Shell Craft

Shell Craft

by Virginie Fowler Elbert

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Since ancient times, seashells have provided both materials and design inspiration for a variety of arts and crafts. Shell-inspired motifs have turned up in pottery and floor mosaics, as architectural ornaments, and on furniture. The magnificent mollusks have also been used as money and decorative objects to adorn the body. This comprehensive guide by Virginie Fowler Elbert — noted author, crafter, and authority on shell lore — offers a wealth of craft ideas for using these lovely treasures from the sea.
Following a fascinating introduction to the use of shells throughout history, the simply written text provides step-by-step instructions for cleaning, preparing, and displaying shells; suggests methods for decorating boxes and mirror frames; and shows how to create fanciful soap dishes, night lights, and jewelry items — from pendants and necklaces to bracelets, cuff links, and earrings.
You'll also find easy-to-follow directions for preserving shells in resin to make paperweights, napkin holders, cachepots, and other household accessories, as well as instructions for casting shell forms from molds (an ideal way to develop multiple patterns if only a few shells are available). There's even a chapter on how to do shell printing with linoleum blocks and crayon prints to create distinctive designs for placemats, wall hangings, wrapping paper, and stationery. Reference works and an updated list of supply sources round out this profusely illustrated guide to a fun-filled and rewarding pastime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486157108
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 01/09/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 24 MB
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Read an Excerpt


By Virginie Fowler Elbert

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1977 Virginie Fowler Elbert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15710-8


How to Make Displays for Your Shells

SHELLS ARE COLLECTED for their beauty and displayed as art objects. Collecting is a pure treasure hunt as one walks along beaches, clambers over rocks, wades in the shallows at low tide—always looking for the unusual shell, for a flash of color, a different shape. And then, the quick scooping up of the shell from sand or water—the excitement and triumph of a new possession. The loot depends on the beach location, the time of year and the tide, and each expedition becomes a new experience.

We have shelled up and down the ocean coasts, along the Gulf of Mexico and on the beaches and coral reefs of Puerto Rico and St. Lucia. Other shells have been collected by happenstance. While photographing wild flowers on a hillside near Volterra in Italy, we saw a piece of a fossil shell half buried in the yellow dirt. On that same trip, after spending a day looking at the mosaics and churches in Ravenna, we went out to the shore area of the Adriatic to eat at one of the seafood restaurants. But first we kicked off our shoes and scooped up treasures from the flat, dark sand, thinly covered with water. One of the shells was a Pelican's Foot (Apporhais pespelicani).

Another haul was a pure fluke as we waited for the guide to collect enough people for the tour through the Abbey at Fontevraud in France. I was boredly kicking at the gravel and dirt of the parking lot, when I saw a sharp point gleaming with mother-of-pearl. A few more sharp kicks brought up a South Seas shell, then several others surfaced. Undoubtedly, the gravel and sand was ballast brought back by ship from a French possession and the shells came along for the ride. They were all in good shape and were brought home to add to our collection.

Another great collecting spot at any time of the year is the counter of a shell shop. Here are shells from all over the world and you can pick and choose among the many exotic varieties. Do you like Cone Shells, Cowries, Murexes or Scallop Shells? Look for them on counters and shelves.

What do you do if you live far from an ocean shore and there are no shell shops nearby? Do not despair. Mail order houses specializing in shells will send catalogs on request, and you can order both present-day shells and fossil shells millions of years old. Many of the catalogs are illustrated with pages of photographs, so that you can see what type of shell you are ordering. There are shells for single display and others for decorating projects.

There are many types and different shapes, surface designs and colors in each family of shells, each with its own name. A field guide book will help you identify your haul and separate the Gastropoda from the Pele-cypoda. A list of helpful books is on page 277.

Many shells are known by their common name but the Latin name is the true identification as a common name can change from area to area. For this reason many catalogs and handbooks list the shells by their Latin names. The beginning beachcomber often lumps all large, flat shells as "clams," but you'll find that a clam is not a clam. Try to find a listing in a handbook under "Clam"—you'll find Surf Clam (Spisula solidissima), or Quahog (Venus mercenaria); each belongs to a different genus, even though to the untutored eye they might look somewhat alike. And there are many other similar shapes with different common names and Latin names.

No matter how you acquire your shells you will soon find that you want to display them, to show off their strange and beautiful shapes to the best advantage. You will also want to clean and restore their colors so they will look as they did when you snatched them from the water, all glistening and gleaming.


Tools and Materials

Very few tools are needed and they are of the simplest—both materials and tools are part of a standard household.

A nutpick, metal skewer or dental scraper for cleaning away any excess pieces of lime adhering to the shell surfaces. A wire brush is very useful in removing the most stubborn lime deposits.

To scrape out any leftover pieces of snail from the Gastropods, use a piece of thin wire, a hairpin, a long pin, or an opened paper clip.

The other shell cleaners are a household chlorine bleach for boiling out the shells, rubbing alcohol to drop into the center of the snail type to destroy any odor-causing material still left in the point. Baby oil or mineral oil to bring out shell color after cleaning. A soft water-color brush to apply the oil.

And finally, stick-on labels on which to identify your shells.

Preparing the Shells

When you get home from the beach and look at your shells, you'll be disappointed. What has happened to their bright, fresh colors? They now seem drab, the colors are faded and grayish, and bits of barnacle or other limey encrustations are sticking to the surfaces. The only shells that do not seem to have suffered a land change are the Cowries and Olive Shells with their hard, porcelain-like surfaces. It was the water that kept the shells looking so bright, and bringing them back to their original colors is a two-step process.

The first step seems to be a paradox. The shells are put into a pot and covered with cold water. Chlorine bleach is added in the proportion of two tablespoons of bleach to one cup of water, and the whole lot is brought to a boil, then simmered for four or five minutes. While chlorine is thought of as a powerful bleach, it also loosens lime substances and other discolorations that stick to the surface of shells, and as their color is built into their structure, it is not affected by the bleach. Remove from the water, rinse off in hot to warm water.

Household lye, for instance the Red Devil brand, in the proportion of one-quarter pound or a bit less to one quart of cold water, is also a good overnight soaking medium for loosening or removing lime deposits which often cover the bright surface of a shell. Follow the manufacturer's directions for the containers you use for soaking—usually china or glass. While this method, as well as the hot Clorox solution, may not completely remove all blemishes, it does loosen the toughest materials, making it easier to scrape them off with a metal tool. Be sure to wear rubber gloves when handling the shells after they have soaked in lye. Rinse off the shells in cold, running water, making sure that the insides of the snail-like types are very well flushed with clear water.

Scrape off any remaining bits of lime with a nutpick, skewer or dental tool. (If you are going in for shell collecting, this latter tool is invaluable, so ask your dentist for discarded scrapers.) Give the shells a final rinsing in lukewarm water and let dry on paper towels.

If a Snail Shell is fresh, clean it out after boiling. First, remove the cover over the opening—the operculum—which also can be used in shell projects. Then hook a piece of wire into the snail, and pull very slowly but steadily until you have pulled it completely out of the shell. There may still be a small amount of meat left in the point, so add a few drops of rubbing alcohol and wait a few days. Rinse out, and all should be well.

The second step is to coat each shell lightly with baby or mineral oil, applying it with a soft water-color brush. Let the oil soak in overnight, and then wipe off any excess with a soft cloth or well-crumpled paper towel. Your shells will now be bright and fresh colored. Of course, if they were very old and sun-bleached on the beach, they will be improved but not perfect. So, when you are gathering shells, be strong-willed and discard all but the best before you leave the beach.

Now, identify your shells by comparing them to the photographs and descriptions in a good field guide. Then make a record by placing a small identifying number on your shell and keeping the name and location and date found in a notebook.


There are a number of ways to display shells as art objects. Five different ways will be described in this chapter, ranging from single shells to a small collection. Adapting these basic approaches, you will be able to use other available containers. So look over your collection and, depending on how many shells you have, decide which is the best way to show them off.

Tools and Materials

Household tools are used throughout this section. Specific tools may vary depending on the project but the most frequently used are: hammer, screwdriver, rasp, metal and wood files, saw, metal cutter, metal scriber, paint brushes and scissors.

Also, the materials depend on the project. First, and most important—shells. Then paint, shellac, felt, velvet or other fabrics, nails, screws, wire, metal furniture decorations, epoxy cement and household white glue.


Manufactured holders are sold in a few standard sizes. If you make your own, you can adapt the size and the length of the prongs and the height of the stand to your own shell, creating a custom display. The following low stand made of brass or brass-colored wire can be adapted to any size shell by changing its overall size and the thickness of the wire.

Tools and Materials

Pliers, wire cutter, metal file, metal scriber and ruler.

Lengths of brass wire, 3/16 to ¼ inch thick and either round or square, can be bought at a craft or hobby shop, or particularly at a model railroad supply store where various thicknesses are sold in 30-inch lengths. You should not buy wire on a spool as this will have kinks that are very hard to smooth out. Gold-colored wire hangers from the dry cleaner are very handy as the metal is soft and bends easily. As this stand is not heat-soldered, you will need epoxy cement and fine wire for wrapping. To gauge the amount of wire needed, rough measurements are made with heavy cord, approximately the thickness of the final brass wire. Bonnet Shell or any other shell.


1. A Bonnet Shell (Cypraecasis rufa) from the Pacific Ocean is 3 3/8 inches long, approximately 2 inches high and 2 ¼ inches wide. Clean and prepare the shell, if necessary.

2. Cut square brass wire or a wire hanger into the following four lengths: 5 inches and 4 5/8 inches for the top support; 6 inches and 7 ½ inches for the lower support or legs. These measurements are approximate, as there will be inequalities in bending the wire and you will have to snip and file off a bit—especially to level the legs. Always err on the side of too much wire rather than too little.

3. Measure and cut cord the same lengths as the four pieces of wire. Bring the 5-inch cord under the shell lengthwise, and a bit up each side. Mark the bending areas with a felt-tipped pen. Repeat around the middle with the 4 5/8-inch cord. Important reminder. If you are working with a shell of a different size, make your first measurements with the cord, then cut the metal wire.

4. Lay the pieces of cord alongside the matching pieces of wire and, using two pliers—one to hold the wire steady, the other to bend the wire—curve each end upward. Protect the wire from plier marks with several folds of paper toweling or a small piece of an old leather glove. The lengthwise wire should turn up as far as the point of the shell on one end, and just to the top of the canal opening at the other. The prongs for the center width support should be slightly unequal in height. The "back" will be slightly higher to keep the shell from rolling over, and the "front" shorter to display the outside markings of the lip to the best advantage.

5. Center the two wires—longest on the bottom—and hold firmly while you mark the center crossing with a scriber, a sharp nail or skewer. File a rectangle between the markings on the top of the longest wire, halfway down the thickness of the wire. File a rectangle on the bottom of the shorter wire between the marks. File halfway through the wire. Place the wires together and check for fit. They will nestle together, leaving the joint almost level.

6. Repeat the measuring, bending, marking and filing with the two other wires which form the legs of the stand.

7. Check the leg supports to see if they are even. This is easy to do as the fitting together of the wires in the center will hold things steady. File off any excess metal, then smooth and flatten the bottom of each leg. The wires should fit tightly together at the middle. If not, continue to adjust the bottom of the legs with a file.

8. Wipe out the two hollows with rubbing alcohol to clean them of any grease and metal filings. Mix a small amount of epoxy cement. Fill each hollow and put the two leg supports together. Wipe off excess epoxy. Hold tightly with an X crossing of fine wire. Let stand for 24 hours until dry, then cut away holding wire. (For epoxy cement see page 43.)

9. Repeat the process with the top supports or the "shell cradle," checking the length of the wires holding the shell. Make final adjustments of the ends and the curve of the supports. File ends smooth. Add epoxy, hold with fine wire for 24 hours.

10. Cover top and bottom of each joining area with a thin coat of epoxy to insure a good hold. Let dry for another 24 hours.

11. With the file, slightly flatten the areas where the top and bottom supports will be joined to give a better holding area. Put the top cradle on the bottom leg support, coating the joining areas with epoxy cement. Wrap with an X of fine, gold-colored wire, as this will stay on after the epoxy has hardened. Wait for 24 hours before touching the stand.

12. Wrap a few extra turns of wire at the joint. Cover the fine wire and the main heavy wire joint with a thin coat of epoxy and let dry thoroughly. Test all joints for their sturdiness. If you have any doubts, add another thin layer of epoxy and let dry.

13. Now, put your shell in its display holder and place on a table, the mantelpiece or in a bookshelf display area—and admire your handiwork. Your beautiful shell seems to float in space and can be seen from all sides.


Simple shadow box displays can be made from commercial jewelers' display trays. These are usually oblong, black-painted wood, with a removable cardboard liner which is covered with either black or dark blue velvet. A very handy size is 8 ¼ x 15 inches, with 1-inch-high sides made of ¼-inch-thick wood.

If you cannot find a tray with a plain insert—only one with a slotted insert for rings—make your own. Cut a sheet of packing case cardboard to size, and cover it with velvet, mitering the corners on the back. Hold the material in place with white glue.

Shells are fastened to the lining with fine wire. Once they are in position the lining is attached to the tray with white glue or epoxy cement and hung on the wall.

Tools and Materials

A thin punch awl for making holes, or a very heavy carpet or sailmaker's needle. A pair of pliers for tightening the wires. A wire cutter or heavy scissors.

Materials include a display tray, velvet and cardboard if needed, fine wire, epoxy cement and shells.


1. If your shells are beach-gathered, clean and prepare them first.

2. Make a mock-up of your design on a sheet of paper the size of the inside dimensions of your tray. Move the shells around until you have a pleasing arrangement. The one in the photograph contains fossil shells (of the Pliocene period) we gathered in the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida.

3. Lightly trace the outline of each shell with pencil.

4. Each shell is held in place with a length of fine wire. Sometimes the wire goes across its widest part, or is looped at an angle just below the swelling. Then the wire is either brought around and underneath the shell and through the backing, or just brought to the edges of the shell before going through the background material. In any case, always remember that your frame is going to be hung on the wall or stood upright as a display piece, so the shells have to be supported in such a way that they will not fall out of the wires.

5. Mark each shell outline on your pattern with two pencil dots in the places where you think the wire should be pulled through the backing.

6. Following your pattern and starting with the upper left hand corner, punch two holes through the backing. Feed the point of the wire through one hole from the back. Put the shell down on the velvet covering and bring the wire over it, then through the other hole. Clip off the wire, leaving about one inch at each end. In tightening the wire you will wish that you had four hands until you get used to the procedure. Holding the backing at a slanting, upright angle, press the shell against the background. With the other hand, tighten the wire by twisting with the pliers. The shell-holding hand should also be holding the wire in place.


Excerpted from SHELL CRAFT by Virginie Fowler Elbert. Copyright © 1977 Virginie Fowler Elbert. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Shells as Decorative Objects,
1 - How to Make Displays for Your Shells,
2 - Making Shell Fantasies,
3 - Decorative Boxes You Can Make,
4 - Creating Jewelry from the Sea,
5 - How to Encase Shells in Resin,
6 - Making Cast Shell Forms from Molds,
7 - Shell Prinking with Crayons and Linoleum Blocks,
8 - Final Word for Future Projects,
Reference Books,

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