When polymer clay is cured, it has a matte finish. Sometimes polymer clay artists and hobbyists want a shinier finish.
This is achieved by sanding the cured clay (usually through with a series of sandpapers from about 400-grit through 1000-grit or higher) and following up with a good buffing. While it is possible to hand-buff clay with a piece of denim (white is preferred), muslin or other soft fabric, the very highest sheen comes from buffing with a power tool.
Though they require a larger initial investment, many people think that if you'll be buffing many things-especially items larger than beads and pendants-it's worth it to buy a bench grinder (which can be fitted with muslin or flannel wheels) or tabletop buffers (such as the Foredom, a jeweler's buffer). However, it is possible to buff with a muslin wheel on an electric drill or a Dremel tool. (The buffing wheel that comes with the Dremel tool is too firm for polymer clay, so you'll need to make your own mini-buffing wheels from denim or another soft fabric.) Rock tumblers can also be used both to sand and buff clay beads. People have converted all sorts of small tools to work as buffers, including hand-held, battery-operated shoe-polishers, large, commercial shoe-buffers, hand mixers, Scumbusters, and Dremel Contour Sanders.
If you do choose to use an electric buffing tool, it is important to do a little research and learn about the appropriate safety precautions and recommended procedures. Carefully read the instructions for your particular machine, and don't be afraid to ask questions if you're confused about something. If used incorrectly, buffing wheels may damage your project or even hurt you or someone else, so it's certainly worth your time to be well informed.
Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
- When buffing polymer clay, you should not use the powders or pastes that are used when polishing metal or rocks. These will damage polymer clay. You should only be using soft, dry fabric buffing wheels.
- Some people suggest that you wear a mask when buffing clay. Though you may not easily see it, high-speed buffing produces a fine polymer dust which probably isn't good to breathe. You may also wish to consider buffing outside-or at least away from areas you wouldn't want to cover in dust. (That said, many people never use masks and set up their buffing wheels wherever they have the room.)
- Eye protection is always a good idea when working with power tools-particularly those that may throw things (or dust).
- If you have long hair, tie it back, and keep your dress simple and relatively form-fitting. As is the case with most power tools, bench grinders and rotary tools don't mix well with loose, flowing clothing and jewelry.
- Keep your clay piece moving most of the time. Don't leave the wheel on one spot for a very long time. If you hold it still for too long, the clay will warm and soften under the friction of the wheel. This can lead to unsightly cuts in your polymer clay. It's no fun to ruin a piece when it's this close to completion!
- If you work with a buffing wheel long enough, it is guaranteed that the wheel will eventually grab something from you and throw it. (When that happens, you may find that the wheel has left a scuffmark on your clay. If it's too bad of a scuff, you may even need to go back and sand it out before continuing with the buffing.) Use these tips to make it less of a painful experience:
- Look at your buffing wheel while it's running. Notice the direction in which the wheel spins. If/when the wheel grabs an item, it will throw it in the same direction the wheel is spinning. So for safety's sake, only buff on the part of the wheel that is moving away from you. On a bench grinder, that will be the lower half of the wheel-- the quarter that is closest to you (if the front of the bench grinder faces you).
- Use a very light touch. Lift the polymer clay piece to the wheel slowly and let it just barely touch the wheel.
- Try to glide the clay across the wheel rather than taking it away and back to the wheel constantly. Each time you move away from and return to the wheel, you have to find the best spot yet again.
- If you have the option of a variable speed tool, experiment with different speeds. Higher speeds may buff the clay faster, but they may also make your piece harder to hold.
- When buffing smaller items, like beads, you may find it helpful to string several of them on a skewer or rod for easier handling.