Sanding and Buffing Polymer Clay

I will be the first to tell you I honestly hate sanding my clay projects LOL Buffing I actually find a little relaxing. Which I guess is a good thing, since the sanding part is so tough to get through. πŸ™‚

Hand Sanding (sort of)

My favorite tool for sanding is a Black & Decker Scumbuster. I have the old style version with the removable, rechargeable batteries. I upgraded the batteries to Versapak Golds and they last twice as long.

To prepare the sandpaper, I tear the large sheets into 1/4’s and soak the paper in hot, soapy water for 5 minutes to make it pliable. Then I center the sandpaper over the largest scrubby pad that I have already attached to the Scumbuster. I pin (using floral T pins) the 4 corners of the sandpaper into the side of scrubby pad. It sands like a dream ! I started sanding this way years ago when the idea was published at PC Polyzine. The writer opted to cut sandpaper circles and use sticky velcro to hold her sandpaper on, but that was to much work and cost for me. LOL

There are other versions of sanders people have set up using rechargeable toothbrushes, Tide stain brushes and similar inexpensive devices. I believe they hot glue little circles of sandpaper to the bristles. If you use the toothbrush method and it has interchangeable brushes, you can put a different grit of sandpaper on each brush.

Here is the one my pal Eva in Denmark made for herself
Eva’s comments:
“Ever since I saw the Scumbuster mentioned as a great sanding tool, I’ve had this idea on how to use an electric toothbrush instead, since Scumbusters isn’t an item sold in Denmark (as far as I know). I recently came across a battery powered toothbrush that might do the trick (and was cheap, too), bought that and two 2-packs extra brushes.

I wrote a grit number on each of the five brushes with a permanent marker and with a 1/2″ circle leather punch I punched out little dots of the sandpaper in five different grits and glued them on the bristles of the five brushes using a hot glue gun.
Note: Put glue on the bristles and then the dot of sandpaper on top to make sure it gets a good grip – the little glue you can put on the dot of sandpaper will not be enough to keep it adhered when you start sanding.

….and it works like a charm – wet or dry! It’s great for small items like beads/jewelry and I think also for hard to get to places on sculpts, but might be a little tedious for larger things, but then again it might not. At least it saves your shoulder and wrist a lot of work. (not to mention your fingertips and nails)
When the sandpaper is worn down just rip it off and replace it. I keep my lil’ dots in zip lock baggies, as you can see.”

Here is a short tutorial where the author opted to remove the bristles from the brush head and use velcro to attach sandpaper.

And yet another take on the toothbrush sander πŸ™‚

Tumble Sanding

If you make a lot of small beads there is no way you will ever have time to sand them all by hand. Invest in a rock tumbler. I purchased an inexpensive child’s model at Michael’s with a 50% off coupon, making it about $15. You can shell out more money for the top quality Lortone tumbler. They are quieter and come with 1, 2 or 3 vessels to tumble your beads in. Which means you can be sanding up to 3 different grits at once. If you make beads for a living it would be a great investment and time saver.

Some people say to line the inside of the tumbler’s chamber with sandpaper. I never have. All I do is cut my sandpaper into very random shapes approximately 1/2″ across. I put the sandpaper chips into the chamber and fill it up 1/2 way with very warm water to soften the paper. In my opinion, if it’s pliable it works better. Add 2 or 3 drops of liquid soap, which will act as a lubricant. I start with 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper and work up through all consecutive grits – 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1200. You can go up as high as 1500 and 2000 grit if you really want to, but I haven’t found it necessary. ** It must be wet/dry sandpaper. The kind meant for woodworking will not work. You can find wet/dry at automotive stores or the auto dept at WalMart.

The first tumble with 320 grit is the most important and will take the longest. Maybe 12- 24 hours. Check occasionally to see if the beads are uniformly sanded. When the first tumble is done, it may only take 10 – 15 hours for the second tumble at 400 grit. As before, check occasionally to see if they all feel sanded evenly. I found that as I used each grit it took a little less time to sand the beads. By the time you reach 1000 grit it may only take 8 hours. 1000 grit is really just polishing anyway. It hardly feel like sandpaper at all, it’s so smooth.

I opted to get a less expensive bench grinder and buy muslin cloth buffing wheels for it. The whole setup only cost me about $50 and I purchased it all at Harbor Freight. I know a lot of artists who swear by their Foredom buffers. They aren’t cheap, but worth the investment if you are making a living selling your clay goodies. I’m just a part time artist, so cheap works for me. πŸ™‚

A little education on using a buffer. First and foremost – READ THE OWNERS MANUAL ! πŸ™‚ Seriously folks. It can save you an injury. That wheel spins very fast. Need I say more. My bench grinder spins away from me, but I think some buffers may spin towards you. Be sure to get familiar with your machine. Always use the lower section of the buffing wheel and have a firm hold on your piece. If you lose grip of it, you will have a small plastic projectile flying across the room. Make sure there is nothing expensive and breakable in the path it will fly. I put an empty cardboard box behind my buffer. That works for me, because my wheel turns away from me. If your wheel turns towards you be sure nothing behind you can damaged. And wear safety goggles for goodness sake !

With that firm grip on your piece, hold the clay up to the wheel, just touching it. You don’t need to cram the piece into the wheel. A light touch works very well. You will get the feel for it in no time. Practice makes perfect.

If you need to buff beads, I find it easiest to slip them onto a steel rod and buff several at a time. Assuming you already have holes in your beads. If not, get drilling. πŸ™‚ The beads will want to spin on the rod, so I tend to rest my finger on the rod and snug it up next to the bead to slow the spin. Don’t run your finger on the area of the bead you are buffing. Friction from the wheel heats up the surface, softening the clay, and you can transfer you fingerprints to the bead. There goes all the sanding you did and now you will have to repeat the process. Not fun.

Well, that’s all folks πŸ™‚ Happy creating.


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ankh
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 01:55:25

    Thank you for sharing this with us! I sand by hand and it is a looong and tedius process. It is time to try something new!


  2. Cara
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 02:14:37

    I have a tumbler and use river rocks in it. I get a nice smooth finish which is about the same as 600 grit sandpaper I would say. I must try the cut up sandpaper so I can get them shinier. Do you find they curl up?


  3. averilpam
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 03:11:02

    I have a tumbler. I would like to try river rocks if I can find them. I use sandpaper that’s double sided by gluing 2 sheets together. Otherwise it does roll up with the grit side inside. The first time I used acrylic glue and lots of it came off in the water! I’ve started doing some with proper glue so I’ll see how it goes next time! I’ve made a liner from chamois leather and fill it with chopped up bits of chamois for buffing which I leave around 12 hours. I’m planning to try it with old jeans denim too.


  4. Pauli
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 04:44:03

    I line the inside of my tumbler with sandpaper and don’t use cut up pieces. I’ve tried both ways, and see no difference. And this way changing grits is faster and easier! For buffing I use my Dremel, and a handmade sheep wool wheel. Works like magic, creating a beautiful shine!


  5. Tonja Lenderman
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 09:40:48

    Thank you everyone for your wonderful tips. Keep them coming πŸ™‚


  6. Dianne
    Mar 19, 2011 @ 01:03:03

    Thank you so much for posting this info. I was about to buy the tumbler because I read here that I can use it for buffing.

    Now I find out I can also use it sanding also I’m definitely going to buy it since I have 3/4 bag full of buttons that needs to be buffed and polished


  7. szkolenia okresowe bhp
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 09:51:34

    i like to read an interesting articles like this one, i always wanted to write my own blog but i don’t have much time
    regards from Bhp


  8. Jackie
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 09:58:29

    Okay have to jump in here – I have a Lortone Rock Tumbler and I sand beads and buttons in it to perfection! I use cut up sandpaper pieces and I do mine DRY. I never got as good results when I put water in. When the beads have been through 3 grits – 3 days of tumbling, I then fill the barrel with HOT water and use a couple drops of Basic H, tumble them for a couple hours, they come out clean and ready for buffing.

    Have fun everybody! Thanks for this cool blog post, Tonja, always good to have more info about sanding and buffing. πŸ™‚


  9. Paula Gilbert
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 01:39:30

    Sage from The Polymer Arts Magazine asked me to contact you to see if you would like to share your favorite/different tool for an article we are writing for the Spring issue?
    If you would like to know more or would like to submit something just write a bit about it and if you have a photo that would really be helpful.
    Thanks a bunch!
    Paula K. Gilbert
    The Polymer Arts magazine


  10. jose
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 08:36:01

    una maravillosa idea,


  11. Amparo
    Aug 18, 2016 @ 23:34:32

    Fantastic , you are amazing


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