There is something very therapeutic about sculpting by hand. Maybe because it’s the oldest ceramic technique known to mankind, or perhaps working with pottery clay connects us with a distant past.
Whichever way you look at it, sculpting projects are a lot of fun and relatively easy for the beginner to dabble with. Kids love the 3D nature of clay too!
In this article, we’re going to show you the best clay for sculpting. There are many different types of sculpting clay to be aware of; some ideal for kids, others used for special effects in the motion pictures industry, others that need firing in a kiln and others that harden all by themselves.
We’ll explain the main differences and give you our top recommendations for sculpting clay.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Clay For Sculpting On the Market
Natural (Water-Based) Clays
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Here’s what we’ll cover:
Types of Clay
Although clay is a natural-occurring material and you could, in theory, take it straight out the ground. However, the majority of people make pottery using one of these types of sculpting clay:
- Natural clays are water-based ‘air-dry’ clays. Water-based clays will dry naturally, which is ideal if you don’t have an oven or kiln to bake your sculpture in. You can also reuse it. The downside is you’ll need to keep this clay moist with water so it won’t dry out, and it often shrinks a little when dry. This clay is ideal for beginners and kids.
- Synthetic clays are all oil-based. There are many types, including polymer clay, epoxy, and plasticine-type clay. These types of clay won’t dry out with air – quite the opposite, in fact, you warm them up to get them pliable. If you don’t finish a sculpture, you can just let it sit and go back to it at a later date. Some of them need to be fired in an oven or kiln (depending on the type). These are the choice of the more serious artist as they’re especially good for sculpting and molding.
Air dry clay does not need to be heated, unlike traditional clays that need to be fired in a kiln at a high temperature, or like polymer clays that need to be heated in an oven to cure. You do not need to fire it. You can let it air dry.
For this reason, air dry is the ultimate ‘convenience clay’. It can be used to pinch, slab, coil, weld, and score.
It hardens at room temperature, but the drying process can take up to a week to completely dry out (depending on how thick the clay is and the room temperature).
Once dry, you can paint and decorate it in a variety of ways. To add some color to your clay creations, you can use tempera and acrylic paints, as well as marker pens and inks. Remember, as it’s water-based it’s porous, so you’ll need to seal it with a varnish.
First, we have what is known as ‘polymer clay’, a plastic-based clay that is like ceramic clay but easier to deal with. With this type of clay, you still need to fire it, but it can be baked in a normal kitchen oven at standard temperatures (~130°C). So you don’t need a kiln to fire it.
For this reason, this sculpting clay is a good choice for the kids as anyone who’s ever done baking with kids will tell you (they love baking stuff!).
It’s not too messy, it’s made from safe materials, and kids can fire their masterpieces in the kitchen oven. It can also be painted in acrylics or air dry glazes and it’s great for small projects like jewelry making.
Polymer clay is an oven bake modeling material and a good alternative to ceramic clay which needs to fired in a kiln at 800°C to 2000°C temperature (many hobbyists don’t have a kiln at home, but there are some affordable ceramic kilns out there).
Polymer is inexpensive and is easy to find at any craft store.
This type of sculpting clay is mostly used for making temporary sculptures (for practice) and for making molds from. It’s also the choice for ‘stop motion claymation’ and used by movie special effects departments. It’s made from a combination of wax, oil, and clay flour, and doesn’t dry out and never hardens. It can’t be fired in a kiln.
It can be expensive, so this is best for smaller projects. It’s not particularly pliable when it’s first out the packet, but once softened by hand or warmed in a microwave, it’s extremely pliable. You can temporarily harden it in a freezer, and then add fine details (feathers, eye-balls).
When you’re done you can add some color using a variety of substances, including water-based paints.
It’s reusable too. NSP can be melted at 180 degrees (caution needed) and it’s usually sulfur-free, often abbreviated as NSP (Non-Sulphur Plasteline).
Epoxy clay comes in two parts and begins hardening once they’re mixed together. It comes mostly in neutral-colors and is usually painted after it self-cures. It’s expensive too.
Buyer’s Tips: Key Considerations
If this is your first foray into crafting with clay, whether it’s just for fun or an art therapy activity, start with an air dry material. Especially, if it’s a homeschooling project with kids, the air dry variety is mess-free, fun, and doesn’t require any messing about with heat sources such as ovens or kilns.
If you like the idea of firing up your creation, then go with a polymer clay. This material is still very popular with kids, but will require a trip to the stove to get the thing cookin’.
If you have big ambitions for this sculpting project, go with an oil/wax based clay. With this type of clay you can add fine details, plus it’s ideal for making scary masks. Your art teacher will be proud of you! You can even make it into a feature and display it in your home.
With all types, you’ll need some modeling tools such as rolling pins (for removing air bubbles) and implements such as extruders and cookie cutters for making up the shapes.
Best Clay For Sculpting – Product Round-up and Reviews
Crayola Air Dry Clay
Crayolas air dry clay comes in a resealable plastic bucket in different sizes (2.5lb, 5lb, etc.). It’s a fine, natural white clay that’s great for traditional modeling techniques, like pinch, coil, and slab. As it’s an air dry, it needs no oven or kiln to fire it. It’s free from toxins so safe for children, easy to work with and ideal for adults and kids age 6 & up.
We think this is the best option for kids. It’s much less messy than traditional clay, and the neat tub it comes in will help to keep things tidy.
- Handy tub
- Mess free
- Great for kids
- None to mention
Amaco Air Dry Modeling Clay
Amaco is an air dry modeling clay and relatively pliable and can be worked in many methods including coiling, slab work, and sculpting. This clay is ready to use, non-toxic and easy to work with on smaller creations.
- Great budget product
- Easy and ready to use
- Lots of clay to make mistakes with
- Not great for bigger creations but for beginners, it’s best to start small anyway
- It gets hard quite quickly, don’t leave it unused for hours
Activa Plus Natural Self-Hardening Clay
Activa has produced this self-hardening clay which has a premium air dry feel for a relatively good price. This set comes with 2.2lb of clay whose strength and durability is amazing for beginners and professionals alike. Its high plasticity is excellent, which allows beginners to play around and make mistakes without too much worry.
- Premium quality
- High plasticity
- Low weight in clay for the price
Sculpey Polymer Clay
The Polyform Sculpey is an easy to use polymer clay so it’s ideal for beginners. It is soft, pliable and won’t dry out if left out. The only drawback is you have to bake it in the oven to allow your creations to keep the shape. The Sculpey is perfect for children and beginners to use as it is pliable enough for you to make mistakes, correct them and make mistakes again. A great product that is perfect for jewelry, ornaments and small projects.
- Highly pliable clay
- Easy to use
- Great for smaller projects with kids
- Have to bake in the oven
Monster Clay Premium Grade
Monster Clay premium grade is professional modeling clay. It’s used by special effects units in the movies for creating things with a lot of detail. It’s perfect for any enthusiast who loves the horror or sci-fi genre and wants to create something a little fun.
It’s hard when you first open up the packet. Put it in the microwave to soften it up. It’s that not an option, even the heat from a lightbulb will loosen it up. Once it’s warmed up, it will turn extremely pliable. As it’s oil/wax-based with high plasticity, it will be a little harder to work than other materials, but the results speak for themselves and are worth the extra effort.
- Excellent quality
- Perfect for sci-fi and horror lovers
- Less pliable than others
Chavant NSP is a professional, sulfur-free sculpting wax-based clay, which doesn’t dry out or shrink, so it’s superb for sculpting a variety of things that need thin edges (such as feathers). It’s available in soft, medium or hard (most people opt for the ‘Medium’ as a general-purpose grade) and has good adhesive qualities and amazing at holding detail.
How does Chavent compare to Monster Clay? Well, they’re both wax-based plastelines, however, Chavant is stickier (which is preferable to some artists as it makes building up sculptures quicker). Monster clay is less sticky to touch, doesn’t cling to tools so much, and feels firmer to the touch. Both are great!
- Great adhesive qualities
- Amazing at holding detail
So, Which Should I Buy?
Choosing the right type of clay depends on which method you want to use (each type of clay is good for different uses) and what type of budget you have.
If you’re looking for a decent air dry clay, any of the ones we listed are great – they all come in different sizes. If its to use with kids we highly recommend the Crayola product for its neat tub with an air-tight lid to keep the clay in pristine condition. For a premium air dry pliable clay try the Activa Plus.
For polymer clay, Sculpey is a tried and trusted brand and works like ceramic clay, but easy to use.
Best of luck with your clay creations!