Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sculpting 104: Silicon Shaping Tools

Way back when I started this blog as a regular thing, I posted an article "Sculpting 101: Tools". In there I gave a brief overview of the general tools you will find on my desk during a project. Well, mchmr6677 recently dropped me an e-mail asking:
"I've read articles on BoLS and other sites about using clay shapers with greenstuff. Do you use them? And, if you do, which ones do you use? They seem a little expensive (around $8 each) and come in a myriad of sizes."

Okay, I have to sidetrack into a bit of history for a sec. Technically, almost every "sculpting tool" out there pitched for use with miniature sculpting is actually a rededicated wax/clay carving or shaping tool. Yet the term "clay shaper" has become nigh synonymous with silicon tipped tools. This is largely thanks to Royal Sovereign's "Colour Shapers", of which a sub set is specifically billed as "Clay Shapers". This is like Kleenex, Xerox, Green Stuff and several other brand/product names that have slipped into the vernacular due to great marketing and a nigh monopolistic dominance of a niche audience. You can now find several off-brand copycats marketing their silicon or rubber tip tools as "clay shapers" too. Gotta love it.

So is a silicon tipped shaping tool better than a metal? Yes and no.
1. Extremely slick surface.
Probably the best thing about these is how smooth they are. You can work with the sculpting epoxy sooner and will require less lubricant. They're also ideal for buffing out large smooth surfaces due to the reduced sliding drag.
2. Shape. Silicon and rubber tips have to be of a heavier and thicker material to resist bending, deformation, and tearing. So they have thicker head shapes than you would normally find in a metal tool. I've often found the difficulty level of a project can drastically change when you have the "right" shaped tool for the job.
3. Cleaning. Because of the ultra-smooth surface, many materials won't bond to the surface and will easily peel away. Cleaning is often little more than a water rinse and toweling.
4. Purpose of design. These are excellent tools specifically designed for artists working in this type of medium. They have decent thickness handles, good ergonomics for grip and just feel "right" for this kind of work. In comparison, most metal shaping tools are actually re-purposed dental tools. They often have a minimum thickness to the shaft to save on material and many sets have tool shapes we're unlikely to need.

1. Flexible tips.
I strongly recommend getting the "Extra Firm" model. The pliability of the softer versions seems perfect for a light medium such as fondant, marzipan or even oil paint. Combine a pliable tool and the finickiness of epoxy and you have an exercise in frustration, especially if you aren't familiar with how the sculpting epoxy handles. These tools are not "beginner friendly".
2. Shape. Again, because of the material involved, silicon tip shapers tend to be heavier and thicker than their metal counterparts. Certain shapes just aren't plausible, especially sharp points and edges. Everything on them is just a little rounded. So where they might be the perfect tool for one job, they'll be horrible for another.
3. Cleaning. Those few materials that do manage to bond to the surface can mar your tip to remove. Metal offers a small advantage in that anything that really bonds can simply be sliced away and/or buffed off with fine-grit sandpaper.
4. Tip Degradation. Not only is there the above, but many forms of silicone lubricant (such as KY Jelly) and caustic chemicals can rot your tip. Even worse is if you leave your tools out and have a cat that likes to chew on things...
5. Price. Silicon tipped shapers are cheaper than good brushes, but still kinda expensive. For the same price as one or two silicone tipped shapers, a little bit of hunting around can get you a complete 12-piece set of metal dental tools.

So if you're just starting to sculpt and want something a little more precise than your fingers, I'd suggest getting a metal tool set. But if you've got a few sculpts under your belt, these won't replace your normal tools but are an excellent item to pick up to expand your toolbox. I would particularly recommend Royal Sovereign's Size 0 Angle Chisel and Size 2 Taper Point as my "best buys" and the ones I personally use. Cheers!

***Images are undoubtedly copyright of Royal Sovereign, FOX and Universal Studios and will be removed if asked.***


  1. As always, thanks. This was just the info I was looking for.

    On to the spore pods then...


  2. Cracking post mate, ironically I've never been able to use the metal tools, I'm just not that good at sculpting but I am getting good results with the shapers.

    I suppose I'm going to have to man up and get into metal tools sometime soon. Any recommendations?

  3. @mchmr6677: Glad I could help!

    @Corbane: As you've already started with silicon tipped shapers, going the other way is going to be an experience. It will also be a LOT stickier and require more lubricant. I'm betting soft and smooth shapes will be trickier, but it should make high relief and sharp edges much simpler.
    I've been underwhelmed with the surface of plated tools and suggest just simple stainless. Even then I've still smoothed mine down more with a file and sander.
    What I'd love to get? These. But at that price, a Fortress of Redemption and several other items are much higher on my wishlist. Plus, there's some inexpensive alternatives here, here or here that work almost as nicely at a tenth the cost.
    Do blog when you try out metal tools! I'd be interested in hearing about your experience coming the other direction. Cheers!

  4. Thanks for the links mate, found the 12piece set on and just ordered it.

    I'll let you know how I get on with working on Harker which is my next project.

  5. If you plan to sculpt clay, creative paperclay, polymer clay or epoxy putty to create or repair miniatures, there are some useful tools you may want to add to your toolkit. Many are available from the polymer clay section of your craft store or online.