Mar 5, 2014

Baking Polymer Clay: Choosing Your Oven

If you're anything like me, you never really gave your polymer clay oven much thought. For the first five years of my sculpting career, I baked my polymer clay figurines in my home oven. Yeah, I know - 'You eat things from that oven, Kookie. That's not healthy." To tell you the truth, I didn't really mind. Or care. And if you told me that my oven was used mostly for baking manipulated kneadable plastic while I scarfed down a plate of roasted potato wedges, I wouldn't have noticed. Besides, I'm not dead, so it couldn't have been that bad for me. I mean, we're all closer to death one day at a time, anyways. Right? Alright, I'll cut it with the morbid dribble.

But that's what I did. That's the route I went. At one point, I had tried the toaster oven - the oven that all polymer clay artists seem to use for baking their creations. But it didn't work for me. Have you ever stuck an oven thermometer in one of those things? One second, the temperature is perfect. Time to pop in the clay. Then the next second, it's hotter than the depths of hell. The temperature fluctuations were definitely enough to scare me off.

Don't get me wrong - regular home ovens can be the exact same way. In one of my first apartments, we had one of those demon ovens. I turned it up to 275*F to bake something and it decided, nah, it's not hot enough - up to 550*F we go! So glad I didn't put my clay in there, yet.

When it comes to choosing an oven for baking your polymer clay, there really is no "best oven". It's all luck, especially nowadays. They don't build them like they used to. I wouldn't bother wasting your time on a big fancy expensive toaster oven, because you're probably going to be disappointed. The unfortunate thing about toaster ovens is there temperature fluctuations. One moment it'll be one temperature, and the next moment it's colder or hotter by many degrees. The only way you're going to find the perfect oven is by trial and error - and an oven thermometer.

I cannot stress this enough when it comes to baking your polymer clay: You need a trusty oven thermometer. That's it. They aren't expensive, they are relatively easy to find, and they will save you a lot of headaches - and will save you from burnt crispy clay, too.

Most polymer clay artists swear by cheap toaster oven models. They can't tell you why, but the expensive ones always seem to give you the most trouble. Not to mention, they almost always have extra un-needed components that are useless to a polymer clay artist. You don't need a fancy rotisserie or broiler option - just a basic oven that keeps a steady temperature. Unless you plan on baking a pizza or a whole chicken, too.
Want to test a possible oven candidate? Stick that oven thermometer in there and watch it like a hawk. Take note of the temperature fluctuations. Does it go to the temperature that you set it to? Does it hold that temperature? Does it go up or down? Five or ten degrees aren't going to hurt, but if it's going up or down 50, 100, 200 degrees, then you have a real problem. Try turning the temperature dial up or down and see what happens. Sometimes a temperamental oven can be saved by tinkering with the controls a little bit. Check the oven every 5 or 10 minutes and leave it on for as long as you normally bake your polymer clay. If you bake large pieces for 2-3 hours, you want to know what the oven is going to do in that amount of time.

I got unlucky with my first oven, and after that I stuck with my trusty home oven. It barely fluctuated in temperature at all, and it could fit large sculptures, which was nice.

About one year ago, though, I broke down and finally decided to get myself a toaster oven. I had seen this model on Amazon.ca that was on sale, and it's main selling point was it's exact temperature capabilities.

This is the Cuisinart "Exact Heat" Convection Oven. I bought it during a boxing day sale on Amazon.ca for about $150 with free shipping. Look at that chicken. Isn't it lovely? Yeah, I've never had the chance to roast a bird in it...

It's main focus is keeping a steady temperature, and boy does it ever. It never goes up or down by more than five or ten degrees at a time. I keep my oven thermometer in there at all times - just in case. An added bonus feature is the fact that it's not just a conventional toaster oven - it has a convection feature, as well - which basically just means that it has a fan inside to blow the air around. This means less hot spots, more even heat distribution, and faster cooking.

The downside - the inside dimensions of the oven are rather minimal, so I don't usually bake anything that is more than 3 inches tall. Which isn't so bad for me since I work on such a small scale, anyways.

Another downside - the price, of course. That's a lot of money to fork over for a toaster oven. But it's never let me down, and if you plan on sculpting in the long term, it'll be worth it. I've been using it frequently for the past year, so far. If you're just a periodic hobby sculptor, it probably wouldn't be worth the hefty price tag. And good luck getting your oven covered by the warranty if it ever breaks down on you - the manufacturer won't cover it. Polymer clay isn't food, and polymer clay is not part of the "recommended use". But I guess that goes for all toaster ovens, unless it's strictly an oven built for "craft and hobby use".

The unfortunate thing about all toaster ovens (not just this one) is the fact that the heating elements are super close to the objects you bake inside, so I definitely recommend covering your sculptures with aluminum foil or bake them inside of a loaf pan covered in aluminum foil. Once in awhile, I recommend giving the inside a light cleaning, even with a damp rag, because polymer clay fumes like to put off a bit of residue.

So readers - I want to know: What sort of oven do you use for your polymer clay goodies? Comment below to let us all know! Maybe you could help a fellow sculptor who just so happens to be looking for a trusty oven companion.