Making Polymer Clay texture plates.
What you'll need: Polymer (I use Premo: Metallic Blue and Gold*), pasta machine, rolling tool, blade,1/4" plate glass, cut into pieces (see below), wax paper, oven with accurate heat control.
The following is a technique I developed in the early nineties when I was carving polymer clay, with gouges, almost daily. I needed a way to warm up in the mornings before I actually began to carve on a piece into which I'd already put many hours of construction. I used these baked polymer rectangles to practice on (back then for polymer, now for polymer, PMC, BronzClay and CopprClay), to develop ideas and imagery, and eventually as texture plates to use with polymer, and with the metal clays. I still use these texture plates, both the ones I made 15 years ago, and also new ones; to practice carving as warm ups before work, and as textures.
I make a reversed plate by conditioning polymer, rolling out a sheet (thickest setting on pasta machine), dusting it with talcum powder as a mold release, then rolling it onto the carved texture plate. If you've used the right amount of mold release, you should get a nice even impression that can be baked and itself used as texture.
Polymer clay texture plates: Whether you are planning on carving polymer clay or metal clays or you just want to make your own texture plates for either material, this technique will help.
Condition metallic polymer clay** (recommended brands: Premo, Kato) by putting it through the pasta machine 15-18 times at the medium setting. Next, put the sheet of clay through the pasta machine at the thickest setting then cut it into rectangles, approximately 4 x 3 1/2" (or smaller).
Cleaning your hands: It's difficult to wash polymer clay residue off your hands. Polymer resists soap. Better to first slather your hands with hand lotion, any brand, then wipe down vigorously with a paper towel. Now soap and water will finish the job.
Bake the rectangles in the following way: Use a perfectly flat oven proof surface (I use 1/4" plate glass**) onto which you've placed a sheet of waxed paper. Group several polymer rectangles onto the waxed paper, leaving 1/8" between them. Put another sheet of waxed paper on top of the polymer rectangles, and on top of that put a sheet of 1'4" plate glass (or other heavy flat surface). Bake this 'sandwich' (plate glass, waxed paper, polymer, waxed paper, plate glass) for 45 minutes to an hour. The weight of the glass keeps the polymer perfectly flat and free of air bubbles. Heated along with the polymer, the waxed paper deposits a fine layer of wax onto the surface of the polymer: The wax lubricates your carving tool, making this surface a joy to carve.
These polymer 'plates' can be used as warm-ups or practice plates before carving metal clay, for working out your designs, or for carving your own name stamp. Carved with your own unique designs they make great texture plates for texturing polymer or metal clay (use mold release appropriate to the material you are texturing).
*Although Kato and Fimo will also work, I prefer Premo metallics, especially blue mixed with gold (to make green). Premo is more flexible than Fimo and I prefer it over Kato. These 3 clays are the strongest, an important attribute if you plan on using this process to make texture plates. Many people ask me why I prefer metallics for carving. My (not particularly edifying) answer is that metallics are better. I'm not being evasive; I'm just not sure how to account for the preference. It's possible that the microscopic metal particles in metallic clay do something akin to lubricating the tool as it slides along its path. It's possible that there's some other ingredient in metallic clays that account for it. Regardless of why, I do prefer metallics, but don't take my word for it. Try it your self and tell me what you think.
**Note on plate glass (aka "Float" glass). This is cheap and easy to find at any auto glass store (although they call it different names in different parts of the country): it's strong and lasts a long time if handled with reasonable care, even when used for baking palettes. The store will cut it into any size you want (I use 6x6" pieces and 7x9" pieces). Ask the glass store to smooth the edges so they won't be sharp. Don't go too much larger on the size as it gets harder to handle safely. Plus, it insulates the polymer from the heat and that translates into much longer bake times.
Ovens: This deserves a lot more space, but I'll just make two points: The oven you use must be able to maintain the correct temperature (see polymer package). Burning polymer is toxic to breathe. I have never seen a toaster oven that will do a decent job baking polymer. They either under bake it or burn it. Convection ovens are better. You can also do what I do, in my kitchen oven: I invert a disposable turkey pan over my tray of polymer so the plasticizer goes onto the turkey pan, not my oven's walls. My stove is circa 1940's and is a Speedy Baker. It's very accurate so I use it for everything. Bear in mind, I don't do production baking, either polymer or food, and after the polymer baking cycle, I leave the oven on for 10 minutes to burn off any additional yuckiness from the plastisizers.
Additional tips on carving polymer clay: Warming the baked polymer slightly under your desk light makes carving smoother. Raise the piece you are carving to the right height for your neck. You won't want to continue any activity that results in neck or back pain. I keep whatever I'm carving on a little sachet pillow placed on top of a big dictionary on my desk. This allows me to keep my back straight and my neck in the right position.
Use the best tools you can afford. Your carving will reflect your choices. I use two types of gouges: Dockyard, which I also sell, and a truly lovely brand from Japan available from McClain's printmaking supplies in Seattle.
Next blog post I'll write about carving...stay tuned!