Anyone Can Make Polymer Clay Beads...Right?

May 10, 2012

The necklace from Enlightened Polymer Clay that served as my inspiration.
I've never felt that polymer clay has been a particularly strong set of jewelry making skills for me. After watching a peculiarly talented friend of mine create an entire Lord of the Rings chess set from polymer clay years ago, I was itching to try my hand at bead making with polymer clay. And while I jumped into polymer clay bead making with my usual enthusiasm for beads and jewelry making, the results were, shall we say, less than spectacular.

When my son started approaching the appropriate age for Play Doh, I felt my old anxieties about clay resurface. Thankfully, he was perfectly happy with my ability to make little "worms" and "snakes" and simple, rolled balls of clay. I think I mistook his delight at my colorful little piles of snakes and balls for an acknowledgement of my polymer clay bead making skills, because when a whole box full of polymer clay and supplies arrived at my house, I dove right back in with my usual can-do attitude.

The pile of polymer clay beads and jewelry making components, awaiting their transformation into a finished piece of jewelry.
Once again, I got shot down. My polymer clay beads collapsed when I tried to pierce them with a toothpick. My beautiful simulated wood-grain bracelet got too close to the top elements in my toaster oven and bubbled and melted into a huge mess. Wasn't there anything that I could do with polymer clay beads that would come out right? I was ready to just give up on bead making with polymer clay.

But, no. I'm too stubborn for that. So, I cracked open my copy of Enlightened Polymer Clay and picked a project that I was determined to make. After all, if I can make snakes and balls out of Play Doh, I can make something out of polymer clay, right? I picked out a necklace that I liked and decided that I was going to make something useful and beautiful out of polymer clay, even if it killed me.

Stylish and safe: wear proper safety gear when you're drilling holes in polymer clay beads.
My son had had a blast cutting out shapes in the polymer clay with the little clay cutters I had, so I figured that was where I would start. I conditioned two different colors of polymer clay and then cut out about a dozen each of two different shapes. I laid these carefully on the tray in my clay-dedicated toaster oven and turned it on.

This time around, however, I was more careful with the heat and the time. Instead of baking it at the temperature suggested on the package, I went about twenty-five degrees lower. I also left the pieces in for only ten minutes, since they weren't very thick and weren't very big. Success! My polymer clay jewelry making components came out of the oven perfect!

Next up, I was going to make some polymer clay beads. Oh, yes, I was! I mashed up three different colors of polymer clay, conditioned it, rolled it out, and then tore off little pieces and rolled them into balls.

Now, here was my dilemma again. How did I get the holes in these beads without making them collapse on themselves when I inserted the toothpick? The answer hit me as I was thinking about my little polymer clay shapes, now cooling on my work table. I could drill holes in them!

I threaded the beads on the thin skewers of my bead baking rack and put them in the toaster oven. Again, I was very careful with the heat and time, and these beads came out of the oven looking as perfect as they had going in. I was ready to drill!

Thankfully, I have a totally decked-out Dremel tool from my glass days when I would drill holes in my fused glass earrings and bracelet-making components. Just like when I drilled my glass, I wore my safety goggles and a dust mask. You wouldn't believe it, but polymer clay makes a lot of dust and nasty things that you just don't want to breathe while you're working.

My very first polymer clay bead necklace! I'm so proud!

Once I was happy with the holes in my beads and components, it was time to wire and string them together! This was where I totally wimped out. With a looming deadline, I linked about half of them together with jump rings and wire-wrapped loops, and I finished the necklace with a piece of chain instead of spending more time wrapping and looping. The effect was pretty cool: a vintage-looking necklace with my first successful polymer clay beads!

Using polymer clay for bead making definitely has its advantages. Polymer clay is lightweight, easy to work with, and has so many possibilities for finishing! You can sand it down, carve it, or paint it. There's so much room for self-expression with polymer clay bead making that I'm sure to try it again!

If you are looking for some beautiful and unusual polymer clay bead making projects, check out Enlightened Polymer Clay. The simple and organic shapes of the polymer clay beads and components will inspire you to create your own polymer clay jewelry using these simple clay techniques. Get your copy of Enlightened Polymer Clay and see just how satisfying it is to make your own polymer clay beads and jewelry creations!

Do you have a tip for working with polymer clay? How do you get the holes in your beads without collapsing the beads? Do you use a drill or sander to finish your beads? Leave a comment on the blog and share your tips and advice for making your own polymer clay beads and jewelry making components!

Bead Happy,

Jennifer


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Comments

Calico3 wrote
on May 11, 2012 2:12 AM

Congrats on your first success with making polymer clay beads. One thing I'm curious about though is why you needed to drill holes in them when they already had holes from the skewers you used when you baked them. The skewers that came with my baking rack are about the same thickness as a head pin.

If you dip the skewer in baking powder it goes into the clay a bit easier, and if you dip your fingers into it also you're less likely to have fingerprints on the clay afterwards.

I wet sand my beads, sometimes I also buff them with my Dremel, and use several coats of Future floor wax as a glaze.

chrissi@3 wrote
on May 11, 2012 5:07 AM

I used a fine pin or needle to make starter holes, and enlarge them after I have left them in the fridge for a bit to re harden, as polymer clay gets softer the more that you work with it

monakiss wrote
on May 11, 2012 5:59 AM

If you make holes in unbaked clay, you can correct all mistakes.  I like to let the beads firm up a little after shaping them, to get the clay a little firmer and stronger.  I often place them in the fridge for 15 minutes to do the same thing.  

I also use a dremel stylus with a tiny drill bit at a slow setting to drill unbaked clay beads.

A bead with a crooked hole can be gently rerolled and shaped, and the hole can re-made using a small hand drill, or a needle tool, which you turn as you insert it into the bead.  This will push out a slight bit of clay where the needle exits the bead, which you gently push down with a finger, and re-shape.  Mona

www.monakissel.com

11BOLDstreet wrote
on May 11, 2012 6:48 AM

Yes, congratulations on your projects!

I drill 99% of my beads after curing. There is less chance of deforming the beads, as can happen while still soft. Plus, I'm not always sure where I want the holes until I'm ready to actually use a piece.

Also, be sure to bake at the manufacturer's recommended temperature, and for at least 30 minutes per 1/4" of thickness. Polymer needs the temp and time to fully cure. Bake on a tile or piece of cardboard, and tent with tin foil to avoid burning.

on May 11, 2012 6:50 AM

Because polymer clay is a fairly benign substance, people don't bother to read about how to condition it and cure it before "diving in". Polymer clay is a true art element and just like beginning to solder or painting with oils or making pottery, you need to read and follow guidelines for safety and learn about the properties of the medium. Any good polymer book-- and there are dozens out there, I have most of them!-- will advise you to pre-heat your toaster oven, test its temperature settings with a thermometer for an accurate reading and cure the clay for at least 15 minutes per 1/4 inch of thickness, regardless of brand. There are lots of clay forums out there and free tutes on Flickr and many blogs so do your homework and I'll bet your clay experience will be a better one.

lamoney36 wrote
on May 11, 2012 7:20 AM

Some good advice already posted.  I use a LARGE needle as a drill in the uncured beads.  Glitter before curing and PC gloss after finish the beads well although next time I'm going back to decorative artist days and paint cured beads before using gloss.

on May 11, 2012 7:41 AM

Thank you so much, these are great tips, ladies! The reason I drilled the holes after I baked them on skewers is because the skewers were so tiny, I was worried that the holes wouldn't be big enough to accommodate a decent-sized wire. But I'll definitely be trying some of these suggestions for my next batch!

on May 11, 2012 8:52 AM

I don't do polymer clay, but seeing your article reminded me of watching the Carol Duvall show years ago.  I loved when she had Donna Kato on.  I just looked up her website and her work is amazing!  I would never wear it, but would love to display as art work.  

on May 11, 2012 8:54 AM

I don't do polymer clay, but seeing your article reminded me of watching the Carol Duvall show years ago.  I loved when she had Donna Kato on.  I just looked up her website and her work is amazing!  I would never wear it, but would love to display as art work.  

jm7448 wrote
on May 11, 2012 9:37 AM

Lots of good suggestions, especially about cooling beads before piercing.  I don't refrigerate mine, however.  I keep a frozen "cooler pack" (the kind you put in your picnic cooler) at my work table, and just set my beads on top of it for a few minutes.

It's really convenient.

I use a sharp metal tool for piercing, such as a large sewing needle.  I hold bead in the palm of my hand, pierce one end, poking until I feel the needle starting to come through the other side.  (Careful not to pierce too hard, you don't want to *** yourself).  Then I turn bead to the opposite side and pierce with the needle.  This will prevent bead from distorting, and also helps to pierce in the correct spot.

And if I am not feeling too precise and careful some days, I create beads that are intentionally odd sized and distorted, making them into "pebbles" of sorts.  They are really interesting when strung and you can't really make a mistake!

CarolW@89 wrote
on May 11, 2012 9:46 AM

When the small metal pins make holes that are too small, I use small wooden skewers that I buy in the supermarket. I also make the holes before curing. Just push the skewer in a little way, then turn it gently as though you are screwing in a light bulb. With your finger at the opposite end of the hole, you can feel where the skewer will poke through and make an adjustment if needed.

www.tetragonia.com

shears58 wrote
on May 11, 2012 5:17 PM

I make holes in my beads before I bake them. I use a toothpick and slowly roll it back and forth as I push it through the bead gently. It works everytime!

shears58 wrote
on May 11, 2012 5:19 PM

I make holes in my beads before I bake them. I use a toothpick and roll it back and forth as I slowly push it though the bead. It works everytime! Goodluck!

Morag Frew wrote
on May 11, 2012 9:34 PM

Hi Jennifer, I can totally relate to your hesitation over polymer bead making. So many people associate it with kids play dough, but when treated with care and attention to detail, its properties and potential are truly amazing .A quick look at some of the master (mistresses mostly) polymer clay artists work is mind boggling. I work with mixed media and one of the joys of polymer is that I can create exactly the piece I need in exactly the colour I want to complement any other component in the jewellery piece. I love it and keep coming back to it as my favourite medium - relatively inexpensive too, and there is so much help and inspiration available through the various Guilds and tutorials readily available on the net. Thanks for your work on Beading Daily -always interesting. Cheers, Morag Frew    

on May 12, 2012 7:19 AM

I did the toothpick thing, and they looked 'passable' for a first time.  I did the knitting needle thing, and they looked a bit better (I used a 0 size knitting needle).  But I use a mini electric bead boring tool from Jewelry Supply online, and now I just use the tiny bead pins to bake the beads and use that hole to enlarge with the bead boring tool - I use a drill bit, not the boring bit, which bends after the first bead...!

curlisue wrote
on May 12, 2012 6:00 PM

I just figured out how to use a small hollow stir stick to punch out the holes in the polymer clay beads.  Perfect little holes with no excess poking out of the back!

jojobean2020 wrote
on May 12, 2012 6:12 PM

When I make Polymer beads I usually make two small indents, one on each side where the holes would go.  Bury the beads in baking powder and cure them.  I then use a pin vise with different size drill bits to actually make the holes.  I don't have to worry about getting the bead out of shape.

callyross wrote
on May 17, 2012 10:08 AM

"I threaded the beads on the thin skewers of my bead baking rack"- doesn't that give the beads the hole they need?

I'm interested in making some polymer clay beads/buttons but don't want to drill holes if i can avoid it.

"clay-dedicated toaster oven"- so i can't use the same toaster oven for food and for polymer clay?

oh so much to learn!