How to smooth the surface when sculpting with air-dry clays?
It doesn't matter if you're just starting out with air-dry clays or have been sculpting for years, you probably encountered the nightmare of fluff. What I call fluff is the tiny fibres that are in the composition of clay. When the clay is wet, those tiny fibres are not very visible, but when the clay starts drying and when you start sanding, the fluffy particles reveal themselves in all the glory, haha. So today I'm going to share a few steps that I take to give my dolls the satin smooth finish. It took me years of experimentation to find what works so I hope you'll find it helpful!
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1. Choosing the right clay
Not all air-dry clays are the same, choosing high-quality clay will increase your chances of achieving a smooth satin finish. Read the article about my favourite clays here. In my experience, stone clays like "La Doll" or "Premier" have less visible fibres than "Paperclay". I've gotten pretty good results with "Paperclay" as well, but if you're just starting out, stone clay might be a better choice for you.
No matter how much you try to smooth out the clay when it's wet, sanding is inevitable. For that, you'll need an assortment of different sanding papers, from coarse to very smooth ones. When shopping for sandpaper, you’ll see numbers such as 60-grit, 120-grit, or 200-grit (in some countries the grit numbers might vary, so pay attention not only to numbers but to the sandpaper itself). The higher the number, the finer the sandpaper is. I start with medium sandpaper (60-120 grit) to polish rougher areas and remove larger bumps in the clay, then I move on to fine (160-240 grit) and super fine (400-800 grit) sanding papers to polish the clay. The sanding process is very long and tedious, but it's crucial to achieve the smooth surface. It takes a few hours to sand one doll so be ready for that.
It's quite hard to capture those tiny fibres and fluff that really annoys most of the doll makers but you can see some of it here. It doesn't go away even when I sand with very fine sandpaper.
While sanding you might notice that no matter how much you sand or how fine the sandpaper is the fluff still appears on the surface of the clay. Because of the composition of clay, the tiny fibres can't really be sanded away unless you polish with ultra-fine sandpaper for hours. In my experiments I found that the next step makes the biggest difference in getting rid of the fluff.
3. Coating with water
When your doll is fully sanded with fine sandpaper and all the bumps are removed, coat all the surface with clean water and soft watercolour brush. It's very important for the brush to be flat and extremely soft. This process will glue all the fibres back to the surface. It makes a huge difference! You can repeat this process a few times. Wait for the clay to dry completely, gently sand it with super-fine sandpaper again and coat with water one more time. I usually do it just once and repeat only on the areas with still visible fluff.
Because air-dry clay is water soluble, coating the surface with water, glues the fibres back to the surface and seals it. It's very important to have soft flat brush so you won't leave any brush marks on the surface.
It makes a huge difference every time I use this trick!
This step is optional but I find it helps with filling in tiny indentations and evens out the surface a little bit more. The biggest issue with most of the primers is that they are grey so it might be harder to paint your doll after. I use primer just for my ball-jointed dolls because I cast them in porcelain later.
Doll parts sculpted with La Doll clay and sprayed with primer.
Painting is the final step in achieving that satin finish. I recommend using white acrylic paint or white spray paint. Use a very soft watercolour brush with acrylic paint, this way you'll avoid brush marks that will ruin your smooth surface again. If the paint is too thick, dilute it with water a bit. It's better to paint in thin layers building up the colour than in one thick one.
If you're having trouble with acrylic paints and brush streaks, try out the white spray paints. Coat the surface in thin layers to avoid paint dripping marks. Wait for each layer to dry and spray from a distance, make sure to read the label for detailed instructions.
I hope these steps will help you to achieve what we all strive for, smooth and beautiful dolls! Let me know in the comments if you have any advise yourself. For more tips like this, check out my doll making classes! Also, don't forget to subscribe to my monthly newsletter and get all the future articles about doll making right into your inbox!