sculpting clay for beginnersIf you’re new to sculpting, or want to try something a little different from your usual material, this will help you decide what sculpting clay type (oil based or water based), brand to source your materials, and characteristics of said types and brands that best suits your project’s desired results.

On choosing the right material for small-scale sculptures

If you want to make small (several inches to a foot in length) figures and don’t know whether to use an oil based clay (to stop it from hardening), or an air drying or kiln type clay, here are some expert-sourced suggestions:

Oil based clays are generally easier to work with. Wax is comparatively slow to work, and takes experience to use properly. Depending on the size of the project, water-based clays can be messy and dry out or crack too soon, unless you’re using the water based clay in bulk for, say, making a life-sized human sculpture.

Water based clays are simply clay mixed with water. They are inexpensive but need to be covered when not in use or they WILL dry out. Their fast-drying properties are part of their appeal, however, as they don’t require baking to harden into a resilient state. Water based clays are easily removed from a mold with a water sprayer, but the clay is prone to sticking or breaking apart if it gets too wet. These clays cannot be used with plastics, epoxies or polymers.

Advantages to water based clay: Water based clay is cheap compared to oil-based options, it works nicely for small projects, it is smoothed out easily, and, if kept sealed in plastic, it will stay moist and workable for months (check it occasionally and spritz a bit of water into the bag once a month or so). If you choose to use water based clay and store it for months at a time between work sessions, expect the clay to shrink about 1/20th or so of its original size per several months as it will slowly lose moisture.

If you were to use an oil based, sulfur-free clay (oil based clays are sulfur free), you could make a silicone rubber mold with it, and then reuse the same clay. (Modeling clay can be melted and poured into an alginate mold.)

Water based clay can be molded in the same way as plasticene, but the difference is that plasticene can’t be saved (i.e., hardened) once you’ve achieved your desired model. Water based clays CAN be kiln-fired at any time once dry to maintain their shape.

After having worked with both, plasticene falters in comparison unless the project is a very small thin model too difficult to keep moist for weeks.

Modeling Clay Comparisons, Suggestions and Summary

Advantages to oil based clay: Best for beginners to start out using an oil based modeling clay as this modeling compound is non-crumbling and it doesn’t cling to skin or room surfaces.  Oil based clay does not dry out, so you can take your time modeling with it, then simply cover it with a plastic bag or other protective covering when you want to take a break.

For warm weather: Use Van Aken sculpture gray modeling clay in warm weather.

In the colder weather: use Plast-econ modeling clay  (sells for around $1.95 per pound + shipping).


Recommended for extreme detail: Super Sculpey bakes hard in the oven and enables the sculptor to achieve amazing detail. It’s very expensive though, and only one-use (after it’s baked, it stays that way).

Disadvantages to oil based clay: Usually costs more.

Clay that never hardens: “I work with both plasilina and wet clay, and I would recommend the plastelina. I use Le Beau Touche from Chavant because it is sulphur-free, so it is easier to make a mold. Because it never hardens, you can work on your sculpture as long as you want to without worrying about it hardening on you.”

Sculpting Clay Tools: For oil-based clay, try working with metal tools warmed up over a small oil lamp filled with paraffin lamp oil.