May 28, 2009

Sanding, Buffing, & Polishing Polymer Clay

Something that a lot of polymer clay artists end up skipping out on is the sanding, buffing, and polishing process. It is usually left behind namely because they just don't know where to start or they find it too time consuming. I will admit that this process does take a little time, but with a little bit of know-how, it doesn't have to be a downer. The look and feel of the piece after this process is absolutely beautiful, and if you want to put a little more value and quality into your pieces - read on!

Now, I am going to describe MY process to you. Other clay artists may have a different approach to the same process, but you might develop your own techniques as you go on. This technique will get you started. But first off, we need a few simple materials.
  • Towel
  • Container
  • Wet/Dry Sandpaper
  • Canvas
  • Polishing Cloth
You might not have worked with wet/dry sandpaper before, but it is relatively easy to find. Just look in the sanding section of your hardware store, hobby store, or big box store. This sand paper will usually be black in colour and say "wet/dry" or "waterproof" on the back. This sandpaper comes in a variety of "grits" ranging from coarse to fine. Smaller grits like 200 or 400 are more coarse, whereas larger numbers like 800 or 1200 are very fine. What you want is about three different grits - one that is somewhat coarse, one that is finer, and one that is very fine.

Personally, I work with a 600 grit, 800 grit, and than a 1200 grit to finish it off.

Any sort of canvas will do - you could use burlap or white denim too, just as long as it has a good coarse rough texture. I use a piece of painters canvas that my old high school Art teacher gave to me. As for a polishing cloth, you could try looking in the automotive department with all the car waxing supplies or in the fabric department. Find a piece of material that is very soft like fleece, flannel, soft cotton fabric, or terry cloth. You could even tear apart an old shirt!

Now that you know a thing or two about where and how to get the materials, I guess we should start the sanding process! Lay out a towel onto your work surface, and get yourself a container filled with warm water. This container should be large enough so that you can dunk your hands into the water without being too cramped - just as long as it is comfortable for you.

Now, get your clay creation out! All it needs to be is baked and cooled, and you can begin to work on it. Make sure you haven't painted it yet, as any painting you need to do can be done AFTER this process. Give your clay a dunk into the water, and grab yourself the coarsest grit of sandpaper (in my case, a 600 grit) and dunk it into the water, as well. Now, working over the water, begin to sand your clay, working in small circles, and paying special attention to all the nooks and crannies. When you notice that the clay particles start to fill up on the sandpaper and the clay, just dunk them into the water to give it a rinse. If there is any dust, impurities, or unevenness in the surface of the clay, this is the point where they need to be sanded away.

When the surface starts to improve, move onto the next grit of sandpaper. Just like before, sand the entire surface and pay special attention to the nooks and crannies. Keep dunking the clay and the sandpaper into the water to remove any clay particle accumulation. When the surface becomes more even and smooth, move onto the finest grit and repeat the process over again. By this point, your clay will be extremely smooth - but not as smooth as it is going to be a little later!

Dry your clay off with your towel, and grab your piece of canvas (or whatever you chose as your rough material) and begin to rub your clay. Get into all the nooks and crannies, move in circles, and don't be afraid to apply some good pressure. After about 3-5 minutes of buffing, we can now move onto the polishing phase! With your polishing cloth, do the same thing as you were doing before with the canvas - rub and polish your clay until it is bright, shiny and smooth!

This process really is easy, but many people just don't go through with it because it takes too darn long. If you sit in front of the T.V, it helps to be a little bit zoned out - or try listening to some music, as it makes the process a little more enjoyable. If I could offer any advice at all on this process, it would be to spend the MOST time in the first phase while sanding. This phase is crucial because it defines the final product.

If you don't spend much time sanding, than buffing and polishing isn't going to make it look much better. How does that saying go? "You can't polish a turd"... hah! Spend the most time with the coarsest grit of sand paper - I usually sit there for a good 8-10 minutes sanding away. Than spend a little less time with the next grit, and even less time with the finest grit. This phase is always the most time consuming, and for good reason! Buffing with the canvas and polishing with the cloth usually don't take that long.

If you like, you can add a few drops of dishwashing liquid to your water at the beginning. It creates a little less friction, and heck - it smells nice! You will find that if you are going to be adding any painting detail after this process, the paint will go on even smoother and it will hold on more easy. If you add any paint, just go over the entire surface with a little bit of rubbing alcohol - this gets rid of any excess dirt and oils so that the paint will stick even better. If you are used to glazing your clay creations with layer upon layer of gloss, you will only need ONE layer of gloss for an equivalent shine after the sanding, buffing, and polishing process - it is THAT shiny!

Seriously, if you haven't tried doing this before, just try it once - that is all you will need to convince you. After gazing at your smooth, shiny, and beautiful creations and seeing your practically seeing your reflection in the clay, you will be wondering how you did without it!

13 comments:

  1. This is one step I have not yet tried but you made it sound easy, will be testing soon.. thanks again for the great write up !

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  2. thanks so much for this, its great!

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  3. No problem, you guys! I hope it helps!

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  4. I last worked with polymer clay 15 years ago but I'm still wearing the bright,shiny jewelry pieces that were finished much as you described. Some have a glassy shine. The last step in my finishing process was to use my motor polisher with a soft felt buffing wheel....never allowing the clay piece to get hot.

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  5. Damn - I bet that REALLY polishes your jewellery pieces up real nice! :D

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  6. Hope I'm not necroing the topic but if I were to go through this sanding buffing process, does that mean I don't need to gloss/glaze it with gloss? Or can I do either or, or both?

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    1. No worries, Finra! You can do either/or or both! I like to do both, but it looks good either way. Some say that when you sand buff and polish, it gives the same look as what a satin glaze, would!

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  7. I get so frustrated becaue I have been doing this process but I am also buffing by hand i just cant get the gloss I want. I have tried applying a glaze like the sculpy glaze but for the life of me all I see is brush strokes that ruin my smooth finish. is there a better kind of brush I can use? is there a spray varnish that wont eat up the polymer?
    thanks in advance

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    1. Hey Izzy! I don't use that Sculpey glaze crud - I have never had any luck with it. Polyurethane is a really good choice, and you can get it in liquid or spray form. I use the spray, but for my shiny items I like to dip and drip-dry them. :) I just use a brush to get rid of the drips. Hope this helps!

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    2. I sand with 6 different grits and buff with some denim fabric. I read that Pledge Floor Care Finish is good too. Have you tried that? I also have no luck with Sculpey glaze it leaves streaks!

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  8. I've started sanding my beads now and i was wondering if you had any idea which brand of clay takes a polish better?
    I was working with Sculpey translucent, going to 1500 grit and then denim. I heard that Premo shines much better than sculpey and was wondering if you know anything about this.

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    1. If you're JUST talking about translucent clay, try Premo's "Frost" (that's the name of the colour). Not just their "Translucent". It's amazing and polishes up wonderfully. :)

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  9. I have never worked with that type of clay before, but it looks like a lot of fun. I have done my share of sanding and polishing before, but always on floors. It is probably the same concept though. http://www.floorsandinginmelbourne.com.au

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