Friday, 15 April 2011

Beginners help: Varnish or not to varnish? This is the question.

Creating clay sweets is adorable hobby but it also involves activities that are not so popular and many people try to avoid them for many reasons. One of them is varnishing and some of deco sweets artists don't use varnish in their work, sometimes because they like matt finish of their creations, or simply because they don't want to spend extra money to keep their costs down.
I've been asked couple of times if varnishing is necessary, or if I could leave items I made not varnished, because my customer liked the matt finish. My answer is always: "Varnish, varnish, varnish!" And yes, literally three times! :D

Varnishing has much more advantages than disadvantages. Most people think that it involves extra work, much higher costs and most of the times different look of finished projects. Yes, these are the minuses of varnishing but in my opinion they are not that important and for me personally these factors don't affect me much. Here are the most important reasons why clay creations should be varnished:

  • Most of clays are not waterproof and therefore they need to be sealed. Personally I don't know varnishes or clay sealants that would make clay, especially air dry clay, 100% waterproof, but varnishing will minimize humid/wet weather effects or accidental liquid spills on your clay creations.
  • Varnishing protects paint coatings that are applied on clay surface. It is really important when "baking", meaning shading your clay cookies, biscuits or pastries etc. Even after drying, acrylic paint or powdered pastels, can be washed off from clay (not all of the paint, but significant amount of it). I've tried it before when I made mistake and didn't like my "baked" finish :) And varnishing comes in hand here. It seals and covers your paint and protects it from being removed. The one thing you need to remember is to varnish your creations after paint has dried completely, otherwise you might smudge it and it doesn't look nice.
  • Varnishing protects your clay creations from dirt and dust, and also it makes easier to clean it. It works not only with air dry clay but also to polymer clay. You may think that polymer clay is rock hard and almost 100% waterproof, and therefore it doesn't need to be varnished. But from my personal experience I can tell you that it's not true. I made a necklace for myself some time ago, didn't varnish polymer clay it was made from, and I wore it couple of times. After some time I noticed that clay beads got dirty from my make up and I tried to wipe it off with wet cloth. Well it didn't work. Somehow dirt got into clay and it was almost impossible to remove it.
I personally varnish all of my clay sweets, usually two to three times, depending which type or brand of varnish I use. I have collected quite a few bottles of different varnish brands since I started making clay sweets and here I would like to show them to you. I will also try to shortly review them for you. These are not the only varnishes available on the market, I know that there are many more and brands vary in different countries too.

What is says on the back:
"Water-based, free of phthalates, dries in transparent form, touch dry after 20 min., fully dry after 24 hours. Wash brush with water thoroughly after use. protect against frost and heat. Application note: the surface to which the varnish will be applied must be dry, clean and free of grease and fat. Not suitable for children under three years. Risk of suffocation due to swallowing/inhaling."

Fimo Gloss Varnish is the only type of varnish available from Steadtler company. Shame that they don't produce matt or satin version :( Just like it says on the jar, it's water based varnish and it's perfect for polymer clay and also for air dry clay. The varnish itself looks like milky water, it's not really thick and it's really easy to apply on clay.
It comes in 35ml (1.18 fl oz) jar, which in UK costs around £3.

What it says on the back:
"Stir thoroughly before use. DO NOT SHAKE.When applied to cured clay, let dry 30 minutes between coats. When applied to uncured clay, allow glaze to dry completely and then bake at 130C (275F for US Customers) for 30 minutes. Easy to clean-up with water."

My first Scupley varnish was the satin version, as Fimo doesn't produce matt varnish for polymer clay. Then I bought gloss version as I couldn't get hold on Fimo gloss :) I can't say that it's my favourite varnish because I don't like the fact that I have to stir it before very use. The varnish is milky and in cream colour and you have to stir it before using, as it kind of separates leaving thick layer on the bottom of the bottle (I don't know why...) I also noticed that it "foams" when applied on rough surfaces and it leaves foamy bubbles which have to be smoothed out with brush, so this is that annoying thing for me as it makes my work time much longer.
Sculpey doesn't produce air dry clay like Fimo, so I don't know if they recommend using this varnish on air dry clay, but I've used it and it does the same job as Fimo.
The bottles come in 59ml (2 fl oz) size.

What is says on the back:
"Enhances depth of colour and increases transparency, gloss and flow. May be used as a final, non-removable varnish for acrylic paintings. Mix with any acrylic colour or apply over finished painting. Can thin by adding up to 25% water. Always test first for best results. Use for glazing, as a fixative, collage adhesive, varnish, binder or transfer medium."

This is one of my favourites as I use it for many other little things, not only for varnishing. It may be bit more expensive that previously mentioned varnishes, but it comes in bigger bottle and it has many uses, therefore I think it's worth to spend a bit more money on it. The varnish itself is thicker than Fimo and Sculpey and as a liquid it's not transparent, but milky white. It dries clear. The only bad thing about it is that it's not suitable for polymer clay. I've learned my lesson and now I know that after drying on polymer clay it becomes a bit sticky. Not much but you can feel it when touching it and I think that can attract dust and it may be harder to clean from dirt. It works perfectly fine on air dry clay, although it does change the appearance of items made with air dry clay. For example, I noticed that when used on ice cream scoops, it kind of "melted". smoothed the bottom fluffy ice cream edges. It does look nice but still it's a bit different that at the beginning. I think it's because this medium is thicker and it fills the tiny holes and gaps on the clay surface, and then it dries sealing it, so please keep that in mind if you decide to use it.
The varnish comes in 118ml bottle.

What it says on the back:
"Gedeo Gloss Varnish protects the decors. Highly transparent once dry. It preserves the shine and brightness of colours. It is easily applied on any clean dry surface. Preferably use a flat brush with soft fibres. Cleaner-thinner: water."

It doesn't say on the bottle, but I believe it's a water based varnished, as it can be cleaned with water :) It is almost transparent when liquid and it dries to a high gloss. The varnish itself is thick, like lacquer type.

It comes in 75ml (2.54 fl oz) bottle.

What it says on the back:
"Outdoor is a versatile product which can be used for gluing and varnishing pictures (for example serviettes) on various backgrounds. Apply Outdoor to the required surface and stick the picture onto the adhesive while still wet. Leave to dry for four hours at room temperature and then varnish carefully. Outdoor is transparent when dry. Varnish twice for optimal protection outdoors. Clean brushes with soap and water after use. Weatherproof. Small parts, risk of swallowing."

This is the most expensive varnish I've bough so far, although it comes in larger jar than previously mentioned varnishes. It is much thicker and white, and it looks a bit like a PVA glue. It works well but it has the same disadvantage as Liquitex medium, filling the tiny gaps on the clay surface.
It comes in 250ml jar.

What is says on the back:
"Component seal to waterproof ceramics, modeled bowls and pitchers, vases with hairline cracks, terracotta receptacles. Clay sealant contains menthollate and, therefore penetrates objects and seals them waterproof. Rinse out object with clay seal, let dry for approx 6-8 hours and it's ready for use again."

I had big expectations about this product as it promised to make clay items waterproof. I tried it on strawberry pieces made with Fimo air dry clay. I didn't rinse them in this clay sealant, but brush it onto them like normal varnish. The results were confusing. It did make clay strawberries waterproof. I kept them in water for log time (it was hard because the were floating on the surface!) but this sealant has changed the clay colour. This sealant is a bit yellowish and because it soaks into clay, it also changes its colour. I was really disappointed because I couldn't use it on modelling paste either, because it changed from white to cream :( Therefore this sealant has no use for me at the moment. It might be good for cookies or donuts, as they are in yellow shades anyway, bu it definitely is not good for white and bright items.
The varnish comes in 250ml bottle.

I hope this long review has helped some of you when deciding to varnish your creations or not. I strongly recommend varnishing even if you want to keep this matt finish as ou can find different finishes of varnish products which allows you to change or keep the same look of your creations.

Thank you for reading all of this and if you have any questions, then don't hesitate to ask :)


  1. My gloss varnish from fimo is getting a bit old I think... it doesn't dry clear anymore :'( Have to find a new one. Do you have a recommendation after using the above varnishes? I tried a varnish for acrylpainting but it keeps being sticky ^^;

    1. I stopped using Fimo products long time ago. Now I use only japanese products, but I can recommend high gloss medium & varnish from Liquitex :)

    2. Aah really? Any japanese varnish you like? I'll be going to Japan in September (yay!)
      I would be very interested to see which products you use ^^

    3. I use super gloss Padico sealer/varnish, the one with red label :)

  2. What would you recommend as a waterproof sealant for air dry clay?

  3. it's ok to use any kind of gloss varnish right?

  4. Do you need to do a varnish or you can keep it like that?