If, as a homeschool mom, you have ever considered going beyond Play-Doh for teaching your kids a little about sculpting, you may have noticed that there are a lot of choices out there for clay.
The type and brand of clay you choose ultimately depends on the desired end product. If you just want to sculpt some objects and let them dry on their own, then you will do best with an air dry clay. If you want hard, cured sculptures but don’t want the hassle of using a kiln, then polymer clay may be what you are looking for. If you want to go all out, buy a kiln and fire your work, then natural clay is where it’s at. This post is going to explain in a little more detail the differences between these types of clay and even mention a few of the best brands.
There are a wide range of possibilities in air dry clays. Many of them aren’t even technically clay at all.
As a first step beyond Play-Doh, I would recommend Crayola Model Magic Modeling Compound. Model Magic is a fun starter sculpting medium for kids. It is easily mold-able and quickly air dries. The finished sculptures are extremely lightweight and feel kind of like Styrofoam. It is paintable, and we have also had success coloring the clay using markers.
Not to be confused with Model Magic, Crayola Air Dry Clay is another option. It is a bit more dense than model magic, and will take longer to dry. It is closer in texture to traditional clay. After drying it can be somewhat brittle and is prone to cracking. This medium can also be painted.
AMACO Air Dry Clay is a natural clay that can be air dried or kiln fired. If left to air dry, the pieces will be very fragile. There is the tendency to shrink and crack when air dried, as well. This clay can be used for pottery or for sculpting and handles just like any other natural clay. This can be a good transition for working with kiln fired sculptures.
Polymer clay is a plastic based product that is heat cured. This clay will stay pliable until it is baked. Since it is a PVC product, it is recommended that you use a dedicated toaster oven to cure the projects in. Undesirable fumes can linger in your oven after baking and can permeate any food cooked in it afterwards. You can usually pick up a used toaster oven for a few dollars at a your local thrift store or garage sale.
I recommend using the Sculpey III Polymer Clay brand if possible, as it is the easiest to work with. Other brands will take more conditioning before use. (Conditioning is the act of rolling out and gradually warming the clay to make it more pliable.) A quick way to condition polymer clay is by using a pasta rolling machine. Again, use one that is dedicated to use with clay and will not be used for food again. Craft stores also sell them as clay conditioning machines, but they are really the same thing.
Polymer clay can be painted, and it also comes in a wide variety of colors. (Paint AFTER heat curing!)
There are many brands and varieties of natural clays, but they all require kiln firing which is beyond the scope of this article. If you want to work with kiln fired clay, try looking for pottery classes in your community.
To begin sculpting, all you really need is some clay and your hands. However, there are many tools available that can add to your enjoyment of the process.
A starter set like this is a good place to begin: Sculpt Pro 11 Piece Pottery and Sculpting Art Tool Set. These tools allow you to easily cut away, smooth, pierce and shape your sculpting projects.
The best way to get started is to choose your desired type of clay and just begin to play. Practice making balls, ropes (or snakes), coils, and other shapes. Use old cookie cutters or press things into the clay to make different textures. Aluminum foil, floral wire and other objects can make great armatures (foundations) to build your sculptures on. Be sure to use non-flammable/non-melting armatures for any clay that will be heat cured.
Most importantly, have fun!
Apryl–Born and raised in Tennessee, Apryl is a southern girl at heart. She lives out in the country with her husband and her three daughters. After having an unfulfilling public school education herself, and struggling to find peace with the education her girls were receiving in the public school system, she made the choice to homeschool. When they began their homeschool journey, the girls were in the third and sixth grades. Now she is happily coaching three teenaged daughters through their high school years.