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       Polymer Clay FAQ

The Polymer Clayspot:

Welcome to Polymer Clay
Choosing & Mixing Clay
Conditioning Polymer Clay
Using the Food Processor
Using the Pasta Machine
Forming Clay Pieces
Firing Polymer Clay
Finishing Clay Pieces
Storing Polymer Clay
Using Stone Clays
Using Translucent Clays
Molding & Sculpting
Creating Surface Effects
Making Polymer Clay Jewelry
Safety & Cleanup
More Information Sources
What does it mean, "cane"?

Caneworking is a technique that was originally used in glassworking for making complex designs. A cane is a log or cylinder of clay that has a design running through it, so each slice of the cane - the cross-section - contains the design. You can make a large design that's easy to handle, and then reduce the size of the cane by pressing or rolling it so the cane becomes longer and thinner and the design becomes tiny and delicate. Because of the ductility of the clay, the design stays intact no matter how small you make it.

Canes can be made of any design at all - geometrics, landscapes, faces, quilt patterns, or anything else. The cane can be round, square, triangular, or any other regular shape.

You can use a single slice of your cane, or decorate a bead with a veneer of slices from the same cane (a technique called "millefiori", which means "a thousand flowers"). You can use slices of different sizes, cut from the same cane at different stages of reduction. And you can put simple canes together to make more complex ones.

How do I make a cane?

To make a cane, you combine sheets and long snakes of clay in a pattern that will be revealed when you slice the cane. You can use any combination of colors and patterns; you can even use small canes as part of your design, combining them into larger canes.

Here's a simple cane to try, with one light and one dark color that go together:

  1. Make a log of a dark color. The log can be any size, but an easy-to-handle size is about 6 inches long and half an inch in diameter.
  2. Roll out a sheet of light-colored clay large enough to wrap the log lengthwise. Make sure you don't overlap the ends of clay - cut the sheet to fit.
  3. Roll the wrapped log gently on your work surface to smooth the wrapped layer.
  4. Roll out a dark-colored sheet and wrap your log again in the same way, rolling it to smooth the surface.
  5. With a sharp blade, slice through your cane. You'l see the bulls-eye pattern made of the two colors you used.
  6. If you want to go a little farther, cut your cane into seven equal pieces, then put the pieces together with one in the center, six on the outside (like the petals of a flower). Compress this new cane gently to make the pieces stick together, then roll it on your work surface as before until the seams between the pieces disappear. When you slice this cane, you'll see a flower pattern.

Other simple cane designs include the spiral, which is made by laying a sheet of one color on top of another sheet of a different color and rolling them up like a jellyroll. Try using spiral and bulls-eye canes in combination, with different color choices.

How do I slice a cane cleanly?

Slicing the cane requires the sharpest blade you have available - otherwise the cane's shape is distorted by the dragging of the blade, and the clay itself may smear. The blade also must be tall enough to cut through the thickest cane you want to make.

You can avoid having the blade distort the clay by slicing with a slight back-and-forth motion, letting the cane roll freely on the work surface; this distributes the pressure of the blade over the cane's surface instead of putting it all on one spot. Another technique is to hold the ends of the cane, give them a little tug, then stick each end down on your work surface and slice that way.

Soft clays distort and smear more than firm clays. If you are having problems slicing, you may want to either let your clay rest overnight before slicing, or chill it in the refrigerator for an hour or so.

How do I reduce a cane in size?

Reducing a round cane is simple: roll it between your palm and the work surface, pressing gently to make it smaller. Make sure to distribute the pressure evenly along the cane so that no part of it gets smaller than another part.

If your cane is too thick to roll, start the reduction by surrounding it in the middle with your hands and pressing very gently, making an hourglass shape. Then gradually move out to the ends, until the cane is even again. Continue doing this until the cane is the size you want, or until it's thin enough to roll on your work surface.

There are a number of methods for reducing a square or triangular cane. One is to use a brayer or rolling pin on each side successively - roll a bit, then rotate and roll on the next side, and so on until you reach the size you want. Another is to hold onto one end of the cane and tug gently, sliding your fingers along the cane's length with the other hand. With this method also, you should alternate sides and alternate the end you're tugging. Turn the cane over frequently so you are reducing all its sides evenly, and make sure you're not crushing the corners.

Cane reduction needs to be done carefully and gradually. Trying to reduce the cane too fast will distort the design, because the outer layers will reduce more easily than the inner part of the cane. It helps to let the cane rest for a few hours before you start to reduce it; this ensures that all the layers of the cane start out at the same temperature.

Some clay artists recommend reducing round canes by squeezing gently in the center, then out to the ends; this reduces the distortion that sometimes happens with the rolling technique. Brenda has created a pictorial description of cane reduction that will show you all about using this technique.

Why do the ends of my cane look yecchy?

All reduced canes end up with strange-looking ends, with some parts of the design extruded. It's an unavoidable consequence of reducing the cane, and completely normal. You can use the ends as scrap clay, or marble them together to make beads that coordinate with your cane's colors.

You can minimize the amount of yecchiness by reducing your cane gradually, by starting in the middle and working out toward each end, and by letting your cane sit for a while before starting to reduce (so all the clay layers are the same temperature). Some clayworkers press a small disk of plastic, the same diameter as the cane, onto each end of the cane before they start reducing; this reduces waste to very little.

How do I make and reduce a cane with an irregular shape?

You can make canes in any shape, but there's no easy way to reduce a cane whose cross-section is not a geometric shape such as a circle or square. Trying to reduce such a cane usually distorts the design badly. If you're putting together an irregular cane, you can:

When reducing an irregular cane, it's especially important to go slowly and reduce the cane a little bit at a time.

Can I use different kinds of clay in the same cane?

Clay can vary in its softness or stiffness, depending on the brand of clay, the color, how old the clay is, and the temperature. If some of the elements of your cane are made of stiff clay and some elements are made of softer clay, the softer elements will tend to spread out more when you reduce the cane, causing distortion in the design. So generally, you should make your canes of clays that are all equally soft, if possible.

In some situations, though, this "squishing effect" may be what you want. For example, if your cane consists of a complex design surrounded by a background color of clay, you may want to choose a soft clay for the background, so it will readily work itself into any gaps during cane reduction.

What do I do with leftover or ruined clay?

Many clayworkers toss all leftover clay into a single container and knead it together into a neutral gray color. This "mud" can be used for anything that doesn't show in a finished piece: to make base beads (or other objects) on which colored clay is layered, or to make molds from.

You can also marble the leftover clay from a project to make marbled beads in the same colors as your cane.

A ruined cane can also yield interesting effects if you twist it a few times, slice it lengthwise, then roll the slices flat. The cross-section often has attractive abstract patterns. Before deciding to toss a ruined piece into the mud-clay container, experiment with it - you may find it's not a failure after all.

 Next: Working With Stone Clays

Jeanne A. E. DeVoto
Copyright © 1996-97 Jeanne A. E. DeVoto