For some reason, particular formulations and brands of polymer clay get crumbly and hard if they have been sitting open for too long. If the clay is stored at high temperatures, it risks becoming too dense. This means that it can’t be really used in these conditions.
Some would say that this happens because the clay has partially cured. Other users would think that the plastic part has leached out or evaporated, leading to a dry clay that seems impossible to reuse.
However, the cause is not lost. Truth be told, there is still no specific reason why clay is drying so quickly. Not all brands behave the same, and not all clays have the same composition. Let’s call it a hit-and-miss kind of situation. You may see new clays drying out in a very short amount of time, while two-year-old models remain soft. It is a matter of experimenting. Who knows? But if you are right in the middle of a project and you realize the clay is hard as a rock, what can you do? Is there any chance to save the hard clay?
Well, luckily, there are some successful methods. Most of us have been there, buying dry clay in bulk and dealing with a rock-like material over time. Do not give up your artsy crafts, considering it is straightforward to soften air-dry clay. And the good news is that today’s article brings together the most accessible techniques. So let’s start!
What Is Clay?
Clays are essential elements, not only in geological and environmental operations but also among human projects. Clay is a soft, loose, and earthy material, made of particles the size of grains. To give you an idea, that means around 4 micrometers. This soil-like material results from the disintegration and erosion of rocks and is part of the mineral group called feldspar (famous as the “mother of clay”). (1)
One of the main features of clay is its plasticity, defined as “the ability of the material to be molded to any shape” (Guggenheim and Martin, 1995) (2).
Clays develop flexibility when wet due to the particular molecular film of water that borders the clay particles. On the other hand, clay can become hard after firing or drying.
3 Step by Step Methods To Make Clay Soft Again
However, if you do not use it for an extended time, polymer gets hard, making it difficult, even unthinkable, to use and shape it again. Because this is a fact – left uncovered, there are high chances for the earthy material to solidify. Yet, few know that throwing hard clay away is not the best option as it is salvageable.
You can successfully use some methods to reinvigorate the clay, from hand-kneading to adding special diluents. Read the options below to find the ideal one for you. The results will be a flexible and supple clay, ready to be sculpted.
Warming And Kneading Method
There is more than one step to handle this method. Let’s take each of them and understand the process.
1. Warming The Clay Using Body Heat
Take the hard clay and warm it up using body heat. If the clay has not started hardening too much, this allows you to warm it back again by kneading it by hand. Before you squeeze the material in your hands, take a moment to hold the clay first.
You can even sit on top of it so that the body heat will contribute to the softening process. Warmth is going to revitalize the clay composition. However, before using any of these methods, make sure it is warm first.
Here is a comprehensive video about this technique.
2. Heat Sources
Others find it more convenient to use a heat source to warm the clay. If the clay is hard as a rock, then an external heat source will be the additional help you need.
One of the easiest methods is laying a hot water bottle over the clay’s surface for about twenty minutes. The water’s warmth will immediately soften it.
You can also take a heat lamp; however, you need to check the temperature constantly. This process should not overcome the body temperature. Otherwise, if the temperature is too hot, it would start baking the clay, which will make it irreversible.
Additionally, place the clay into the microwave for seconds only until it gets warm enough.
3. Rolling The Clay With Hands
Once the clay is cured and hard, roll it into your hands. Make sure you get a caterpillar shape, then remodel it into a ball. Rolling the clay into different shapes creates friction, meaning a lot of heat that helps soften the material.
Cutting the hard clay into small pieces is another option, like here.
4. Roll The Hard Clay Using A Pin
If rolling the hard clay needs more force and energy, you can call for a bit of help. Here is what to do: lay the piece of dry clay on a clean cutting board or a counter (what’s more convenient to you), then press it down to flatten the clay as much as you can.
Start rotating the material with a rolling pin. After making all these steps, the clay should be warm enough to shape it with your hands.
5. Use a mallet to hit the clay.
Another way to soften the clay is by hitting it with a mallet. If your hands’ warmth is not enough, nor the rolling pin, it’s time to move to a more considerable amount of force. The first thing to do is break the clay into small pieces and place the clay pieces in sealed plastic bags. Wrap the bag using a cloth or place it on a soft surface.
Take the rubber mallet and pound on the clay for a couple of minutes, just like in this video. The power from the mallet will break up the clay and produce friction, which softens the material. After doing all this, take the clay out from the bag, then roll it into your hands.
6. Knead The Clay
One of our favorite methods to soften the clay is rolling it first then kneading it using the hands. The moves are similar to kneading dough. Use all of your force to pull the clay parts apart, then reshape them into a whole piece.
Use a kneading machine if you are not good at kneading by hand. Follow these kneading moves.
The Softening Agents Method
Again, I will take each step and explain it in detail to avoid missing anything.
1. Start by adding a liquid diluent.
This particular ingredient is basically available anywhere on the market and will soften unworkable clay in seconds. Most of the liquid diluents come from companies that already make polymer clay. Their ingredients are specifically formulated to rejuvenate old clay.
But let me tell you how to handle softening agents:
- Add liquid diluents if kneading or warming the clay was not enough to soften it;
- While kneading the clay, add a few drops of liquid diluents at a time. Be careful, though. If you pour too much, the clay might become mushy.
- Liquid diluents can work as glue sometimes. Therefore, they might add some stickiness to the clay. If you notice that the earthy material you use for your projects becomes too sticky, you can do a little magic:
Tip: wrap it into a paper towel, and it will absorb all that stickiness.
2. Use A Bar Of Clay Softener
A handy solution for softening the old clay is using a bar clay softener. Yes, multiple clay softeners come in a bar shape. Unlike the usual liquid diluents, these solutions are made of neutral mixing compounds, making the clay workable again. Apply these tips and tricks:
- Measure one part of solid clay softener to five portions of clay. Warm the clay first, add the bar clay softener pieces and start kneading. Do this until the clay becomes soft and the parts are well mixed.
- You will notice that bar clay softeners have a more whitish color, as such, they will work ideally with saturated clay. Keep in mind that too much bar softener can change the initial shade of the clay.
3. Add Some Liquid Clay
A simple technique to revive the old clay is adding some liquid clay. Liquid polymer clay works wonders and can soften the old clay and make it more flexible. Use the same method with a simple diluent by adding drop by drop and kneading the clay between this process. Rerun these steps until the clay has reached the desired consistency.
- Use uncolored clay as much as possible, so it will not affect the initial color of the clay.
- Tinted liquid clay will work well, too; however, it might change the original color slightly.
4. Use Mineral Oils
Even though some mineral oils are not made explicitly for softening the hard clay, you can give them a try. The result is impressive: not only will the mineral oils make the clay flexible, but they will improve the texture of polymer clay.
The process is the same as the previous methods: add a drop of oil, then knead between each drop until the clay is workable again.
This video mentions some helpful oil options you may want to consider.
5. Petroleum Jelly Method
Petroleum jelly is a handful option most of you have already in the house and a great alternative to commercial clay softeners. As such, you can rub the clay using some petroleum jelly.
This method does not require too much effort, but on the contrary. What you need to do is simply dab a small amount in your fingers, then start rubbing into the clay. Knead everything patiently, so the two matters are perfectly mixed. Finally, keep adding more petroleum jelly until you obtain the desired result.
6. Mix Hard Clay With Fresh Clay
Another effortless method is combining the old hard clay with some fresh one. Knead them together until you obtain a homogeneous result.
The fresher the clay you add, the softer the mix will be. If you don’t want to change the colors on purpose, you should make sure to use the same new clay shade as the original one.
The Chopping Method
Let’s see the steps, shall we?
1. Chop The Clay
Use a knife to chop the clay, like in this video.
If the material is too stubborn, you may need a very sharp tool or a food processor to cut the clay into tiny pieces and warm it a bit.
But before you put all the clay pieces into the food machine, it is essential to cut the clay in advance. Otherwise, you might risk breaking the processor.
2. Use the food processor.
After you finish chopping the material as much as possible, place the small pieces of hard clay into the food processor. If you consider it necessary, you can add a few drops of liquid polymer or diluent on top of this mix for additional help. Place the lid on top, then start the machine.
- A coffee grinder will be ideal for the job. However, you may need to repeat the process in several batches.
- A pasta machine would help you stretch the clay evenly, like here.
- Make sure you use a different bowl and blade for mixing the clay with diluents. Otherwise, it is not desirable to reuse these tools for food preparation.
3. Grind the clay for several seconds
Grind the mix in ten-second intervals. Apply the highest speed on the food processor to get the best results. The grinding process will allow the clay to separate into small pieces, then soften to make the clay easier to reshape.
4. Combine the pieces
After removing the clay from the food processor, it’s time to combine the pieces. You may need to use a spoon to scrape all the sides and recover the clay from every tiny corner. After cleaning all the soft material, press the pieces together until they are nicely combined.
5. Knead The Clay By Hands
Now, it’s time to use the warmth of your hands once again. Knead the clay until it gest soft and pliable. This continuous process will blend the pieces until they are ready for use.
After completing every pottery project, make sure you save all tiny clay scraps in one container. When you have accumulated enough new clay, you can reuse it by applying the softening methods you learned today.
The Water Method
One of the easiest ways to softer air drying clay includes very few items, like water and plastic bags. Here are the steps:
- Get the clay, a couple of new sealed bags, and a cup of water.
- Put the clay into the bag, then poke the plastic surface with a sharp tool to make holes.
- Add water.
- Seal the bag evenly, then leave the ingredient to sit for a day.
- During this time, the liquid will do its job and seep into the hard clay, resulting in a soft material.
Here’s a video explaining this method.
Lastly, can all types of hardened polymer soften again?
There are multiple methods to soften the clay again. However, do they work for any kind of these materials? Unless the clay has not stayed in the hot summer sun for years, there is a high chance of saving it and using it for future projects.
Whether you prefer kneading it or adding special additives and solvents, neither of these methods will change the clay properties.
The only aspect you should be aware of is that old clay might not perform as well as the fresh new one.
This being said, if you plan to do a very technical project, you should consider a brand new polymer. Nevertheless, you can try the old one and play around for fun.