DIY Dinosaurs, Part 2: sculpting dino claws

April 27, 2013

Sculpey allosaur claws

A few weeks ago I threw this picture into the “Night at the Museum” post and promised to say more later. Later is now.

I started sculpting dinosaur claws because of the coincidental arrival of two things in my life. One was a cast of OMNH 780, the horrifically awesome thumb claw of Jurassic megapredator Saurophaganax maximus, which I blogged about here. (If you’re curious, I’m using it to amaze people at public talks, so it is serving a semi-legit educational purpose.)

The other is this video of Adam Savage’s TED talk on how he got into sculpting two very different birds. I’ve watched it about a zillion times and shown it to loads of friends, because Savage so nicely captures what it’s like to be obsessed by interesting things. We have different objects of desire, and, okay, I don’t have 20 gigs of photos of anything, but when I’m having a lousy day, watching that video reminds me why I do what I do. You should blow off the rest of this post and go watch it right now.

Back so soon? So, I am a little obsessed with theropod claws right now (aesthetically and fanboyishly, not scientifically), and I thought it would be cool to try my hand at making them. Also, I’ve been wanting to do some molding and casting, and I wanted to be able to practice on cool stuff without having any ethical concerns about trading in fossils or replicating someone else’s specimen. More on the molding and casting in a future post.

A final boring note before the actual instructions: I have no idea what I’m doing. Those two claws in the photo above? The little one on the right is the first thing I’ve sculpted out of anything more serious than Play-Doh, and the big one on the left–the subject of this post–is the second. If I can do this, you can do this.

On to the  how.

1 - raw sculpey

Sculpey isn’t really clay in the traditional sense. It’s slightly oily plastic that polymerizes when baked. When it first comes out of the package, it’s surprisingly brittle and crumbly. You have to knead it for a while before you can do anything useful with it.

2 - kneaded sculpey

Here’s a lump after some kneading. My work surface here is a dinner plate covered with aluminum foil.

3 - rough sculpting with fingers

At the local hobby store you can buy a set of clay sculpting tools, in plastic for about five bucks or in wood for up to thirty. But unless you’re a professional sculptor you can skip all that folderol and just use your fingers and crap you find around the house.

The main thing I learned during this stage? You can achieve just about any shape you want, depending on how much time you’re willing to invest. I worked iteratively, smoothing and resmoothing and smoothing some more.

4 - sculpting with popsicle sticks

Cheap tools in action: using popsicle sticks to smooth the edges of the claw. You can get a bag of 100 of these suckers at the dollar store. If you don’t already have a decent pair of wire cutters, you can get them at the dollar store, too, and you can use the wire cutters to cut all kinds of edges into the popsicle sticks. So that’s like 100 clay tools for a buck or two.

If it seems like I’m hating on fancy clay tools, it’s because IME real artists just get on with making art and don’t get too precious about it. Here’s Zak Smith on painting (warning–nothing bad in that post, but there is some NSFW stuff elsewhere on that site):

the process is as follows:  I take a very small paint brush with wet paint on it, put it on the paper, and move my hand around.  There is no magic or machinery involved and it is done freehand.  Sometimes I look at a real thing or person and paint it, sometimes its a picture i took, and sometimes i just make it up.  How to tell?  If its a picture with a title like “Lisa” then probably that’s from real life, if it’s, say, a zebra-man with two samurai next to it, then that’s made up.

“What kind of paint?”  The cheapest kind they have at whatever store I am at.

So it drives me crazy when I see wannabe artists shelling out thirty bucks for tools they could make or emulate for less than a tenth of that. (If you’re serious enough to have actual fancy tools, holster the angry comments, I don’t think you’re keeping the local Hobby Lobby in business buying the faux-fancy tools.)

5 - sculpting with floss pick

Need a clay knife? Floss picks work pretty well. I used this one a LOT. Here I’m angling the articular facet for the next phalanx.

6 - blood vessel grooves

Blood vessel grooves. I think I used the blunt end of a bamboo kabob skewer to install these, with some follow-up shaping with popsicle sticks. I also straightened and shortened the claw tip a bit from the previous photo.

Funny story: a few years ago I was going through the public exhibits at a certain nameless museum and at the “touch a fossil” table an excited young docent started to explain how the “blood groove” was there to let the blood flow out of the wound so the claw wouldn’t get trapped by suction. I tried to explain that it was really there to hold the vessels that nourished the keratin sheath that covered the bony claw in life, but he was unpersuaded. I wished, for the first and only time, that I had a cast Tenontosaurus claw with me so he could explain why herbivores needed “blood grooves” on their claws, too…

7 - this is distressing

Now: detailing. I didn’t want to sculpt the claw as it was in life, I wanted a fossil claw, something that looked like it might have been left out in the rain for 145 million years. The bone I picked up on the beach, and the exposed spongiosa is just perfect for putting a realistic bone texture on stuff. The rock is a rock. I used it for nicks and gouges.

8 - all cracked up

I carve cracks with a straight pin. I carve them fairly deep, a couple of mm, so if I accidentally smudge some clay over a crack I can cut or sand it off, post-baking, and get the crack back. I don’t worry about raised edges along the edges of the cracks–these sand off in a heartbeat after baking. Just carve away.

Right after the above photo was taken, I popped the whole plate in the oven for about 45 minutes at 295 F to bake the Sculpey. There are lots of different kinds of Sculpey and other polymer clays on the market, so read the instructions on the box before you bake. Also, the baking drives off the oils that made the stuff kneadable, so save your baking for a nice day when you can have the windows open. If you’re going to bake a lot of Sculpey, you might want a separate oven for it. The vapors from the baking Sculpey do make me feel a little ill, so I get some good airflow through the house and limit my exposure. Caveat sculptor.

9 - back after baking

Here’s the claw right after baking. Some areas are smooth and shiny from being in more intimate contact with the foil. If you’re not going to sculpt the other side of something and you want a perfectly flat, smooth surface, watch out for this.

10 - droopy

The only point of this photo is to show that the baked Sculpey is not rock-hard. The tip of the claw is drooping under its own weight here. For my first, smaller claw, I carved a groove in the flat side with a Dremel and put in a section of bent hanger wire to help it maintain its shape. For this second one, I figured the other half of the claw would give it sufficient thickness to hold its shape after baking, and I was right.

11 - second side sculpt

Here’s the reverse side, sculpted using the same techniques as I used for the first side, but not baked yet. I suppose there might be some kind of Sculpey Einstein out there who can do a whole claw in one go, but I couldn’t figure out how to do both sides without leaving fingerprints everywhere, or how to support the thing while it baked, so I did the two sides sequentially. If you think of a better solution, let me know, although really this is not much extra work–about an hour, max, while I was watching Mythbusters.

12 - macrophage choking on asbestos

Now we gotta talk about asbestos for a while (this is relevant, I promise). Here’s a photomicrograph of a macrophage (a kind of white blood cell) self-impaled on some asbestos fibers, in what started out as attempted consumption of foreign material by the macrophage, and ended up closer to a crucifixion.

Here’s the deal: you have macrophages roaming around in your lungs, and when they find stuff that isn’t supposed to be there–which is pretty much everything other than your own living cells–they eat the offending material. And by “eat” I mean “engulf and try to chemically destroy”, using all kinds of profoundly noxious stuff–hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine gas. And if the offending material is extremely resistant to such treatment, as is the case with asbestos, the macrophages just keep unleashing hell. Forever. Which doesn’t dissolve the asbestos, but does eventually dissolve your lungs. Asbestos by itself doesn’t hurt you much–it’s what you do to yourself trying to get rid of it that kills you.

Why am I bringing up this depressing stuff? Partly because you are in command of a human body and you should know something about how it works. And partly because, if you have been following this little how-to, very soon you are going to be sanding your Sculpey dinosaur claw. Which is made out of plastic. Which is going to shed tiny particles of plastic into the air while you sand it. Which you are going to inhale unless you are wearing a mask. Now, I don’t know the actual resilience of baked Sculpey particles under the chemical assault your macrophages are prepared to light them up with, and I don’t recommend that you perform the experiment on yourself. I got a pack of five of these:

13 - dust mask

for two bucks at the hardware store. If you can afford ten bucks for a block of Sculpey, you can afford to spend two more to save your lungs.

This goes for sanding just about everything, by the way. It’s like germs or radiation, just because you can’t see or feel the damage doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Also like germs and radiation, some simple precautions are all you need to avoid the vast majority of the problems. Or you can skip them, and someday someone like me may be using your corpse to teach people about how not to care for a human body. Your pick!

14 - sanding

Sanding. I only do one pass, with 220 grit. If you start with 60 grit, you can say goodbye to all the details you put in, because they are going to be gone very quickly. Basically I’m just trying to knock off the most egregious of the rough edges. I’m not trying to get a very smooth surface–that comes next.

I didn’t take any pictures of this, but after the sandpaper I scrubbed the whole claw with 000 steel wool. I had never used this stuff before–I only learned about it from that Adam Savage TED talk–and it is pretty amazing. For one thing, it will give whatever you are sanding a shockingly smooth finish. For another, it actually goes away as you use it. You’ll start out with a full-sized bundle and after sanding for 10 minutes you’ll be down to a half-size bundle. If you’re slouching in front of the TV, it will look like a metal cat shed all over your t-shirt. The chances of actually inhaling a tiny sliver of steel and having it get all the way down into your lungs are probably pretty slim, but I masked up anyway (there are still microscopic Sculpey shards coming off at this stage). Anyway, the steel wool gives a very even appearance to the surface, so you can’t tell what areas got really hit by the sandpaper, and for me it was one of the most satisfying parts of the whole process.

15 - finished claw

And here’s the final result. On the right the tip is a little blackened from over-baking, since the right side went through the oven twice, but it’s not bad. At this point you can paint or do whatever. I haven’t experimented with painting Sculpey yet, and online sources are mixed about what works best. You don’t want to use anything thick for a primer or you’ll lose the fine details. When I do finally get around to painting, I’m going to start with flat black auto primer, just like Adam Savage used on his Maltese Falcon (which I know was resin, not Sculpey, but still), and see if that doesn’t do the trick. If you know of something better, please tell us in a comment.

Next up in this series: molding and casting.

12 Responses to “DIY Dinosaurs, Part 2: sculpting dino claws”

  1. CyborgAbeLincoln Says:

    I’ve never actually used regular Sculpey, but I’m a big fan of Super Sculpey. I think it’s a little pricier, but not bad.

    Based on your pictures, I’m guessing that Super Sculpey is initially less brittle/crumbly. It is however rather temperature sensitive in that at room temperature it’s rather stiff, but as it warms up in your hands it gets a lot softer. Once you get used to it, it’s actually very convenient that way because it means that any pieces you’re actively forming in your hands are softer than everything else.

    Also based on your description, Super Sculpey may be less noxious when baking. There’s certainly a distinctive odor, but it’s never really bothered me. May be an individual thing, though.

    I totally agree with your approach to tools. My main sculpting tool is my Swiss Army knife.

    I’ve actually never bothered priming Super Sculpey and just put acrylic paint right on it. At least for stuff that’s just being displayed, it’s never been a problem and stands up to test scratching with a fingernail just fine. I also have never bothered sanding it, though, so there may be some connection there.

    I don’t get a chance to do Sculpey much lately, but here’s something I did a while back:

    This was a really cool post and it makes me want to break out the Sculpey again, though. I picked up some metallic Sculpey Premo! a few weeks ago. I was thinking about trying to cast some small fossils for jewelry.

  2. brian engh Says:

    dude them claws lookn good! I’d second CyborgAbeLincoln’s recommendation of super sculpey, and also a clay called FIMO. They bake up harder and stronger. Also, any of the polymer clays can be mixed by kneading together – so if you want a bunch of decently strong clay without spending all the extra money, you can blend in one of the stronger formulas with your standard sculpey. Also if you over-bake them a little bit they get harder/stronger (although they will darken and discolor).

    if you wanna stretch your sculpey supply (i.e. make A LOT more claws and teeth and dino-weapons for less money) you can rough out your form with crumpled up tinfoil first, then smear a thin layer of sculpey over that for the detailing (which is the fun part anyway)…

    Also, for things that will be handled regularly i strongly recommend washing your baked sculpture with dish-soap to remove oily residues before painting. Acrylic seems to hold pretty well once the sculpt has been washed and thoroughly dried. Spray paint, especially those formulated for plastics work well too (although they take longer to cure, and you need to wash the sculpture again before painting with acrylics on top of the spray paint).

    As for painting technique, you can get some really nice fossil effects by doing a dark wash coat first to fill the cracks and details, letting that dry, and then dry brushing your lighter hues on top of that. By using a less saturated brush your paint wont flow into all the little dark fissures and cracks and the details will really pop.

    BIG UPS for making some legit monster claws. I love this kind of stuff. It is one of my obsessions too. Ever since I was a kid and watched ‘Movie Magic’ on the discovery channel I’ve been obsessed with making monsters.

    Here’s the vaguely estemmenosuchus inspired head of a monster i created for a music video out of sculpey over a cardboard understructure:

    Unbaked sculpt (note different tones of mixed sculpey, pinker super sculpey-rich mixture for the fragile extensions):

    Painted/decorated head:


  3. brian engh Says:

    As for sculpey brittleness – arts and craft stores don’t sell it like crazy, so it sits on the shelf and sets up for a while and the oils that keep it fluid seem to dissipate into the packaging. I usually pop the box open and smear the clay with my fingernail before i buy. on more than one occasion i’ve bought super sculpey and sculpey that have been so dry and brittle that they were completely unworkable and i had to return them.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    Cool project! I keep thinking that cast it in hard plastic, about half size, it would be a really useful key fob, especially for lab workers who have to walk home late at night in sketchy areas (“really officer, it’s a cast of a fossil dinosaur claw, not a weapon.”). Guess I’m feeling a little bloody-minded today, sorry. It’s a really cool claw.

  5. LeeB Says:

    A nice video.
    Luckily he didn’t get obsessed with making something with lots of parts like a sauropod skeleton, or a glyptodont skeleton complete with carapace made up of lots of bony ossicles.
    Otherwise he might still be trying to complete the project.


  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I can’t help thinking Matt is just warming up before attempting to sculpt sauropod vertebrae.

  7. brian engh Says:

    They’d make a badass coffee table stand…

  8. LeeB Says:

    You could probably use a 3d printer to make some as furniture….

  9. Warren B. Says:

    Jings. This might be the first time I’ve seen anyone declare – let alone get hopping mad about it – that the crappy cheapo plastic sculpting tools from hobby shops are some kind of expensive extravangance for professional artists.

    “just use your fingers and crap you find around the house.”

    Not crap you use for eating, hopefully. I’ve seen some polyclay sculptors recommend a seperate *oven* for baking that stuff. The gasses it gives off aren’t something you want to savour.

    “If it seems like I’m hating on fancy clay tools, it’s because IME real artists just get on with making art and don’t get too precious about it.
    So it drives me crazy when I see wannabe artists shelling out thirty bucks for tools they could make or emulate for less than a tenth of that.”

    There’s ‘getting precious’ and then there’s ‘using good materials’. The latter definitely won’t turn you into a prodigy overnight, and I agree that beginners should hold off on the full lacquered-wood box set until they get some experience and a handle on what they actually need, in terms of quantity and expense; but there may come a point (maybe when you become a ‘real artist’) when craft shop acrylics, scrap paper and popsicle sticks just don’t cut it anymore.

    My main circle of experience is miniature sculpting – mostly gaming miniatures – where fingers and popsicle sticks are definitely more inconvenient than otherwise. Nevertheless, I’ve seen mini-sculptors create good stuff with ‘found crap’ (toothpicks, needles, hobby knives etc.), homemade tools (steel, brass, wood, fine wire), and ‘premium’ tools like wax carvers and silicone-tipped colour shapers. Some of the latter aren’t so expensive anyway – many DIY and tool suppliers have a cheap, decent set of carvers available. Some dip into two or three of those categories – I do myself.
    But, point being, people find what works for them, their style, needs, and preferences. Little point getting so wound up about what someone decides to buy for themselves, starting out or progressing (especially when you’re starting out yourself, if I may say so), unless it actually turns out to be a hindrance. That goes for cheap items as well as expensive.
    E.g. I’ve seen ragged, thick-edged, badly-manufactured carvers priced higher than quality tools. The former’s not just as good as the latter. Nowhere near. And polyclay-using mini-sculptors gravitate towards premium clays: don’t expect much agreement that something like original sculpey is perfectly fine. There are other examples in the wider art world that would take a ferret through to sort out; but in my own experience, student-grade oils spring to mind.

    Looking at Zak Smith’s work, yes: it certainly looks like he doesn’t ‘get too precious’ about his materials. Other artists get precious and buy other materials to create something ‘different’. I can’t bring myself to blame them for that.

    Also, uniball micros? D’you know how many poundshop biros you could buy for the price of one of those?

    “If you’re serious enough to have actual fancy tools, holster the angry comments, I don’t think you’re keeping the local Hobby Lobby in business buying the faux-fancy tools.”

    ‘Only one ranting fit per SV-POW post, please.’ Never a more irresistable invitation! I think this is just past the point when you ran out of things to be angry about anyway. From the looks of it, I wouldn’t go to Hobby Lobby for most of my faux-actual fancy tools. ($3 for a ceramic tool, though! The shysters.)

    Before I forget: nice claw. Good finish on it. Soft spot for Saurophaganax myself. Looking forward to the next instalments.

    Thumbs up.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks, all, for the comments, and links to stuff you’ve made.

    I keep thinking that cast it in hard plastic

    I think you will like Part 3. :-)

    about half size, it would be a really useful key fob, especially for lab workers who have to walk home late at night in sketchy areas (“really officer, it’s a cast of a fossil dinosaur claw, not a weapon.”).

    I love it! Useful and dangerous then, useful and dangerous now.

    Warren B, thanks for the counterpoint on tools. I don’t disagree with anything you say. Never mind that hiss, it’s just the hot air leaking out of my arguments.

    My main circle of experience is miniature sculpting – mostly gaming miniatures

    You have my interest. I’ve never gotten into gaming miniatures in a big way, but as a tabletop RPG and (lite) wargame fan I have admired them from a short distance. What games are you into? Any pictures of your work online?

  11. […] what I should do next is sculpt my own Cthulhu. If and when I find time to do that, I’ll post the results here. In the […]

  12. […] Molding and casting of important specimens may be extremely common in my day job of paleontology (even just for fun), but it is not common at all for meteorites. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a handful […]

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