TOOLS How to: Pasta Machine - Basic Use (when using it with polymer clay)

I think the first thing to remember is we're talking about a machine that is designed to process pasta dough; not polymer clay. That may seem obvious, but tis a simple thing to forget when all we do is roll polymer clay through the thing. Polymer clay can be a different beast than dough, especially when you're rolling stiff clay. One of the other things is the plasticizer in clay can react with the rollers.

So until manufacturers produce a machine that is truly made for polymer clay (something Polymer Clay Express is about to release with their Dream Machine?), it 's good to remember those little machines are doing the best they can and they need a little understanding and TLC now and then. ;-)

OK. I wrote this tute because over the years I've seen and heard some clayers express surprise or frustration when using their PMs. Another trend, sadly, is many of the newer machines are lots wimpier than their older sisters. They are made from thinner parts perhaps, not quite as sturdy, etc. They wear out quicker.

So, I'd like to offer a couple/few tips that might help keep a PM in top shape for as long as possible.


Tips (in no particular order)

Processing Clay

A pasta machine (PM) is a great appliance for tasks such as:

  • rolling out consistently thick clay sheets,
  • conditioning clay,
  • color mixing clay.

Conditioning is like putting your clay through warm-up exercises. Properly conditioned clay will bend and stretch without cracking and not have any air bubbles. PMs also allow you to easily mix colors and create Skinner blends (a controlled way to blend colors using a pasta machine).

Folding

At the risk of stating the obvious, passing the clay through your PM once usually isn't enough!
Who knew? ;-).

When conditioning and color mixing, the clay needs to be folded and passed through repeatedly. So inserting the folded sheet back into the machine is necessary.

One important tip when inserting the folded clay sheet into the machine, put the folded edge in first. This helps prevent trapping air as the clay gets compressed between the rollers. Inserting with the folded edge perpendicular to the rollers works too.

The softer the clay, the easier it is for it to stick to itself and trap air and the more important it is to follow the folded edge rule.

Thickness

The thickest piece of clay you put into your machine should be no more than about 2 to 4 times the thickness setting your PM is on, depending on how soft the clay is. Remember, you're using a machine designed for the softer pasta dough, not polymer clay.

For example, once you have rolled out a sheet of clay, try not to fold it more than 3 times before putting it through again. This is a guide, not a hard fast rule, since a lot will depend on how soft the clay is.

The reason for this is forcing too much material in between the rollers may cause those rollers to slowly drift further apart. As the rollers drift apart, the gears that must interlock drift further apart. This hastens wearing down the gear teeth and thus begins problems like "clunk, clunk" noises and such.

So, if you like your PM, unwrapping a block of clay and immediately jamming it into your PM - a big no no.

Give your PM a little respect and consideration and it may become one of the most useful and cost-effective tools in your collection.





 


Reduce the streaking 

Steel is not invincible; it's not inert. Besides water, it reacts to various chemicals, acids and alkalis.

Those persistent black/gray streaks that can show up on the clay is generally caused by a chemical reaction between the roller metal and the plasticizer in the clay. That reaction causes the metal to tarnish.

However not all rollers react the same. It depends on the metal composition which is a combination of various elements. The ratio of those elements varies so there's no way to tell whether your PM rollers will cause streaking or how much.

The streaking will diminish over time. In the meantime, it's a good idea to clean your rollers to remove the plasticizer when you're done using your PM. Removing the plasticizer reduces the chances of tarnishing/streaking.

The best solutions for cleaning plasticizer residue and clay from your pasta machine include isopropyl rubbing alcohol (+90% by volume) or mild household "orange oil" based cleaners/degreasers. To clean and reduce tarnishing (a form of corrosion) of those steel rollers and scrapers, use penetrating lubricants like WD-40 or CRC. Handle the last two carefully and wipe off all excess.


Clamping down

When I clamp down my PM, I use two clamps; the one that comes with the machine and an C-clamp. I put the c-clamp on an opposite corner. If you can no longer use the clamp that came with your PM, just get another c-clamp. They're more versatile, anyway.

Why two clamps? I admit, I'm a gorilla when I roll polymer clay through the PM. I also use a lot of stiff fimo. Without double clamping, my poor PM would buck and twist like a bronco bull when I would hand crank stiff clay.

I've double clamped for years and I'm still using the PMs I bought over 10 years ago. No "clunk clunk" from worn gears. So I think double-clamping is a good thing.

Yes, this does mean you need position your PM on a work surface corner. This picture is shown so you can see the clamps' positions. Ignore the motor... if you can. :D

Pasta machine motor

Ah! So you may have noticed my glorious pasta machine motor. Tis another beeeeautiful machine. Many folks will claim if you have a motor, your PM doesn't need to be clamped down. I've found that at least with the Pasta Drive motor, when mounted on the PM, it does throw the PM off balance, so I clamp.

And on those occasions when I don't want to run motor, I take it off, stick in the handle and run in stealth mode, with my PM firmly clamped to the table.


Removing the 'fenders'

Fenders is what I call them because I don't know what the proper term is. They're those metal covers that hide the two support bars, help make the PM look substantial and usually sport the brand name of the PM. Finally, they're utterly useless.

Removing them is critical if and when you decide to disassemble your PM. It's critical because if you want to reassemble the machine, it's far, far easier when you don't worry about trying to corral those useless fenders along with everything else that needs to be aligned.

How to remove them is already part of a whole other tute on cleaning your PM. Click here to go to it.


Roller Alignment  

If your PM rollers get misaligned, the left and right sides will differ in their gap and the smaller gap side will create a slightly thinner and longer side than the other side.

If the gap is minor, when you put the sheet in, turn the sheet around every other pass so things will even out.

If the gap is easily visible, it's time for some advanced maintenance.

 

Gap Stats  

A standard gap distance between rollers per setting (Atlas brand):

    • #1 = 1/8" or 3.2mm
    • #2 = 7/64" or 2.8mm
    • #3 = 3/32" or 2.4mm
    • #4 = 5/64" or 2.0mm
    • #5 = 1/16" or 1.6mm
    • #6 = 1/32" or 0.8mm
    • #7 = 1/40" or 0.6mm

Personally, I've never found it necessary to know the gap measurements, particularly since a PM is not a machine of precision and will likely never really produce those precise results on a consistent basis.

 

However, in generalities, this may be a more useful way to think about the gap size progression.

  • #1 = 100%
  • #2 = 90%
  • #3 = 75%
  • #4 = 63%
  • #5 = 50%
  • #6 = 25%
  • #7 = 20%
But in the long run, consider that as you use your PM more and more, you'll get familiar with how it performs and what the settings will produce.

 



Note 1 Need a replacement handle or clamp for your Altas or Pasta Queen?

http://www.fantes.com/pastamakers.htm

Scroll about 3/5ths down the page.

  • Atlas Replacement Clamp - $4.99
  • Atlas Replacement Handle - $5.99

Note 2 Need a replacement set of scraper blades or rollers? Via the wonderful Polymer Clay People subscribers at Yahoo, this address was offered as a source for Altas 150 replacements. Replacement Scrapers and Rollers for the ATLAS 150 Pasta Machine can be purchased from Valenti, Inc.

Gary Valenti, Inc.
54-36 Flushing Ave.
Maspeth, Queens N.Y. 11378
Tel:718-386-0896
Fax: 718-417-6227
www.marcatousa.com

The pricing would be as follows:

SCRAPERS - $5.00 SET
ROLLERS - $5.00 EA.

Payment can be sent with order or we accept MASTERCARD and VISA (name, billing address and expiration date required). There are no additional shipping charges.


Note 3 Tarnish Reduction Experiment #1 :(
As of 26 Dec 2002, I tried a couple of metal polishing compounds on an old Alta's pasta machine. The compounds were Brasso metal polish and MAAS metal polishing cream. On the smooth, shiny pasta machine base, they worked fine. When either substance was applied to the rollers - disaster! Instant tarnishing! Since the MASS cream is concentrated, it created more tarnish than the Brasso. Just so you know.


Note 4  Mona Kissel offers a pasta machine modification that many find highly worthwhile. mona@monakissel.com



There's nothing better than having a great tool when you need it.

Enjoy,
Desiree

Last update to this page: 22 Feb 09. Send comments, questions or suggestions to Desiree McCrorey.