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Modelling clay



William Harbutt

United Kingdom


Plasticine, a brand of modelling clay, is a putty-like modelling material made from calcium salts, petroleum jelly and aliphatic acids. The name is a registered trademark of Flair Leisure Products plc. Plasticine is used extensively for children's play, but also as a modelling medium for more formal or permanent structures. Because of its non-drying property, it is a popular choice of material for stop-motion animation (including several Oscar-winning films by Nick Park). The brand-name clay is mentioned in music, such as the "plasticine porters" in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and the song Plasticine by Placebo.



Plasticine was formulated by art teacher William Harbutt of Bathampton, in Bath, England, in 1897. He wanted a non-drying clay for his sculpture students. Although the exact composition is a secret, Plasticine is composed of approximately 65% bulking agent, (principally gypsum), 10% petroleum jelly, 5% lime and 10% lanolin and stearic acid. It is non-toxic, sterile, soft, and malleable, and does not dry on exposure to air (unlike superficially similar products such as Play-Doh, which is based on flour, salt and water). It cannot be hardened by firing; it melts when exposed to heat, and is flammable at much higher temperatures.

A patent was awarded in 1899, and in 1900 commercial production started at a factory in Bathampton. A different formulation was patented in 1915. This had lambs wool or cotton wool mixed into the basic plasticine to give a stronger, fibrous composition intended for ear plugs and as a sterile dressing for wounds and burns. The original Plasticine was grey, but the product initially sold to the public came in four colours. It was soon available in a wide variety of bright colours. Plasticine was popular with children, was widely used in schools for teaching art, and has found a wide variety of other uses (for example moulding casts for plaster, and plastics). The Harbutt company promoted Plasticine as a children's toy by producing modelling kits in association with companies responsible for popular children's characters such as Noddy, the Mr. Men and Paddington Bear.

The original Plasticine factory was destroyed by fire in 1963 and replaced by a modern building. The Harbutt company continued to produce Plasticine in Bathampton until 1983, when production was moved to Thailand.

The Colorforms company was the major American licensee of Plasticine from 1979 until at least 1984. Apparently, the use of a different chalk compound caused a product inconsistency, and the US version was considered inferior to the original mix.

From 1983 to 2006, the brand went through a number of ownership changes and was off the market for a long time. Plasticine was owned by Bluebird Toys plc following its acquisition of Harbutt's parent company, Peter Pan. Then, following Bluebird's takeover by Mattel in 1998, the brand was sold on to Humbrol Ltd, famous for its model paints and owner of the Airfix model kit brand. In 2005, Flair Leisure licensed the brand from Humbrol and relaunched Plasticine. A year later, when Humbrol went into administration, Flair bought the Plasticine brand outright.

Similar products

A similar product, "Kunst-Modellierthon" (known as Plastilin), was invented by Franz Kolb of Munich, Germany in 1880. This product is still available, known as "Münchner Künstler Plastilin" (Munich artists' Plastilin). In Italy, the product Pongo is also marketed as "plastilina" and shares the main attributes of Plasticine.


Plasticine and similar materials are often used in clay animation. One of its main proponents is Aardman Animations' Nick Park, who used characters modelled in Plasticine in his four Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit short films A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), as well as the feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). This technique is popularly known as claymation in the US, and is a form of stop motion animation.

Plasticine-like materials are appealing to animators because the material can be used with ease: it is mouldable enough to create a character, flexible enough to allow that character to move in many ways, and dense enough to retain its shape easily when combined with a wire armature, and it does not melt under hot studio lighting.

Plasticine is used in long jump and triple jump competitions to help officials determine if the competitors are making legal jumps. A 10 cm wide 'indicator board' is placed beyond and slightly above the take-off line. The edges of this are chamfered and edged with plasticine If an athlete leaves a mark in the plasticine, it is considered proof that the jump was a foul, and the attempt is not measured. Plasticine is used rather than sand, so that several boards may be prepared in advance: if a board is marked it may be replaced by a smoothed board immediately to avoid delaying the competition, but keeping the marked board available in case of challenges. An indicator board is used, rather than a wide strip of plasticine, as this provides a firm footing should the athlete step on it.

Plasticine-like clays are also used in commercial party games such as Cranium, Rapidough and Barbarossa.

Television presenter James May together with Chris Collins, Jane McAdam Freud, Julian Fullalove and around 2000 members of the public created a show garden made entirely of Plasticine for the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. Called 'Paradise in Plasticine', it took 6 weeks and 2.6 tons of Plasticine in 24 colours to complete. May said, "This is, to our knowledge, the largest and most complex model of this type ever created." It couldn't be considered as part of the standard judging criteria as it contained no real plants, but was awarded an honorary gold award made from Plasticine. The garden was extremely popular with the public and went on to win the Royal Horticultural Society’s 'peoples choice' for best small garden.

During World War II, Plasticine was used by bomb disposal officer Major John P. Hudson R.E. as part of the defuzing process for the new German "Type Y" battery-powered bomb fuze. The "Type Y" fuze has an anti-disturbance device that had to be disabled before the fuze could be removed. Plasticine was used to build a dam around the head of the fuze to hold some liquid oxygen. The liquid oxygen cooled the battery down to a temperature at which it would no longer function; with the battery out of commission, the fuze could be removed safely.

When an engine is being tuned for higher performance, different pistons and higher lift camshafts are often installed. This creates a risk that the valves might strike the piston, causing serious damage. Valve-to-piston clearance can be measured by placing a piece of Plasticine on top of a piston, replacing the cylinder head, and rotating the engine manually through a full cycle. When the cylinder head is removed, the valves will have made an impression in the Plasticine. The thickness of this impression is measured to give the valve to piston clearance.


Plasticine Wikipedia

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