Turn Toys Into Ancient Carvings With Concrete and Clay

Introduction: Turn Toys Into Ancient Carvings With Concrete and Clay

About: I'm a sculptor making strange creatures. I also like to make all sorts of other things.

This quick and easy concrete craft uses clay as a single-use mold, to create a bas relief. These are usually done with botanicals, but today we're instead using some children's toys to see what kinds of effects and objects we can make! This technique can be used for all kinds of finished items (jewelry and wall art are popular uses), but I'm going to demonstrate making a small plaque, like you might use as a hanging ornament or a decorative bauble.

This project uses Rapid Set Cement All concrete, so you can go from idea to finished product in just a couple hours.

(Please note, links in this project to specific items are affiliate links; they don't cost you any extra, but I do get a commission if you use them, and that helps me buy... more clay, mostly.)


Necessary supplies:

Clay. I used this Chavant Clayette Soft, which I find really useful for all sorts of random projects like this one, but most any sort of basic modeling clay should work fine. Different clays will get you different results, as some hold detail better than others, so feel free to experiment! I like to use non-drying clays like the Chavant because they won't dry out while the concrete is setting, and when my project is done I can just remove any debris from the clay and then use it again for the next thing.

Rapid Set Cement All concrete mix (or the concrete mix of your choice) and water.

Container and implement for mixing. I use a silicone mixing bowl and silicone spatula, but you can also use something like a leftover takeout container and a plastic spoon.

Objects for pressing into your clay. I grabbed a tube of anatomically horrifying toy cats and dogs from the shelf of my local dollar store, and I'm using the ones that are the least biologically improbable for this project. (I was going to use a Lego man and make him look like he was frozen in carbonite, but it turns out I don't have any Lego men.) Don't use objects that are too complex; the kind of impression you're going to get is similar to the raised design on the surface of a coin. It won't be too deep, and it can't be very complicated.

Optional supplies:

A smoothing tool; I used a dotting tool, but you could use any sort of implement that will help you smooth down clay, like a popsicle stick, a toothpick, the eraser end of a pencil, whatever you have handy.

Tongs, pliers, tweezers, or some other tool for prying your item out of the clay. Depending on the clay and the object, it can be difficult to get it out without stretching and distorting your clay. My little animals were hard to grip and pretty bendy, so I ended up pulling them from the clay with a set of forceps. (I use forceps a lot for all sorts of crafting tasks and definitely recommend them as an addition to your work space!)

Piece of a plastic straw if you want to add a hole for hanging your object.

A hollow shape form. I'm going to show you how to make your bas relief using just clay as a form, but a fast and easy option is to instead use a pre-made shape like a round cutter, fondant tiles, the cut off top of a plastic container, or even a cake collar if you want to go big.

Step 1: Form Your Mold Like a Trough

The first option for forming your mold is to take a small brick of clay and form it into a shape like a trough. I'm using the brown cat toy for this one. Bear in mind that you're essentially sculpting the empty space... the area you're hollowing out is going to become the shape of your finished medallion. Take the brick and push into the center with your thumbs, forming an indentation, and then push and stretch it into a shape you like.

Once you've formed a shape that you like, place your object face-down where you want it, and then with firm pressure push it straight downward into the clay. Most objects look pretty great pushed into the clay about halfway; when you pour the concrete, your finished object will look a bit like it's emerging from the solid surface. Once you've achieved a depth you like, make sure you've gotten an impression from all of the parts of your object that you need (I had to push the cat's tail down), and then carefully pull the object straight back up. Using your finger or a smoothing tool, smooth down any rough edges, marks from your fingernails, or other imperfections you don't want in your final product. Also look out for any areas that you didn't get a full impression; I had to use my fingernail to further define one of the cat's ears.

The disadvantage of this method is that it's more difficult to get the object back out of the clay; with the walls already built up you don't have as much maneuvering room, though if you end up destroying a wall of your trough you can always build it back up again. However, this is a really simple sort of shape for kids to make, so if you're doing this project with children it's a good way to get them going.

Your other option is to:

Step 2: Form Your Mold From a Flat Slab

Flatten out a slab of your clay, and make sure it's thick enough that you'll be able to press your object in without it coming out the other side. I like to give my pieces a more organic look by flattening the clay with my fingers, but you can also just whack it against the table or use a rolling pin to get a truly flat, smooth surface. (Keeping it flat and smooth will be a challenge though, so sometimes purposeful imperfection is the way to go!)

Decide which side of your toy you like best, and then press that side face-down into the clay. Push straight down and use firm pressure. When you have the depth you want, pull straight up again to remove the object. I used a pair of forceps clamped around the dog's legs. Because you're using a flat slab, you can also bend the slab back a little bit to help the object release; when you bend it back flat again, your impression shouldn't be too distorted. If you have any torn clay, fingernail marks, or other imperfections, smooth them out with your fingertip or a smoothing tool.

Next, take some extra chunks of clay and roll them out into snakes, then flatten them into strips. Use these to form the shape you want around your object. Then you'll need to smooth the walls down, which is when the dotting tool comes in handy. Scrape the surface of the walls down until the walls are firmly joined to the slab.

(This is where having a cookie cutter or other pre-made form for your walls really comes in handy. Instead of building up clay walls, just place your cookie cutter where you want it and push it into the clay a bit to get a good seal, and you're ready!)

I wasn't really graceful with joining my walls and left a ton of scoop marks, so I just leaned into it and covered the open spaces around the dog with more scoop-mark textures. It's artistic and I will claim to other people that I planned that all along.

Step 3: Prepare and Pour Concrete

Make any finishing touches to your pieces and get ready to pour! I added a couple of small pieces of plastic straw to my molds, which will leave holes that I can use to string a ribbon to be able to hang these.

Add some concrete mix to your mixing container, then slowly stir in water. I've poured a great many dental impressions in my life so I like to measure with my heart on this one and just guess how much of each I'll need. For projects like this I like to keep the mix fairly runny so it'll flow into all the little corners and details; think of it as the consistency of a wet pancake batter. You won't have a ton of working time with this, and it will start to really thicken up within a couple minutes. If it does thicken up too much, just let it set in your bowl (or pour it out somewhere handy to let it set) and then start over. If it's too thick and you try to pour it into a detailed mold, you'll end up with a disappointing end product.

Tips for reducing bubbles: I recommend that you start pouring in one corner, and let the concrete run into the impression in your clay. In the photos I've poured right into the middle, because I was trying to pour and manage my camera for photos at the same time. In the finished photos you'll see where I've ended up with some small bubbles. Also, one of the best ways to reduce bubbles in pieces like this is a vibrating table. I can't exactly afford professional dental equipment for my home workshop, but a pretty decent approximation is a vibrating object placed against the surface of the table your cement pieces are sitting on. I use a "gun" type massager and just place it against the table, or sometimes directly against the mold if I'm using a silicone or plastic mold. If you see bubbles rising to the surface, it's working. If the liquid cement starts "jumping" or trying to splash out of the mold, turn the power down or move the massage gun further away.

Now leave your concrete to set. As it dries and sets, the color should lighten in color; you can see in the last photo above that the piece is lighter on the edges and a bit darker in the middle; I wouldn't risk moving it yet and will wait for the color to lighten further.

If you used Rapid Set Cement All, it should take an hour or two. If you have any leftover concrete, let it set up a little until it's thickened (think the consistency of a soft-serve ice cream), then pour it into a puddle near your project (this is one of the reasons I like to work on a silicone mat), and let it set. If you're checking on your project and wanting to know if the concrete's finished curing, you can check with your leftover lump instead of risking breaking your actual project by handling it too soon. When all of the concrete is cured, you can also use the lump of leftover cement as a sanding block to file down any rough edges on your finished pieces. (I learned that trick from MadeByBarb's terrific concrete leaf coaster Instructable, thanks Barb!)

Step 4: Remove From Molds and Enjoy!

The time has come, let's take these little beasts out of their molds!

You'll only be able to use these clay molds once, so don't bother being careful, just pull the mold apart and pull your piece out. (Clean off any stray concrete, mash the clay up, and put it away to use again for next time.) You're done, and I'm 100% certain whatever you've made is breathtaking.

I love this cement for the level of detail it captures; in the piece with the cat, you can see the whorls of my fingerprints where I pressed them into the clay, and it captured the full slightly terrifying detail of the cat's face. I definitely got some little bubbles in there (I couldn't find my massage gun when I needed it, just like most other things I own :-D), but all in all I think they came out pretty well for a quickie project, and the hand-built quality of the molds gives them the look of an ancient temple carving, which isn't a bad upgrade for a couple of cheap plastic toys!

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