Sculpey III: the polymer clay serious artists love to hate. When a newbie comes on the scene, the advice from the veterans is always the same: “Get rid of all of that Sculpey you bought before you knew any better and get yourself some real clay, like Fimo, Premo, or Kato.”
I learned to clay 11+ years ago, and like most new to the craft, I started with several bars of Sculpey III. I loved it. Unfortunately, a lot of what I made became useless when the fragile parts started to snap off. Frustrated, I tried other brands. I switched to Fimo but swore off of it after completing 4 nativity scenes one Christmas season while I was still using a plastic roller and an x-acto knife as my only tools. That was an exercise in complete frustration. I flirted briefly with Promat but found it, too, was harder than I liked. When Premo came out, I fell in love with it – it was soft enough not to be frustrating, but strong enough not to break when I looked at it sideways.So, for a few years I was a Premo girl. These were also the years where I did the most experimenting. Eventually, I found my niche in caning. I was particularly enamored with repeating patterns and I liked tiling cane slices together to make sheets that would be useful as veneers. But there was a problem – the Premo canes I made didn’t age particularly well. Every slice I wanted to use had to be warmed up in my hands (which don’t really have much of their own warmth to spare) and even after warming, it didn’t meld well with the other cane slices next to it, nor did it stretch well when run through the pasta machine. I couldn’t use my Premo canes in my applications once they had been sitting around for a while, and that wasn’t going to work for me.
So, I went back to my roots and started caning with Sculpey III. I needed a lighter touch when reducing the canes, but that wasn’t a problem for me. And I needed to take into account the fact that Sculpey is not known for its strength after curing. I could use it for caning, but not as a structural element. I adapted all of my designs so that the primary items were constructed with Premo, and a very thin veneer of one of my Sculpey canes was applied. In most designs, I also added another layer of protection by coating the design with Liquid Kato Polyclay. Sandwiched in between two very strong clays, the ultra thin layer of Sculpey has not posed a structural problem in the least.
It seems that most people serious about polymer clay, particularly those who do caning, prefer the stiffer clays. Newbies are warned off of Sculpey as “too soft for caning.” Well, I’m here to tell you that it is certainly possible to make appealing cane designs in a soft clay. If you don’t have super hot hands, if you can reduce with a light touch, and you use a strong clay for the structural elements of your design, then Sculpey III is a perfectly legitimate option. I have made hundreds of Sculpey canes, mostly in repeating patterns. Many of my canes are several years old, and when I slice them they are still as fresh and as supple as the day I made them. They stretch beautifully in the pasta machine and they meld seamlessly with the slices next to them when forming a clay “fabric.”
This weekend I learned Jana Roberts Benzon’s Arabesque Caning technique. I brought a stiff clay to class as instructed, but I was curious if Sculpey could be used for such an intricate design. Since I have a tendency to work quickly in a workshop setting, I brought some Sculpey to try out the technique during any downtime I had. At the end of class, in addition to the cane we were supposed to be making, I also had an approximately 4-inch tall triangular cane made of Sculpey.
I wasn’ t overly surprised that Sculpey was acceptable for all of the components of the cane, but I do have to admit to a small doubt about its ability to withstand the reduction process. I generally make canes that are only about 6-8 ounces. This was much bigger than that and I was afraid I’d turn it into mush. I was unable to attend the Philadelphia guild meeting today where Jana was going to go through the reduction process, but armed with her written instructions this morning, I plopped down on the floor in my pajamas with my cane and went to town. Well, wouldn’t you know, the cane reduced beautifully, with minimal waste, and all of the crisp detail intact.
This, my friends, is a very complex, very detailed precision cane made entirely out of Sculpey III:
And just for kicks, here are some items that I made from that cane this afternoon:
All of these items encase the paper-thin Sculpey cane slices in a sandwich with a thick slice of Premo and a layer of liquid Kato clay so they won’t break easily.
I’ll be the first to admit that caning with Sculpey isn’t for everyone, but I do think that it deserves a far better reputation than it gets. I’m looking forward to playing around with Jana’s technique and encorporating ideas from it into my own work. I see a Paisley cane in my future…