Friday, 22 April 2011

Polymer Clay versus Epoxies... FIGHT!

I have probably touched on this in the past but I'll bring it to a head here. There's a war brewing, a war between sculptors. On one side are the sculptors who use epoxy putties such as Greenstuff and, on the other, sculptors using polymer clays like Fimo or Super Sculpey...

So, what's best?

This used to be a really simple argument. Epoxies were best. It had nothing to do with any sculpting properties of the material. It was far simpler. Minis were almost always moulded in a vulcanising press between two discs of black rubber. This meant the original sculpture would be put under physical pressure and a lot of heat. Epoxies are great at withstanding this as they're generally tough like boot leather but polymers aren't quite so durable under the circumstances. Apparently they are possible to mould this way but it's rather more awkward and risky. So, it was generally a case of 'sculpt in epoxy. Polymer Clay is a pain in the ass'.

Times have changed.

Tese days we have all kinds of convenient ways to mould figures. A particularly good scenario is to cast a figure in resin first and then, should you want to go the black rubber and metal figures route, you just cast a few masters in a resin that can withstand the process. Plus moulding for resin is a gentle process on the master so you can sculpt in practically anything...

To all intents and purposes there are really no technical reasons to choose one over the other in the modern sculpting world (though, if you are a sculptor, always best to check with any clients that they are okay with your choice). So, it's down to what they can do.

On paper I have to say polymer clay seems to have the trump cards. So, lets deal with that first...

This lovely figure is for the Dust game. I'll admit I'm not very familiar with it but I love this figure sculpted by MIKH. Very cool...

Polymer clays don't cure by themselves and require baking. The great advantage here is that you can work and rework areas constantly until you are happy. Epoxies cure by themselves so you're always under the pressure of getting your work done before it's unworkable. This reworkability and simply the ability to just work slowly without any worries is a godsend for a sculptor. Plus it's useful for layering detail. If you start adding extra details you can work them easily into complete areas. Say you want to add something hanging from a belt that would deform a tunic under where it lies. If you'd already sculpted in epoxy you'd have to drill out and redo the area or drop the item there without the deformation which would not look so good. Obviously the best plan for epoxy is to pre-plan and know it's going to be there but polymers give you the easy option of changing your mind. Overall polymers offer control and unparalleled flexibility in their process. It's small wonder that there are a lot of sculptors shouting it's praises and saying that epoxies just can't get it done anymore...

However... there's a flip side to the coin. You ask 'can it be done in epoxy?'. There seems to be a school of thought that suggest that no it can't. Mr Tom Meier would seem to disagree.

This is a 35mm pirate by Tom Meier. It's sculpted in good old greenstuff and this is the kind of thing that's supposed to be so tough in epoxy. All that layering of details. Obviously a lot of forethought in the sculpting process. It can be done, though it's perhaps not so easy to do.

But then epoxy has it's own advantages over polymers, and not just it's vulcanisation survivability. Epoxies cure over time and their sculpting properties change over that period. Very soft at first mix and all the way to tough and rubbery later on. It may seem like a downside but it's also a strength. Soft epoxy is great for laying down shapes but partially cured is wonderful for working fine details. Last night I was sculpting the eyes on a 5mm tall head and needed eyeball, upper eyelid and lower eyelid. I roughed it in fairly neatly but it was great to come back to it 45 minutes later and just refine the area with partially cured putty. And with no worries of distorting the area around it which was another 45 minutes down the curing process and holding it's shape nicely (with just a hint of flex that allowed for tiny changes).

There's also the whole 'not baking' thing. The great thing about that is that, assuming your epoxy figure is being moulded in a way that wont cause problems you can use pretty much any materials on it as they don't have to withstand the oven. Little bit of thin plasticard? No problem.

Oh, and once it's cured you don't have to panic that you're going to drop the figure and destroy all your work...

Frankly, in summing up I have to do the whole fence-sitting thing which is never good for a blogger. But what can you do? Truth be told polymer versus epoxy just comes down to personal taste and what works for you. Personally I work in epoxies but like to grab some polymer clay once in a while to try and get the hang of it. As yet I haven't quite done so, I think I'm still used to the working process of epoxy which is rather different though I do like seeing clay sculptors working (JAG's and Aragorn Marks's videos for Miniature Mentor were fascinating). I think before long I'll end up using both, depending on what I'm trying to achieve. And that's probably the best information to take from this post (along with it being blindingly obvious): the right tool for the job.


  1. I have to agree with the sitting on the fence thing. For me there really is no clear winner.

    The one thing I think you have overlooked is that there is no reason both can't be used on the same mini. Afterall, polymer is great for doing base musculature since it's "infinite" working time allows continual refinement as you get the whole body looking how you would like. Then epoxy (after baking the polymer) can be used to do detail work where doing so in polymer would require an extra steady hand and great care not to ruin what is around or underneath.

    Unfortunately, polymer can't really be used in conversions (unless you are doing the part in polymer seperately), so I guess epoxy has the edge for people who don't always want to start from scratch!

    Do you have any example pics to share of your own efforts with polymers? I've only recently started to use them and would love to see them.

  2. You're right about mixing the two. Especially an oversight as that's how I've worked on one of my polymer clay figures...

    The best example is the Eolith Rose figure

    The figure's main body was sculpted in a mix of sculpey firm and fimo classic (beige on the sculpt) and the pure grey areas are Procreate.

    I also sculpted the entire Eolith Evil Warrior bust in the same polymer mix.

    No regular 28mm examples as yet though...

  3. Polymer clay users are all deviant scum and should know better!

    (I'll be giving polymers another go soon)

  4. Kevinicus Againicus22 April 2011 at 17:50

    BTW, Pirate John was made with a mix of GS, BS and sculpey.... I mixed the fillers in one strip, the activators in another and the sculpey was mixed in when kneading the putty.

  5. I've used greenstuff with fimo mixed in before. Frankly I got fed up waiting for it to cure... I can see the advantages though.

    Seem to remember that Werner Klocke does that..

  6. "Oh, and once it's cured you don't have to panic that you're going to drop the figure and destroy all your work.."
    Or, when a sculptor has handed you a WiP mini to look at and you say 'is this baked yet? No? O.K I'll just put it down very, very carefully then.....'

  7. polymers are old school....polygons are the future :)

  8. Hey Steve! Great article - I didn't know much about polymers before I started reading, but this is very enlightening and I am now tempted to use some Super Sculpey. :-)

  9. I'm rather interested in the whole polygons thing. Rapid prototyping is finally getting to the required level at a reasonable cost so there maybe some zbrush in my future...

    And Ms Tears, go for it. If you're doing small work I'd probably recommend Super Sculpey Firm over the regular stuff.

  10. I'm experiencing issues on leaving comments lately (long ones so I was proportionally pissed off when it was deleted)

    I'll try to do it again tody as brief as I can.

    I started using epoxies, first it was greenstuff, then milliput and such epoxies reactives to water (wich I liked better) then polymer clays that also loked better than the previous.

    Nowadays I use mostly polymer clays and few kneadatite and milliput (most of the time, both mixed) here and there.

    If someone was to ask me in properties terms, epoxies are on the industrial side and polymers on the art one. That shows when working with them cause they react the way they were formulated to. I'll dare to say polymer clays improve the flow and general feeling of sculpting.

    And speaking about properties, let's share some tips since it seems people in general aren't familar enough with polymer clays. or may manufacturer advice mislead them (coments above)

    Meet the polymer clays.

    They cure upon the presence of heat (while epoxies cure not by reacting room temperature but cause the reaction between both components).

    That being said don't you feel you can use plastic bits in polymer clay sculpts or use the clays for conversions ? huh, not yet ?

    Well I do, and I lately sculpted a guy riding on a plastic dinosaur so it's a proven possibility.

    They harden due to the heat but that doesn't mean it has to be necesarily baked. You can selectively cure parts of polymer clay using a hairdryer or dipping few minutes the stuff in hot water.

    The major downside is that if you overbake it wichever method you use, it will become brittle or will even desintegrate into dust like a blob of dry mud upon pressure.

    Hope that little bit of wisdom buried between all this chitchatting will help or encourage people to try polymer clays.

    Oh yes, my original comment was way more extensive :) I'm such an uninteresting dude.

  11. I just found out that epoxy clay existed. I have been a polymer clay sculptor for years and just stumbled upon the stuff while looking through cool stuff on etsy. I can't wait to get my hands on some epoxy clay and try it out.

  12. Speaking of Etsy; I have also found some rather interesting and nice pieces of jewelry. The creators are using "clay" to make them. I am new to the whole idea; but really want to try to make a few things myself; but of course no one will share what they use in fear that I am going to steal their thunder.... lol The jewelry I would like to incorporate with clay would be crystals and minerals; which is prob not a wonderful idea to be heating up in an oven or kiln. Any suggestions or info here would be so appreciated.