Sheryl is a sculptor and jewelry designer creating sealife-inspired work in polymer clay and mixed media.
This is how I create armatures for sculptures that appear to be balancing or have an otherwise precarious pose. I work in polymer clay but it will work just as well with any other clay that requires wire armature such as plasticine or air dry clay (kiln-fired clay cannot use wire armatures so do not try this with those clays). This is a slightly advanced technique, you should be comfortable making and sculpting over simpler wire armatures before attempting this.
I wrote a previous version of this article several years ago on a now-defunct site and I thought I'd revisit the idea and add more that I have learned since then.
Why Do You Need an Armature?
The main purpose of an armature is to give some internal structure to a sculpture and sometimes to bulk it up so it uses less clay. This prevents the clay from slumping or cracking. In general the larger and more complex the figure the more important the armature is.
For an extreme pose that requires a single balance point between the figure and the base (running, dancing, etc) all the weight and stress will be on that point so making it as strong as possible is very important.
Suggested Tools and Materials
This isn't an exhaustive list of what you may need to create your armature but these are the tools and materials I use most often. Keep in mind that I create small-scale sculptures and sculptures under 18 inches tall. If you're working much larger you may need to look into welded armatures.
- Wire cutters
- Needle-nose pliers
- Coping saw w/metal cutting or general-purpose blade
- Bench vise (optional but useful if bending heavy brass or threaded rod)
- Drill or Dremel tool and drill bits.
- Armature wire (or soft aluminum wire)
- Floral wire in 22 and 28 gauge—I prefer uncoated but the green painted kind works fine.
- Brass rod and/or threaded steel rod in sizes of 1/8" diameter or smaller.
- Square brass tubing.* You need two sizes that snugly one inside the other. This can sometimes be hard to find in stores but is easily bought online. Make sure your brass rod can fit into the smaller of the two brass tubes.
- 2-part epoxy putty. I use the cheap $3 a tube Loctite from Walmart but there are a number of brands. I use this a lot it's great stuff.
- Sculpture base. This is going to depend on what your final piece is going to be, I often use small wooden plaques from the craft store, short pieces of large diameter dowels, bits of scrap lumber, etc. I prefer unfinished wood just because it's easy to get and is safe to go in the oven with my clay, avoid plywoods if you are working with polymer clay because the glues used might release chemicals you shouldn't breathe if heated.
- Aluminum foil*
- Bolts and/or screws*
- Washers or other bits of hardware that can be used as counterweights if needed.*
* These are for specific techniques, you may or may not need them.
Creating Your Concept
This isn't the type of sculpture where you can easily wing it. I love just making an armature, posing it, and seeing what happens but you can't really do that with this type of sculpture. You will end up having to tear things apart or it will break or fall over.
Plus, bending brass or steel rods isn't something that can be easily changed because unless you have much stronger arms and hands than I do you will need help from a bench vise or other tools.
This is obviously an important part of the sculpture and one I can only give you some broad guidelines for. You need an idea. If you're reading this there's a good chance you might already have one and are looking for how to create the armature. If so that's great. The following pose ideas are well suited to this type of armature.
Sculptural Poses Suited for Armature
Basically think action poses (for humans or animals) that would require a single small balance point like a foot, paw, or hand.
Next, create some rough concept sketches. This doesn't have to be great. In fact, it's best if you don't worry too much about how good the drawing is and just create a bunch of very loose drawings and choose the best ideas for your sculpture.
Now start gathering reference materials. Find photos that show similar poses (or the same one) or use yourself or a friend as a model and take some photos yourself. Also find references for the base, costume, etc. I often create a folder on my computer of references for specific projects. Often I don't use them all but I'd rather have that close-up photo of tree bark and not need it to create the texture than have to go searching in the middle of sculpting.
This is where if you create your final concept drawing. If you like having really detailed concept drawings you should do them. I tend to only do very basic concept sketches, to give myself more freedom to change details but everyone's creative process is different.
Step 1: Planning the Armature
The way I go about this is to first make an armature guide of the pose. This is meant as a plan for the armature building so you do need to pay close attention to the proportions because if you make the legs too long here then they'll be too long in your finished sculpture. Depending on the complexity of the pose you may need to make sketches from more than one perspective.
If you sketch directly on paper make it the same size as you want your finished sculpture. If you sketch digitally make sure your canvas is large enough that you can print it out to the scale of your sculpture. Once you have the sketch work out your armature on top of the sketch. Using a different color often helps me. You will use the finished sketch with the armature lines as your guide to building the armature.
Step 2: Preparing the Armature
After you have the pose you want in the soft wire armature, decide at what point you want the sculpture to be touching the base. This is usually a limb so the rod will need to be bent into the shape of the limb. You will need at least ½" of rod left below the balance point, this will be what is inserted into the base, the rod should extend as far into the sculpture body as possible.
To bend the rod into the proper shape use a bench vise or heavy-duty clamp to secure the rod and use your body weight or a hammer to bend the rod into the proper shape.
Match the bent rod against the sculpture limb you are using and wire them together using floral wire. Once they are wired together mix up some 2-part epoxy glue and give the area a good coating. Once set you do not want the wire and rod to possibly move away from each other.
Step 3: Attaching the Base
Mark the spot on your base where you want your sculpture to touch. Drill a hole in the base using a 1/8" bit. Fill the hole with 2-part epoxy and insert the bottom of the rod into the hole. Epoxy usually sets within 5 minutes but you should give it at least 12 hours before sculpting.
You now have a balanced armature ready to have clay added to it. Good luck!
- Use either a wide base or one with sufficient weight that the sculpt will not tip over. It's very easy to create a top-heavy sculpture whose center of mass will make it tip over if the base isn't heavy or large enough.
- If you need to add weight to the base steel washers, nuts, and other hardware work well and can easily be covered with clay or epoxy putty.
- Epoxy putties are great for reinforcing armatures. I prefer Loctite because it's cheap and easy to find.
- If you are using polymer clay for your sculpture you cannot underbake the clay, because of the stresses such a sculpture has it will crack if the clay is not fully cured.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.