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Choose The Right Surface Finish For Your Polymer Clay Beads

Polymer clay does not have to have a surface finish. It is plastic and does not change, fade or get particular worn when used, unless you leave it out in the sun for longer periods.

However, if you use paints, foils or pearl Ex powders, they must be protected from wear and tear. You may also want a shiny or satiny look on your beads.

There are several ways to give a nice surface finish to polymer clay, and there are many discussions around what is the best thing to use. I would recommend you to make your own experiences with the various types of varnishes. But be careful, some varnishes reacts with polymer clay and slowly turns it into a sticky mess. Some say you should stick to water based varnishes, others say don't.

Polymer clay suppliers offers a wide range of varnishes for a shiny, satiny or matte surface finish, that are made for polymer clay. It may be wise to try those out first.

Anyway, here are some of the things you can use to get the surface finish you like.

Leave it as it is:
To leave the pieces as they are when they come out of the oven, is of course the easiest way. The clay will then have a slightly rough surface. All you have to do is to make sure that it is not “catchy” anywhere, so it is comfortable to wear.

Leaving the beads untreated, can give a very nice and exiting look to your jewelry. Polymer clay does not have a totally matte finish when cured, but is a bit silky, and sometimes that is the best finish you can give them.

To get glossy beads you need to sand them thoroughly first and then buff them to a high sheen with an electric buffer or varnish them.

Sanding polymer clay is hard work, but necessary if you want some sort of satin or glossy look.

It is recommended to sand the beads under running water with sandpaper for wet sanding. You do not have to do it under running water though, a bowl with water and a drop of dish washing soap works fine.
The water is simply to bind the dust, so that you don't inhale it. If you prefer to sand dry, make sure you wear a protective mask.

When sanding polymer clay you use sandpaper with different grits from 400 up to 1200. Start with the rougher 400 and work your way up through 600, 800 and finish off with 1200. This way you make sure that there are no flaws left on the beads before you varnish or buff them.

You can buy sanding sticks and sanding pads from polymer clay suppliers- You can also make your own sanding sticks by stapling sandpaper onto a wood spatula like I have done here.

Handmade sanding sticks for sanding polymer clay

The drawback with sanding is that it is really hard to do. And since you are wet-sanding, it is though on your hands and nails also. You can use surgical gloves, but my experience is that I very quickly sand holes in them. Because it is such hard work, many polymer clay artists have sought other and easier ways to sand their beads.
To use a rock tumbler or vibrator is one of them.

A rock tumbler can be used for sanding multiple polymer clay beads Sanding in a rock tumbler:
The main thing with rock tumbling your beads is that it takes a long, long time. You have to tumble them for at least 12-24 hours to get a good result. Therefor lots of polishing/sanding components have been tried out to achieve a smooth surface finish faster and better, with varying success.
Here are some of them:

- cut up shammy
- Sandpaper cut in small squares glued together two and two.
- Baking soda
- polished rocks
- Plastic bullets, like those in teddy bears
- Textiles cut into small bits

You put these things in the tumbler along with your beads, and let it tumble away, wet or dry, depending on what you use.

I have tried the sandpaper myself, but it did not give a satisfying result. Besides, the rock tumbler makes a lot of noise, and leaving it on for so many hours also during night, did not make me feel comfortable, as I don't like to have electric things on while I am sleeping. So it was not a solution for me. That does not mean that it will not be for you, so if you have the opportunity, try it out. It can be a real relief when you have a zillion beads to sand.

There are three ways to buff your beads.

By hand:
Rubbing the bead with a piece of rough cloth, after sanding, will buff it up to a very nice satiny surface finish, leaving the bead smooth and nice. If you find it hard on your hands, simply put on a pair of jeans and rub the beads on your thigh while you watch TV. That way you can change hands often, and do something nice while doing a boring job.

A dremmel tool can be used to buff polymer clay

With an electric rotary tool:
Using a rotary tool, You can buff the beads with a muslin wheel, and achieve a nice shiny surface finish. The drawback is that the rotary tools aren't strong enough to achieve the same sheen as with a big buffer. I experienced that since the wheel is so small, it very quickly makes marks on the surface when it gets warm. You therefor have to move the wheel the whole time. I also found it difficult to hold on to small pieces with one hand and the rotary tool in the other, so I don't do this so often.

With a big electric buffer:
These are the big machines used for bigger and rougher things than jewelry making. They are however loved by lots and lots of polymer clay artists, as they polish the beads up to a very shiny surface finish. You have the benefit of holding onto your beads with both hands. The drawback is that they are quite expensive and you may, like me, not have the economy to buy one. In that case you can try various ways to varnish the beads instead.

There are lots and lots of varnishes to get. Some are made for polymer clay and some are made for totally different things, like floor, wood etc.

A lot of polymer clay artists use Varathane, which is a water based acrylic finish. It is not a varnish or floor wax as seems to be the general definition for it. We do not have Varathane in Norway, so I have not tried it, but many others have. It is thoroughly tested on polymer clay over several years, and protect without dissolving the beads or yellow over time. It is also said to be cheaper than commercial polymer clay varnishes.

If you live in the USA, you should look for Flecto Varathane Elite Diamond Wood Finish with IPN IPN stands for: Inter-penetrating Network, and means that the Varathane goes into the bead, not just on the surface.

You can also use Varathane Diamond Polyurethane Interior, water based. The oil version will ruin the beads over time. You can get it in clear gloss, clear semi-gloss and clear satin, so it will suit whatever surface finish you may want your beads to have.

You can re-bake the beads without harming the Varnish as long as you keep the temperature according to clay brand.

Some also use Future floor polish.

Varnishes can be used to give polymer clay a particular surface finish. Varnishes made for polymer clay:
You can get lots of varnishes, especially made for polymer clay. There are also lots of good and bad experiences with them. My experience is with Studio Glossy Glaze. I found it very disappointing, since it made the clay look very much like plastic. Even if I sanded the pieces well, it did not give a better glossy look.
You can see the result on the pendant below.

Varnished polymer clay pendant

Some say that Fimo mineral based Varnish gives a very satisfying result when you want glossy beads, and that it dries to a very hard coating. Anyway, go to your favorite polymer clay supplier and see what they have to offer. I am sure you will find one (or more) that suits your needs well.

Embossing powder:
Embossing powder is used several ways in the art of polymer clay, and some use it to varnish their beads to a glass like surface finish.
I tried this, and the beads looked wonderful and shiny. In the beginning. To my horror they turned into a sticky, milky white mess after about 6 months.

I know that lots of polymer clay artists use embossing powder to give their beads a glass like surface finish, and maybe I used the wrong brand. I would anyway recommend you to test it out before you use it on all your beads. And be patient! My beads did not reveal the disaster before several months later.

Another thing to remember when you use embossing powder, is that it becomes fluid when hot. You cannot re-bake your beads once you have applied the embossing coat.

Liquid Polymer clay:
When I want a glass like look on my beads, I use liquid Polymer clay. I discovered this technique after the embossing disaster, and have used it ever since. If you want to see how to glaze with liquid polymer clay, you can click here.
The plus with this method is that you don't have to sand your beads first, as you must with all the other varnishing methods.

Three different kinds of surface finish on polymer clay beads The bead on the left side has been buffed with a Dremmel rotary tool. The one on the right is glazed with polymer clay. The small bead in the front is left untreated.

The bottom line:
Things like colorless shoe wax, acrylic nail polish, glues and many other things have also been used to get the finish wanted. I am sure there are several more out there, that I haven't been able to find information about.

What you choose is up to you, but remember to test it before using it on all your beads. Leave it alone for a long time. This can be a hazel, but patience will pay off. Better to be cautious than to ruin your jewelry. If you are not of the patient type, go for some of the stuff mentioned as good above, and you will be on the safe side.

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I am a very newbie into polymer clay and I am really confused about all the different things that are said about everything. It sounds like alot of work. …

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