Unwanted fingerprints are a huge annoyance to many clayers. Our hands are our most valuable and versatile tools, but they also bear those pesky loops and whorls that help identify us as unique beings-- marks that can mar the smooth finish of our creations.
One school of thought suggests that the occasional fingerprint is nothing to worry about. Our work is done by hand, so why not celebrate that fact and leave our imprint-- literally-- on what we make?
However, there are still many who prefer to disguise or remove fingerprints. The following is a sampling of the techniques polymer artists employ in this pursuit.
Top Ten Ways to Reduce Fingerprints in Clay:
(In no particular order, despite the whole "top ten" thing...)
1. Wear gloves.
If you can stand wearing gloves, they'll help you cut down on fingerprints. Even if you don't wish to wear them the whole time, you can still slip them on for last few steps before curing your project. A good, tight fit is preferable, as any looseness in the fingertips can cause crease marks in the clay, which can be just as frustrating as the fingerprints! Many people use latex gloves. Others, worried about developing a latex allergy, prefer vinyl, nitrile, or other materials. If you absolutely cannot stand the feeling of gloves, you might want to try finger cots, which fit over fingers individually.
2. Smoothen your fingers.
If you simply aren't going to use gloves, no matter what, you can still improve matters by smoothening your hands. Try an exfoliating scrub to gently remove dead skin every few days. Work moisturizing hand lotions into your daily routine. Lotions keep your hands soft, which can reduce their "grab" on the clay.
3. Use firm clay.
Firmer brands of clay tend to take fingerprints less readily than soft brands. Fimo Classic and Kato are two of the better clays for avoiding fingerprints-- particularly if you have warm hands or live in a warm climate. You can also try leaching very soft clay to increase its firmness to some degree.
4. Keep things cool.
The warmer the clay and your hands are, the more fingerprints you'll leave. For this reason, it's a good idea to allow the clay to sit a while before you do the final smoothing of your work. If possible, you might even put the clay into the refrigerator to chill. For those with warm hands, try cooling them in a bowl of ice water (or with an ice pack, etc.) before putting on the final touches.
5. "Pet" away fingerprints.
Prior to curing, try to pet away as many fingerprints and other marks as possible. Use a light touch, and experiment with short, soft strokes and circular motions to find what works best for you. Some artists dip their fingertips in water or powder to aid in the smoothing.
6. Burnish away fingerprints.
You can burnish fingerprints away with a variety of tools-- anything from an agate burnishing tool or clay shaper tool to a simple piece of deli paper, plastic wrap and bags, or baking parchment. Gently rub the burnishing tool in small circles over the clay to smooth away imperfections. Put the paper or plastic against the clay (being careful to avoid creases) and rub your finger against the piece "through" the paper.
7. "Brush down" the clay.
This technique is particularly popular among sculptors. Brush (or wipe) down your piece just before curing, using any of a variety of materials, including everything from a mixture of diluent and rubbing alcohol to lighter fluid or acetone. A couple other suggestions are baby oil and waterless hand cleanser, which consists largely of alcohol. (You can read more about brushing down on this page of Glass Attic: Sculpture.)
8. Apply texture.
For certain applications, the best approach may be to remember the old saying, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" That is, rather than trying to remove all vestiges of your fingerprints, go the other way and add texture to the clay. Make polymer clay's natural tendency to accept texture work for you. Mask undesired texture by imprinting a new texture on top of it. Popular choices for this technique include sandpaper, salt (which can be dissolved away with water after curing), brush bristles, and heavily textured fabric, but a variety of other materials will also work.
9. Look, don't touch. ;o)
Be careful about handling clay that's still warm from the oven or fresh from the buffing wheel. In this warm state, even cured clay can take a fingerprint (and leave you baffled when you later discover it).
10. Remove prints after baking.
For those times when you can't avoid leaving fingerprints, you can always remove them after curing. Not many of us enjoy sanding, but there's no arguing with the results. In addition to the usual wet/dry sandpaper most clayers use, you may want to look into the possibility of trying another material or sanding technique. Some people pawn the task off on their rock tumblers (using bits of sandpaper instead of the abrasive materials required for polishing stones). Others swear by polishing papers, sanding sponges, emery boards-- even jeweler's files. (You can read more about sanding on Polymer Clay Web and Glass Attic.)
With these tips in mind, you should be well on your way to avoiding-- or at least removing-- fingerprints. Unless, of course, you choose to leave your mark wherever it may fall. ;o)