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An Array of Clay: Which One is Right for You

In this tutorial I'll be talking about a few products - clays and paperclays - I've used in the past. I also provide examples of clay recipes at the very end.

Paper clay (often spelled as one word - paperclay - and sometimes referred to as fibreclay) is "any clay body to which processed cellulose fibre (paper being the most common) has been added". It is a non-toxic modelling material that can be sculpted, molded or shaped, and air dries to a hard finish that can be carved, or sanded.

Asking which is the best product to use is like asking what is the best food to eat: you'll find that when it comes down to it, everyone has their own preference. Truth is, the only way you'll ever figure out which one is 'the best' is to experiment with different types until you find the right fit.

In the meantime, I'll share with you my thoughts on the subject. There are common favourites, but keep in mind even the most hated brand has a fan somewhere.

Generally speaking, because the ready-made paperclay products are more expensive, it's often used as a top layer over an armature of some kind: something as basic as a wire frame or more fleshed out like a paper mache form. You could also use it to simply shape small figures without creating a base.

I will add more product reviews as I use them. Current choices include:

Creative Paperclay

Crayola Model Magic

Delight Paperclay

Celluclay

Clay Recipe


 




Creative Paperclay

This is a very popular brand of paperclay (especially among home haunters I've spoken with).

Pros:

It has a good consistency, allows for detail, sands well and shrinks very little when drying (though thicker pieces, especially when using molds or pressings, may shrink more than thinner ones).

It can be rolled out fairly easily (put the paperclay between two sheets of wax paper and use a rolling pin...or a can from your pantry, as I have done), which is handy for certain detailing.

When dried, it's "similar to a soft wood" (that's what the manufacturers say, though I don't know if I would use that comparison). The natural colour is off-white.

Cons:

A common complaint is cracking. Most people find small hairline cracks form once their prop has dried. The smaller cracks can be corrected fairly easily by dabbing the area with water and applying fresh clay.

A tip I was given suggested coating the dried Creative Paperclay with another product called Sculpt or Coat. This makes the final product more durable and less likely to chip or break. The producers of the product also suggest sealing projects with lacquer or varnish.

My opinion:

I am one of the people who always gets cracks with Creative Paperclay, unless I use a really thick layer. And while I can fix the cracks afterwards, I get irritated with the fact that I have to do so many touch ups and wait - again - for it to dry before I can move on.

If I use this product, it's usually as a building layer over my paper mache projects. When I use the product to only build up one area (say, a nose on a face), it occasionally has the nasty habit of coming away from the surface of the paper at the edges. I should note: if I were to cover the whole thing with Creative Paperclay, it would adhere perfectly fine.

This product is sometimes too dense. As a finishing layer, I like something I can easily smooth thinner over a shape. It is, however, great for bulk and sturdiness.


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Crayola Model Magic

On the other side of the price spectrum, we have Crayola Model Magic, a crazy little clay (note I didn't say paperclay) with marshmallow consistency (without the stickiness). It's considered to be economy or school grade (great for the kids but not meant for fine art).

Pros:

Of all your options for pre-made air-dry clay, it's the cheapest and you can find it almost anywhere. It is very lightweight and, when dried, it's like a semi-hard foam.

Because it isn't completely rigid as a final product, you could make your shape and easily run sturdy wire (I've used wooden bbq skewers) through it after it dries (an example being if you're making ornaments and need to make a hole for the ribbon).

Cons:

As mentioned, it doesn't completely harden once dry, which means it isn't very strong or sturdy.

While it is cheaper to buy, that doesn't mean you'll get more - or even the same - coverage as other products. Crayola Model Magic doesn't spread well at all, nor can it be rolled out easily (you're better off working it with your hands first before trying to roll it out with a rolling pin).

The flatter the project, the more it tends to curl as it dries. Regardless of thickness, it is prone to shrinking so exaggerate any details you've made.

And forget sanding it. I've read comments online from people claiming how easily it sands, but have found you're likely to take an entire corner or chunk off your project.

My opinion:

If you're doing something that needs to be lightweight and you don't need it to have any fine details (or really, any details), this might be an option. I would never use it for the outside layer of a project (though making cheap hands out of it isn't a bad idea. I might use it as a filler for a prop/project, but there's cheaper alternatives like tinfoil that work just as well).

The cool thing about the spongy consistency is that when clumsy people like me drop, say, a finished ornament on the floor five or six times, they don't break (but you could very easily snap it in half in your hands).

Crayola Model Magic is a great example of "you get what you pay for".

 

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Delight Paperclay

Pure white in colour, Delight Paperclay is extremely soft - softer than Crayola Model Magic, but not as rubbery. It's often the same price as Creative Paperclay.

Pros:

Don't be fooled by the size of the package. While it looks like you are getting less, I am able to get the same coverage - as a detailing layer over a shape - as Creative Paperclay.

You can easily roll it flat and almost paper-thin. It keeps its shape after drying - no shrinkage, little-to-no curling.

The viscosity of the product allows for a smooth finish during the molding process. It does lend itself well to sanding if needed.

It's extremely lightweight; half the weight of Creative Paperclay by volume.

It is very detail-friendly.

It adheres like a champion to paper mache bases.

Cons:

It isn't as hardy as Creative Paperclay. The surface of the finished product feels somewhat like an egg carton.

Since it doesn't have the same bulk as Creative Paperclay, you'll end up using more out of one package if you're building up a section on your prop, as opposed to covering it with a layer of clay.

My opinion:

If I had to pick only one product to use the rest of my life, it would be this one. It's a fantastic paperclay if you're doing smaller items or fine details. For example, all the figures for Edmond's Abandoned Carousel were made using this product.

I've sliced out extremely thin strips to put on an armature and it worked very well - held together, and kept the form I was giving it even when it was dangling away from the support of the frame (though this makes it more fragile).

And yes, I've dropped a finished product on the floor just like I did with Crayola Model Magic, and it didn't break or crack. No, I don't endorse dropping your projects.

Since it's only 3 dollars or so more than Crayola's product, I'd say opt for the Delight if you want something super-lightweight. If you don't have the patience for fixing small cracks, this might be a better choice than Creative Paperclay.


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Celluclay

Celluclay fits in somewhere between buying pre-packaged clay and making your own pulp from scratch. It's a dried, recycled paper medium (a type of cellulose fibre) used for making your own clay.

Pros:

It's inexpensive compared to buying ready-to-use paperclay products.

It's faster than making your own pulp.

You can control how much clay you make per batch. This way, you don't have to worry about unused portions drying out.

It's faster than strip mache for covering a base (though people often start with a layer or two of strip mache even if they are using Celluclay).

Cons:

Though they have since changed this promise on their product website, written in the instructions that comes with the product is the claim that mixed celluclay "will keep indefinitely in a refrigerator". Not true. If you've only added water to the product as instructed, it will grow mold after a week or so.

It gives a very textured finish - don't expect perfectly clean, smooth surfaces, even with sanding.

As with any pulp mixture, it takes longer to dry than other clay products.

It can be tricky to find the perfect ratio of water to pulp. Even when you find it, don't expect to end up with a product exactly like the other clays I've mentioned.

You can end up with a huge cloud of Celluclay if you aren't careful when pouring and stirring. Be gentle when adding your water to the first bit of clay. What I do is for each half cup I add, I carefully fold it into the wet mixture, and THEN stir it.

My opinion:

On its own and following the manufacturer's instructions, I can't create a consistency of clay that I am happy with (which doesn't mean you won't be with happy with it; it's just a personal preference sort of thing). Many people use celluclay as their base and then a ready-made paperclay product for the surface layer.

I found a good tip in this Proptology article by an artist who makes puppets: "While not written in the packaged instructions, the manufacturer suggests that once you have mixed the dry Celluclay fibre with water, it is best to roll it out between two layers of wax paper with a rolling pin. This 'mushes' the fibres together and will result in a very strong material".

While I don't often use Celluclay on its own, I have started experimenting with it as an ingredient in clay recipes.

 

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Clay Recipe

When you're ready to start making your own clay, you might want to follow Stolloween's example. He makes his by putting approximately six cups of paste into a large bowl, and adding approximately one cup of drywall joint compound to the paste. He mixes the paste and joint compound together thoroughly with a hand mixer before mixing cellulose fibre insulation (essentially dried pulp) into the paste/compound solution. Continue adding insulation until the mixture is a firm and workable consistency.

What is cellulose fibre insulation? It's the "plant fibre used in wall and roof cavities to separate the inside and outside of the building thermally and acoustically". So literally, it's an insulation product used in construction.

Playing on Scott's recipe, here's my mix for when I want to produce a simple layer of clay over a base. I've given you approximated measurements of all ingredients just so you get a point of reference for the first time you try it:

  • 2 cups paste
  • 5 cups Celluclay (dry/unmixed)
  • 1 cup drywall joint compound

Just like Scott suggested, I mix the paste with the joint compound first. Then I add - half a cup at a time - the Celluclay pulp.

I don't use a mixer. Instead, I use an old wooden cooking utensil to mix the clay in a large plastic container. This way, the clay is made in the same container where it will be stored (and I can easily cover the clay as I'm working on a project).

As mentioned earlier, you might want to gently fold each cup of Celluclay into the wet mixture before you give it a hardy mix (this helps to prevent creating a huge cloud of cellulose fibre). You could also premix the Celluclay with warm water first (I've done this on a couple of occasions). I will add water to this mixture - the amount depends on the consistency I'm looking for.

The recipe above (without water) produces a very sticky clay. I keep it fairly wet for a smooth medium I can spread quickly (and add a bit of water to thin it out when desired). I wouldn't use my recipe for a final layer on a finished piece, but when you want to cover a lot of surface, it will do the trick.

Play around with the recipe. Add more or less Celluclay or joint compound until you come up with a consistency that you like.

 

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