How to smooth sculptures - achieving that perfect finish

One question that pops out of every newbie sculptor's head is - How on earth do I get that super smooth surface on my sculpts? If you missed our Getting started with sculpting tutorial, click here.

Even if the anatomy and proportions are spot on, a bad surface can easily ruin the entire piece. I spent about 6 months not knowing what to do, or how to do it, churning out pieces of crap that ended up in my bin. Here are all the steps you need from start till the end to achieve a baby smooth finish that will make your statue glow!

Full article inside.

1: Choosing the right materials
Different clays and sculpting compounds feel different and smooth differently.
If you're using polymer clay, make sure the clay hasnt been on the shelf for ages, or it won't blend easily.
Also make sure you get tinted clay, possibly grey, as this is opaque and can help you visualise the surface of the sculpture much better. If you're using Super Sculpey, you can mix Super Sculpey with 1 block of White Sculpey III and 1 block of Black Sculpey III to get a grey tint.
If you're using epoxy sculpting compounds like Apoxie Sculpt, these smooth like a dream with water, so have a cupful next to your work bench.

2: Your fingers are your best tools
Everytime you add a part onto your sculpt, use your fingers to smooth it out till it's perfect. I realised that it's not at all wise to wait till the end of the entire sculpture to start smoothing, because some parts may not be easily accessible. Therefore, smooth as you go along, do not procrastinate.

3: Using the rake
If you have a large surface area full of bumps and uneven cracks and holes, use a rake tool, a fork or something sharp to make scratches over the entire surface. This sounds really scary at first, but after you've raked the surface, use your fingers to smooth it out and it should be much better than you started out with. Repeat as many times as you need to.

4: Brushing with 90% alcohol
You can buy this easily from the pharmacy. They sell in 70% and 90% concentrations. 90% works like a dream, but 70% alcohol does it job in smoothing as well. Simply pour the alcohol onto the surface, then start with a relatively large brush to smooth out large areas, and end off with a small brush for the nooks and crannies.

5: Brushing with turpentine
Turpentine MELTS polymer clay and makes it soft and liquid like, so becareful when you're near details. Never add textures and then brush over with turpentine or all your previous work is gone. I found that turpentine is an essential step if you want to smooth your sculpture properly. Like alcohol, use a large brush and then a small brush.

6: Second passing with 90% alcohol
It's like that you lost alot of details after the turpentine, so tidy them up and then when the turpentine is gone, smooth the sculpt with alcohol again. For me, the alcohol does a neat job of making the polymer clay firmer and smoothing it at the same time. So do a second passing with alcohol just before baking.

7: Wet sanding
The steps from now are after baking or hardening. Grab an ice-cream stick or rubber pad, wrap coarse gauge sand paper over it and dip it into water. Sand your sculpture and stop every now and then to rinse off debris with water. Make sure you rinse it, or the powder sticks to your sculpture when dry and can be difficult to remove. Repeat with fine gauge sand paper. End off with a tooth brush, brush off the remaining powder and debris - this is to ensure the paint stays on.

8: Steel wool
For the finish, use fine steel wool and rub. Polish that baby to a shine!

9: Casting and recasting
Casting actually gets rid of the final small irregularities on your statue. Everytime you cast, the mould gets worn out a little, so when it's ripe, your statue will be perfect. But, not all of us have the luxury of doing this, especially if you're working on a tight budget and have no intention of mass producing your statue.

10: Priming
My friend Jimmy showed me the fact that not all primer sprays are the same. Some are "heavier" than others, meaning they spray out larger droplets. Heavier sprays give you smoother finishes but cause you to lose details. Lighter sprays don't spread as well, but help you retain the details. So, use at your own discretion.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work, but it's all up to you how much you want to do to make your models and sculpts perfect.

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Elicia said...

Thanks for this article! I always wondered how to sculpt polymer clay without the finger prints. So the alcohol really does the job huh? :)

Becca Balistreri said...

This is such great info! Thank you so much for this post. I, like many I suppose, need all the help I can get.

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Jacqueline said...

Even on the risk of being boring and repetitive: THANK YOU SOOO MUCH for this splendid tutorial! I normally work with paper, but for my latest project I had to venture into sculpting. Thanks for sharing!

Osmar Vasch said...

Great info, thanks a lot.
I have follow all this process with tupertine and lighter fluid then alcohol. From firm and very soft brush, but I haven't achieved that smooth effect yet.
It still shows very tiny lines from the soft brush. What should I do?
I'm using supersculpey.

Jonathan Ziegler said...

This is amazing. I've just started using polymer clays and apoxie sculpt. I usually work in hard plastics and resins. Some of my biggest concerns have been with smoothing and a seeming lack of compatible materials like alcohol and turpentine (or even naphthaline). My super-experienced wife will be getting a copy of this link, too. Thanks! -Jonathan

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