Choosing Sculpting Clay and Tools in 2022

By Iva Mikles •  Updated: Jan 17, 2022 

I love clay – both working with it and the beautiful forms that emerge. So I have put together this buyer’s guide for the best sculpting clay, best clay sculpting tools, and the best supplies for sculpting clay so that the process can be easier, more productive, more fun, and more satisfying to more and more people!

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Table of Contents

There is nothing quite like sculpting in clay – not just the creative possibilities, or the beauty of well-made pottery and sculpting project, but the very personal and grounding feeling of having your hands in the mix, tensions and stubborn anxieties seemingly seeping away.

At the same time, though, many people seem to develop a new concern when working with clay – that it is somehow a very difficult and even frustrating medium to use and master. To me, nothing could be further from the truth, and I – as well as a lot of students and beginners I know – have found clay sculpting and pottery throwing to be a very natural, intuitive art, easy to learn and easy to master.

I have a theory about this, though, that it is not the medium itself, or the new sculptor’s aptitude or ability, but simply comes down to not selecting the right clay and/or the right sculpting tools. And because I love clay so much – both working with it and the beautiful forms that emerge – I wanted to help other artists and crafters find the same kind of love, the same kind of grounding release and deeply satisfying intimate connection with the clay, and the same joy in discovering what the initially shapeless blob wants to become.

So let’s have a look at what sculpting clay and sculpting tools you should get!

What kind of clay is used for sculpting?

What are the different kinds of sculpting clays?

What clay is best for sculpting clay figures?

Can you sculpt clay at home?

What are the steps in making pottery?

Do clay sculptures or pots need to be fired?

What are the names of clay sculpting tools?

What tools do you need to make a clay sculpture?

Is sculpting with clay easy?

Is sculpting sculpting expensive?

What kind of clay do artists use?

What sculpting tools do artists use?

What Are the Different Clay Types?

Although you could say there are thousands of different kinds of clay, there are a few basic types that every potter and sculptor should be familiar with:

Basic Clay Types

Earthenware Clays

A soft and easy-to-use clay, which is actually quite hard and non-porous after firing, earthenware is great for beginners and probably the most popular overall.

Porcelain Clay

Also known as china, fine china, or bone china, usually very light or white in color, porcelain is difficult to work with and fires at very high temperatures, but is exceptionally beautiful and popular.

Stoneware Clay

Pretty easy to work with, and great with a variety of glazes and finishes, stoneware fires to make very hard and strong pieces.

Ball Clay

Not used by itself, because they shrink when you fire them, ball clays are often added to other types of clay to make them more workable

While these basic categories are helpful, it is probably a good idea to mention a few other varieties of working clay and define some of the words and names you will come across. Even though I have made recommendations for some of the best clays below, in the buyer’s guide section, I will also provide links here to some of the best and most popular choices for each type.

Working Clay Types

Air Dry Clay

A popular beginner’s clay which is super fun and easy to work with, and doesn’t need firing but also doesn’t make very strong or durable pieces

Polymer Clay (Oven-bake Clay)

Polymer Clay
Staedtler FIMO Soft Polymer Clay

Oven Bake Clay for Modeling, Kids, Jewelry, Sculpting, 1 lb Block

The best polymer clay I’ve ever come across, and a real joy to use.

Also known as oven-bake clay, another good beginner’s clay which can be fired in a normal kitchen oven, though not to the hardness or finish you can get with kiln-fired clays.

Ceramic Clay

Actually, ceramic clay is the blanket term used for all of the four main types of pottery clay listed above.

Modeling Clay

Modeling Clay
Play-Doh Modeling Compound 36 Colors

Non-Toxic, Assorted Colors, 3 Oz Cans

While modeling clay may also refer to almost any workable clay for model makers, it normally means the same as air-dry clay, a basic beginner’s clay. Our most common association, and still one of the very best, is Play-Doh.

Water Based Clay

Exactly as the name implies. This covers most kiln-fired clays and naturally occurring clays, but not polymer or other oil-based clays. Many professionals consider Aardvark Clay to be the best of the best.

Natural Clay

This is simply a term meaning clay that occurs naturally, from the earth, as opposed to artificial clays (which some don’t even consider to really be “clay” at all). Clay quality can really go up and down depending on where it comes from, and one of the most consistently excellent is Rocky Mountain Clay.

Epoxy Clay

Epoxy Clay
Aves Apoxie Sculpt Clay

2 Part Modeling Compound (A & B) - 1 Pound, Natural

Not a normal modeling clay per se, epoxy clay is similar to epoxy adhesives, in that it has two parts that you combine to form a “clay” that holds pottery pieces together. The best, and most popular, is – Aves Apoxie Sculpt Natural Modeling Compound.

Oil Based Clay

Oil based sculpting clay is made from a mix of clay minerals, waxes and oils. It is also called oil based modeling clay, because it’s mostly popular with animators. Compared to other types of clays above, oil based clay can’t be fired, and it doesn’t dry out so it can be reused more times. It’s non-sticky, non-toix, can be used for very fine details and it’s extremely pliable when heated just by your hands. A clay model made from this type of clay can look really unique. I can already imagine the animators creating the awesome stop-motion movies using this versatile oil based clay. The best, and most popular, is: Sargent Art Plastilina Oil Based Modeling Clay

What Are the Steps in Making Pottery and Clay Sculptures?

A real process description, or even a fairly complete tutorial, of pottery making would be way bigger than this blog in its entirety – or maybe all of my blogs put together (!) – and there are really endless types of potting, varieties and preferences, sub-processes, specific and general sculpting techniques – see? We’re taking up tons of room and time just explaining why it would take up too much room and time…  

Still, I would at least like to list, and briefly explain, the basic steps in almost any pottery making / sculpting process:

There are, of course, tons of other small steps and options, including post-firing decoration (though decorations done before firing will be more durable), sanding, pulling, sgraffito, de-airing, coiling, soaking (not what it sounds like), raw firing, lufting and more, but this is a basic list of the main steps 

What Do You Need to Sculpt with Clay?

Do You Need a Pottery Kiln to Fire Your Pieces?

We have to get the big question out of the way first – do you need a kiln to fire your new clay creations? All of the other supplies you need to sculpt clay at home – the clay itself, sculpting tools, even a potter’s wheel – can range from downright cheap to still pretty affordable, but a kiln can be pricey, and so kind of changes the game a bit.

The good news is that you don’t need a pottery kiln to start sculpting. A good pottery oven does offer some real advantages, of course, but if you use the right clay – that is, “oven-bake” polymer clay – and follow some basic tips and suggestions, you can fire in your regular oven and end up with beautiful, sturdy and long-lasting items.

Kiln firing does, however, cause a chemical reaction in the clay, which will make it harder and stronger and give it that high-gloss finish (especially if you’ve also glazed the piece). Firing with your regular oven, however, is a lot faster, does not require glazing at all, and saves you a lot of money – and you will still end up with strong, durable and beautiful pieces.

One more point about oven firing – it can be very confusing to read certain how-to articles, buyer’s guides or even customer reviews, but to be very clear, “low-fire” clay is not really good for a conventional kitchen oven. Yes, lots of people will tell you it is fine, but it will not turn out well, your pieces will be soft and brittle and may even misform or explode in the oven, and won’t have a nice finish. Again, the way to go – despite what you read – is the best oven-fire clays.

Do You Need a Pottery Wheel?

Sort of like with the kiln, you really don’t really need a potter’s wheel, but they totally change things, opening up a whole range of possibilities and making so many basic objects much easier to realize. Luckily, you can get a very nice pottery wheel for not a lot of money – some are surprisingly inexpensive, in fact, and quite good quality.

So, my advice to a beginner, or somebody on a tight budget, is to skip the kiln for now and just work with your home oven, but definitely at least consider getting a pottery wheel. If you  are serious about the art, though, and can afford one, a kiln will take things to the next level.

With that in mind, here’s my list of the basic items you need and/or want for sculpting in clay:

Pretty basic, huh? Of course, you can go crazy above and beyond this basic list, with all kinds of specialized tools of various shapes and sizes, sandpapers, brushes, clay modeling stands, acrylic paint and glazes, rolling pins, shredder’s rasps, aprons and more (not to mention a zillion different kinds of clay!), but just sticking to the basics to begin with will help you focus and learn, and also help you understand how to make the most out of the tools you do have.

Where Can You Find the Best Clay Sculpting Tools and Pottery Supplies?

In this article I will first talk about the basic kit – that is, everything a beginner will need to make clay items and art sculptures – and help you find the best choices for all those supplies – the best quality, the nicest and easiest to work with, and the best value.

Then after that we will focus a little on more advanced throwing and sculpting, and make recommendations for the best kilns and the best premium kiln-fire clays. And while you can certainly use the sculpting tools from the first section, I might – because I probably can’t resist – throw in a recommendation for a superb – but quite affordable – set of professional clay sculpting tools that I absolutely love.

So we’ll have recommendations in the following categories:

Best Clay Sculpting Tools and Pottery Supplies for Beginners and Students:

Best Clay Sculpting Tools and Pottery Supplies for Advanced Potters:

At the end of the article, in the Bonus section, I will briefly mention a few fantastic all-in-one clay modelling kits for children – they may be too young to fire up the pottery kiln, but it’s never too early to fire up their imagination! 

But now let’s get our feet wet (or at least our hands) and look at the best clays, tools, wheels, ovens and more, in this 2021 buyer’s guide to the very best available clay sculpting tools and supplies!

Best Clay Sculpting Tools and Pottery Supplies for Beginners and Students

Best Oven Bake Polymer Clay

  1. Staedtler FIMO Soft Polymer Clay
  2. Staedtler FIMO Soft Polymer Clay

    Oven Bake Clay for Modeling, Kids, Jewelry, Sculpting, 1 lb Block

    The best polymer clay I’ve ever come across, and a real joy to use.

    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Original Sculpey Sculpting Compound White Oven Bake Clay
  4. Original Sculpey Sculpting Compound White Oven Bake Clay

    Probably the most popular, and almost certainly the most beloved and highly praised, oven bake polymer clay available.

    Great for Art Projects - 1 Lb, Pack of 3

    Buy Now on Amazon

The best oven-bake clays will be very easy to use, with a nice workable consistency, and offer a trouble-free experience from wetting to firing. At the same time, they should also end up looking really beautiful – professional quality, even – with smooth, lovely surfaces, no warping or mis-shaping and lead to solid, durable final pieces.

I’m listing the two best – and best value – oven-bake clays I’ve ever used, nice and easy to work with but of such good quality that they will be right there with you as you learn and grow.

Best Sculpting Clay Tools

  1. Makin's Professional Clay Tool Kit
  2. Makin's Professional Clay Tool Kit

    A small set of superbly designed and made clay sculpting tools, clearly made with love and pride by people who really know the art.

    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Sculpey Tools Clay Blades
  4. Sculpey Tools Clay Blades

    An even more minimalist approach than the excellent Makin’s set above, the Sculpey blade set has only three flexible blades (flexible, wavy and rigid blade), but you will be amazed by just how much you can do, or how much you learn about clay and sculpting.

    Buy Now on Amazon
  5. Isseve Pottery Clay Sculpting Tools
  6. Isseve Pottery Clay Sculpting Tools

    My own preference aside, I do realize that some people like to have a great big selection of tools, with a specific choice for every technique, effect, and shape, and you can’t do much better than this really well-designed 43Pcs Double Sided Ceramic Clay Carving Tool Set with Carrying Case Bag for Beginners Professionals School Student Pottery Modeling Smoothing

    Buy Now on Amazon

I am a firm believer that with clay sculpting tools – as with many other tools in the art world – less is better. I would much rather have a small set of really excellent quality and highly useful sculpting tools and expand and refine my own technique rather than continually reaching for a slightly different shape to realize a slightly different effect.

So I recommend three basic but wonderful sets of sculpting tools above, which I am sure are everything you will need or want – whether you’re a beginner or even a more advanced clay sculptor.

Best Clay Knife

Even if you have the biggest, best and most complete set of clay sculpting tools, a simple but excellent quality sculpting knife is still pretty much indispensable, and Xiem Tools makes the best one I know – and at a very, very low price.

Best Clay Sponge

Mudtools MudSponge Cleanup and Shaping Tools

For Pottery and Clay Artists - Set of All 3 Styles

This one’s easy, as there is one choice that is clearly superior to all the others – the Mudtools MudSponge sponges, in a set of three various textures, are consistently called the best of the best, and it’s easy to see why once you use them. Plus it’s great fun to see them go from dry to wet!

Best Pottery Wheel

I’m going to offer recommendations here for the best premium potter’s wheel and the best budget potter’s wheel of two types, manual (hand-turned) and electric. Manual wheels definitely offer really high quality for low money, with delightful solidity and smoothness, but you might find an electric wheel easier to use.

Best Premium Manual Pottery Wheel

Premium Manual
US Art Supply Large 12" Diameter Sculpting Pottery Wheel

Heavy Duty All Metal Construction & Turntable with Ball Bearings

A heavy, smooth and stable manual pottery wheel offering superior material and construction quality.

Best Budget Manual Pottery Wheel

Budget Manual
US Art Supply 7” Diameter Sculpting Pottery Wheel

The same excellent quality in materials, design and performance in a smaller (but still totally usable) size.

Heavy Duty All Metal Construction & Turntable with Ball Bearings

Best Premium Electric Pottery Wheel

Premium Electric
Brent C Professional Pottery Wheel

The standard choice of professional sculptors and potters and a perfectly beautiful machine in every way. Expensive, but absolutely worth the investment, and a wheel you can count on and use for a lifetime.

Best Budget Electric Pottery Wheel

Budget Electric
Skytou Premium Electric Pottery Wheel

A gorgeously overbuilt, quiet and stable machine suitable for even larger throws, and at a surprisingly low price - still not cheap, but the least expensive machine I could recommend with real confidence, and actually a great value!

Best Clay Sculpting Tools and Pottery Supplies for More Advanced Sculptors and Potters

Best Premium Clay

Here I will recommend what I believe to be the best quality and most usable clay on three levels – high-fire, mid-fire and low-fire.

Best Premium High-Fire Clay

My Pick
Aardvark Coleman Porcelain High-Fire Clay

This is the best of the best, surprisingly forgiving for a professional clay and producing the most consistently beautiful finish every time, with or without glaze.

Best Premium Mid-Fire Clay

Rocky Mountain Clay Best Mix Mid-Fire Clay

50 lb. A delightful and delightfully consistent medium fire clay with superb workability and a beautiful finish.

Best Premium Low-Fire Clay

Rocky Mountain Clay Low-Fire White Clay

The best low fire potter’s clay, moist, dense and highly workable.

Best Pottery and Home Kiln

Best Premium Home Kiln

Olympic Kilns Programmable Pottery Kiln

A large, expensive kiln that requires a 220-240 volt electric circuit, the Olympic Kilns pottery kiln is a serious investment on many levels, but the best you can get for home use, as well as safe and surprisingly easy to use.

Best Affordable Home Kiln

Delphi Glass Ez-Pro 15-6 Kiln with Tap Controller

Yep, at around 15 hundred dollars this is what we would consider an “affordable” kiln, but for the money, you get a safe, effective 12-volt ceramic kiln that is superbly built and very easy to use.

Best Budget Home Kiln

Tabletop Furnace RapidFire Kiln

A small kiln for firing smaller pieces one at a time, which runs on normal 120 volt electric circuits and fits nearly anywhere, this is definitely a beginner’s kiln, but a very well made and usable one that works great.

Best Professional Clay Tools

Xiem Studio offers two wonderful kits, each with a very small selection of perfect tools – these may not look much different than other clay sculpting tools, but once you use them you will know just how special they are – and, for a premium recommendation, they are amazingly inexpensive!

Bonus: Best All-in-One Clay Modeling Kits for Kids

  1. National Geographic Explorer Series Complete Pottery Kit
  2. National Geographic Explorer Series Complete Pottery Kit

    Complete Pottery Kit for Beginners, Electric Motor, 2 lbs. Air Dry Clay, Sculpting Clay Tools, Patented Integrated Arm, Apron & More, Great Craft Kit.

    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Faber-Castell Pottery Studio Kids Pottery Wheel Kit
  4. Faber-Castell Pottery Studio Kids Pottery Wheel Kit

    Kids Pottery Wheel Kit for Ages 8+, Complete Pottery Wheel and Painting Kit for Beginners, 3 lbs of Sculpting Clay

    Buy Now on Amazon
  5. Insnug Pottery Wheel Arts and Crafts Kit for Kids
  6. Insnug Pottery Wheel Arts and Crafts Kit for Kids

    Ages 8 9 10 11 12 | Polymer Air Dry Modeling Clay Bar, Tools, Cutters and Wheel Machine, Craft Paint Palette Set | Educational Toy Home School

    Buy Now on Amazon

All of the above product recommendations in this buyer’s guide for best clay sculpting tools and supplies may well be the best you can get, and all are great choices for any adult looking to learn how to sculpt, throw and fire clay, but for kids we should take a very different approach.

Rather than razor-sharp knives and ultra-hot kilns, and rather than piecing together a whole package from individual pieces, I’m happy to report that there are a number of absolutely fantastic complete pottery kits that are perfect for children and have everything they need to learn, to explore their own creativity and to have tons of fun doing it!

These wonderful kits are designed for kids around 8 years old and up, and will typically include quite a nice little potter’s wheel, enough clay to complete several craft projects, a range of safe sculpting tools, non-toxic paints for decorating and excellent, age-appropriate instructions.

So to close I am going to list three of the best complete kids’ pottery sets, in order of price from the most to least expensive. And while the higher priced National Geographic set is really special, and my favorite overall, these are all great and highly recommended, and any of them would make a really meaningful and really fun gift.

Thanks so much for reading my latest article – The Best Clay Sculpting Tools and Pottery Supplies: An In-Depth 2021 Buyer’s Guide and Review – and please check out my website – Art Side of Life – for more buyer’s guides, articles, tutorials, artist interviews and tons of other resources for commercial artists, fine artists, art students and beginners, crafters and anybody else exploring their own creative side!

Other articles in the arts and hobbies series:

Iva Mikles
Hi, I am Iva (rhymes with “viva”). I am an artist, illustrator, teacher, and the founder of Art Side of Life™️. I've worked as a commercial artist since 2009. I believe that we are all creative in infinite numbers of ways so I’ve made it my mission to teach you everything I know, to contribute to waking up your creative genius.