Many people have been disappointed the first time they tried air-dry clay. It could be they just picked the wrong brand to use for that particular project. There are a zillion brands to pick from and it can get very confusing. See our "ADC Brands" page for a list of brand names with manufacturers description. There's also some user reviews of some brands published at my other blog The New Clay News. We're always looking for more user reviews to help take the mystery out of "...which brand should I buy?"
I consider the various brands of self-hardening, no-bake, air-dry clays to belong to different general types or 'groups'. Some clays are soft and marshmallow-like, some are stiff. Some are very durable when dried while some actually stay soft even when fully cured and are easily dented or scratched. Each has their own unique characteristics and I've grouped them here according to my own personal opinions:
(1) Wood or paper pulp based clays such as Creative Paperclay.* (I'm not including papier mache here because it's a category of it's own.)
(2) Stone-based (pumice) clays such as LaDoll. Usually a stiffer consistency and often used to create dolls because of it's ability to hold fine detail.
(3) Polymer-based resin clays such as Deco Clay, Hearty, Model Magic, Lumina, Luna and many other brands of clay that are usually softer and often available pre-colored. These clays may be too soft for fine detail but are frequently used when crafting clay flowers.
(5) There are many "school-grade" clays available that could fit into some of these other groups but I'm placing them in a group of their own because they lack many of the qualities desired for crafting dolls and fine art. These clays are fragile when cured and often crack easily. They are often sold in bulk packaging intended for elementary school classrooms. Crayola Air Dry Clay is one example.
(6) Another group is the air-dry terra cotta clays. These are often very heavy clays and will crack easily as they cure. Not the best choice for fine modeling but suitable for making bowls and pots.
(7) Yet another group is the self-hardening epoxy clays. These clays cure with a chemical reaction. Although these self-hardening clays are not "air-dry", they are included here because they are also "no-bake" clays and are often used along with air-dry clays in mixed media projects.
(8) Papier Mache is an air-dry product but not a true clay. Papier mache is best suited to large objects because creating detail is difficult. Papier mache can be made at home the traditional way with newspaper strips and glue. You can also purchase "instant" powders (just add water) to make papier mache. Often bases and other props are made with papier mache.
*Note: The air-dry "Paperclay" and the kiln-fired "paper clay" (used by potters and ceramic artists) are completely different and should not be confused.
**Cold Porcelain is a self-hardening, air-dry clay that can be purchased ready-made or made at home from simple ingredients. Because it can be made at home, cold porcelain is often considered separately from other air-dry clays. Cold Porcelain is not an actual 'porcelain', but, when dried, the finish becomes opaque and porcelain-like. The 'cold' refers to the fact that it does not have to be baked or fired to cure. Items made with cold porcelain dry hard and durable. The most popular things to make with cold porcelain are realistic flowers and cute cartoon-style figures (some are quite large). Please visit "Cold Porcelain Tutorials" and check the 'Recipes' page for a variety of cold porcelain recipes
So, you can see that some brands of no-bake clay are soft and best suited for simple shapes and clay flowers. Some are stiffer and better suited to sculpting and doll making. Then there's those that may not be a fine enough quality for your art work. Most are available in white only (or off-white). The 'white' clays can be tinted before using or painted after curing. There are also polymer-based no-bake clays that are available in a rainbow of colors.
It takes a bit of experimenting to find the brand of clay that suits you and your sculpting needs the best. Unlike polymer clay, where the clay characteristics are generally similar from brand to brand, the characteristics and quality of air-dry clays can vary drastically. Their self-hardening/no-bake formulas are the main thing they have in common. Be aware that many brands marketed to children will not be suitable for fine art and you may have problems with cracking and durability.
So, you can see there is a lot to learn about air-dry clays. If you are used to working with polymer clay, it will take some practice and some experimenting before you find the one that's just right for you. The best way to learn is to join our Air-Dry-Clay Yahoo Group, where we have many generous members willing to share their expertise and experience.
You can also visit my other blog "The New Clay News" which contains user tips, product reviews, book reviews, guest articles and more discussion about the various no-bake clays.