Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Friendly Plastic's Slide Into Obscurity

Assorted Friendly Plastic Sticks

When I stumbled across friendly plastic in 1990 in my local craft store there was no information on how to use it.

I think this is the primary reason I am still using it.

It was a new product and everyone was trying it. The stores were pushing it and it had a big marketing machine behind it. You could buy it in non-metallic colours as pellets in plastic jars. You could buy it in 3" sticks, or 7" sticks. And you could buy it in 4" squares. Now I can only get 7" sticks.

Friendly Plastic was advertised as non-toxic. (We'll see. I am sure I have accidentally ingested 1 or 2 7" sticks in my 17 years of working with it.) Perfect for toddlers, day cares, kindergartens everywhere. It was re-usable/recyclable (still is) as you can just re-heat/melt what you made if you don't like it. So little kids could take the pellets, or the sticks, melt them, mold it with their little hands, and then melt it again. Melting was done in hot tap water. It's true. It'll melt under the tap. And it cools down like when a candle drips and the drip hardens.

It's that fast.

For adults I remember it pushed as "jewelry for your frying pan".


Many many people, got out their electric frying pans and floated a piece of plastic in it until it melted. You'd lift it from the water and model it while warm. You could emboss it, mold it/press it into molds, marble it together, lots of stuff.

There were a few years where the really bright plastic designs were all over. I call this type of friendly plastic "traditional friendly plastic".

Book from 1990

Book from 1993 -- A great example of traditional , abstract, friendly plastic work

Book from 1994

Here are my thoughts of what's contributed to drive this stuff into obscurity.

1) After the first wave of crafters who like to make things found it, they followed directions and made the traditional abstract designs, just delighting in the bright fanciful colours. They cut and pieced and molded to their hearts content. Same with the kids. They did the same. Or rather tried to. There is one big thing with this plastic that makes it much much harder to work with than they let on, especially when you do it in hot water. Once it melts it is like melted wax, but with a little more body. the metal foil layer, which is the colour on the surface, holds the stick together but just barely. It's actually very very critical to remove your plastic at the exact right time or it's flowing all over and that great colour on the surface? It's slid right off. Or the stick has bent over onto itself and you're left with a blackish gray, blue, peachy-pinky-beige, red or white blob of plastic. In those days you also had yellow. (sigh. oh how I miss yellow... and orange.) So once they wanted to make something more complicated it became much more difficult to control your shapes. It's just not an easy medium.

2) FIMO clay was introduced at the exact same time. The makers of FIMO encouraged the grass roots users who adopted FIMO early on and groups sprung up to support each other and to encourage its use and to explore its possibilities. It was immediately recognized as a craft medium that could be used as art. It had the notion of "clay" going for it too, but it is PLASTIC. Not clay.

I tried FIMO, but didn't get seduced by it. The colour of friendly plastic still holds me. FIMO couldn't compete and I always wanted to make long thin arms or legs and FIMO things needed to be big and heavy and clunky to support those shapes. It just wasn't for me. But where was the support for Friendly Plastic as an art medium? Nowhere. Even though it had been introduced as a sculptural material it just never went further than that. It never got adopted and people moved on.

3) Think macrame. Think fad. Think the next new thing.

Craft sales tapered off. Stores limited their ordering. Then they stopped ordering altogether and sold off their remaining stock.

Over the years several colours have been dropped by the manufacturer, including my beloved yellow and a colour called gold cobra. It was perfect for making giraffes. Great gold snakeskin pattern on a metallic brown background. Sometimes I wonder if they'll stop making it altogether.

Oh and how can I forget this? It's plastic. Lowest of the low in the hierarchy of art materials. Plastic. Hated and despised, long time mimic of other more worthy materials. Think bakelite and how it looked like tortoise shell or ivory. Plastic. Evil foe of the environment. Plastic. Cheap, mass produced, no quality of its own.

My favorite anecdote

In 1991 I was asked to bring my samples to the National Gallery of Canada to meet with the buyer for their bookstore. I showed her my work and she made an order and seemed genuinely delighted with it. I know I was thrilled to have my work at the National Gallery. Who wouldn't be? After the business part was over we chatted briefly and she told me that she was buying my items "inspite of the medium". I understood what she was saying but it irritated me. Still does. My work looked like it did because it was made of friendly plastic not in spite of it. The material dictates the handling, no? Yes.

Last year I participated at an art show in a comic book shop. I made reproductions of two classic comic book covers using only friendly plastic. I posted my work in my blog.


Most of the crowd didn't care, didn't notice, weren't interested. They were looking for something else. Next to me was a man who was showing his own action figures. He was fascinated with my stuff. He said to me, " Your work is really unique. Don't worry about this (motioning to the room). It's hard to be a pioneer. Just keep going." You know, this guy, who was really in the same boat as I was at that show, he could have just said that to be nice but I was really touched by his words. A pioneer. Perhaps. I am searching for a way to elevate this material, to make it Art with a capital A. I'm a full time art student right now, partly to further equip myself, to give me more skills and ideas for making art. I've been slack about using FP ever since I started school which is understandable. I will return again to it. I haven't abandoned it at all. But sometimes we have to walk away from something for a while. I know my subconscious is working it through. I trust it.


Ken said...

I uesd FP back in the day to make jewelry (mostly for my wife), but now that I am a maker of a different sort, i am saddened that FP is not available in store. I have to mail order everything!

Another product (same stuff, different name) to look at is ShapeLock.

redcatdance said...

Hi Ken... yes I have heard of shapelock. Lots of modelmakers or actually lots of people use it to fabricate pieces for custom designed printers and that sort of thing. you can make that part for that thing you are engineering.. Think it must be the same thing...? A thermo-plastic..heat sensitive, like those plastic covers you can buy for wires and when you turn a hair dryer on them they will srhink right up--shrink plastic. Now that's a whole other post isn't it? But I digress... Thanks for your comment.

Sfandra said...

Hi There! I was on an online hunt for Friendly Plastic and found your site. Great comments, I totally agree that it's a shame this stuff has vanished from the shelves. I'm looking for some for a variety of projects, and I fondly remember making various things like Vampire Fangs in college our of FP....

Michelle said...

AMACO is bringing Friendly Plastic back and is reintroducing it at a trade show January '09. check out their website about it.

redcatdance said...

Hello Michelle, your comment is a joy to my ears. And as many people seem to check out this post when searching for friendly plastic, it is well placed to be found. I suspected a relaunch as I've seen more new activity on the FP front now than in many previous years combined, most markedly a few new FP instruction books. Why instruct people on something you can't get? Figured something was in the air.
This is a good thing. FP has nothing to equal it. I hope with its relaunch we get a metallic yellow and the return of the brown and may I be so bold as to hope for the gold cobra....?

Anonymous said...

You can get it at some Hobby Lobby locations and at their website,

Anonymous said...

Check out Sunshine Crafts.

They have a lot of Friendly Plastic listed on their site!

Kelly aka STITCHNMOMMA said...

I just found Friendly Plastic in Hobby Lobby for the first time yesterday. The wonderful metallic colors grabbed my attention. I've been searching the web this morning and came across your blog post...wonderful information. Thank you!

Barbara Lees said...

I would love it if FP had another name, Could we not get AMACO to change the name?
If you all need suppliers, write your geograhic location, and we can find out where you can get it,

They have sent out a beautiful citron yellow this year! It is wonderful!


redcatdance said...

Hi Barbara:

Over the years the idea of changing the name has come up. As you can see, it hasn't changed. What we are really worried about isn't the "friendly" part of the name but the "plastic" part. Telling someone your work is made of "blahblahblahPLASTIC" almost always guarantees a devaluation in the viewer's mind.

This stuff is an uphill battle all the way if you are out there trying to make a business out of it. Solutions often include marrying it with another accepted material to remove the plastic stigma ie. sterling silver bezels, encasing it in resin, adding it into creations filled with glass or high end textiles. I support the inclusion of friendly plastic anywhere it can get seen or known but I guess I am just a purist, plus my creative interests go along the lines of "OMG I want to make a hierarchical evolutionary diagram of fish in FP!!! Hmmm then I'll put a pinback on it." (true story). It's hard for me to figure out how to show/sell my work so I don't figure it out. I just do it, make it, and put it out there. I am no marketing whiz, just someone who loves FP.

BTW I am thrilled to hear they now have a citron yellow. I'll see if I can't find an image of it somewhere. I have been pretty happy using the yellow alcohol ink over metallic white but I a sure a FP yellow would be great!

Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Are you still doing art work. I have just discovered friendly plastic. for a unique medium is a boring name. change the name.I hope you are still developing your creativity and being a pioneer. Take care keep going from the over forty creative art student LA

redcatdance said...

Hello to LA the over forty creative art student.

I made a few FP xmas brooches this fall and had a very select selection of work over the summer months at my local farmers' market. My FP is not pretty old and most of them are snappers making the plastic more fragile and more difficult to work with.

I am planning to use my FP in some projects this coming year. I would like to create some tutorials and some FP project sheets over the coming year. I am happy to read people are still discovering this medium.

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

My son had an idea for a project that I thought FP would be perfect for--so I dug mine out. It has been quite awhile since I used it (about 16 years). I think I know what you mean by "snappers." He is very frustrated right now and wants to switch to fimo. I came across your blog while trying to find information about FP (maybe I was forgetting something about its use). Thank you for the information--and for the knowledge that FP is available again. I really don't think fimo will work for what he has in mind--so I will be checking out my local Hobby Lobby to find him some fresher FP. :-)
BTW: I know exactly what you mean by Gold Cobra--I have several 7" sticks in my stash. Too bad it's all so old. Have you figured out any tricks or tips for working with snappers? We couldn't get it to melt at all--just break. :-(
~Crafty Mom in MO

Ayisha said...

Hi there, Good news! I've had my eye on friendly plastic for years but never bought any because plastic is supposed to be bad for the environment, but guess what, this particular plastic is PCL (I looked up friendly plastic and found it in the article for this type of plastic) and it's biodegradable! I'm totally getting into this, for me fimo was way cool too, but unafforable for experimentation, that's yesterday now though, friendly plastic here I come!

plastic injection moulding NSW said...

That looks pretty good! Will try checking them out as well. Nice share!

Unknown said...

Anyone know where I can buy Friendly Plastic sticks in gold, metallic green and metallic purple? I want a large quantity for a special line of products. Or the manufacturer contact info. Maybe they have some in the warehouse or saved. My email is thanks so much.

Unknown said...

I am producing FP metallic sheets for sale here:

ALSO I whole heartedly embrace this discussion about the status of FP and the need to change the cringe-worthy name (I have been detesting it since I began working with it in the early '90's). Ironically, since the demise of FP in June of 2015 (RIP FP and I mean DONE as per several calls to AMACO) I am making my own sheets called Custom Metallic Acrylic - yes, I realize acrylic is not glass, metal, wood, however it HAS to be identified as something and acrylic definitely has a high pedigree that, ugh, plastic. So, nice to know there are others out there who have had the same challenges.