[Note: This is basically a repost of the original Board Game News article.]
My husband brought to my attention a Geeklist on Board Game Geek listing board games enhanced with polymer clay pieces. For example, one guy made all new pieces for Agricola, including the cutest little sheep, boar, cattle, and vegetables. I also enjoyed the images of Primordial Soup (amoebas and amoeba poop… uh, food!) and Power Grid (check out the garbage cans).
Over the years, I’ve made quite a few things with polymer clay (e.g. jewelry, figurines) but I had not yet used it for game pieces (except to replace missing pieces). At one point I had thought about making a Settlers board but that would be a lot more work than I’m interested in doing for one game. A smaller project would be fine, though, so I decided to make dinosaurs for our Evo game.
If you are unfamiliar with polymer clay, it is a moldable type of plastic that may be baked at a relatively low temperature to cure. For most brands that temperature is 265-275 degrees F (129-135 degrees C). Bake for 15 minutes per ¼” (6mm) of thickness. (Check the packaging for each specific type of clay.)
Although certified nontoxic, there are a number of precautions you need to take when handling and baking polymer clay. Do not use your home oven! Fumes can leave residue on your oven, which may re-release later when you use the oven for food. You should use a dedicated oven for baking polymer clay. I highly recommend picking up a cheap toaster oven (with a bake mode) in which to cure the clay. You can probably find one at a yard sale or local thrift store. Since some ovens can spike in temperature, you may want to place an oven-thermometer in the oven while baking to monitor temperature. Always bake clays in a well-ventilated room. I recommend baking clay in a glass baking dish (preferred) or cookie sheet lined with cardstock or mat board to prevent shiny spots. You may have to prop up larger figures and place an aluminum foil tent over them to prevent them from browning on top. Round pieces, such as a disk with a hole, may be cooked on a skewer or wire going across the top of the baking dish.
All tools used with the clay should be dedicated – never use them for eating or food preparation (ditto for the clay itself, baked or unbaked). While working with the clay, do not rub your eyes, and wash your hands frequently especially before eating. Children should be supervised when working with the clay.
Polymer clays come in a large variety of colors, and may be mixed together to create more colors as desired. Additionally, there are metallic, pearl, and glow-in-the-dark clays, and even a brand that looks like stone (Granitex). Upon baking, the clay does not noticeably shrink or change texture, although it may become slightly dull. Clay may be wet-sanded, buffed, drilled (e.g. with a Dremel), and/or painted with acrylic paints. You may also apply an acrylic based clear coat for shine and protection.
Popular clay brands include Premo, Sculpey III, Granitex, Fimo, and Fimo Soft. I have used all these brands but prefer Fimo Soft or Premo because of their strength and ability to remain slightly flexible after baking. Sculpey III is probably the least expensive but the most rigid; smaller or thinner parts may break off with use. Polymer clays are sold in most arts & crafts stores and online.
Always store polymer clay in its original packaging away from direct sunlight, heat, and dust. Never leave it in a car (for example after purchasing it) or it may start to bake. You can wrap used pieces in wax paper and store them in a plastic container (be aware that the clay may react with certain plastics). Properly stored clay can last for years.
All types of polymer clay must be conditioned before use, although some require more work than others. Conditioning softens the clay, making it more malleable. It also activates the PVC particles, strengthening the clay so it is less likely to crack or break after baking. Fimo is especially hard and crumbly. Some people use a dedicated food processor to chop up the clay then feed the pieces through a (dedicated) hand-crank pasta machine to further condition it (use repeated folding). A drop or two of mineral oil may help soften particularly hard or old clay. Soft clay can usually be conditioned by hand (e.g. kneading it like dough and rolling it around in your hands). If, through over-conditioning or too much manipulation, the clay becomes too soft for sculpting, just let it rest for about 20 minutes. Work on a clean, flat, non-porous surface.
A variety of materials may be used with polymer clay. For example, you may score it or press something onto it for texture, including rubber stamps. Add beads (e.g. small black glass beads make nice eyes), use embossing powders, paint with Pearl Ex pigments, and add metallic leaf (e.g. gold, silver, copper).
Sculpting tools (or dentist tools) may be used in shaping and smoothing. A needle tool may be used to poke holes. The end of a paintbrush or something similar may be used to press indents, for example to form eye sockets for creatures. A rolling pin or brayer is helpful for rolling out the clay (although a hand-crank pasta machine is ideal).
Use clay scraps or aluminum foil for “insides,” e.g. the base inside mountains (if you want to make the Settlers board). Toothpicks or wire may be used for additional structure, e.g. inside trees, or arms and legs. Usually this is unnecessary for small pieces. If you are going to make several pieces and want them to be about the same size, you will need some way to measure the clay. Make a long roll of clay, lay a ruler along side it and cut at even intervals. Some popular cutting tools include X-acto knives, and tissue blades or clay blades. One measuring tool is made specifically for working with clay. It can be pressed into the clay to mark intervals, e.g. every ¼ inch.
To “antique” figures, use brown or black acrylic paint. Paint the entire figure, making sure to get paint in the cracks and lines, then wipe off the excess with a paper towel before it dries to get the desired effect (typically this leaves the paint mainly in the cracks/lines).
You may make molds from polymer clay by pressing an item into the clay. This includes previously baked clay items. As a release agent, use a dusting of cornstarch or a light spray of Armor All (wipe out excess), i.e. to prevent sticking. For more information about molds see Making Molds or the Polymer Clay Push Molds FAQ.
Check out how “Scurvy Jake” made his own 3D Settlers of Catan. Find lots of articles on making stuff with polymer clay at HGTV’s website. Of course there are many, many examples on the web – just include “polymer clay” in the search. Have fun!