Let me start this guest post with a confession. *clears throat and puts on a very serious –but sincere—face*
I have always had a weird obsession with tiny things. I think for me it all started when I was a tiny thing myself, and I had Charmkins to play with. I still have most of them… at least… those that my daughter didn’t give away on her first day of school when she was four.
Don’t ask, it was a sad day for me, and completely irrelevant to this blog article. So… ehm, where was I? Right… tiny things.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because that’s how making meeples (figures used in boardgames) started for me.
Gaming hasn’t been a long time hobby for me. I’ve always liked playing board games, but it was the sort of thing we would do on occasion. We had some friends that we played board games with, and there were always special nights, like New Years Eve, where we would break out the old (classic) board games. Later in life, we discovered fun new games, and in the last year we became game obsessed.
(Meeples and components I made for Targi)
Online I found some lovely examples of meeples that someone had made for a game (I think it was Agricola [editor’s note: a large board game about farming in the Middle Ages]). I looked them up and considered buying them. I didn’t, because part of me wanted to try for myself. For years I had looked at those brightly colored little polymer clay packages called Fimo, and thought: it looks like so much fun to make something with those. What put me off was that you needed to bake the clay. I had horrific images of me burning the clay and picking little bits of shriveled remains out of my oven. The insecurity steered me away from trying.
Yet… there were these games, with these awesome meeples… and maybe… just maybe… I could make them myself.
(Meeples I made for Co2)
I contacted a friend of mine, who I knew had worked with polymer clay before and asked her what she would recommend. She told me that she liked working with Sculpey. It was not only cheaper than Fimo, but also a little softer and easier to work with. These are her words, because to this day I still haven’t tried working with Fimo, which makes me completely neutral on the subject. She also told me her mother used to have an online shop and she was having an ‘everything must go’ sale. One thing led to another, and at the end of June 2015 I suddenly was the proud owner of over 100 packages of Polymer Clay for an insanely low price.
(My clay collection)
I rushed out to get an oven, and after playing around, I realized I needed some tools. (Seriously, if you’re a beginner… get some good tools. You’ll find out which ones work best for you)
I ended up getting a lot of tools. Crazy tools, some of them I rarely use, and some which I can’t do without. Aside from actual tools, I use all sorts of things I find in the house, like toothbrushes, tooth picks, needles… anything with structure on it.
(The tools I use most often)
Your tools are important, I can’t stress this enough. But let’s go back a step.
Why polymer clay for my meeples? Because if worked properly, it’s very strong and it almost turns into a form of plastic when baked. This makes it ideal to use for games. That doesn’t mean it can’t break. I tend to have a habit of putting little fiddly bits on my meeples. Let’s just say Peter Pan’s feather on his cap did not survive the 8 year old daughter test.
Many people ask me how it works. Does it come in colors or do I paint it?
Polymer clay comes in many colors. There have been colors that I never even heard of!. That still doesn’t mean it always comes in the color you want. If you want something you don’t have… you blend colors together. I sometimes use four or five colors to get the desired hue. It’s not an easy task, and it helps to work in daylight. I ended up getting a special daylight lamp. It’s awesome. I call him Megatron and we’re in love.
Now, you CAN paint polymer clay. I rarely do, but I know a lot of people will use it to paint highlights, or paint on faces. You can paint anything on after baking. (Let me repeat that… paint them on AFTER baking. I have no idea what happens if you paint before, but just don’t take the risk)
So, as I promised, I would give a few tips on how to make meeples. I’ll make some very simple ones for this blog, because they are easiest to explain.
Let me start with the most important thing: the way you work your clay. Take it from me, let me be your Yoda.
“Knead you must, your clay.”
Knead it, and kneed it long. It makes the clay less brittle and easier to work with. Sometimes your clay can get so warm it goes sticky. When it does that, and it becomes difficult to work with, stick it in the fridge for an hour… and Bob’s your uncle.
Not all polymer clay reacts the same way. I have clay that will literally hurt my fingers, because I have to squeeze it so hard. I have some Polymer Clay war wounds at times. It takes ages to make it soft. Especially some of my metallic colors.
Then there is the evil clay… the one that bleeds color. Ohhh… how I detest it. For me it’s Tomato Red and Red Hot Rouge… *shakes fist at clay packets* “Curse them!!” The amount of times where my white has turned pink… Incidentally, these are the moments where I tend to paint my figures afterwards. I made a little Santa once, and he looked very strange with a pink beard.
In order to prevent this (though some clays make that EXTREMELY difficult) make sure you have something to clean your hands with. I use baby wipes. Very charming, I know, but they help. Nail varnish remover also helps. It’s also perfect to get rid of little bits of fluff and bleeding colors. It melts the clay a little, so use it sparingly. I tend to put it on a Q-tip, because they’re easy to use.
The tip which I found online to help some of the ‘bleeding’ is to mix your red with some half translucent clay. It helps a little, but it’s still not ideal. The combination of all of these things should help you out a little.
(A little example how I made one of the Pandemic meeples!)
The next important thing that you need is patience. Take your time in shaping. I spend at least an hour on my more detailed meeples. Sometimes… I spend two. Don’t rush it. As you’re working one part, another part might get a bit deformed. Take your time making it as nice as you can. You won’t regret it. Once it’s baked, you can’t go back.
You need to make sure that everything is properly attached too. Get the different sections of clay to really stick together. That way they’ll melt together as one in the oven. If you don’t do this –and my daughter didn’t, because she’s 8 years old and knows everything better than I do—you stand a chance that things will fall apart. If they do… use really strong glue. It helps.
Another important thing: Google and YouTube are your friends. Look things up, look at examples. If you can’t find examples in polymer clay, look at pictures. Let everything inspire you. There are a ton of talented people online who will show you how to make the objects you want to make.
(An example of the game pieces I made for Wokstars)
The baking isn’t hard at all. The thought of it freaked me out and it took me a long time to actually dare to try it. It’s easy. Get a tile (any will do, just bathroom or kitchen tiles) and put that in your little oven. Don’t use the same oven as you cook food in. They say the clay is not toxic, but when I bake a lot, a weird smoke comes from the oven, and I doubt it’s healthy. Just get a separate cheap little oven.
Put your meeples on a piece of paper (I tend to use a folded one) I’ll use anything to be honest. Even old bills that I don’t need for my administration. Friends have laughed at me for this.
You preheat your oven to 130 degrees Celsius (250 Fahrenheit). Don’t worry, it says it on the packet how hot the oven needs to be. Most meeples need to be baked for 15 minutes. Bigger things are backed for 30 minutes (MAX) but meeples and miniature things… 15 minutes is fine.
DO NOT bake them for longer. They WILL burn. I’ve seen examples of blackened meeples, and they looked all sad. Don’t burn your meeples, be good to your clay.
Let them cool before you take them out of the oven. They’ll still be soft when they’re hot. Don’t freak out about that. It will harden out. I promise.
And that’s it… you’ll have a set.
Let me give you one word of advice. Start with something small. Do a game that only needs a few meeples. Patchwork [editor’s note: a boardgame with a quilting theme] is one of my favorite games to make meeples for. It only needs three and it’s cute.
(My Patchwork Meeples)
By the way, I didn’t start small. I was an idiot. The first game I made meeples (and components) for was Agricola… *bug eyes*. [Editor note: Agricola is a large boardgame that has several hundred pieces used to play it. It has pieces for wood, stone, sheep, cows, fences, stables player characters and more!] It was a LOT of work. I still hold my knees as I rock myself to sleep at night thinking about that project. Don’t start big… start small. And do something that inspires you. Really make a plan before you start using clay.
(So many Agricola meeples and pieces!)
Last advice before I leave you: Enjoy yourself. Seriously, this is supposed to be fun. The more fun you have, the better your meeples will look. Don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t work out the way you want. There are always do-overs. Before you know it, you’ll be completely addicted too. I make a lot of things out of polymer clay now. Food for my daughter’s doll’s house, charms, key chains, and I’m even decorating a little Christmas tree with my own made meeples. I’m particularly happy with my tree topper.
Anyway, I’ve talked far too much already. Good luck trying your own hand at Polymer clay!
Chantal Noordeloos lives in the Netherlands, where she spends her time with her wacky, supportive husband, and outrageously cunning daughter, who is growing up to be a supervillain. When she is not busy exploring interesting new realities, or arguing with characters (aka writing), she likes to dabble in drawing, working with clay and is an avid board game geek.
In 1999 she graduated from the Norwich School of Art and Design, where she focused mostly on creative writing.