How I Get Air Dry Clay Smooth

When our friend Rex Winn showed us his latest Kune Kune pig on the Daily Sculptors page, Lisa Anne asked him if he’d be willing show us how he makes the air dry clay so smooth. He recently made a waddle of penguins – yes, that’s what a group of penguins is called – I looked it up 🙂  – and he took photos while he worked. His secrets for making the air dry clay smooth are below. Thanks, Rex!

©2021 Rex Winn

How I Get Air Dry Clay Smooth

Teca, supervising the project
Teca, supervising the project.

This look on Teca’s face says it all. She says, “Really?” I feel a bit awkward trying to explain how I make clay smooth because I always wish it were smoother! And the difficulty is translating motion into still images that make sense. This is a penguin I am working on.

Beginning a new penguin with air dry clay
Getting started.

This photo is of my setup. I try and keep only a bit of clay exposed to the air because it dries quickly. My clay is on the dry side, which I think helps with all the water that gets thrown around, my famous yellow cup for water, and a kitchen knife my mother used to stick in door jams as a lock to keep my drunk uncle from coming in. (It has a history and old. He never tried.) The most important item, however, is the towel used to keep my fingers the right wetness. I also use a small plastic pallette knife, which has become my main tool the older I get.

Penguin covered with the paper mache clay
Penguin covered with the paper mache clay.

The penguin I’ll use here is covered with Jonni’s original recipe for paper mache clay. I darkened the photo so you can see how rough it was!

Starting to add the air dry clay to the penguin.
Starting to add the air dry clay to the penguin.

In this session, I will be covering the front with Jonni’s air dry clay – from the neck, under the wings, and to the tummy. The first step is to add clay around the neck line down to where the wing begins. My thumb is pressing hard, pushing the clay into a smooth surface against the neckline. I drag my thumb around the neck. When I come back to add clay to the head, the line will be sharp. (I did not put any clay on the beak or the wings because I add smooth clay to those parts later.)

Adding more clay...
Adding more clay…

I have added more clay to the chest area, adding clay to form the shoulders. This cements the arms to the body. (I’ve had a few fall off because tape is the only thing holding them on at this point.)

Using a pallet knife.
Using a pallet knife.

My finger will not fit under the beak, so I use a small plastic pallet knife to smooth that area. I dip it in water, using less pressure as I go.

A key is to begin with pressure to make the clay stick to the armature. The other key is water. The clay on the front of the neck is moist from the wet pallet knife. As the clay softens, the pressure has to get light until the knife is barely touching the surface of the clay.

Continuing to cover the penguin with air dry clay.
Continuing to cover the penguin with air dry clay.

Clay has been added all the way to the legs. The texture is more smooth than before, but it has knife pallet edge markings down the front.

Making the joint smooth.
Making the joint smooth.

The obscurity of this photograph makes me laugh. I am pressing my wet index finger hard against the clay to separate the leg from the tummy, same as with the neck. When adding clay, I tend to stop at joints or limbs. When I come back to add clay on the thigh, the line is there for an indent, like the neck. I like the joints smooth at this point and work on the main body after.

Using a damp finger.
Using a damp finger.

Now the finger work begins. The combination of dipping my finger in water and rubbing the clay is a style that probably everyone will develop differently. At first I dip my finger in the water and then rub it down the clay. Depending on how the clay reacts, I rub the clay in circles or in any direction to get the clay where I want it. I hope you can see the vertical lines down the body where my finger is pressing the clay into a smooth pattern. The clay around my finger is wet, but you want to be careful not to get the clay too wet. The clay handles a little water well.

Smoother...
Smoother…

Moving rapidly, I continue rubbing my finger up and down and around the clay, releasing pressure as I go. I move my finger quickly as far as I can go to keep the clay evenly moist. As the clay builds up moisture, I dry my finger on the towel to keep the clay from getting too wet and curdling.

Key in this process is to begin with enough pressure to move the clay where you want it to be, lighten the pressure as you go until you are barely skimming the surface.

The towel is important...
The towel is important…

This photo is of the towel. Don’t discount its importance. This process will not work without having the correct amount of water on your finger. At the beginning I dip my finger in the water and begin pushing the clay into a smooth surface without wiping them. As the process continues, it is literally a dance between dipping the finger in the water, wiping off the “excess” on the towel, and lightly rubbing the clay. Towards the end, I dip my finger in the water, wipe most of it off on the towel, and lightly rub the lines out. The towel is everything at this point. If I get little gobs of clay I don’t want, I rub it off on the towel.

In this photo you can see the wet sheen and the area becoming smooth.

Keep the towel close.
Keep the towel close.

To emphasize wiping the finger to the right “wetness,” this photograph shows how close I keep the towel during this part of the process. Keep the dance going.

The body is more smooth. (Anybody with ideas as how to get that porcelain look, I would love to hear it. Maybe more patience. I keep thinking of that leopard!)

The edges of the clay next to the wing are rough. I did add clay under the wing with a pallet knife. I don’t add clay to the wing itself, but connect the clay around the body as far as I can. After this dries, I come back and do the same to the back.

Normally I do the front, neck to tummy, and under the wings. Next I do the back. The legs and feet are next. Tackle the wings. Last the head. That is many steps for drying between each one.

The smoothed clay, ready to dry and then paint.
The smoothed clay, ready to dry and then paint.

This is the finished front of the bird..

I hope this is of some help, and if anyone has any ideas (which you guys have), I’d love to hear them.

50 thoughts on “How I Get Air Dry Clay Smooth”

  1. I have found all these comments very interesting. I do clay sculptures and I get smoothness on the clay by a lot of burnishing with a spoon(tea spoon or dessert spoon) according to the size of the sculpture. At 90yrs.I’m finding it hard to wedge clay anymore so am interested in papier mache. I have never done it before so am learning all I can and found the article very helpful, thank you

    Reply
    • Interesting. I will have to add a spoon or two to my collection of tools. I have slowed down a lot and hope in 15 years (at 90) I can still do paper mache. Thanks.

      Reply
  2. Only thing I could add to this thread is when the Clay is the right dampness in addition to rubbing my finger I do a tapping motion and it seems to level the clay out & helps smooth itself.

    Reply
  3. Great tips I the article and in the comments. Thanks so much. I’m working on a tree/body abstract. My first paper mache piece. Haven’t actually gotten to the mache part yet. Gathering my courage.

    Reply
  4. I have been using the same method to smooth my air dry clay, with one exception… as I am nearing the “end” of my work, I powder my hands (for lack of better description, I actually stick my fingers in the box and wiggle them) with a dusting of corn starch and just do a light pass or two to coat my drying areas and anything that isnt smooth I add a little pressure and boom…it smooths out so nice that even my husband took notice LOL 🙂

    Reply
  5. Oh – cool; I totally get what you’re saying! Wee – more tools for the toolbox!

    I have started the water trick – works waaay better than glue. I’d just been afraid to try, figuring it would get too mushy.

    Thanks again….
    If I can “stop” creating for a wee bit, I’ll post some stuff I’ve been making! Lol

    Reply
    • Glad to hear your response! I’ve been afraid to try glue, so I’ll stick with what I know (for now!).

      Would love to see what you have made.

      Reply
  6. Hi Rex, many thanks for the tutorial. I use water too, I have a small old fashioned butter knife which has a flat blade which I dip in water to smooth my clay. For difficult areas such as under arms / legs where my fingers are too big to smooth out the clay, I find that the round handle of an old paintbrush works a treat, firstly to push the clay in and then by gently rolling or pulling back and forth to smooth it. Must get myself one of those small plastic spatulas though!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Linda. I never thought of using the round handle of a paintbrush. I have plenty of those.

      You can get a group of pallet knives for around $2. I’ve been using this little guy for about 7 years!

      Thanks for the help.

      Reply
  7. Thanank you very much for sharing youth experience. I am trying to make hanging leopard pot ( I have seen on Pinterest) I am making armature for my project, I will use your technique to smooth down the clay. I want to do it quickly but I take lots of time to complete one project. How much time do you take to complete one project .

    Reply
    • Wow! That is the million-dollar question. It took me four years to get a pterodactyl, my wild dog has been in the works for two years (finally have a solution, I hope), but most projects take around two months.

      I used Jonni’s tutorial of using the metal tape, and I got the first coat on four penguins in one day. I’m still working on them, so it will be about a month. Nothing is quick with me.

      Sounds really interesting what you are doing. Hope to see it. Thanks.

      Reply
  8. Is the dried air clay sandable? Perhaps using a fine, wet /dry sand paper could be used? I love papier-mâché but I’ve never used the air dry clay, so I really don’t know if this suggestion makes any sense at all.

    Reply
    • While writing how I make clay smooth, I neglected to put in Jonni’s method of adding joint compound as a good alternative (and perhaps forget all the finger work)! I sand from time to time, but I don’t like the dust, either. The good part about joint compound is you can “sand” with a damp cloth.

      Good luck. If you have any more questions, you know where to come. Many people here are very experienced and willing to share what they know.

      Thanks.

      Reply
  9. Great tutorial. It’s hard for me to take pictures of finished work let alone in-progress shots. Thanks for taking the time to do this

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Diana. Don’t tell anyone, but I am really right-handed. The tricky part was working with my left hand while taking photos with my right. Thank you.

      Reply
  10. Wow, thanks Rex…this is excellent!

    Thanks for tips to try next time for a smoother finish. I have been using glue rather than water, so that’s something to play with.

    I had to laugh – your little plastic pallet knife looks exactly like mine! I use it pretty much exclusively for clay now. I like the “give” it has, rather than using a metal knife, which is what I used starting out.

    (Mental Note: Must post to this site some of the pieces I’ve finished these last few months!!! Lol)

    Reply
    • Yes, please post what you’ve done.

      I blame moving from a metal knife to the little plastic knife to old age, but I do find the metal knife tends to get sticky and makes a mess, so I would guess 90% of my work is with the little plastic pallet knife. It always cooperates.

      I’ve never tried glue, but I had enough of that when I did paper strips. Never looked back, although I know it comes in handy for many things, like bird legs!

      Reply
    • hi,i use glue as well. i use white glue watered 50% and painted on then wearing a pair of household rubber gloves i smooth everything out and as the glue gets tacky paint more on until ur happy. another trick is to apply cling-film tight over model and using the massaging that Rex describes lightly with wet fingers. you can even draw detail on the model with a blunt pencil gently on the cling-filmand if u make a mistake just massage it out and go again the film just peels off with no problems

      Reply
      • A couple folks have mentioned clingfilm/saran wrap.
        How long do you leave that on? I wouldn’t think the clay will dry if it’s totally covered with wrap…and I’m thinking that if the clay is wet when you remove the wrap, you’d lose the smoothness.

        I know I could experiment (and likely will!)…just looking for tips/tricks from those who have done the experimenting already!

        Reply
        • I’ve been using Saran Wrap for years (I hate the other stuff!). You don’t leave the wrap on. It’s what I use to keep my air dry clay from drying out, so leaving it on a sculpture would only keep it wet. I use to on every piece for the footing to get the sculpture to stand like I want it to. Put a gob of paper mache on the bottom, press it into Saran Wrap, life up the piece and remove the wrap. It might have a little crease in the clay, but the smoothness stays there.

          When I am doing the footing, I like to have enough clay to wrap up and over whatever it holding it up, like a foot or tail. The bottom is flat after being pressed down onto the wrap, and then with a pallet knife I wrap the clay up around the foot or base. I hope that is clear. If not, let me know! Since posting, I have put Saran wrap on the body, and I’m looking forward to experimenting with that more. It seems to work well, but you can’t leave the wrap on.

          Thanks much.

          Reply
        • hi,remove the film as soon as ur finished and you can always use more film if ur not happy. it wont stick to the model or ruin ur finish. try drawing detail.gently on the film before removing it. never leave the film on because even though the model wont dry out the glue will set on the surface and stick to the film.hope that is usefull

          Reply
          • Oh! A little revelation there. I’ve never had paper mache stick to Saran Wrap until a couple of weeks ago. I know I messed up making the clay — must have been distracted or something — and it wasn’t normal. When I stuck the feet on the wrap, all the clay came off with it. Never had that happen in ten years. Thanks for explaining that mystery!

            Reply
    • Thanks, Bertil. Let us see what you do. I love all the different sculptures people make. The diversity is amazing.

      Reply
  11. Hi, if u want u could try to smooth it a bit more with a bit of cling wrap (seran wrap i think its called in the usa) after youve done doing it with your fingers. I suspect the cling wrap may have to stay until touch dry so as not to remove amy clay in tge process. Just a thought.

    Reply
    • Oh, that is a GREAT idea. I use Saran Wrap all the time — store my clay in it (as you might see), make feet flat by putting clay on them and then pushing the sculpture onto Saran Wrap. I don’t have clay stick to it (unless I really mess up making the clay), so I think it would come right off. What a great idea. Thanks. I owe you! I can’t see why this wouldn’t work.

      Reply
    • the cling-film peels away nicely as soon as ur finished. if you leave it on the model cant dry out but the glue will set

      Reply
  12. Nice and thorough tutorial Rex! I have never used plain water but use a glue and water mix. I will have to compare to see which is more effective for me.
    Do you ever have the problem of the clay becoming too gummy? Where you cannot work with it at all and your only recourse is to let it dry some and then go back to it? My students often use too much of the glue/water mix and find the process too frustrating. I try to warn them but there’s nothing like experiencing things for yourself.
    You did a nice job conveying the concepts in this tutorial. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Eileen. I’m too lazy to get the glue out!

      I don’t have problems with gummy clay. I start with one finger in the water, push it down the clay, and go from there. One could easily do it, but that’s not a door I go down. Having said that, if the clay gets too wet, I quickly swipe my finger down the clay, wipe my finger off on the towel, and do that until the water is in the towel (I was going to say in hand!).

      I’ve never had to let it dry to continue working.

      You are right about experience. Can’t wait until you get back to teaching.

      Reply
  13. Thank you so much. I discovered this method quite by accident when using the paper strip & paste method. It works well.

    Reply
      • I haven’t done many pieces but on the latest ones I used a paintbrush to smooth the clay, sometimes with water sometimes with glue. Then I use my finger to smooth brush strokes. Ha ha, I use the fling technique to control water on my finger. I dip into water then fling excess off on the floor ?. Studio is laminate flooring. I do use a bit of sanding after dry but as a styrofoam sculptor that small bit of dust from sanding is nothing. I use a thick paint for my gesso layer, Drylock which is made for waterproofing foundations, which needs sanding also. That is because my pieces are headed outside.

        Reply
        • Thanks for the laugh. I can see myself flinging water! I guess I need to replace my carpet with laminate flooring! I played a bit with a paintbrush today. Need to explore that further. Thank you.

          I think you need to seal your pieces (with gesso or something). It keeps the paint from seeping into the piece. I had one sculpture darken after I put varnish on it. Thank you. Best.

          Reply
          • I do seal the pieces. I figure they get three levels of protection 1)Drylock, the main waterproof layer 2)acrylic paint – I use artists grade for the lightfastness 3) i use a sealer designed for pool decks I have some pieces that have been out for a year or two. Sometimes I put another coat of sealer on, it’s easy and I do it while they are still in the garden

            Yup, flinging water may not be the best technique with carpeting. Haha

            Reply
            • Many people on this site ask about waterproofing paper mache clay. You’re the first person who has had success. You might want to get your process up at the top of the blog. Interesting. Thank you.

              (My brother was here for three days, and we were having fun. I think he is more the fling type, also.)

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