What Is Flexible Clay?

What is Clay?

Clay is a fine-grained natural material that is soft and plastic when wet, but hard when fired. There are several types of clay that are categorized based on their composition and firing method:

Earthenware: Made from secondary clays that mature at lower temperatures, earthenware is porous and less vitrified than stoneware or porcelain. Common types of earthenware clays include red and brown clays.

Stoneware: Made from primary clays that mature at high temperatures, stoneware is non-porous, vitrified, and extremely durable. Common types of stoneware clays include ball clays and fire clays.

Porcelain: Made from kaolin clay, porcelain is highly vitrified, translucent, and known for its strength and whiteness. Porcelain clays contain a high percentage of kaolinite.

The composition of clay includes silica, alumina, and water. Clays develop from the chemical weathering and erosion of rocks over long periods of time. They are found in many regions around the world, often in river basins and coastal plains.

Properties of Clay

Clay has some unique properties that make it a versatile material to work with. The key properties of clay are its plasticity, absorbency, and drying behavior.


The particles in clay are flat and microscopic in size, allowing them to slide over one another when wet. This gives clay its plasticity or ability to deform and retain its new shape. Clay can be molded, rolled, extruded, and shaped when wet. Plasticity makes clay extremely workable.


Clay is porous and absorbs water easily. The absorbency allows clay to become wet and plastic so it can be shaped. When clay starts to dry, it releases the absorbed water and becomes firm again while retaining the molded shape.

Drying Properties

As clay loses moisture, it transitions from a wet plastic state to a dry rigid state. The drying process causes the clay particles to bond tightly together through surface tension and suction. When completely dry, clay becomes very hard and retains its formed shape.

Flexible vs Non-Flexible Clay

Flexible clay refers to any type of clay that remains malleable even when air-dried. It stays workable and bendable when exposed to air over time. This gives flexible clay some advantages over clays like pottery clay that become hard and rigid when air dried.

The two main types of flexible clay are polymer clay and air-dry clay.

Polymer Clay

Polymer clay is made from polymers like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) mixed with plasticizers and coloring. It can be molded when raw and retains its shape when baked in an oven, without ever drying out. Polymer clay remains flexible and durable after baking. It doesn’t harden or become brittle over time. Popular brands like Sculpey and Fimo are types of polymer clay.

Air-Dry Clay

Air-dry clay is clay that dries and hardens at room temperature when exposed to air over an extended time. However, it remains flexible even when dry and never becomes rigid or brittle. Air-dry clays contain materials like binders and fillers that help prevent cracking and shrinking. Popular air-dry clays include Crayola Model Magic and Activ-Clay.

The flexible and moldable nature of clays like polymer clay and air-dry clay makes them ideal for detailed modeling, sculpture and craft projects. They continue to bend without cracking after shaped, allowing for adjustments during the creative process. Their versatility and workability over time gives flexible clays unique advantages over clays that rigidly set.

Uses of Flexible Clay

Flexible clay is most commonly used for sculpting, jewelry making, and decorative objects. Its malleable texture makes it ideal for shaping detailed sculptures, both miniature and life-size. From realistic busts to abstract wall hangings, artists utilize flexible clay as a versatile medium. Its durability holds fine details well for fired clay sculptures.

Jewelers often choose flexible polymer clay for fashioning beads, pendants, rings, and more. The clay can be rolled thin, textured, and shaped into diverse creations. Flexible clay jewelry finishes smooth and glossy when cured according to package directions. Fine features like filigree designs are simple to achieve with flexible clay.

Around the home, flexible clay allows for custom decorative items. Handmade mugs, vases, figurines, bowls, and more can be formed to complement any decor. Those with a flair for faux food can craft realistic cakes, fruit, and other edibles that will last much longer than the real thing.

Working with Flexible Clay

Working with flexible clay requires learning some basic techniques to get the best results.


Before starting any clay project, it’s important to properly condition your clay. This involves kneading and warming the clay until it becomes smooth, pliable and free of air bubbles. Conditioning brings the clay particles together, allowing the clay to be shaped without cracking or crumbling.

Sculpting Techniques

Flexible clay can be shaped using a variety of sculpting techniques:

  • Pinching – Using your fingers and thumbs to pull, pinch and shape the clay
  • Coiling – Rolling clay into long coils then stacking them to build height
  • Slab Building – Rolling out flat slabs and cutting shapes to assemble
  • Molding – Pressing clay into molds to achieve specific shapes
  • Carving – Sculpting shapes by removing clay using tools

The technique you use will depend on the desired end result. Take time to experiment with different techniques to discover what works best for your project.


Once your clay sculpture is complete, it needs to be hardened. Flexible clay can be air dried or baked/fired in a kiln. Follow manufacturer recommendations for proper baking temperatures and times. If air drying, make sure the sculpture is in a warm, dry area with good airflow.


After baking/drying, flexible clay becomes hard and durable. Adding a finish can enhance the look and feel. Consider sanding for a smooth surface. Paints and glazes specifically formulated for baked clay can add color and effects. A protective sealer will help maintain the finish.

Advantages of Flexible Clay

Flexible clay offers several key advantages that make it a popular choice for artists and crafters:

  • Doesn’t require firing – Unlike ceramic clay that must be fired in a kiln, flexible clay air-dries and doesn’t require special equipment or high heat to set.

  • Can be reused – Leftover bits of flexible clay can be rehydrated and reused again and again. This makes it very economical compared to clays that cannot be reused after hardening.

  • Easy to work with – Flexible clay is soft and malleable, making it easy to shape and sculpt. It doesn’t dry out quickly while working with it.

  • Versatile – Flexible clay can be used to make jewelry, figurines, home decor items, kids’ crafts, and more. Its flexibility and ease of use make it suitable for crafters of all skill levels.

Disadvantages of Flexible Clay

While flexible clay offers many benefits for modeling and crafting, it also has some limitations to be aware of:

Less durable than fired clay

Unlike ceramic clay that is kiln-fired into a hardened state, flexible clay remains malleable and soft. This makes flexible clay more prone to damage over time, especially if not stored properly. Pieces made from flexible clay may become misshapen, dent or tear more easily than fired sculptures.

Limited colors

Flexible clay is typically available in a more limited color palette than ceramic clays that can be glazed and painted. Most flexible clays are sold in primary colors like white, brown, yellow, blue, etc. Specialty colors can be found, but the options are fewer compared to the endless variety achievable with firing and glazing.

Can be messy

The soft, pliable texture that makes flexible clay fun to work with also means it can get messy at times. Dust from the clay can stain surfaces and clothing. Leftover bits of clay may harden and flake off a project. Flexible clay requires more careful cleanup than clays designed to harden.

Best Practices

When working with flexible clay, following some best practices will help keep it in optimal condition for sculpting and modeling.

Proper Storage

Flexible clay should be stored in an airtight container or sealed bag when not in use. This prevents it from drying out. Store clay in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Wrapping the unused clay in a damp paper towel inside the sealed container will help keep it malleable.

Safety Tips

Avoid prolonged skin contact with clay as some types may dry out your hands. Wearing gloves while sculpting can prevent this. Work on a protected surface and avoid ingesting clay. Clean hands thoroughly after working with clay. Supervise children closely when using flexible clay.

Cleaning and Care

Wipe up any residual clay from work surfaces using a damp paper towel. Don’t allow clay scraps or dust to accumulate. When storing unfinished clay sculptures, lightly mist the surface with water and wrap in plastic to retain moisture. To reuse stale clay, knead it vigorously to restore suppleness. If clay becomes too dry, add a few drops of water and knead until evenly mixed.

Inspiring Flexible Clay Projects

Flexible clay opens up a world of DIY crafting possibilities. Here are some inspiring projects to spark your creativity:

Clay Animal Figurines – These cute animal figurines are simple to make. Just roll balls of clay into an oval body shape, add legs, a head, tail and other details. Bake to harden when finished.

Clay Food Miniatures – Create tiny versions of your favorite foods like hamburgers, ice cream cones and more. These fakes foods look real enough to eat!

DIY Clay Magnets – Make custom refrigerator magnets by shaping clay into fun designs. Embed a magnet on the back before baking.

Clay Jewelry – Use clay to handmake your own beads, pendants, earrings and brooches.

Flexible Clay vs Play Doh

Flexible clay and Play Doh share some similarities but also have key differences that impact when each one is best used.

Similarities Between Flexible Clay and Play Doh

Both flexible clay and Play Doh are:

  • Moldable and pliable materials that can be shaped into various forms and sculptures.
  • Non-hardening modeling compounds – they remain workable even when left out over time.
  • Great for creative activities and building hand strength and dexterity.
  • Fun to use for both children and adults.

Differences Between Flexible Clay and Play Doh

However, there are some key differences between flexible clay and Play Doh:

  • Flexible clay contains no wheat, allowing for fewer allergy concerns.
  • Flexible clay can be conditioned and reused indefinitely, while Play Doh dries out over time.
  • Flexible clay fires in a kiln into a permanent sculpture. Play Doh sculptures remain temporary.
  • Flexible clay offers more versatility for detailed sculpting and jewelry making.
  • Play Doh has a slightly saltier, sweeter aroma and comes in bright colors attractive for younger kids.

When to Use Each Type

In summary:

  • Play Doh works well for basic children’s modeling projects, temporary sculptures, and sensory play.
  • Flexible clay is better for detailed sculpting work, jewelry making, and pieces that can be fired into permanent ceramics.

Consider the specific project and needs when deciding between flexible clay vs Play Doh.

Similar Posts