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.


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.

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

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your information, I am currently using an air dry clay and it’s kind of a pain! Anxious to try paper mache clay!


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