Teaching Clay Without a Kiln: An Art Teacher’s Resource

What some art teachers would consider a necessity and staple in their art rooms, other art teachers survive day in and day out with out one.

What is it? A Kiln.

The reality is, kilns are expensive, and not all schools have the budget for the expense of purchasing, running and maintaining a kiln. Because working in 3D is one of the hallmarks of a balanced art curriculum, many creative teachers around the country are finding ways to give their students a quality 3D art experience without breaking the budget.

Although I personally have experience using a kiln for most of my ceramic needs in the classroom, sometimes budget, traveling schedules and simple ease, I often find it beneficial to turn to alternative methods of clay to fill in the gaps of my clay curriculum. Today I would like to review some methods I have used in the past, as well as some other products floating around out there. This guide is meant to help all art teachers (and art enthusiasts) make the best decision when working without a kiln, but still have that passion and desire to expose their students to quality clay experiences.

Teaching Clay Without a Kiln

1. Modeling Clay

Modeling clay is a nice clay for practicing before an actual clay project. Because it doesn’t harden completely, great for practicing, but the consistency is not that of real clay, so there is a bit of a disconnect and I find it to be sticky and oily.

2. Crayola Air Dry Clay

Not too shabby of a project. Acts and attaches like earthenware clay. Paint adheres “ok” – The colors aren’t as bold, but I had good luck with water color paints or tempera cakes on them and then doing a spray finish to make it glossy and seal it. Metallic paints work great on air dry clay, and really cover up any imperfections. The price is reasonable.

3. Marblex Air Dry Clay

This product is found in the Amaco catalog, and works much like earthenware. You can paint it once the product is fully dry, and the grey color is realistic to actual earthenware clay. At $10 for 5 lbs, my earthenware is about 3/4ths the cost, however, if you choose smaller projects, this might stretch your budget nicely.

4. Rainbow Air Dry Clay

This product is from Minnesota Clay. It’s an air dry clay that acts like earthen ware, and comes in a variety of colors. Someone has even thrown on the wheel with it!  I saw some finished pieces of this clay at a conference, and I was impressed.  Tomorrow I am going to be conducting a more detailed review of this product and a giveaway of this clay, so please come back for more ‘air dry clay’ fun.

5. Crayola Model Magic

Yes, I’ve used this for pinch pots in Kindergarten and it works fairly well. You can draw on this with thin markers, which was kind of fun, after it dried. However, when given the choice, I would pick the Crayola Air Dry or Rainbow Clay over this product any day. Mainly because you can slip and score with the other, and treat it more like real clay. Model Magic does have its place, but I would use sparingly. It can be difficult for students to manipulate, and ‘bounces back’ when they try to mold it. Plus, it’s expensive and drys out very quickly if you purchase a large tub.

6. Sculpey

Some teachers swear by this product. This polymer clay product is probably best for middle school or secondary students who want to make smaller sculptures, and because it’s expensive, all you can afford is a smaller scale project, anyway. The things people can create with sculpey continue to blow my mind. This product has it’s place in art rooms, if you can afford it.

Other Ideas to Stretch Your Clay (and Budget) Further

Keep Projects Small

You could have students create jewelry, Amulets from Egypt, smaller medallions, medals, etc. Students could make small pinch pot critters, small boxes for kids to hold paper clips or jewelry or little lego pieces. As far as color goes, I really stuck with plain white, but like I said, it’s a huge process to paint, and then glaze or spray a clear gloss over the air dry, so maybe color would be kind of fun and eliminate a step or two. Then you could just paint on a clear acrylic seal and it would be shiny an polished.

Divide and Conquer

You could also consider doing ceramics with only half of the school and perhaps doing paper mache, paper sculpture, wire mobiles, etc (other forms of 3D art) and trade off grade levels each year. My favorite wire to use for sculptures (a la Calder) is Twisteez Wire.

Please share how you handle “Teaching Clay Without a Kiln”

What other products do you use and love? What products aren’t worth the money?

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Emily

    For practicing a pinch or coil pot with younger students I like to use Play-Doh. It is softer than most modeling clay so their little hands can mold it more easily. It’s not oily, and usually not too sticky. It cleans up easily with a baby wipe. From year to year a few jars do dry out, but I still like it.

    I used a different brand of air-dry clay last year and found it to be fragile once dry. So many projects broke when set down on the table a smidge too hard. How is the Crayola Air-Dry clay’s strength once it’s dry? Comparable to fired clay?

    I inherited a new bucket of Sargent Sculpt-It clay at my new school this year. It’s more than double the cost of Crayola Air-Dry. But the consistency is really smooth and lovely to work with. Seems to be strong once it’s dry also. I’ll probably never order it because it’s so expensive, but it was fun to use it once.

    • Jorena

      I’ve used other brands of air dry clay and I feel that Crayola is the best bang for your buck. The finished pieces are sturdy- like real fired clay pieces. Of course I may be mistaken, I haven’t had access to a kiln for over 10+ years now. I asked my school If I could have a kiln if I funded it by grant and I was turned down. I have been on and off a cart for years now- I think past administration did not want to have something that permanently marked a room as an art room. I am considering approaching the new leaders with the suggestion.

      • The dried consistency of the Rainbow clay reminded me of Crayola’s air dry, maybe even harder.

  • Sue Teems

    I have been teaching clay without a kiln for 20 years and I have to say that the new products on the market have made it so much easier to do. I love Magic Mud. The cost is prohibitive of doing large scale projects but that also makes it easier to manage the lesson. I love using Play-Doh with my life-skill students because it is easier to manage for sometimes under developed muscles. I supplement my lessons with paper, plastic, and recyclable sculptures to make 3-D work accessible.

    • Sue- Thanks for the suggestion with Magic Mud- I will look into it! I am sure your suggestion will help many art teachers out there!

  • Kelly

    I have used model magic for about 7 years now, as my kiln finally moved on to a happy life in the sky. I like using it for coil pots (allowing the coils to be seen-no blending) and it’s ready to paint the next class time. I also like that it’s not as fragile. Especially at this age level (K through 4th) there are a lot of things that can happen along the way with earth clay, that can be devastating to “I worked so hard on that!”. Also, I find it convenient for students that missed class. They can come in on the “paint day”, make their pot and actually paint it too! It’s a bit soft, but definitely do-able. I am trying magic mud this year with my older grades, I’m excited and hope it’s what I’m looking for!

  • Rina

    I have a kiln at school, but for art camp I did two of the exact same ceramic projects using white Sculpey. I bought an 8 lb box of white Sculpey at micheals, and used their 40% off coupon. We painted with acrylics. Details are on my blog http://www.k6art.com/2012/05/06/clay-in-a-day-polymer-clay-projects-for-art-camp/

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  • Heidi

    I love Model Magic. In my district students don’t have access to a kiln until middle and high school. So, many of us elementary art teachers have turned to Model Magic to meet our clay requirements. For young students Model Magic feels familiar because of their experiences with Play Doh. It’s very easy to work with and takes color well. I have students use markers to color the Model Magic first, then make the project. (You flatten it like a pancake, color all over the pancake, then squish it up, repeat as needed.) I also love how accessible it is for students to purchase. They can run down to the grocery or craft store and buy some of their own.

    My one word of caution is: use the fresh stuff. If you’re trying to make coils out of dried or drying Model Magic you will be very disappointed.

  • emily

    I unfortunately don’t have a kiln at my school either, and I try to intersperse my clay lessons with other sculptural media that is more forgiving with drying time and storage. I’ve had a lot of success using wire armature, aluminum foil and plaster gauze to create fairly impressive sculptures that still teach 3D fundamentals.

    you can check out some student examples of figure sculptures and artist-inspired masks here: https://emilyjanevalenza.squarespace.com/student-artwork/

  • Mrs.C

    I love Model magic! Yes it is different in many ways from air dry clay which I did use for many years. But time constraints(30 min classes) and trying to get many hands cleaned up before the end of class and ready to go back to their homeroom was very tasking to say the least! Model Magic is clean and easy. I buy it in the class pack of individual packages so I can easily distribute equal amounts to each kid. They love to color it with water base marker while it is still pliable and mix their color into it!

  • melissa

    This is such a great article since many of us don’t have kilns. Does anyone recommend a brand of clay that will air dry, but also has the flexibility for students to work with for several classes in a row? I know someone mentioned magic mud?I teach middle school and would love any feedback!

  • I also went to magic mud and feel like it is regular clay! I got hit hard on shipping fees, so if anyone knows where to find magic mud sans shipping…I am all ears!

  • dp

    I’ve been using an air dry clay or non-firing clay for years now. I’m in Boston and I purchase it at Portland Clay. It’s approximately $25 for a 50lb box! which fits well with my teeny, tiny budget. We use reusable zip lock bags to keep it between weekly classes. I mainly use it for storytellers, reliefs and pinch pot type sculptures but it’s very affordable and drys to rock hard finish. After painting it with watercolors (for the reliefs) or tempera for the rest, I spray it with a water based polyurethane which makes for a shiny surface.

    • stacy

      can you post a link to the exact clay that you buy?

  • Jane Gravois

    As a mobile art instructor without a kiln, I have been successful at teaching with air dry clay. I too buy in 25-50 lb quantities and have it delivered right to my home. I use tempera, acrylic colors or clear gloss as a finish. I decided to do a blog post with tips about working with air dry clay and some of the varied projects we’ve done. Come visit!


    • stacy

      can you post a link to the exact clay that you buy?

      • Jane Gravois

        I use the Amaco Air-dry clay.I have used all three kinds- Marblex Gray, Mexican Pottery (red),and Stonex White. I have also used Sheffield Pottery,a rich brown color-


        • Jessica Kreitzer

          I had a terrible time with the Marblex and Stonex. So many of my student’s projects cracked or broke. Once the clay was dried, it was very delicate and brittle. Did you experience that? How did you avoid that?

          • Alecia Eggers

            Oh no! The best experience was with the Rainbow Air Dry Clay and the Crayola Air Dry Clay.

          • I found that most of the time it is pieces that are not joined well or are too small that fall off. I tell the kids ahead that they really have to attach them well because the clay shrinks when dry and will pop off. If they do, we use white glue or acrylic gloss to attach them

  • Stacy


    Im introducing a 3D art class and want to give students something to play with, just to start thinking in 3 dimensions as opposed to 2. Any suggestions as to what would be the best to fool around with?


  • Aaron Blac McEwen

    I also do not have a kiln at my school. I have never been able to justify in my budget buying some of the clay alternatives that have been mentioned in this thread. I buy a low-fire clay in 50lb lots from a nearby ceramics supplier and have the kids just paint it with tempera or acrylic when it’s dry. This year, however, my high schoolers are going to fire it in a pit on a weekend afternoon. The only materials you need are some shovels, a few raw glaze materials (dry) and some pallets… The pottery ends up mostly vitrified with beautiful markings from the fire.
    Google it!

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  • Tony

    Unfortunately most clay substitutes won’t work for pots. They’d flop over, not hold up to watering, and are a waste of money. Some will work for beads.

  • theclayteacher

    You really don’t need to break the bank to work with clay in a no kiln school situation . Check out our website http://www.theclayteacher.com to see how we make non fired clay projects.

  • meg

    I’m hoping/planning/praying to make coil pots with my daughter’s school for a Western Art unit. I’ll need about 500 pots in the end. How much clay should I plan on?I was thinking the Crayola Air Dry or maybe this red clay I found online? This is not really my forte, so any suggestions are appreciated.

    • Alecia Eggers

      Hey Meg – I usually overestimate a 50 lb. box of clay per class or per 2 classes. which range from 25-30 kiddos, so maybe 10-20 boxes? Of course, you could cut that down too, I just err on the side of having too much if need be!

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    Here’s a paper clay recipe that my middles adored…especially since THEY made it in class!

    In a 5 gal bucket add in this order:

    1 milk jug warm tap water
    1 1/2 cup wood or elmer’s glue
    1 cup stay Flo starch…or make your own – it’s Uber cheap but need a microwave available
    2 big blops of drywall spackling. Maybe 1 cup. (Don’t use DAP. Must be ready mixed. 1 big box was $7 @ HD)
    1/8 cup salt to keep it from getting moldy
    Mix wet stuff with a drill w/ paint mixer attachment til combined

    While mixing slowly pour in 5 lb bag of flour
    It should be like pancake batter
    Optional: a bit of febreeze to make it smell nice

    NOW the fun bit!
    Take recycled paper blown in insulation (YEP! It’s sold in a bale from Home Despot for $12 and goes a seriously long way and it’s just finely shredded paper!) add to batter!
    Have one kid slowly mix whilst another puts chunks in, crumbling as it goes in. They do this until it’s able to be rolled into a ball and no longer wet. You’ll have to eyeball it and stop to test several times but they get it quickly. Too dry and add a bit of gluey-water till rollable. Store with lid in a dark, cool place.

    The kids absolutely ADORED the whole “making process” and the access to a power tool was so successful. The stronger guys did the majority of the mixing once I schooled them. This was great for my not always engaged fellows. They had to behave to get the coveted jobs. Also, they put the bucket on a high backed chair so they didn’t have to bend over. The fact that they were responsible for this inspired quality, cooperation, and the spirit of diy, plus that I trusted them to use power tools which is totally foreign to them thrilled them to no end!

    We made enough to create more than 175 pieces. For less than maybe $40. AND the pieces ranged from 12″x 6″ to a 6’feet x 8″ or 10″ diameter winged freaking dragon!! It was insane!! Giant lipsticks, rhinos, suns, seahorses, even the back end of a 57 caddy! They also learned a snootful about the value of a strong, stable armature and how coating more like a frosting with dabbing our fingers to eliminate cracks resulted in a really strong, but lightweight final piece. It dried usually overnight with a fan on them to dry them quicker. When ready we painted with acrylics and gloss sealed since tempera didn’t stick as well.

    It was totally the bomb. Some reflection would be to limit the size as I had only so much space to store in-process work. Several 6 feet tall plastic racks from HD for in-process work ($36 ea but a long-term investment in my studio) and some open shelving were needed for this amount of pieces. Also, I see the beasties every day and it took apx 3 weeks +/-. 1 solid week to just teach 2d ideas to 3d entities as they had no clue. We used wire, newsprint toobies and balls, not always newspaper, masking tape, and when we ran out of newspapers we used walletmart plastic bags, aND bit’s of recycled cardboard. If using paper I had them mummify it with light layer of masking tape so the paper structure wouldn’t get soggy. I let them choose their own subject, do research, make thumbnails of final piece with color and then some diagrams of how they might make their armatures. Mistakes and rethinking were encouraged. Plus collaboration from other students to help solve structure issues.

    Okay, sorry for the huge post but I couldn’t find a way to do clay for a reasonable price so I kinda researched and cobbled this together. I hope it offers an alternative for those who might be adventurous. The kids are still talking talking about it and they learned planning, persistence, problem solving, re-vision, and craftsmanship…and how to use power tools!! I’ll have to try to post some pictures.
    Cheers! M

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