Welcome to the Beginner Button Class! For this first lesson, we will discuss how to prepare polymer clay for use, how to make a 1/2-inch solid-color button, and how to properly bake it. We’ll be making six buttons, two in each of three colors.
Supplies + Tools
- 3 packages of Premo! Sculpey polymer clay in your choice of colors. You may be tempted to use the less expensive Sculpey III clay. Sculpey is not as strong after baking as Premo is, and for something like buttons that will take significant wear-and-tear, including machine washing, you want to use a material that will hold up.
- Something to cut with. I like to use a Clay Blade, but they are very sharp, and if you are more comfortable with an x-acto knife, an old kitchen knife, or even a plastic knife, that will do for these purposes.
- A medium size metal knitting needle. Mine is, I think, a US #8.
- A work surface. I use a 12-inch square ceramic tile that I picked up for about $1 at Home Depot. Some people use marble tiles, some use glass. If you don’t have any of these things, a piece of parchment paper taped down to your table could work in a pinch.
- A regular oven, convection oven, or toaster oven for baking your buttons, as well as a tray or tile on which to set your buttons while they bake. I use my home oven, and a homemade contraption I will discuss in more detail later.
Safety note: Any kitchen tool you repurpose for working with clay must then be dedicated to craft use, and not returned to the kitchen!
Supply note: If you want to buy online, I recommend Polymer Clay Express for the clay and the blade (and for the lucite brayer or rod I will be recommending in a future lesson). You can also follow any links above to buy on Amazon.
Premo comes in 2-oz blocks that are scored into four sections. Using your clay blade, and being careful to point the very sharp edge down, cut one of the sections off of each block, and set aside the remaining pieces.
Cut each of these three ¼ blocks into four smaller pieces. You should now have twelve pieces. Six of these twelve will become buttons today. The other six, set aside for later.
While your clay might feel soft and nice straight out of the package, it still needs to be conditioned. When you condition polymer, you warm it and knead it well between your fingers. Pick up one of your small sections and smoosh it between your fingers. Press it from all angles. Roll it between your palms into a snake. Ball it up and roll it into a smooth sphere. Continue to play with it in this manner until it feels comfortable to work with.
Conditioning clay prepares it for use in any project. It aligns the particles and plasticizers so that they will harden properly later.
Note: Failure to condition the clay may result in a weaker finished product after baking!
When your clay is conditioned and ready to use, roll it briskly around the perimeters of your palms until you have a nice, smooth ball. It may take some practice to get it perfectly round, but the beauty of working with a solid color is that you can mush it up and start over as often as you like.
Place the ball on your work surface and press down with your thumb, flattening the ball to about 1/4 inch thick. I like for my buttons to be as free of fingerprints as possible. If you also feel this way, you can gently rub the top of the button with your thumb, and ease the thumbprint off. This is fairly easy to do on a solid color button, but becomes more difficult when you begin working with patterns. You’ll need to develop a very soft, gentle touch.
Use the knitting needle to poke two holes in the middle of the button. Be careful to space your holes in such a way that they are far enough from the edge and far enough from each other not to leave too, too thin of a wall around them. The less clay surrounding the holes, the more susceptible to breakage your button will be. Try to avoid any weak points, if possible.
To make sure that the holes go all the way through from front to back, pick up your button from the work surface and re-poke the holes, this time from the back of the button.
If the button is stuck to your work surface, you can try gently nudging it up with your fingers and then smoothing any distorted areas once you have it in your hand, or you can scrape the clay blade under the button, right up against the tile, and slice the button cleanly off of the tile. That is how I generally do it.
Repeat all of the steps, from Conditioning to Hole-Poking for the other five sections, giving you six buttons total.
The last step is to bake the buttons. If you are the patient type, you can wait until the end of the class and bake all of your button types together at once, as I have. If you want your solid buttons now, though, that’s fine, too!
The most important rule for curing your work is to follow the instructions on the package for the brand of polymer you are using. Sometimes companies change their formulas and the baking temperatures right along with it. As of this writing, Premo cures at 275 degrees Fahrenheit, for 30 minutes per 1/4-inch of thickness. Since our buttons are roughly 1/4 inch or less, we should give them 30 minutes. At least.
Here’s a tip: you can bake polymer for a longer time than recommended, but never a higher temperature than recommended. I usually bake my buttons for 45 minutes or so to be safe, and most of my buttons are made in such a way as to require multiple bakings, which means that they are in the oven for well over an hour total. But I never bake higher than 275 because burning polymer causes nasty fumes and requires you to open all of the windows and doors in your house to eradicate it. (Don’t ask me how I know that…)
Note: An oven thermometer would be handy – you should verify that your oven is actually baking at 275 when it says it is, or you could have underbaked buttons. Or nasty fumes.
Periodically discussions pop up in the polymer community about the safety of baking clay in the same oven where you bake your cookies. I don’t know if anything has been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in this matter, because I stopped paying attention to the entire conversation once I made myself an enclosed baking doohickey. (That’s a technical term.) It consists of two aluminum baking pans, hinged together on one side with wire. In one of the pans I put a ceramic tile with a piece of parchment paper on top. The buttons go on the parchment paper, and the other pan gets flipped over to cover the bottom pan. Voila! Self-enclosed baking doohickey. If there are cooties escaping from my claythings as they bake, they’re not landing on the walls of my oven, but in the aluminum pans.
You can get a similar effect by tenting your clay with aluminum foil, if you feel the need.
Time to go make your first set of buttons! If you have any questions, you may leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. Once your buttons are done, I hope you will blog about them, or post them to flickr, and leave your link below so we can all see how you did!
Striped Snail Shell Buttons!
Get the full class eBook
All five lessons, plus other useful tips included in one PDF.
COMPLETE NEWBIE level, step-by-step polymer clay tutorial.
Fully-illustrated 12-page PDF.