Sculpting Tools

Friday, May 21, 2010

When sculpting maquettes, I use a variety of small tools, some of which are easier to find than others. First up is the Colour Shaper, a rubber-tipped "brush" that I use like a small version of my thumb. Available in a variety of shapes and at least three levels of firmness, these can be used to smooth surfaces, gently push small forms around (like facial features), and impress tiny details. I have a few versions, but the #2 Angle Chisel Firm is probably my favorite.

Next up is a familiar instument (hopefully). During a routine check-up, I asked my dentist if she could spare a dental pick. She gladly gave me a small set, one of which I use more than the others. There are subtle differences to each end—the small rubber band helps to distinguish them— which facilitate working from different angles. This tool is best for scraping away precise forms and getting into small crevices.

Although I didn't learn to use it until my senior year at RISD, the rake has become one of my most valuable tools. While it leaves the surface in a rough state, it provides more control over compound curves, which can easily be smoothed out in later stages. It was the smallest one they had at Pearl Paint in the city, but I'm sure it can be found on-line. While I rigged the back end with a custom rake made from an uncut staple stack, I rarely use it anymore.

For most maquettes, the final stage involves polishing the surface to a nice sheen using a brush and lubricant. I keep a syringe filled with oil (canola, I believe) for easy access and clean dispensing. You can use almost any oil or, for a more aggressive option, turpentine (or similar substitute). The key is to experiment first—you don't want to risk a near-finished sculpture.

Depending on the level of refinement needed, I'll use different brushes according to bristle strength. The first is a Silver Brush Bristlon filbert, #1. In conjunction with a solvent, this can be used just like a small rake. For more intricate work and fine polishing, a soft-hair kolinsky sable will do wonders. Pictured above is a Winsor and Newton Series 7 #1, but any soft brush will do.

Lastly, the yellow tool is a cheap, plastic "knife" that came with a larger set. This is used in the beginning stages to rough-out large forms. I seem to use it less than in the past, as I've found that a subtractive sculpting process facilitates greater precision, coupled with sturdier structure.

This is the first stage (Mary Jane, in this case) of a small maquette. The armature is made from galvanized steel wire that is looped around a lead pointer to produce a circular base. The second stage is a rough shape that is cooked and hardened before the actual sculpting begins. This gives more dimensional stability than wire alone would provide.

Finally, I should mention that my medium of choice is Super Sculpey Firm, a polymer clay that remains pliable until baked in a conventional oven. Featured here is my Steve Rogers maquette, aka Captain America. As always, you can find more examples of my three-dimensional work under the Sculpture label.


  1. Thanks for posting this. Great to see your process for dealing with sculpture.

  2. ...thanks for posting this one!!! Really helpful. Rubber tipped brush on my grocery list...and baking the rough head first then go into detail is going to make a real difference in my work.

  3. You're quite welcome, gentlemen—I hope it helps.

  4. Paolo, how do you get the Super Sculpey Firm to soften a bit? Out of the box it's ridiculously hard. Do you use a pasta machine?

    1. That's why it's great! I did, in fact, used to use a pasta machine, but that was for Red Sonja, for which I used Super Sculpey that was old and dry. If you're looking to bulk up a figure quickly, try using Super to start... and end with Firm. What I will say, though, is that if you take the time to roll off little pieces of Firm and build the figure up, you might end with a stronger piece, structurally speaking.


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