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Polymer Clay Central
Using Powders with Polymer Clay
Compiled by Nancy Banks

What are the safety issues involved in working with powders?

Some of the powders are fairly nasty substances. Some of the powders (like eyeshadows) are designed to be used on the face and unless you are working with them on a heavy production schedule they would appear to be perfectly safe to handle. Aluminum powders and some of the other art store products can be very dangerous.

The best routine is to carefully read and heed the product warnings. Also bear in mind the amount of time you will be working with the substance. If you use them all week long you should be more concerned than if you use them for only a few minutes a month. You may choose to stay away from some products, to wear a mask and gloves when working with others, and to work au natural with others.

What are some of the variables that will affect the results I get?

Colors will vary with the powder and the background color of the clay. All the powders react differently on different colors of clay. The best solution to this problem is to do test bakes any time you are using a new combination of powder and clay color. Some will totally mask the underlying color, some will change the color, other will merely add luster. You really need to bake it to see exactly what the result will be. Some surprises are great, other are not.

Do I really need to use a sealer?

If you do not use a sealer the powder will eventually rub off. Contact with skin and clothing will take a toll on your masterpiece.

Powders look so messy. Is there a way minimize that?

Working on waxed paper and using small bits of waxed paper as scoops and funnels helps to limit the mess.

You keep saying, "powder". What exactly are you really talking about?

Any substance that is in powder form and that is not a fire hazard. I am sure there are creative minds out there who will come up with a list of what is a fire hazard, but to date I haven't thought of anything that I want to use that poses a threat.

The following is a brief description of a few of the powders you can use:

  • Eberhard Faber Powders: The particles are fairly large, the packaging is annoying and the palette is limited. Not exactly a bargain, either. And to top it off, I strongly suspect the German on the package tells me not to inhale or to allow it to come in contact with my skin. NOTE: True, these can be hazardous to your health. Please wear a mask when using.

  • Friendly Clay Powders: Finer particles than Eberhard Faber's powders, the cap is easier to cope with and they are cheaper. But still a very limited color range. There is not a safety warning on the bottle, but I am suspicious.

  • Eyeshadows: Now the color range just get a lot wider. Since I spent countless hours starting a young age applying this stuff to my face, it seems a little silly to worry about the safety factors of applying it to my clay now. You can use either the loose or the cake form (as long it is not the creme cake form - guys, if you are doubt, ask your girlfriend or at the store clerk.) There is an amazing array of colors even in the local drugstore. Check out a few of the small beauty supply stores (the type you find in malls, not the ones selling directly to beauty salons) and you will find even more. I even found metallic chartreuse!. If it is in cake form I either rub my finger in it or scrape it with a needle or toothpick and then tap my finger in the loose powder.

  • Chalks: Yes, the old childhood favorite. Harder to find these days, but still around. Just use your knife or a needle to scrape a small pile onto wax paper.

  • Chalk Pastels: These are available in sets in arts/crafts/stationary stores. Large art stores also carry the colors individually. A great source for matte black. There are also now metallic pastels on the market.

  • Micas, Interference Powders and Other Art Store finds: Just roam through your local art store. See what you like. If it is a powder (loose or cake form) you can use it. A well stocked store will have almost a lifetime supply of options and a knowledge clerk should be able to steer you to the right product. If you don't have a good store in your area you might want to try the Daniel Smith catalog. They have an 800 number. Please read the labels carefully on these. Some products, like aluminum powders can pose a fire hazard.

  • Embossing Powders: These are powders sold to be used with rubber stamps. They are totally different from any of the other powders discussed. They are sold in a coarse powder form, they turn to a liquid when heated and then solidify when cooled. They come in gloss and metallic. They will withstand the normal clay baking process (275 degrees) or can be added to a previously baked piece and reheated. Just remember that because they turn to liquid when heated they will run. That limits their use to the top of a piece or a very light dusting pressed into the piece.

  • Graphite: Yeah, this is the stuff we use on sticky keys and end up getting on our clothes. Well, it is also a great dark shiny gray.

  • Grit: Sorry, I can't remember the real name for this. It is the material that is used in rock tumblers and you also see it as the sparkley stuff on stair treads. It comes in various size grits. I got a bag (about 2 cups) for two dollars and change at a local lapidary supply.

  • Toner: I have never tried this, but since laser and copier transfers work there is no reason that copier/laser toner can't be applied directly to the clay.

  • Spices: I admit it. I have been thinking about these, but that is as far as I have gotten. Since clay is the only thing I seem to take time to cook these days maybe I should just donate my curry powder and paprika to my studio.
Now I have some powder and a lump of clay -- what do I do with them?

There are a lot of different ways to use powders, and with the exception of painting all of these techniques are only for applying the powders to the unbaked clay.

  • Scatter Technique: This is very simple and can produce striking results. Simply sprinkle the powders on a sheet of waxed paper and wiggle the paper around until you get a look you like. Any clumps of the powder will result in "craters" in the clay if you are working with very soft clay. The waxed paper method allows for more control than sprinkling it directly on the clay.
    You can use one color, contrasting colors, or shades of a color. You can then roll the bead on the waxed paper or gently press the slab onto the powder. You can then blow off the excess, leave it on until after baking, or gently rub the surface with your finger for a feathered or streaked look.

  • Texturing and Powders: You use four different approaches to powders and texturing. All of these will work on beads or slabs. You can cover the entire depth of the texture (I'll call this total because it covers both the high and the low areas), you can cover only the indentations (crevice treatment), you can apply it only to the raised portion (highlighting), or you can use crevice embossing with a light or weak powder and then use highlighting with a stronger or more vivid powder (dual embossing). Each will give you a different look. And then there is distortion embossing which can only be used for slab work.

  • Total Embossing: Texture the object you are working on. You may want to use a stamping (a leather punch, a piece of coral, lace, button, etc.) or you may want to incise the piece with a tool such as toothpick. Then apply the powder to the entire area. I find a small brush works very well. Let the powder fall down into all the crevices.
    You can also cover the entire piece, or area, and then texture it. This method works best if there is not a lot of contrast between the clay and the powder.

  • Crevice Embossing: There are two different methods you can use. The first is to apply the powder to the object you are using to create the texture. This works well, but requires cleaning the tool between colors. And some tools just don't clean well. I wouldn't want to try getting powders out of a piece of coral! But it is simple. Dip the tool in the powder, tap off the excess and press against the clay.
    The other method is to texture the object and then use a small brush to apply the powder to the crevices. After the object is baked you can sand and buff the raised areas (if you want) which will be free of powder. A small piece of fine steel wool will work well if you don't want to sand your piece and you want sharpen the lines of demarcation or eliminate a stray splotch of color.

  • Highlight Embossing: Texture the object and then gently rub or brush the raised portions with the powder. I find my fingertip works best for flat pieces and the palms of my hands for beads. Brushes and sponges tend to produce a fallout that lands in the crevices of the embossing.

  • Dual Embossing: This one of my favorites. Simply use the crevice embossing concept with a weaker powder and then the highlighting embossing with a stronger one.

  • Distortion Embossing: This is an interesting technique for slab work. Emboss a slab of clay and start distorting it. You can use the powders before embossing, after embossing but before distorting or after distorting. You can hand roll, pull or run the clay through the pasta machine. Using waxed paper on the powdered side of the piece will save you a lot of clean up. You can emboss and powder one piece and then cut it up and do two different distortions and combine those as elements of one finished piece.

  • Transfers: This is the by-product of the Distortion Embossing. Often the powders will be heavy enough to leave a strong image on the waxed paper you were using to protect your work surface. Don't trash it. Rub that onto another piece of clay.

  • Mold Release: Use the powder instead of cornstarch or talcum powder as a mold release. The only caution is that you will need to clean the mold between colors of powder or dedicate the mold to that color (or tone). Just lightly brush the inside of the mold with the powder and then press in your clay. You can even get fancy and use different colors in different parts of the mold.

  • Solid treatment: Just brush or rub it on. Really simple.

  • Applique: Just like the solid treatment, but applied to a piece of clay that you will then add to the finished piece. Flat back pieces are the easiest to work with. You can cover snakes but it tends to be a pain and I would suggest gluing after baking.

  • Inlay: Brush or rub it onto a very thin slab of clay. Bake it and then cut to use for inlay in another piece.

  • Stenciling: Good old copier/printer paper is the best stencil material I have found for both ease of cutting and stenciling. Press it just enough that it will stick to the clay, do not embed it. Always rub or brush the powder from the paper edge to the center. Brushes work best for small areas, brushes or fingertips for larger areas. You can also temporarily cover portions of the stencil and work with different colors of powder.

  • Mokume Kane: This is the Japanese wood grain technique which is normally done with different colors of clay or leafing. I have done it using powders and the 00 translucent clay. I make the layers slightly thicker than I want them to end up and brush/rub each layer with powder. Just be sure to end with a layer of clay without the powder and to really press the layers together very tightly before you start slicing. The scrap from the mokume can be muted into a marbled or solid lump and used that way.

  • Painting: This normally is done on baked pieces, but there is no reason not to do on the unbaked. The water based sealer made by Ederhard Faber says that it can be baked. Use a paint tray or bottle cap and mix a small amount of the powder with the sealer you normally use. Now you have metallic paint. Paint.
So much polymer, so many ideas, so little time!

Nancy Banks
Based on an article published in The PolyInformer


Copyright (c) 1995 by Nancy Banks, all rights reserved.
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