The world of clay is wide and wonderful. As crafters, we’re aware that not all clay is created equal, but everyone needs a refresher every now and again.
There are a few different categories of clay according to their ingredients. Clay can be separated into water-based clay, oil-based clay, polymer clay, and air-dry clay. Water clay is also called potter’s clay, and it’s the stuff that gets thrown on a wheel. Oil clay is used to make silicone molds.
We’re going to take some time to talk about the difference between air dry clay and polymer clay since those are the two we’re going to use most as crafters.
Let’s learn the difference between air dry clay vs polymer clay, then talk about some great air dry clay ideas and polymer clay ideas for beginners.
What’s the difference between air dry clay and polymer clay?
When you go to the store, you’re going to notice that many popular brands sell both kinds of clay. So, which should you choose?
The difference between air dry clay and polymer clay is this: polymer clay needs to be baked to set, while air dry clay does not. Air dry clay is made from clay and glue, while polymer clay is a synthetic, plastic material. They have different properties and are used for different purposes.
Let’s go into a little more detail about each and talk about the pros and cons before we decide whether air dry clay or polymer clay is best for our projects.
What is polymer clay?
In our article on the best polymer clay for earrings, our expert told us Sculpey is used by the best in the business. We checked out Sculpey’s own article to find out what goes into manufacturing polymer clay.
Polymer clay is a synthetic, plastic material. The first ingredient is PVC, which is also used to make flooring, cords, and other household staples. Polymer clay is flexible, non-toxic, and waterproof when sealed. It’s great for creating durable, wearable items like jewelry and earrings.
Many makers love using polymer clay, but air dry clay absolutely has its place in our cabinets, too.
What is air dry clay?
Air dry clay may seem humble at first, but it has some great applications outside of kindergarten arts and crafts.
Air dry clay is made from clay and glue, allowing it to hold together and dry in the air, unlike water clay and polymer clay, which are baked. Play-Dough is a popular brand, and it’s just as good as other modeling clay brands. Air dry clay is lightweight, soft, and spongy, making it easy to work with.
Air dry clay and polymer clay can be used for the same projects, but they are very different. Let’s look at some of the main differences and when you wouldn’t want to swap them.
Main differences between polymer clay vs air dry clay
When it comes to projects, you don’t always want to substitute polymer clay for air dry clay. Here’s why.
1. Air dry clay is better for kids and beginners
Polymer clay can be fine for kids to use during playtime, but it’s not the best choice. Beginners may want to skip it, too, for similar reasons.
Air dry clay is great for kids’ projects because it’s forgiving. It’s cheaper, and it’s soft in their hands, which means they’ll be able to easily mold it and blend those fantastic colors. Polymer clay is made of tougher stuff, so even though both are non-toxic, kids can easily become frustrated.
That’s not the only difference, however.
2. Polymer clay holds its shape and colors
Air dry clay can create some amazing projects, but unless you’re using neutral colors like white or beige, you may want to skip it in favor of polymer. Here’s why.
Polymer clay holds its shape and colors in the oven. Unlike air dry clay, which will shrink and fade, polymer clay remains true to its pre-baked look. This makes it ideal for colorful projects. It’s also important to use polymer clay when your project needs precision, like a geometrical sculpture.
Think about these two distinctions when choosing a clay for your next project. In addition, let’s look at a quick run-down of the pros and cons of each.
Pros and cons of polymer clay vs air dry clay
Sculpey’s articles helped us create a list of the pros and cons of polymer clay vs air dry clay. Here’s a simple list to help you decide which to use for your projects.
Polymer clay pros and cons
- Dries quickly
- Maintains shape and color
- Won’t dry out before expiration date
- Harder to work with
- More expensive
- Needs to be baked
Air dry clay pros and cons
- Great for kids
- No baking
- Dries out during crafting
- Color may fade
- Takes 1-2 days to fully harden
Air dry clay ideas for beginners
Both air dry clay and polymer clay are great for many projects. Here are some great air dry clay ideas for beginners.
1. Wall hanging vase
A wall hanging vase is a great way to flex your crafting skills while freeing up that coveted shelf space in your home. Plus, since air dry clay is porous, your plants won’t get wet feet.
To make a wall hanging vase with air dry clay, shape the clay into a cone, making sure you pinch a tight seal. Punch some holes at the top to hang it by, then let it sit to dry for 1-2 days. Finish by stringing twine or macrame through the holes. If you paint, use acrylics and a sealing spray.
The cone shape will hang more flush to your wall, making it ideal for a wall hanging vase project. We would suggest watering your plant sparingly until you get a feel for how much it needs to avoid drips.
You can either use simple twine to hang or check out our macrame guide for a fun twist!
2. Terra cotta style shelf planters
Another great air dry clay project for beginners is a shelf planter. The air-dry clay will have a terra cotta style, and like the wall hanger, allows soil to “breathe” out excess moisture.
To make shelf planters using air dry clay, shape the clay the way you like, making sure you pinch a tight seal. Punch some holes in the bottom so excess water can run out, and shape yourself a drip tray if you want one to match. Allow the project to dry for 1-2 days before painting and sealing.
3. Tea light holders
Tea light holders are a great air dry project for beginners because they are small, simple, and highly effective decorations.
To make a tea light holder with air dry clay, simply shape the clay how you’d like the tea light holder to look. You can even use a form if you like. Lightly grease the bottom of a glass and shape the clay around it. Then, twist to release. Let the clay dry for 1-2 days before painting and sealing.
This is one of our favorite air dry clay ideas because of how easy it is, plus it’ll make an instant impact on your home by bringing some homemade class.
Best sealers for air dry clay
You’ve seen us mention sealing your projects before using them, but how do you seal an air dry clay project?
The two best sealers for air dry clay are acrylic spray sealer and varnish. Both will create a glossy finish that protects the paint from chipping and fading. Both come in spray or brush options, and you can choose between glossy, satin, or matte finishes. You can also use epoxy for an impressive shine.
Please note that sealing your project will make it harder for water to evaporate out. It’s very important with planter projects that you water sparingly, particularly the hangers. Otherwise, your plants could drown, and nobody wants that!
Polymer clay ideas for beginners
Even though none of us could possibly resist another pair, polymer clay can be used for so much more than those iconic earrings! Here’s a small list of some polymer clay ideas for beginners.
1. Fruit trinket boxes
Shout out to Damask Love for giving us the idea for the cutest trinket boxes ever. Polymer clay is color-true, so these gorgeously bright shades will stick around long after baking.
To make a fruit trinket box with polymer clay, roll out the clay, cut into a circle, and bake. Paint your bangle with a fruit design (pineapple, orange, etc.) and glue it to the clay. Cut your lid into a circle, make a stem, and bake them separately before gluing them together. Add any finishing touches.
Fruit is just one of many polymer clay ideas for trinket boxes or catchall trays. Seashells, succulents, and flowers are all great motif ideas.
A great coaster is one of your living room’s greatest assets. You can make any design you like, but we’re particularly attracted to the marbling effects you can achieve with polymer clay.
To make a coaster with polymer clay, choose the colors you’ll use. For a marble effect, we like white, gray, and gold. Roll them together to create the iconic, veined look, then flatten and cut with a circular cutter. Bake, then add finishing touches before sealing for a glossy, waterproof shine.
The best part of making your own polymer clay coasters is endless customization. What polymer clay ideas do you have that would match your decor perfectly?
3. Fruit pie magnets
Maybe we’re just hungry, but fruit-themed projects seem perfectly suited to polymer clay’s vibrant, lasting colors.
To make a fruit pie magnet with polymer clay, use a brown color to sculpt the pastry and a tiny, circular cutter. Sculpt your fruits and place them in the pie. Create a lattice for the top, then bake. Use a sealer if you’d like your pie to be glossy, then attach a magnet with a hot glue gun.
Pies are just an example of the many polymer clay ideas you could have when you let your kitchen inspire your crafts. Try sculpting little pretzels or make a clay charcuterie set to hang notes and lists.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about air dry clay vs polymer clay.
Can you use air dry clay for vases?
You can use air dry clay to make a vase, but remember that air dry clay is very porous. If you’re going to be putting water in it, you’ll need to waterproof it with several coats of sealer.
How do you waterproof air dry clay?
Air dry clay will never technically become waterproof. All of those sealing layers will only make it water resistant. If you’re making mugs and dishware, choose a food-safe sealer.
Does air dry clay break easily?
Air dry clay is more fragile than fired or baked clay. Handle with care.
Can I bake air dry clay?
You can bake air dry clay to speed up the drying process, but this makes your clay prone to cracking and breaking. Eager crafters should use a very low temperature and put their project onto a foil-lined baking sheet for one hour.
Can polymer clay hold water?
Polymer clay is not porous, so you can use it for water-resistant crafts. If you’re going to make mugs or dishware, use a food safe sealer.
Does polymer clay need to be baked?
Yes, polymer clay won’t set until its baked. Check the packaging for baking instructions. Typically, you’ll bake at 250 Fahrenheit for half an hour per quarter-inch thickness.
Air dry clay vs polymer clay – final thoughts
Now that we’ve covered all of the aspects of air dry clay vs polymer clay, you’ve got a great understanding of the best clay for a beginner and some simple clay projects.
We’re sure you have plenty of great air dry clay ideas and polymer clay ideas, too, so leave us a comment if you have a project in mind!