Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Essential Tools: Sculpting

Sculpting tool roll.
The tools I can't imagine sculpting without.
My absolute essentials.
For every creature I make, it starts with all the intangible stuff - an idea, a plan, a quick assessment of color and fabric I'd like to use, etc. But the first real step is to sculpt the face or body. For all of the "one of a kind" dolls, I sculpt each face out of polymer clay (I use Super Sculpey). When I'm sculpting a face or figure that is going to have a mold made and be cast in resin plastic, I either use Super Sculpey or Monster Clay.  I share tools for both jobs. As long as the end of the tool makes the kind of impression that you want it to, you can use anything as a sculpting tool - a lot of sculptors I know have a few handmade tools that they have crafted for their own specific needs. I use a few wooden tools that I have sanded and filed to be the right shape for what I need.

Above is a picture of my tool roll. The only tool not pictured here is an acrylic roller, because it doesn't fit in the roll, so I carry it separately. As you can see, not all of them are specific "sculpting tools" at all. I have tools that are for paper quilling, fingernail painting, and many dental tools, which are some of my absolute favorites, and I can't imagine sculpting without them! A few have interesting or sentimental stories about them, like the wooden tool with the rake on one end - I've had that since I was in college, and the years have worn the wood into the perfect shape. And see that antler-handled knife? I bought that when I was 14 years old (along with a few rabbit pelts and a coyote skull) from a vendor at an early-American arts and crafts fair. The double-ended dental tools came from a neighborhood garage sale - the owner of the house was a retired dentist, and had to ask me why I was so excited about the box of grubby old tools he had for sale.

My baking sheet, acrylic roller, rough
cutting knife, and Super Sculpey.
I consider myself to be a "primitive" sculptor...that is to say, I don't really think I'm a great sculptor, I'm just good enough to get the idea I want across.  I don't think I could sculpt anything realistically, or do textures like hair or fur or draping fabric. Which is totally fine for me, and I think I might not like the look of my artwork if it were too perfect, or too polished. In all of my sculpting, you can always see toolmarks and fingerprints, rough edges and asymmetry. I find it really personal and honest, and in fact, the type of things that I love to collect and look at are all marked by a certain charming imperfection, so I don't work too hard to make things look too perfect. I work until I feel the face has the right personality, then I stop. Once that sculpt tells me it's ready, I don't want to chance overworking it.

I always call my sculpting technique "Snakes and Pancakes", because every single shape I work with starts as either a rolled clay snake, or a flattened clay ball, which makes a pancake. You can sculpt pretty much anything by building it up out of snakes and pancakes!  After those are made, it's just a process of taking the basic shapes and forming them carefully into the gentler, more subltle, tertiary shapes that you want as your finished work. I use wire loop tools to take extra clay away, while keeping the surface smooth. I use tiny ball-end tools to make dots and clean out around eyes and teeth. The big wooden tool is my "extra thumb", which I use to smooth and blend.

I have a pretty big collection of leather stamps, which I use for decorative purposes - when it comes to making the forehead decorations on my Bunnies, I often use these stamps to press designs into the clay. I also use semiprecious gemstones, vintage rhinestones, buttons, jewelry findings, antique bits, metal brads, and things I've sculpted myself.

Collection of leather stamps.
Some of my leather stamps, detail shot.

After the face is sculpted, it gets fired in my oven, per the clay's instructions, and then it is primed, painted, varnished, and finished.

For sculpting prototype figures, like my Pumpernickel and Pipsqueak figures, I use a different kind of clay. It's called Monster Clay, and it will never dry or cure, so it MUST be molded in silicone and cast into a solid positive, if it is going to become a finished art piece. Monster clay is pretty great, because when it is cool (room temperature or cooler, I keep it in the fridge when I want it extra firm) it is very firm, and won't soften in your hands like Super Sculpey tends to. But when you warm it up, it becomes very soft and pliable. And when you warm it further, you can melt it into a liquid, or smooth surfaces with a heat gun. It's pretty much infinitely reusable if you take care to keep it clean and free of debris.

After that is sculpted, it is molded and cast, but that is a topic for another Essential Tools ;)

What's left of the original Pipsqueak sculpt (in Monster Clay)
after making a silicone mold of him.


Yasutomo Niji tool roll: available at Dick Blick
Monster Clay: available from The Monster Makers
Super Sculpey: available from Dick Blick and many other art/craft retailers

• Dental tools are often available on Ebay, as well as from outlet/freight stores
• Leather stamps available at craft retailers, as well as from Tandy Leather


  1. wow, thank you so much for that information. I just got started with sculpting small 'demon' figurines, and I'm just enjoying creating each of them. as I'm making them they each just gain their own little personality. I plan to mold and cast them eventually but I still need to do a lot more research on that. so cant wait for your next essential tools. huge fan of your work btw. <3

  2. Hello, Amanda, thank you for a great blog post. I have never done sculpting, but I really enjoy watching your results as well as process. Thank you for sharing and for open honesty. It makes me respect you so much and got inspired in my work (I am photographer and videomaker). Wish you all the best!

  3. Thank you for this. I love the tool roll. My dentist give me the occasional dental tool. He says that they're recycled, which I think means they get returned to the supplier and he gets the same handle but with new hooks. It might be worth asking a dentist if they'll give some/sell some cheaply. The hooks are really very useful.

    I agree completely about not leaving a smooth surface. Machines make perfectly smooth objects. People use their hands, and the mark of the hands should be seen.

  4. I loved reading about your process and the variety of tools you use when you work. I'm taking some painting classes and have been too busy to try working with clay, I love stop motion animation, so when I saw The Maker with your work it was amazing. Anyways, I love getting to read and see some of the beginning steps in your work and like that you share some of your art tips. Thanks for the post! :)

  5. Love this post! I'd have never thought about using leather stamps. Such a great idea!!


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