How to smooth your clay for a clean finish

When finishing their sculpts, novice sculptors often struggle with the final touch: the smoothing of the clay.  In the case of figurative sculpture, this could mean the difference between a clean finish and something that looks, well, unfinished.

Here are a few quick tips to getting a super smooth finish that’ll really set your piece apart.

Quick tip: If you start off with a super smooth clay that cuts and shapes easily to begin with, like Monster Clay or Van Aken’s Klean Klay Alternative, the whole process of smoothing your clay will be that much easier.

1.  It starts with your hands

Your fingers to be specific.  It sounds like common sense but many novice sculptors wait until the very end to start smoothing their surfaces, and that just makes things harder.  Don’t procrastinate.  Work on those surfaces with your fingers throughout the sculpt until you’ve gotten them as smooth as you possibly can.  It’ll make the smoothing go quicker later.

2. Using a rake 

Certain clays have a propensity for cracks and holes.  These can be near impossible to smooth out with your hands, especially if you’re working on something small.  The solution?  A rake.  Rakes allow you to work out those imperfections so you can come back and smooth them over.  It sounds scary at first, raking over your hard work, but in the end the sculpt will be better for it.  Just make sure to rake lightly and not too deep; you don’t want to ruin your composition.

3.  The alcohol torch

Sometimes a rake just doesn’t do the trick.  Enter the alcohol torch.  With its needlepoint flame you can heat and smooth just about any surface, including those hard to reach facial features on a small bust.  For minor tweaks, hit the surface for one to two seconds.  To really start moving some clay around, hit it for four to five.  It takes a little getting used to, but this tool will eventually prove invaluable in your arsenal.

4.  The final touch

Alcohol can be found at any local drug store and does a great job of smoothing out clay surfaces.  Start by painting on the alcohol with a larger brush; this will allow you to cover more area.  Then, when your sculpt is pretty well covered, get in those nooks and crannies with a smaller brush.  Your clay should now have a smooth, natural texture.

And that’s it!  Simple, right?

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8 Responses to How to smooth your clay for a clean finish

  1. Florette Kahn says:

    What clay was used for Richard MacDonald’s ballet figures? Thank you for this informative website.

    • I’m not quite sure, actually. We only ever molded and casted his work, so we never really got a chance to talk about his choice of clay. Knowing Richard’s propensity for exactness and specificity, however, makes me think he probably has a special mix or even a combination of one of the more popular clays, like Chavant or J-Mac. Once again, though, this is just speculation on my part.

  2. Florette Kahn says:

    Thank you for answering my question. I will be in touch when I finish my project.

  3. kiki says:

    Rubbing alcohol? Just want to be sure before I try it….I’m using monster clay.
    Thanks
    Kiki

    • Sorry for the delayed response, but yes, Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Another great option for Monster Clay specifically is Ronsonol lighter fluid. We tend to recommend alcohol more readily since it’s something most people have lying around the house, but for Monster Clay we really haven’t found anything that works better than the lighter fluid.

  4. walter says:

    Do u use alcohol to smooth sculpey clay before baking it. And how long do u let it sit before baking clay.and cant that cause a fire using alcohol before baking

    • Hey Walter, this entry was referring specifically to oil based clays like Monster Clay, Chavant’s NSP, or Van Aken’s Protolina. We don’t have much working knowledge with polymer clays, however this article lists several options for solvents that could suit your needs (as an aside, rubbing alcohol is not on that list).

  5. walter says:

    If i finish a sculpture out of (sculpey clay)before i put into oven do i smooth with alcohol let dry then bake or smooth after bake

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