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Polymer Clay Artisan Keycaps: Why Clay?

A lot of mechanical keycap artisans make keycaps by casting resin in silicone molds. Other resin artisans use 3D printing to create keycaps (with SLA printers, which print in resin instead of plastic). Resin keycaps are exceptional works of art. Personally, I enjoy making polymer clay artisan keycaps over any other keycap type.

Want to learn how to make resin artisan keycaps?

You can learn to make resin artisan keycaps in my tutorial series, starting with How to Make Resin Artisan Keycaps: Part 1 – Getting Started and Minimum Equipment.

Resin isn’t the only way to make keycaps. Check out some of my polymer clay artisan keycaps in the gallery below:

What’s the Story with Polymer Clay Keycaps?

Production keycap makers use polymer clay less frequently than hand-casted resin and 3D-printed resin, and clay is sometimes associated with artists who are just starting out and don’t yet own the equipment required for resin casting. Although many people underestimate the costs of detailed claycraft, it remains true that — overall — clay is less daunting to get into than resincraft. In this way, people sometimes mistakenly assume clay keycaps to be a more amateur approach.

I have experience with both claycraft and resin casting, and would like to share why I make polymer clay artisan keycaps — and why I love doing it.

What People Assume About Clay

First, let’s get the “most assumed” reasons out of the way quickly. I’ll cover the fact and the fiction around assumptions.

“Lower Costs”

To get started making polymer clay artisan keycaps, you do not need an air compressor, a pressure pot, personal protective equipment, really good ventilation in your workspace, two-part silicone, mold boxes or LEGO pip spaces, sculpting platforms (debatable, actually), cancer-causing urethane resins, resin pigments, mica powders (again, debatable), flush cutters, etc.

What you do need to get going with highly detailed polymer clay is — on the whole — materials which are a lot safer to use (especially if you don’t live alone), but are still extensive and not without a cost that adds up significantly over time:

  • A variety of different types / brands of polymer clays in all primary and many natural colors (white clay will be your biggest repeated purchase), translucent clay, liquid clays, clay thinner, clay bonding adhesive
  • Sculpting tools (needle tools, silicone tools, ball tools, needle point tweezers, clay blades, razors, exacto blades, brush tools, toothbrushes, tin foil, etc.)
  • Parchment paper, ceramic tiles, and a convection oven
  • Alcohol or acetone, latex gloves, toothpicks, q-tips, alcohol wipes
  • Pigments (e.g., soft chalk pastels, mica powders)
  • Paintbrushes (both low and high quality)
  • High quality model washes and acrylic paints for painting models and miniatures (e.g., The Army Painter, Vallejo, etc.) This is optional, but if you’re going for detail and realism, they’re something you’ll want to acquire and gain skill with eventually.
  • Glazes and varnishes (e.g., matte, satin, gloss)
  • Compartmentalized storage containers, paint pots, etc.; so much storage
  • Sculpting platforms, helping hands tools, etc. (various methods to hold in-progress sculpts without touching them while still having access to the top, bottom, and all sides)

And more. On the whole, the startup cost of resin is high: the SLA printer, or the air compressor, or the pressure pot… but in the long run, the sustained operating costs are similar. Silicone and resin are comparable in price to having to continually buy polymer clay, blank PBT keysets, etc.

“Polymer Clay Artisan Keycaps Will Break or Wear Out”

This depends on craftsmanship quality. If the keycap design has tiny, fiddly, protruding pieces — sure, it may eventually break from repeated use. But this is also true of some resin keycaps.

Polymer clay is plastic.

Polymer clay artisan keycaps are sculpted over PBT keycap blanks, and this means the stem of the keycap is made by a machine in a factory with PBT plastic — the same materials used in most high quality manufacturer keysets. The stems on polymer clay keycaps will therefore fit switches tightly, and are not prone to breakage at all. Polymer clay keycaps are most susceptible to damage when installing or removing with tools if excess force or torsion is applied to them in areas where they are structurally less supported (like the edges where the clay has been applied in a very thin layer over the blank, or protruding details).

People tend to assume clay keycaps will be more delicate because they remember ceramics in school art classes. Polymer clay is not ceramic.

However, because the molding, casting, and curing processes for resin are unforgiving, resin keycaps are often assumed to be more durable. But if you’re using an organic resin, resin is actually less durable than polymer. Durability assumptions about resin vs. clay are somewhat founded in truth because resin keycap designs have to withstand sculpting, then molding, then casting in order to prove the end product will endure.

Note: Some two-part resins are urethane liquid plastic rather than organic. These are more durable than their plant-based counterparts, but I have broken a few resin keycaps accidentally — particularly the stems. I’ve never broken a PBT stem.

Polymer clay only has to withstand sculpting and detailing, so artisans can get away with creating more delicate pieces without being punished early in the process for making something that won’t be durable in the long run. It is up to the clay artisan to ensure their designs are robust from the beginning, since the creation process itself does not punish delicate designs as severely. It’s therefore possible to distribute polymer clay pieces that have not been “durability-tested.” Resin-casted keycaps are durability-tested by the maker’s process, so the recipient is less on the hook for the longevity of the finished keycap.

As far as durability goes for protection against normal wear and tear, personally I triple-coat my polymer keycaps with multiple types of varnishes. This goes a long way in protecting them. I often bake more than once, which also hardens them further.

“Polymer Clay Artisan Keycaps Are Easier to Make”

This is a very loaded, very erroneous assumption. The operator’s manufacturing process is less physically dangerous, certainly — claycraft does not involve toxic substances, or metal vessels under pressure. Polymer clay also doesn’t cure in the air, so there’s no ticking clock for worktime, as there is with resin once it’s mixed. You could start crafting a polymer clay keycap and then store it for weeks or even months to no ill effect (as long as it’s protected from dust and not touching any cheaply made plastics, since this will cause a chemical reaction), coming back to it later.

But overall, the techniques are just different. An extremely high level of craftsmanship is equally important in both, but the type of craftsmanship is not identical. Some artisans do both (I do both, for example, depending on what I’m trying to achieve), and utilize different skills for each — with the primary overlaps being sculpting skills, steady-handedness, and precise attention to minuscule detail.

Time and Effort Tradeoffs

There are tradeoffs to working with polymer clay or resin. When working with polymer clay, there are several preparatory steps that take active work time and effort, such as manually carving down the blank to smaller dimensions, cleaning up edges without making fingerprints, clearance testing, varnishing, etc. Then of course, there’s the fact that every individual keycap needs to be hand-sculpted from scratch.

With resin, once the mold exists (after you’ve made the master sculpt and casted it in silicone), actual working time to create resin casts is much, much lower than with polymer clay keycaps, even for multi-shots. In fact, the very nature of resin mandates this: you need to be quick because resin begins to cure once mixed, so you will likely only ever work actively on a cast for five to twenty minutes at a time, or even less for some fast-curing resins (less than three minutes for some!). There can potentially be significant hours of curing time, but no effort is being expended during those periods.

Once I have a mold, if I compare the time I actively spend mixing resin, pouring, dyeing, and shooting (including for multi-shot keycaps), it is not comparable to the hours and hours I spend on each individual polymer clay keycap. Of course, your mileage may vary — and both methods are highly dependent on skill and experience, as well as complexity of what you’re trying to achieve.

Sculpting masters for resin casting is also not identical to sculpting polymer clay keycaps. Master sculpts for resin require attention to be paid to strategies that will be used later, especially for multiple shots (resin keycaps with differentiated areas of different colors).

Getting Started Making Polymer Clay Keycaps

So, is it easier to get started making polymer clay artisan keycaps? Yes, absolutely, because you can buy some clay and a blank PBT DSA keyset (PBT won’t melt at the baking temperature of polymer clay) and begin to experiment almost right away. Just be prepared to spend a significant amount of time on every individual keycap.

On the other other hand, to get started with resin, you need sculpting clay, a sculpting base, silicone, mold release, mold-making parts, resin (preferably several varieties of two-part liquid plastic resin with different pot life / cure times), a respirator mask, nitrile gloves, and a very well ventilated workspace — at the bare minimum. You’ll also need resin colorants (inks, mica powders, etc.) if you want to cast anything other than one color, an air compressor, and a paint sprayer modified into a pressure pot appropriate for resin casting, eventually — if you want your pieces to be free of imperfections caused by bubbles. But once you’ve got your molds, the time you’ll spend actively working on creating each individual keycap is significantly lower in comparison to polymer clay.

So — is polymer clay easier overall? That’s purely subjective. For me, the answer is no: resin is less forgiving, but also much less actively time-consuming. I burn a lot more hours and calories crafting polymer clay keycaps.

But is polymer clay less daunting to begin if you’ve never made keycaps before? Yes, 100%.

Mihi’s Polymer Clay Projects

I got my start in polymer clay by making miniature realistic food, sculptures, and dioramas.

This is an artform that gradually spilled over into my appreciation for mechanical keyboards, and resulted in making keycaps as a natural branch of miniature art.

Obsession With Tiny Details: Polymer Clay Artisan Keycaps

I have experience with both resin casting and with polymer clay. I won’t lie — I personally prefer claycraft as a hobby. I derive more joy from it. And it’s possible for me to achieve levels of intricate detail, subtle or complex colors and shading, and creative effects with clay that would be challenging or even impossible with resin (or would require ten times as many hours of curing time, experimentation time, a lot more post-casting painting, complicated multi-shot techniques, stringent design composition requirements, etc.). All of the above are part of the art of resincraft. I love making keycaps and crafts with resin also, so I absolutely appreciate and fully understand what goes into the endeavor.

When I sell keycaps, I generally use resin because the time/effort cost per individual keycap is lower with resin than with clay.

Here’s a little gallery of just a few of my polymer clay artisan keycaps:

Note: For example, the color and shading details on the manatee were executed with a technique for raw polymer clay using chalk pigments.

Part of the enjoyment I get from polymer clay is the color theory, experimentation, and composition of a lot of tiny, intricate elements. I also enjoy discovering how to achieve certain effects with clay (such as glass, water, frosting, egg whites, bacon, etc., etc.)

And if one of my experiments is going to be a failure, I discover that quite early, and don’t have to wait hours (or even days, for some types of long-curing epoxy resin) to find out. I don’t waste precious resources (silicone, resin, colorants, my own time and energy) waiting to find out if something will work. I’m not a very patient person, you see.

So in this way, clay (as a recreational past-time) is nicely suited to my personality and crafting style.

Note: That isn’t to say that I don’t cast quite a bit of resin; as I mentioned above, my keycap sales are primarily resin. Once in a blue moon, I will sell a very, very limited, small run batch of polymer clay artisan keycaps. However, because they are much more time-consuming to make, I usually only make them for myself.

Resin Artisan Keycaps

I also make resin artisan keycaps. You can read a series of tutorials on how to make resin keycaps in my blog here.

Who is the Audience For My Work?

Another reason I like to do clay is because I want to focus on primarily creating for myself. Polymer clay artisan keycaps have to be created individually, and I usually do not use molds for clay, or if I do use molds I’ve created, they always require significant additional cleanup and detailing). Every keycap is unique, even if they’re done in a “batch.” I have to individually sculpt every single component of every piece. This results in batches that are exceptionally limited. Many pieces are only made once; I keep those or gift them. Sometimes they are exclusive commissions.

When I first started to get into miniature art, I never really had the intention of selling it. Then I eventually made so much stuff that I had to find a way to sell or gift it, because it was just languishing in storage containers in drawers. When I discovered there was a (however small) audience for my keycap artwork, I began to do more batched work and cater more to the tastes of audiences.

Mental Health: I Should Be My Own Audience

However, I eventually felt too drawn into the mindshare of audience community. It was causing me to lose focus on what it is that I love to create — purely for the joy of creating. I used to draw a lot of digital art and participated heavily in artist communities. Ultimately, I gave up the digital art community permanently because of stress levels and the poor mental health situation it created for me.

I needed to be mindful to prevent the same thing from happening with my keycap hobby. (The miniature food and diorama hobby is not at risk from this phenomenon; I love making them too much, and I don’t make them to sell.)

If I make batch orders, they are primarily resin-cast, and far fewer claycraft pieces will end up available to the public (most will likely be reserved for my own personal keyboards and macropads, commissions, and special gifts).

Miyazakeyboard, fossil dig site number pad, Moonlander with artisan keycaps I made and purchased, dioramas, and display selection of my handmade resin artisan keycaps

Thank You!

Thank you for reading! Exploring my own craft and going through a variety of different trials and tribulations has helped me to gain more clarity about who I am as a miniature artist, and what brings me the most joy and fulfillment. I hope to continue to experiment and to bring neat, tiny things into the world!

I Sell Things

As mentioned above, I sell stuff like small, limited batches of polymer clay artisan keycaps, resin keycaps, polymer clay charms and jewelry, miniature food, dioramas, and I also occasionally open commissions. Check out my shop to see what artisan keycaps are currently available for sale. You can also follow me on Instagram for raffles or fulfillment sales.

To get in touch with me directly, please email me using this form.

Thanks again for reading!

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