting clay at lower temperatures around 2,190°F to make it hard. Once this type of cla gets hard, it’s very liable to break or crack because it’s brittle.
You also get a highly porous clay that isn’t great when it comes to holding water. It comes in a broad range of colors from gray to orange or red. The final color of your hardened sculpting clay will depend on which type of firing method you use and the clay’s mineral content. Terracotta is a very common type of this clay, and it translates into baked earth. It’s popular for deck boxes, planters, and pots.
Chances are, you have earthenware clay around your home or yard if you have Terracotta pots. They’re versatile, durable, and a staple in many garden centers. Clay Pots by Marni- / CC BY 2.0
This is a type of sculpting clay that can withstand very high heat levels, so it’ll only get hard if you fire it at extremely high temperatures. There isn’t a high level of mineral impurities in this clay, so it’ll usually stay a pale color when you harden it. However, it does have a high iron presence, and this gives it a much more textured surface as it hardens. If you want to add additional texture to whatever you’re making, this is a good sculpting clay to consider.
This sculpting clay comes made out of kaolinite. This is a pure layered silicate material. Since it has a lack of mineral impurities compared to most types of ceramic clay, you get a very pale color as it hardens. This is why it’s so popular in producing porcelain. It’s also not very easy to work with since it has a lower plasticity. Knowing this, you now know why it’s common to mix it with ball clay to help increase the plasticity levels. It also hardens at a slightly lower temperature.
Stoneware is a sculpting clay that gets fired at a very high temperature, and the firing temperature is a lot higher than you’d use with earthenware. As a result, you get a product that is very sturdy and durable. Once you fire it, the end product resists breakages and chips, and it’ll also tolerate extreme temperatures. You see it used in kitchenware, garden sculptures, front yard landscaping, pottery, and plant pots. Finished stoneware comes with a darker look when you compare it to earthenware, and it has much more texture.
This sculpting clay isn’t technically clay because it doesn’t have any natural clay elements to it. However, it falls into the modeling clay category and it is very popular amongst children. Dough clay is commonly referred to as the brand name Play-Doh. There are many other brands, and you can easily make your own at home by pulling out a few key ingredients from your cupboards. These ingredients include salt, cornstarch, flour, water, and food coloring to create bright colors.
The benefit of making your own sculpting clay is that it’s edible and non-toxic. This means that smaller kids can experiment and play with it without worrying if they put it in their mouths. You can get as creative as you like when you make your own, and there are several recipes available online to try.
If you want something with a better taste, you can melt down coconut oil with marshmallows before adding your cornstarch and food coloring. This will make a fun, stretchy, and tasty dough clay. It’s best for recreational activities and playing over creating professional-grade sculptures. When it dies out, it is usual for it to form cracks.
The exception to this rule is salt dough clay, and you make it by mixing equal ratios of flour and table salt until you get a dough-like consistency. You can shape it however you like and bake it very slowly at a lower temperature to dry it out. Once it dries out, you can paint and seal it to get something that will last for many years. It’s a great craft idea for a sleepover because you can make wall hangings, Christmas tree decorations, or keepsakes with it.
When you have younger kids, it’s important that you have safe sculpture clay for them to play with, so you can easily make your own from common kitchen ingredients that is cost-effective and non-toxic. Play Dough by dani0010 / CC BY-SA 2.0
This is a type of sculpting clay that features a makeup of waxes, oils, and clay. Because of the liquid-based makeup, it won’t dry out, even if you leave it out for weeks at a time. So, you can easily reuse it over and over again. This makes it a great choice for kid’s crafts because it allows them to create items that you can store and then break them down to create something new.
Because the oil’s consistency is directly affected by heat, the clay’s malleability will depend on the surrounding temperature. The warmer the clay gets, the easier it is to work with. You can also preheat this type of sculpting clay to make them more pliable and softer before you use them, especially if you’re working with it in a colder location. Due to the way this type of clay won’t dry out if left out, you can easily move it. In turn, this is popular for use in claymation.
A few types of this clay have sulfur, and this means that they won’t work well with silicone molds. If you want to use these molds, you’ll need to be oil-based, sulfur-free clay. In some instances, people will add petroleum jelly to the clay to help change the clay’s consistency and make it more pliable. However, this can be a long process. You can also heat some oil-based clays up to the point where they turn into a liquid, and then you can pour them into a mold.
This sculpting clay has an epoxy curing agent and epoxy resin clay in the makeup. It’s very pliable and soft, and this ensures that it’s easy to work with. You can choose from a decent range of colors when you purchase it too. As long as you don’t mix the clay with the curing agent, it won’t harden and you can work with it again and again. Once you mix in the curing agent, there is a chemical reaction that allows the clay to harden in a few hours. So, it’s a self-hardening type of sculpting clay that doesn’t need to be heated up to dry out.
It also dries out in as little as two hours, and this means that it’s not the best choice for any projects that take a long time to create. However, there are also several benefits to working with this clay. It’s one of the strongest types of sculpting clay once it gets hard, and it won’t crack if you expose it to heat like polymer clay. It also won’t deteriorate or fade if you put it outside, and this means it makes an excellent material to create tropical garden decorations.
You can also color this sculpting clay with a huge range of paint types once it hardens, and this includes spray paint, acrylic paint, and oil-based paint. It is one of the most expensive options available, but the huge range of benefits that come with using it ensures that it’s the preferred type of clay for both professional sculptors and hobbyists.
This is another type of oil-based clay that is also called plastillia, plasticium, and plasteline. Plasticine is a brand of oil-based sculpting clay that an art teacher invented as a way to have clay for the students that wouldn’t dry out so they could use it again and again. However, this is now a blanket term for a range of oil-based clay types.
The clay usually features wax, oil, and clay flour. It also usually has sulfur, so you shouldn’t pair it with silicone molds unless you know that it’s sulfur-free. You can choose from a broad range of colors, and it’s easy to work with while offering a smooth finish. It won’t stick to the work surfaces or your hands, and it’s a great medium to use to create projects with a lot of detail. You can also easily mix different colors of this sculpting clay to create whole new colors. It can’t be fired, but it’ll also never dry out. If you expose it to high temperatures, you’ll get a very greasy mess.
Different types of sculpting clay need to get fired at different temperatures, and there are types that can dry in the room air. You have to decide which one will work best for your needs. Filled Kiln by Charles Haynes / CC BY-SA 2.0
Polymer clay is a type of sculpting clay that has polyvinyl chloride or PVC. Unlike most types of clay in this category, you can permanently harden it by heating it. This makes it excellent for permanent projects. You can rework it and have it stay pliable over and over again, and you never have to worry about it drying out on you. However, once you heat it up and harden it, there is no undoing it.
This is a sculpting clay that is very popular among hobbyists, children, and professional-grade sculptors. It’s a very cost-effective option to buy, and you won’t need any special equipment to use it. You can even cure it in the oven at your home. You can choose from a large range of colors, and this makes it popular for use in models, kitchenware, jewelry, and pottery.
Paper clay is the name that is used as a large blanket term for any sculpting clay that features paper pulp in the makeup. You can create your own in your home by adding shredded paper to any clay you have on-hand or buy it ready mixed. The fibers in the paper will work to help bind the clay together better, and this gives you a much stronger structure to work with.
In turn, this makes the clay stronger to work with, and it can help you get a much sturdier project as you work. This is great if your sculpture isn’t holding up well by itself or if you’re having a problem with joints. However, once you fire it and it hardens, this type of clay will be weaker than any type that you don’t add paper to. The more fibers it has, the stronger it’ll be once it dries, and the weaker it’ll get when you fire it.
Just as the name suggests, this type of sculpting clay is water mixed with clay. It’s very popular for a huge range of reasons. The biggest reason is that it’s a very budget-friendly option that is great for beginners or kids to create crafts. As long as you get the correct consistency by mixing the correct ratio of water to clay, it’s very easy to work with because it’ll be very malleable. You’ll be able to move it in several shapes without a huge amount of effort.
This clay also dries out very quickly, and this is another reason that it’s so popular. As the water evaporates when you leave it out, the clay will firm up and harden. This is great because you won’t have to wait days after you finish with your project for it to dry out and bread for varnishing or painting. However, this quality can also work against you if you’re someone who likes to take a long time to create the perfect masterpiece.
For larger projects, it’s a good idea to pick out a type of clay that you can re-wet to keep it easy to work with, and this is exactly what you can do with water-based clay. In Love With Clay by Carol Von Canon / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
You can stop this sculpting clay from drying out too quickly by adding small spritzes of splashes of water to the clay as you work. If you need to take a break, don’t forget to cover it with a damp cloth to keep it pliable. If you want to save it and use it later, you can tuck it into an airtight container and wrap it in plastic.
Air-dry clay is just what the name suggests. You can easily dry it out by leaving it exposed to the room air. You won’t need to fire it in a kiln, and you don’t need high temperatures for it to harden. This is a common sculpting clay used as modeling clay. The time it’ll take for your clay model or project to dry out once you finish with it depends on how thick you made it. It can take anywhere from a few hours up to a week to dry all of the way through when you quit working with it.
As another bonus, you won’t have to worry about buying a host of specialized tools to work with this type of clay. A knife and a rolling pin will suffice, and you can color the clay with marker pens, inks, tempera, and acrylic paints. It also gives you a lot of room to try different projects. Rubber stamps can leave a decently deep and clear impression in it, and it is at the top of the list as one of the most popular options for making sculptures and models that don’t require a huge amount of detail.
A school teacher first developed this type of water-based sculpting clay. It’s a sensory clay that you can dry out by letting it sit out at room temperature, or you can fire it in a kiln. Once it dries, you can also reuse it. All you have to do is break the project up in smaller pieces, add water, mix, and it’s back to workable form.
Mexican Pottery Clay
Mexican pottery clay is a popular type of water-based sculpting clay. It has a pretty terracotta coloring to it, and it’ll dry out at room temperature without needing to fire it. You should keep in mind that this clay will shrink a little as it dries, so scale your model slightly larger to keep everything in proportion.
This is a very popular type of water-based clay that you find used in pottery. It comes with a medium-grey coloring that will lighten up to a pale off-white color as it dries. Once you fire it, you’ll see a hint of grey. This is a very smooth and pliable clay tpe, and it makes it very easy to work with.
The final type of sculpting clay on the list is WED clay, and this stands for Walter E. Disney. Disney studios first used this sculpting clay to create animatronic models. It has very similar properties to oil-based clays, but it does have a slightly slower drying process than most water-based clay types. You won’t need to fire it for it to dry out, and it’s very popular in the entertainment industry.
How To Use Sculpting Clay
There are several ways that you can use sculpting clay, and this is part of the reason why it’s so popular with a huge range of skill levels. Vase rising out of clay by Vivian Evans / CC BY-SA 2.0
The type of sculpting clay you pick out will dictate how you use it, so you want to understand the different qualities of each type of clay, like if you have to work with it quickly or if it’ll air dry. There are several techniques you can employ when you experiment, including:
Carving is a very popular technique that involves slowly cutting or chipping away to form a shape out of a raw mass of stone, wood, clay, or any material that gets hard enough to turn into a sculpture. This is a subtractive type of technique where you slowly remove material from the outside in. You will need specialized tools to help scrape away layers of material to give you the final object. A few common techniques include but are not limited to:
- Ivory carving
- Shell and semi-precious stones carving
- Stone carving
- Wood carving
Casting uses molds and melted down sculpting clay. You melt the clay until it reaches a liquid consistency and pour it into the mold. Once the clay dries, it’ll harden up and you can carefully pull the mold away to leave the cast behind. It’s a very common practice with metal, but you can use it with different types of sculpting clay too, and oil-based clays are the most popular because you can easily heat them to the point that they melt. You’ll have to air-dry the clay when it gets in the mold to allow it to harden before you can take it out and seal or paint it.
This is an additive technique where you take a highly malleable and soft material like sculpting clay and make it into a model. You can shape and build this model to create extremely detailed and beautiful projects. You’ll have to fire these models at very high temperatures to make the shape and details permanent. Wax modeling is another type of modeling that swaps clay out for wax to create projects or sculptures.
Now you know the different types of sculpting clay that are available on the current market, and you can easily compare them to see which ones will work best for your intended projects. Try out a few different ones and see which ones you like the best, and create stunning projects that last for years.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.