Clay Sculpting Tools, Materials, and Sculpture Process
The Sculpture Process
Preparations – Before beginning with your clay sculpting tools, start by drawing out your ideas on paper to find the exact positioning and structure that you want. Small details can be added to the drawings, but don’t bog yourself down with technicalities. For help in working out your concept art see my horse drawings and relative measurements post.
Armature – A good armature for a clay sculpture consists of a wooden base with pvc pipes cut to the approximate height of the finished sculpture. Wrap the pvc with newspaper to form the musculature/skeletal outline of the sculpture. Once the general shape is in place, then start molding the clay around the newspaper. Go to building a clay sculpture armature for a detailed example. Smaller artworks can be built over newspaper with no armature – see the clay horse sculpture demonstration for more info.
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Sculpting/Drying - This is where the fun begins, and where you'll use your clay tools. I use a white, low-fire earthenware clay (water-based) fired to cone 05 for most of my sculptures (similar to this clay from Blick Art Materials). Once the sculpture is finished, allow the piece to dry until it's leather-hard (the clay has dried enough to no longer be pliable - see "useful terms" below for more). Then pull the entire piece off the armature with the newspaper still inside - you may need to use wire or other pottery tools for this (example of wire tools here). After carefully removing as much newspaper as possible, allow the piece to completely air dry.
Firing the Sculpture - see the firing charts page for information on firing your own electric pottery kiln.
Useful Terms and Clay Sculpture Tools:
- Greenware - A finished clay artwork that is dry but has not been fired.
- Bone Dry - Most of the water has been removed, and the clay is ready for the initial drybox/kiln heating.
- Bisqueware - Clay that has been fired, but not glazed.
- Glazeware - Clay that has been fired with glaze.
- Scoring and Slipping - using the needle tool, the wood modeling tool, or an old fork to score the clay, and then filling the scores with slip. This makes new clay adhere to old clay and reduces the possibility of air pockets. Check out the small pottery box demo for examples.
Clay Sculpting Tools from Top to Bottom, Left to Right:
Rolling pin (top of pic) - flattens the clay. Rolling pins are most often used for slab-type construction (the process used in the small clay demo, which this pic is taken from). You can get these at any store with kitchen supplies (even the Dollar General - not your normal shop for clay sculpting tools!).
Blick Art Materials also carries several types of rolling pins, including non-stick and textured. If you really want to make things easy (and get better consistency in your slabs!) then a slab roller may be for you!
Boxwood modeling tool (bottom far left) - the most industrious of the clay sculpting tools! This is a very useful tool that allows you to seam together clay pieces, smooth the clay and add details.
These clay tools come in several shapes, and my boxwood tools do about 75% of my tool modeling work! See all wood pottery tools sets at Blick Art Materials.
Knife - Used to cut straight lines (the needle tool can also be used for cutting lines, but the knife usually makes a smoother edge than the needle tool). Deeply serrated knives won't cut as smoothly, so choose one with a straight blade. Nothing special is needed here, an older knife is that's no longer suitable for kitchen use is perfect.
Needle tool - this is one of my main pottery tools, used for venting sculptures (seen in the free panther sculpture class - pic shown) for firing, scoring/slipping (as seen in the free pottery box class, and for very small detail work.
This tool is invaluable in the sculpting process! Without this tool, there be a lot more repair work after firing, as this tool is the only one suitable for venting sculptures and preventing catastrophic breaks during the firing process!
See all needle tools at Blick Art Materials.
Spoon - Used to smooth over the clay surface once it is semi-dry (before it turns leather-hard). If you have an odd spoon that doesn't match the rest of your kitchen set, it's perfect for this! A thicker spoon is easier to handle than a thin spoon and is more comfortable to grip for longer time periods.
Loop and Ribbon Clay Sculpting Tools - Used to cut designs and patterns into an artwork (entaglio).
Entaglio is an art in itself, and being able to use these tools with proficiency can help you set your art style apart from other artists.
Slip (bottom far right) - Watered-down clay that is used to seam together two or more pieces of clay (this is demonstrated in the small clay demo).
Clay Modeling Tools Sets from Blick Art Materials
When looking for clay sculpture tools, you're actually looking at pottery tools; both genres of clay work need very similar tools:
Already Have Your Clay Modeling Tools and Ready to Make Something Beautiful?
For a more in-depth article on the sculpture process, visit my How To Sculpt Clay Figures and 5 Critical Steps in the Sculpture Timeline post, or take a free online clay sculpture course!