Many polymer clay artists tend to roll their eyes when questioned what polymer clay is by innocent bystanders. If you really think about it, most people will tend to think it is just another variety of clay that comes from the ground that needs to be fired in a kiln like pottery is. It is a very common assumption to think this is so, but it isn't the case. Can you really blame your customers for wanting to know?
Polymer clay actually doesn't come from the ground at all! In fact, it is completely man-made. While earth clays tend to come from the ground and are completely waterbased, polymer clay is actually created from solid and liquid polymers - which is basically plastic! It is called "clay" only because it can be modeled, worked, and sculpted like clay can.
The base of polymer clay tends to be PVC (or Polyvinyl Chloride) and a liquid plasticizer is also added to make the clay workable. While Earth clay needs to be fired at a very high temperature inside of a kiln, this temperature would be much too hot for clay and it would surely burn profusely. Polymer Clay is baked in a household oven or toaster oven at a lower temperature for a short period of time - usually around 275 degrees farhenheit for 20 to 30 minutes. During this time, the plasticizers harden which result in a rock-hard mound of clay. Unlike sculpting mediums like some Earth Clays and Playdough, Polymer Clay will not air-dry - even if it is left out for days.
Although Polymer Clay has been popular for quite some time now, it has it's roots back in the 60's where it was discovered as a molding compound by accident. Originally it was being used for a different purpose, but when it was concluded that it was not good for it's original purpose, it was put aside. Someone happened to stumble on this mysterious material and began sculpting a figure, baked it, and behold - they had found a sculpting medium! By 1967, this clay was being sold as "Sculpey" on a small scale in the United States.
The most common brands of polymer clay tend to be Sculpey, Fimo, Kato, Premo, and Cernit. Each brand has it's own characteristics and it's own colours - every colour of the rainbow, pastel hues, fluorescent, translucent, sparkled, metallic, pearlescent, textures, and even glow-in-the-dark! Colours can also be tinted with pastel shavings, inks, oil paints, powdered pigments and other types of inclusions to get the look you want.
Liquid Clay is sold by most major Polymer Clay companies. The two most commonly found Liquid Clays would be Translucent Liquid Sculpey (also known as TLS) or Fimo Decorating Gel which is sold in a smaller quantity. Both Liquid Clays have their own qualities, but the Fimo brand is known for being the most translucent after being cured in the oven.
So what exactly can you do with Polymer Clay? Well. Pretty much anything you can do with any other clay! The only thing I wouldn't really recommend is using it to create utensils or dishes that you intend to eat from, or using it to create plugs for your large gauged ear piercings. Although Polymer Clay is labeled as Non-Toxic, it is always good to take precautionary measures. The surface of Polymer Clay is rather pourous after baking, so it may store bacteria that you cannot see.
I hope that this article has informed you a bit better about what polymer clay is, and I also hope you will stay tuned for my next article where I will be discussing the differences between various Polymer Clay brands.