CARING FOR YOUR CLAY EQUIPMENT 

Written by Karin Ashdown


If you take care of your clay equipment it should give you many, many years of enjoyment before you need to replace anything.  There are a few basic rules and suggestions.

Wherever applicable READ THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL that comes with some major equipment such as pasta machines, pasta machine motors, food processors, etc. 

Remember that if something is used for clay it has then always to be used for clay. You cannot take something out the kitchen to use for clay work and then stick it back in the kitchen.  This applies to graters, baking trays, foil dishes, pasta machines, food processors, knives, forks, anything you may discover has a nice texture on it, cookie cutters – plastic or metal, icing tools, texture sheets.  You may wind up owning two gingerbread men  cutters – one for clay, one for cookies, or two pasta machines – one for clay, one for pasta (some of us do make our own pasta!), but that’s your choice.  I seem to have a lot of duplicates between the clay room and the kitchen. I’m going to break this down section by section so that it becomes an easier reference sheet. A lot of it is common sense. 


COOKIE CUTTERS:

Cookie cutters come in both plastic and metal.  Seamless metal cutters are wonderful for clay work because you never get a join you have to smooth out.  In caring for these properly you will get good usage for many years. 

Baby wipes and baby oil are your friends!  Once used you need to wipe down the surface with baby wipes or a soft cloth with a little baby oil.  The reason is as follows – some clays bleed colour (reds, blues, green, black).  If you change colour between cutting, you can cross contaminate the colours.  Safest and easiest is just to wipe down the cutting edges.  Once you have finished for the day it is very important to wipe down all the cutters with a little baby oil, then wash in hot soapy water. 

You may want to keep an old toothbrush handy to brush any build up of clay away.  Thoroughly dry all the cutters and I suggest placing your metal cutters in a warm oven for a while.

You can place them on a tile or a foil covered baking tray.  Discard the foil after use.  This prevents any rust on your metal cutters.  The plasticisers in the clay react with the plastic cutters after a time, edges become distorted or break down and you no longer get a clean cut shape. Wipe down with baby oil and wash thoroughly.  Dry well. If you’re using Kemper cutters or the plunger style cutters same applies. 

Wipe down the surfaces thoroughly, even if you have to use an ear bud to clean the very tiny cutters, wash and dry. 

I don’t advise using acetone as it removes any and all oils, and your cutters may rust.

 

BLADES AND KNIVES:

Once again looking after these is very important.  You get so many different kinds of blades and knives – pivot knives, scalpels, straight blades, ripple blades, flexi blades – just to mention a few.  Between colour changes wipe down with a soft cloth with baby oil or a wet wipe. BE CAREFUL! Most of these are wickedly sharp. 

Make sure to keep an older dull blade (as in not so sharp!) as a working blade.  I have several craft knives – one with a not so sharp blade, and the rest with new blades.  I’m comfortable with a pivot grip (something that turns easily between your fingers without slipping) as opposed to disposable knives.  I have a huge selection of tissue blades – some really long and flexible, others rigid.

Whatever your choice keep them clean!  Between colour changes and once you’re finished for the day.  I wipe all my blades down with baby oil.  It removes any build up of clay on the blade as well as protecting against rust.  You can sharpen blades using wet/dry sandpaper in a fine grit, but again be careful and once sharpened, wipe down with baby oil.  Where possible store these blades in a dedicated plastic container or holder to keep out any moisture.

One tip: when you’re slicing canes one often gets drag marks across the slice.  This is due to lint or dust in the air that seems to be drawn to your blade is if by magic. Keep a soft lint-free cloth handy and wipe the blade between each slice or cut. It helps to avoid endless sanding of the completed work.

 

MOULDS:

Whether you use silicone or rigid moulds or make your own moulds out of scrap clay, the care of your moulds is going to prolong the life and use of the moulds.  Again because of cross-contamination of colours, you need to clean the moulds between colour changes.  I know it’s a pain, but when you have white clay turn pink because you used red the last time you used the moulds and didn’t clean them, you will realise that not only do you save yourself much frustration, but you also don’t waste any clay. 

A soft toothbrush and a little dish liquid are often all that is needed between colour changes, rinse thoroughly and dry the moulds well. 

Silicone moulds are wonderfully flexible and release the clay easily. 

Rigid moulds require a release agent such as baby powder, a vinyl cleaner or water.  Water is going to be the only one not to leave a build up of the release agent, so invest in a little spray bottle and fill it with water. You only need a very light spritz of water. Where talc or cornstarch are used you are going to have to brush away any build up that will mar the detail of the mould.  I use a hog hair brush for this or an old toothbrush.  Once done for the day, wipe all the moulds down with a little baby oil and then wash with warm soapy water, then let them dry. Moulds can be very expensive, so it’s worth taking care of them.


TEXTURE SHEETS:

The same applies as for the moulds.  Some texture sheets are rigid – for example the ones from Cool Tools that are used for pewter work etc. Others are flexible silicone and some are plastic.  Wipe them all down with a soft cloth and baby oil, then wash in warm soapy water.  Chocolate and icing texture sheets can be used, but again, wipe them down and wash and dry thoroughly to prolong their life.  Texture rollers fall into the same category – horribly expensive – so worth taking care of.  Wipe down with baby oil (they’re almost always plastic or acrylic) and wash with warm soapy water.  Make sure to brush out any build up of clay.


BRUSHES:

Brushes in any kind of artwork are inevitable – we use them to apply pigment powders, paint, antiquing mediums, liquid clay etc. etc. Some can be horribly expensive, so again taking care of them properly prolongs their life. It is well worth buying the best quality brushes you can afford. Between pigment changes as with pearlescent powders – wash the brush with warm soapy water.  I tend to have several brushes and use one per colour, but this is not always possible. 

Chalks can also be applied with eye shadow applicators.  Ear buds are disposable but won’t give the same effect. Fingers are useful but need cleaning between each colour change. Wash the bristles of your brush in a slightly cupped palm of your hand with a little dish liquid and use a circular movement.  That way you are not forcing the bristles apart while working the soap right to the base of the ferrule.  Rinse thoroughly and leave the brush upright to dry.  You can gently squeeze the bristles in a soft cloth to dry but don’t scrub!  If a brush becomes badly distorted, fill a mug with boiling water and dip the brush in. Lift and reshape with your fingers if needed. The boiling water will pull the bristles back together. 

 

CLAY SHAPERS AND SCULPTING TOOLS:

Regardless of the make and brand, you prefer to use these need proper care.

Clay shapers have a rubber tip which is wonderful for smoothing lines etc and shaping.  Sculpting tools can be hard silicone, rubber, plastic or metal. I’ve had mine longer than I can remember and they’re still going strong.  Keep them clean! Wipe down with a baby wipe between colour changes and when done for the day, baby oil and wash thoroughly, then dry them well. 

 

EXTRUDERS:

Extruders are extremely useful both in bead and cane making and for filigree or rope work.  Again because of colour changes these need to be kept clean otherwise, you’ll have one colour smearing across the next.  Definitely not desirable.  You can use a pipe cleaner or ear bud between colour changes, dipped into a little baby oil and squeezed out till nearly dry.  Wipe the screw cap on the inside and inside the barrel of the extruder. 

When you’re finished for the day remove the rubber o-rings and set them safely aside, take the entire extruder apart – screw caps, barrel, etc. and place it on a tile in the oven at 120 deg. C for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and use a hard bristle brush or an old toothbrush to brush away the baked clay.  This is especially important in the thread of the rings and barrel.  Wipe down all the discs with a soft cloth and a little baby oil, dry with paper towel and store. 

 

PASTA MACHINES:

Not all pasta machines can be taken apart like the Atlas machine which makes cleaning so much easier.  You will get a build up of clay and static on the rollers and the scrapers.  To avoid wasting clay and getting horrible marks on your rolled sheets this build up has to be removed.  You can use a wet wipe to clean the rollers between colour changes. Just move it gently across the rollers as you crank the handle.

The blades are a little trickier to clean. Turn the pasta machine upside down so you can clearly see the scrapers (those blade like things that butt against the rollers) and take an ear bud dipped in a little baby oil.  Very gently clean both edges – outside and inside edges.  The inner edge obviously has the larger build up. DO NOT ever use a blade or metal object to clean these edges as you will damage the rollers and the blades.  If needs be you can use a toothpick or wooden skewer to remove stubborn bits of clay. Once all the clay is removed, take a soft cloth with a little baby oil to wipe down the edges of the scrapers.

Before using your pasta machine – especially if it’s been standing a while – wipe the rollers down with a wet wipe or soft cloth, to remove any lint or dust that may have adhered to the rollers, otherwise you’ll see it in your clay. Especially if you have pets.  I do suggest that you always keep the pasta machine covered between using, as this does limit the amount of dust adhering to the machine.  NEVER EVER SUBMERGE THE PASTA MACHINE IN WATER!  It will rust.

Do not roll clay with inclusions (stuff added into the clay) through the rollers as those inclusions can damage the rollers.  Yes, I did learn this the hard way. Clay can be rolled through the pasta machine with a texture sheet, but make sure it’s on the widest setting. 

Never force really thick wads of clay through the pasta machine, you will damage the gears.  Roll out the clay between two dowels till it is thin enough to feed through the machine without undue strain on the machine.

 

POLYMER CLAY:

Polymer clay is a magnet for fluff, pet hair and lint.  One can have a huge amount of wastage due to all of these and just simple dirt from your hands.  It’s very important to wash your hands between colour changes so that there is no cross-contamination of colour. 

Stubborn clay adhered to your hands can be removed with a wet wipe or baby oil, then wash with warm soapy water.  Any canes that you make or clay that is mixed or left over needs to be covered with cling wrap. 

Do not use paper in any form as it leaches the oils and plasticisers from the clay which makes it dry and brittle.  Don’t store it in rigid plastic containers unless it’s covered. The plasticisers in the clay react with the container which fuses the two together.  The containers actually melt. All the clay has to be thrown away in such a case because of contamination.  Zip lock bags are safe as are bank bags.  Don’t put raw clay down on a wooden surface as the wood will leach oil out of the clay.

 

METAL RULERS, MARXIT, ROLLERS,etc .:

All the rulers, rollers, etc. that you use need to be wiped down periodically. Use a wet wipe to wipe down the edges of rulers, wipe down rollers and brayers with a wet wipe.  A Marxit ruler has various lines marked on the sides – check for build up of clay. After use, an old toothbrush with a little baby oil to remove build up can be used to clean the surface, then wash in warm soapy water and allow to dry.  I do recommend using metal rulers as the edges can be cut along with a craft knife without damage.  Wood will leach oil out the clay.

Peelers, graters etc. need to be cleaned thoroughly too – brush with a toothbrush and baby oil, then wash in warm soapy water and dry thoroughly.

 

WORK SURFACES:

Wherever possible I work on a glazed ceramic tile or glass.  I wipe the surface down with acetone after and between use to remove a build up of clay, especially if you change colour frequently. Once clean use a cloth and a standard orange oil kitchen cleaner to wipe the surfaces down of any residual grime. I also use tiles to bake clay items and wipe them down with acetone after use.