How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (2023)

I’ve been sculpting with air-dry clays for the past five years, during all this time I’ve accumulated a few tips and tricks to make the process easier and more enjoyable. I’m pretty convinced that air-dry clays are very friendly to beginners and can be pretty magical in the experienced hands. But there’re a few tricks to make it work better. So keep on reading and learn what you can do to get the best results when sculpting with air-dry clays!

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (1)

This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. I wouldn’t promote anything I don’t absolutely love!

The clay itself is very important and the quality of it usually varies. For dolls, my favourites are “La Doll”, “Premier” and “Creative Paperclay”. Also, you can check “Sculpey Model Air Dry” clay or “Hearty White Air Dry Clay”. If you’re worried about price point, I suggest using good quality clay for detailed work like sculpting the face or hands and the cheaper one for the rest of the body. It can get pretty disheartening if the clay doesn’t work in your favour. So save yourself some trouble battling the clay that is stiff or crumbly and get better quality ones.

If you want to learn more about doll making and create your own doll using the same techniques I use, check out myDoll making classes!

Use armature or base

There are a few reasons why you would want to use armature or styrofoam base:

  • you’ll need less clay;

  • it’ll dry faster;

  • the sculpture will be stronger;

  • the cracks are less likely to occur.

For armature, I usually use 18 gauge wire that’s bendable but strong and holds its shape. The styrofoam comes in handy when I’m shaping larger parts of the doll’s body. Usually, I’m using it for head or torso. Adding the clay on top of the styrofoam saves a lot of clay that otherwise would go wasted filling those large areas. You can get more information about styrofoam in this recent tutorial.

Sculpt in layers

This one is very important when working with air-dry clays. It’s much easier to control, shape and spread the clay when you sculpt in thin layers. Because air-dry clay is water based, you have to keep it moist while sculpting. Have a small jar of clean water and wet the clay, tools or your fingers when adding a new layer.

Another important point is to wait for each layer to dry, especially when sculpting small details. I’m very familiar with a calamity of mushing the previous work I did. For example, if you’re sculpting lips, be patient and wait for the upper lip to dry before adding the lower lip. While waiting you can work on other parts of the doll and if you’re doing thin layers, it takes only 20 minutes to dry!

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (3)

Adding the lower lip after the upper lip is completely dry. By the way, all the pencil markings will be sanded and cleaned. I draw a lot to check the symmetry or mark the face features before sculpting.

Be prepared to sand a lot

No matter how thoroughly you smooth out the clay it still develops a rough texture when completely dried. If it works for your sculptures that’s wonderful! The perfectionist in me strives for the satin-smooth finish which can only be achieved by sanding. I usually start with 60-80 grit sanding paper and remove larger bumps and even out rough areas. Then I move on to the fine, 400-800 grit, sandpaper. It works very well in places where you don’t want to lose any detail. Very fine sandpaper polish only the surface of the clay so delicate features of the face stay intact. Patience comes into play once again, sometimes I spend a few hours sanding the doll so be prepared for this long and tedious process. To avoid dust, cover the surfaces around you and wear a mask to protect your lungs!

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (5)

Tip: Fold the sanding paper into a triangle and use the pointy part to sand hard to get places around the eyes, nose or between the fingers.

How to strengthen air-dry clay when sculpting delicate parts, for example, fingers?

A good trick is to mix PVA glue (white glue, Elmer’s glue) with water and use this mixture instead of clear water while sculpting. When the glue within the clay dries it holds those tiny paper fibres strongly together. The piece will be harder to sand though. Also, to make the clay less likely to break use armature when possible. Even if it’s very thin wire, it’s better than nothing. I use it for fingers so if I break any they don’t fall off entirely and it’s easier to repair the damage.

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (6)

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (7)

How to avoid cracks?

Usually, the clay cracks in the drying process. Air-dry clay shrinks a little bit when drying and if the outside is drying faster than the inside of the sculpture - the surface cracks. You can solve this by sculpting in layers and waiting a little bit for them to dry. If you sculpt in bigger chunks the oven with ventilator might help as well. Set the oven on the lowest setting and keep an eye on your sculpture. The heat can penetrate to the deeper layers and dry it more evenly, because air-dry is porous.

How to easily carve air-dry clay?

Air-dry clay is very good for that! Actually, most of the detailing I do is by carving. For dry clay carving, make sure that your tools are very sharp. The clay can get crumbly, because of the paper fibres, if you're carving with a blunt scalpel. One of my favourite way is to wet the surface a little bit and then carve with a needle or any other tool. Make sure that your sculpture is completely dry and wet just the top layer of the clay.

How to get rid of small fibres when the clay is dry?

Usually, air-dry clays are paper-based, that’s why they have such fluffy and lightweight texture. But all those paper fibres get very visible once the clay is dry. To minimise this irritating characteristic choose stone clay, for example, “La Doll” or “Premier”. They still have fibres, but less than usual paper clays.

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (8)

Because air-dry clay is water soluble, coating the surface with water, glues the fibres back to the surface and seals it. It's very important to have soft flat brush so you won't leave any brush marks on the surface.

Sanding with very fine sandpaper and applying water afterwards helps tremendously! I’ve written the whole article on this problem and the steps I took to solve it entirely. Give it a read!

How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po. (9)

I hope this answers some of your questions and worries about air-dry clays! Let me know if you have any more questions in the comments below and I’ll get back to you. Helping other artists is one of my hobbies so don’t hesitate writing me.


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Adele Po.

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How to work with air-dry clay to get the best results? — Adele Po.? ›

Because air-dry clay is water based, you have to keep it moist while sculpting. Have a small jar of clean water and wet the clay, tools or your fingers when adding a new layer. Another important point is to wait for each layer to dry, especially when sculpting small details.

How do you get the best results with air dry clay? ›

To help you get the most out of your clay, we've put together a list of our top tips below.
  1. Cover up to prevent stains. ...
  2. Prepare your air dry clay. ...
  3. Use a board or banding wheel. ...
  4. Choosing tools. ...
  5. Create an armature for extra support. ...
  6. Bulk larger works. ...
  7. Minimise cracking with a wet mix. ...
  8. Wrap clay for multiple sessions.
Oct 19, 2020

Can you seal air dry clay with PVA glue? ›

There are various mediums that can be used to seal or varnish air dry clay. The most economical option is using PVA glue. Most of us have some of this in our craft stash and it's ideal to use on any projects the kids have made.

How do you glue air dry clay to plastic? ›

Air dry clay will stick to plastic. You can use some water in order to make the air dry clay stick better to the plastic surface. The air dry clay will continue to stick to the plastic surface even when it has dried. The rougher the surface of the plastic is the better it will stick.

Why is air dry clay so hard to work with? ›

Air dry clay can be quite sticky so roll your clay out onto a silicone craft mat or wax paper to stop it sticking and make your project easier to remove.

Is Mod Podge a good sealer for air dry clay? ›

With air dry clay, it isn't kiln fired, so after painting, it can look a bit… dull. Well, I have some good news for you – Mod Podge does the trick. Not only does it provide an incredible shiny finish, it also strengthens the project itself.

What can I put on air dry clay to make it shiny? ›

You can even seal your sculptures to create a beautiful, glossy shine. You can make air dry clay shiny with epoxy resin, clear spray paint, Mod Podge, or a high-gloss clay varnish. Each of these finishes adds an extra layer of durability and produces a lustrous, glossy sheen.

Can you put Modge podge over air dry clay? ›

Mod Podge on Air Dry Clay

It's really easy to use Mod Podge and clay together (including polymer and air dry). Mod Podge is a great sealer for clay, which is what makes it so perfect for these charms/gift tags.

What is the best glue for plastic to clay? ›

A product known as Loctite Gel had many, many positive votes from my readers. Another excellent superglue gel is Gorilla Glue Superglue Gel. Another favorite glue with polymer clay artists is one called Zap-a-Gap, and from what I can tell it's also a gel-forumulated CA glue.

What is the best super glue for air dry clay? ›

Sculptor's Favourites: Speed Super Glue, which does not seem to be available outside of my local art store. In a pinch, I have also used these two types and they work great (note they are gel viscosity): Loctite Super Glue and Gorilla Super Glue Gel.

What glue works best with air dry clay? ›

The best glues for gluing clay is PVA Glue, Epoxy Resin, or Gorilla Glue. For Air-Dry Clay either of these glues will work perfectly. PVA Glue, however, will not work well on Polymer Clay. So for gluing Polymer Clay either Epoxy Resin or Gorilla Glue are the best choices.

What are three methods of working with clay? ›

Below are the three most common forms of creating hand-built pots: pinchpot, coiling and slab techniques. Most do not realize the infinite world of hand building and the artistic possibilities it opens.

What is the most important tool when working with clay? ›

#1 - Needle Tool - For hand builders, the basic needle tool is fine for this job. #2 - Ribs - Ribs are essential to hand building and wheel throwing alike, but are used in different ways. In hand building, ribs are used to compress slabs, compress joins in coiled pots, scrape clay forms, and more.

How long does it take for air dry clay to fully dry? ›

The general time it takes for air-dry clay to dry is around 24 hours to 72 hours. However, if you have larger clay projects, you might have to wait a little longer for the piece to dry properly. It is best to leave the clay dry naturally, rather than to speed things up.

What not to do with air dry clay? ›

10 Mistakes To Avoid When Using Air Dry Clay
  1. Working In Direct Sunlight. ...
  2. Cheap Storage. ...
  3. Painting Too Early. ...
  4. Using Too Much Water. ...
  5. Don't Be Too Hard On Yourself. ...
  6. Storing Near A Heat Source. ...
  7. Not Enough Ventilation. ...
  8. Not Using Safety Gear.

How do you keep air dry clay from cracking when drying? ›

In order to dry properly, air dry clay projects should be exposed to air on all sides at the same time. This will help prevent warping and cracking. We recommend drying pieces on a screen or cookie rack, for example, where air flow is the same on all sides.

How long does it take for air dry clay to fully harden? ›

Air dry clay is a paper-based clay that can take anywhere from 24 - 72 hours to harden depending on the thickness of the clay and environmental conditions.

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