Updated on 03.13.12

Make Your Own Playdough (73/365)

Trent Hamm

Our children have several small tubs of playdough, both the name brand Play-Doh and other brands of similar material, that they’ve received as gifts over the years. The contents of those tubs have been played with, sculpted, mashed, combined, and used in countless different ways.

It’s actually a toy that Sarah and I quite like as it encourages our children to make whatever they want from it. It’s an incredibly open-ended toy (as long as you avoid the various plastic “factories” that channel the playdough into some specific style of play).

Our kids make sculptures of people, make checker sets, make pretend sandwiches, mix the different colors together to see what new colors are created, find ways to make perfect (or close to it) spheres and cubes, and so on.

Eventually, though, the playdough gets old. It dries out. It gets contaminated with something due to dropping on the floor. An overzealous child throws some away during cleanup. It gets mixed together until you have an ugly brown lump.

Going out to the store to buy new batches of playdough would add up in cost. Instead, we make our own. It’s pretty easy, it’s quite fun for the children to help when making it, and it’s pretty cheap, too.

Make Your Own Playdough (73/365)

The only supplies you need are two cups of flour, one cup of salt, two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and one tablespoon of cream of tartar.

Based on my own calculations, that’s about $0.30 in supplies ($0.10 for two cups of flour, $0.10 for one cup of salt, $0.03 for the vegetable oil, and $0.07 for the cream of tartar). This makes enough playdough to fill roughly two large playdough containers with the stuff. You may also want a few drops of food coloring for your preferred colors.

Put all of those ingredients (except the food coloring) into a saucepan over very low heat. Add two cups of tap water and stir it. It will eventually thicken to the point that it has a playdough-like consistency.

When it seems pretty consistent and very hard to stir (which shouldn’t take long at all), take it off of the heat, hold it in your hands, and knead it. Massage it until it has a very standard consistency throughout. What you’ll have is playdough.

Storing it is easy. We usually separate these batches into two or three or four separate small balls and store them in unused playdough containers. If you don’t have those around, pretty much any reusable sealable container will work for storing the stuff.

If you want colors, just get a set of food colorings. Add a drop or two to each ball of it and knead until it’s consistent in color. If you want brighter color, add another drop.

It’s incredibly easy to make, our children have a blast playing with it and making it, and it’s roughly 75% cheaper than buying playdough at the store.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Josh says:

    playdough and crayons, this is what the blog is coming to?

  2. lurker carl says:

    Hard to cook three cups flour and salt in only 2 tablespoons of oil. Did you actually make this stuff without water?

  3. CNP76 says:

    “Put all of those ingredients (except the food coloring) into a saucepan over very low heat. Add two cups of tap water and stir it.”

    He lists the water just not with the ingredients, go figure.

  4. BJD says:

    Trent used 2 cups water. I would have listed the water with the other supplies; he didn’t but does call it out 2 paragraphs later.

  5. Melissa says:

    I actually was wondering what “cream of tartar” looks like, as I’ve never seen it at the grocery store. Is it with the spices?

  6. Andrew says:

    Melissa, cream of tartar should be either with the spices or the baking ingredients (flour etc.) depending on your supermarket. It’s powder, and comes in small containers like spices, and isn’t cream at all.

  7. lurker carl says:

    I suppose water isn’t a supply, simply an ingredient. I missed that detail when speed reading. Cream of tartar is found with the spices or the baking aisle.

  8. Sara says:

    If you use Wondra flour you can skip the cream of tartar and you don’t have to cook it, just mix it thoroughly.

  9. BD says:

    This brings back memories. When I was a child, my mom would make this stuff for me to play with. I always loved it as a young kid, and now have fond memories of playing with it.

  10. rebecca says:

    You can skip the CoT completely, with no problem, and I use half that much salt too.

    And I use two or three packets of unsweetened coolaid for color and scent. Yummy.

  11. Angie says:

    Why do the photos tend to have a yellowish tinge to them? Even when I use my plain ol’ point and click indoors, it doesn’t look so yellow.

  12. BJD says:

    The yellowish tinge comes for overexposure to Yellow Neon cars

  13. Kathleen says:

    Yellowish = probably the wrong white balance setting. I see this after taking photos in the “shade” setting outdoors, then forgetting to readjust the white balance when taking indoor evening photos.

  14. deRuiter says:

    “It’s an incredibly open-ended toy” and “It’s incredibly easy to make,…” First of all, the author’s threshold of incredulousness is extraordinarily low. Second, a small portion of the profits from selling the blog and a few minutes of the five hours a week spent playing games could be devoted to buying a dictionary and thesaurous in order to improve the work of a man with a “passion” for writing. Pity it isn’t a “passion for writing well” which would include listing the water with the rest of the ingredients. That said, the old idea of making your own play-doh is a fine one, inexpensive, interesting, and it teaches children that you can often make store bought things cheaper at home, like neon yellow play-doh.

  15. Julie says:

    Instead of buying yourself a video game on release date, make some play-doh!

  16. Therese Z says:

    Unsweetened Koolaid is nice for color and scent, I agree with commenter above. But if you use food coloring, you can put a drop or two of after-shave (for some reason, more fun than perfume) in for a little scent, so it doesn’t smell “floury.”

  17. Carole says:

    I didn’t like playdough when my children were small because it was so messy. I suppose I stifled their artistic instincts, but I didn’t get it out very often.

  18. I like making playdoh because it allows you more freedom in choosing colors. And it’s so cheap that if it dries out or gets mixed with others colors you can just throw it out!

  19. teresa says:

    I use baby oil instead of vegetable oil and it smells so much better.

  20. Joan says:

    Two cups of flour for ten cents. I want to shop where you do. Five pound bag of flour has ten cups, and costs much more than a dollar where I shop.

  21. Evita says:

    #14 de Ruiter:
    it is “thesaurus”,not “thesaurous”. And no need to buy it, just check the free thesaurus on-line !

  22. deRuiter says:

    #21, Evita, thanks, you are correct on both points. Luckily for me I never claimed to have a psssion for writing, although I admire others whose educations were not wasted and who spell correctly and write well!

  23. Shauna says:

    Wow such hard comments for a article that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t even the though of having play doh for inexpensive, but the idea of inviting my child to “make” play doh! How cool is that! Trent, I for one really appreciated it being a mom of a 5 year old. Sometimes when it comes to frugality blogs – I read a lot of them – I feel like I have read it all. Then I get one that seems more like an enjoyable alternative to an expensive weekend outing at McDonalds that I am sure my kiddo will love as well and I think, hay! There is a reason for all the perusing after all. Trent, when are you going to write the book – 100 free things to do with a child on a long winter Alaskan Night???? lol! I’m getting sick of the 40 below weather and I really appreciate your input. It think some of your readers dont realize there are other readers out there without so many options for activities, such as outdoors. :)

  24. Maggie says:

    The best thing about homemade Play-Doh is that it doesn’t have that sicky sweet smell that real Play-Doh has.
    We used to make this on a wintery Saturday and the kids had fun all day. Especially good on the days when then couldn’t go outdoors.

  25. Maggie says:

    typo – “they” not then.

  26. Grace Pamer says:

    This is a genius of a post. So good I wrote a blog post about it and told my readers to come here to check it out! I love how you’ve worked through the process. This will be such a money saver for all moms like me who’s kids insist on both play dough and combining all the colors until they have rainbow central and then get upset because they can’t play with ‘just’ the yellow or ‘just’ the orange! :-)

    Great work

  27. Donald says:

    Simply superb article Trent. Your posts are getting more incisive each day. While we’re on the topic does anyone know a good place to get coupons for flour and the other supplies needed to make playdough?

  28. PF says:

    I made this today and it worked out great. I hate hate hate play doh. The smell makes my kids want to eat it and the stuff is made in china. Who knows what’s in it? It dries up in a about 5 minutes and then it’s everywhere.

    This homemade version had a nice consistency and my kids liked it better than the real stuff. My daughter got a play doh ice cream factory for her birthday. I almost threw it away yesterday because the only thing it’s been good for is to make is a huge mess. It takes an adult’s strength to do anything with it. I decided to make this recipe as the factory’s last chance. It worked. This playdough works SIGNIFICANTLY better in the factory and now it’s actually a fun toy.

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