There are multiple types of clay out there for artists to use. Whether you’re a beginner or professional, understanding the different types of clay is essential.
Each type of clay has distinct characteristics and features that make them ideal for certain crafts, and becoming familiar with all of these will definitely help you learn all you need to when it comes to clay sculpting.
Clay is soft with a dough-like consistency. Some types can air dry or be fire-hardened to make hard objects, but when being formed is soft and malleable. Different tools can be used to work with clay, and other materials can be added to clay objects to give them a certain shape or structure.
What are the 5 main types of clay? The 5 main types of clay are water-based, oil-based, ceramic, paper, and dough. While some can be air-dried, others need to be fired in a kiln. Each type has its own unique characteristics that are suited to different applications.
The possibilities with clay are endless – so to help you understand more about the different options you have when working with clay, we have detailed all the different types of clay!
What Characteristics Does Sculpting Clay Have?
Sculpting clay is clay that you would sculpt using your hands and some tools. As you would need to work with this clay and shape it how you want, there are some specific characteristics that it will need to have.
Characteristics of sculpting clay:
- Easy to mold, shape, and bend
- Free of debris, sand, and rocks and should be smooth
- Offers some degree of stiffness to support sculpture shapes
- Holds up against changes in temperature
A sculpting clay that ticks all of these boxes will be a pleasure to work with and will ensure that your sculpting project turns out just how you would want it to. You don’t want a sculpting clay that just causes more frustration as you work with it, so make sure the one you choose has all of these characteristics.
The 5 Main Types Of Clay
There are 5 main types of clay, and some even have subcategories of clay within. The 5 types of clay are:
- Water-based clay
- Oil-based clay
- Dough clay
- Ceramic clay
- Paper clay
These are all starting points with getting to know all the options you have when working with clay. All of these have their own properties and benefits that suit different purposes best, and what works with one type of clay might not work with the other.
To better understand these 5 main types of clay, and some other types that fall under a few here is all you need to know about each!
1. Water-Based Clay
Water-based clay is a popular choice of clay, as it is fairly inexpensive. Simply, it is clay that is mixed with water, and this means that it dries out quickly as the water evaporates from the clay quite fast.
However, this quick-drying feature is what makes water-based clay a popular choice, as you don’t need to wait days and days on end for your sculpture to harden and cure properly.
It is best to use water-based clay for smaller projects, where you can use up all the clay before the clay dries out quickly. There are ways to store water-based clay though, so you can take out and use only what you need without the rest drying out.
- It is inexpensive
- Easy to work with and ideal for beginners
- Very pliable and sculptable
- Can be kiln-fired to harden and keep shape
- Smoothed over easily with some water
- You need to spray stored water-based clay once a month to prevent it from drying out
- Cannot leave it uncovered as it will dry out
- Not suitable for larger, longer projects as it will dry out too quickly
Type Of Water-Based Clay
Air-Dry Clay: Most types of air-dry clay are water-based. This type of clay dries when left out in the air, and it does not need to be kiln-fired.
Air-dry clay is a popular choice for modeling clay, and you can simply mold the clay with your hands and a few simple tools.
Once dried, the clay can also be decorated with marker pens, inks, and acrylic paints. There are many different things you can do with air-dry clay, which makes it a top choice for modeling and sculpting smaller items.
Crayola has a great air-dry clay that’s perfect for beginners.
2. Oil-Based Clay
Oil-based clays are made from a mixture of oils, clay minerals, and some waxes. This is the clay to choose if you do not want your clay to air dry, so you have an extended time to work on your clay sculpture and are not racing against the clock.
It is important to note that the malleability of oil-based clay can be affected by temperature changes, as the viscosity of the oils can change in different temperatures, meaning that the consistency of the clay can change too.
Oil-based clay can be used over and over again, so it is a popular choice with animation artists, and it is easy to bend and move without breaking.
This modeling clay on Amazon is my favorite. It comes in fun colors and is easy to use.
- Suitable for larger clay sculptures as it will not air dry
- Fine details can be worked into oil-based clay
- Does not dry out in the air, so you can take your time with your sculpture
- Is not sticky so will not stick to other surfaces
- Can be expensive
- Not pliable and malleable when cold and does need some warmth to be worked with
- Cannot be placed in the oven
Types Of Oil-Based Clay
- Polymer Clay: Polymer clay is a sculpting and modeling clay that is soft and very pliable, but once heated, it hardens permanently. Without heating, polymer clay never dries out. It is made from PVC and a stabilizer, along with lubricants, plasticizers, and pigments, and is not made from natural clay. However, this allows it to have many different bright colors that normal clay would not have.
- Plasticine: The main ingredients in plasticine include clay, oil, and some sort of binder. The benefits of plasticine make it great for sculpting and modeling clay. It is very workable and soft, and it does not dry out or harden. It can also be found in a range of different colors that can all be blended together. Plasticine, however, cannot be fired and it will melt if exposed to heat.
- Epoxy Clay: Epoxy clay is prepared with two parts, which are the epoxy resin and the epoxy curing agent. The clay will only harden when these two are mixed together, and not before. You can find epoxy clay in different colors, but the choices are fairly limited. Epoxy clay will remain workable and soft until you knead the two components together. After, it will take around 3 hours to harden fully. As it is self-hardening, it does not need to be fired in a kiln.
3. Ceramic Clay
Ceramic clay is used to make ceramics. It is heated or baked to set into a shape, and contains minerals mixed in with the actual clay.
There are quite a few different types of ceramic clays, all of which finish with different looks and benefits.
Types Of Ceramic Clay
- Stoneware Clay – Stoneware clay needs to be fired at high temperatures, but once fired, it is chip-resistant and strong, and it can even be used in baking and cooking. Using stoneware clay, sculptures and items will be stronger and heavier than other types of clay, and they will have a darker color as well.
- Earthenware Clay – Earthenware clay has been used for decades, and it has been long used for its great benefits and characteristics. It is a very easy clay to work with, but it can be quite sticky at times. You can find earthenware clay in different colors, such as orange, yellow, red, and grey. The mineral content in earthenware clay determines the color of the clay, and the color it takes on once it is fired.
- Fire Clay – Fire clay sets at a very high temperature, and when fired, it has a speckled, patterned appearance from the presence of iron. This clay is often mixed in with other types of stoneware clay to increase the temperature that the clay matures.
- Ball Clay – Ball clay is very pliable and easy to work with, but it does come with some downfalls. It shrinks during the drying process, which is why it is often mixed in with other types of clays to make it easier to work with and more pliable.
- Kaolin Clay – Kaolin clay is used to make porcelain, as it has high mineral content. It is usually light in color and does come in a few different color variations. It is not very easy to work with compared to other types of clays and is often mixed with ball clay to make it easier to work with.
4. Paper Clay
Paper clay is a mixture of cellulose fiber and clay, with paper fiber being used most often.
Using paper fiber in the clay mix increases the tensile strength of the clay, which makes it easier to work with wet-to-wet joints and wet-to-dry joints. The fibers in the clay support themselves when wet and dry, so you can work on your sculpture with less stress.
You can also use paper clay to make lightweight sculptures that would otherwise be heavy when other types of clay are used. After paper clay is dry, you can add in more details, so it really is a wonderful type of clay to experiment with.
It works as a great alternative to paper maché. In fact, it’s commonly mistaken as paper maché, which is actually just the layering of glue-soaked paper.
5. Dough Clay
Dough clay is most popular when sold as PlayDough. It is an easy-to-use dough that you can even make at home with some basic ingredients and is commonly used by children.
This type of dough is inexpensive and easy to come by, and while it is easy to work with and soft, it does not dry well and tends to crack when dry. You can bake dough clay in the oven, but the results are not always guaranteed!
- Inexpensive and can be made at home
- Soft and pliable
- Comes in a range of colors
- Cracks upon drying
- Not ideal for lasting sculptures
What Is The Best Pottery Clay For Beginners?
The best pottery clay for beginners would be stoneware clay. It is beautifully versatile, being suited for hand building, different sculpting techniques, and wheel throwing.
You do not need too much water to work with stoneware, as it is fairly soft already, but it is also robust and quite stable, so it does maintain its shape well.
Stoneware clay needs to be fired at a medium to high temperature, and once fired, it is non-porous, which makes it ideal for many different uses once set.
This is my favorite stoneware clay for pottery.
What Is The Best Sculpting Clay For Beginners?
If you are looking to start out with sculpting, it would probably be best to first practice with some polymer clay. Polymer clay is smooth and easy to work with, and it does not need a kiln to be fired.
It might not be the clay that you end up using going forward, but it does give you a good idea of what sculpting is like, and offers a great medium to practice on. There are also so many colors available with polymer clay so you can get really creative!
What Clay Is Best With No Kiln?
If you do not have a kiln and do not want to fire your clay, it would be best to choose a water-based clay. Water-based clays dry when in contact with air, and this means that you do not have to do anything for your sculpture to dry.
The downside to this is that you do need to work quickly with water-based clay, as it will begin to dry as you work with it, so you should not take too long and you should not use it for larger projects that might take days to complete.
There is the right type of clay for just about any project, and if not, then you can blend some of the different clays together to get the perfect blend for you!
The above list of all the different clays should help you better understand the options out there, and which clays are best used for different purposes.
Depending on the clay art you are doing, whether it is Claymation, hand sculpting, or wheel throwing, understanding the types of clays available will help you choose the one that is best for you and your art!
Does Clay Break Easily?
It is not easy to say whether clay breaks easily or not, as there are so many types of clay. However, clay that is not cured, fired, or set properly will not be strong and will be prone to breaking.
The most important part of ensuring that your clay piece is strong is to ensure that it is fired properly and it is cured how it should be.
Why Is My Clay Cracking?
Uneven drying is often the main reason why clay cracks. It does not matter the speed at which the clay dries, whether it is quick or slow, but rather that the clay dries at an even pace all over. However, it is better to allow the clay to dry slowly to ensure all parts dry evenly.
How Do You Fix Cracks In Clay?
To fix cracks in the clay, you can use some air dry clay slip and apply this to the cracked area. You can work this clay into the cracked area and smooth it down with your fingers before leaving it to dry.
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