How to Dye Seashells and Shell Beads
Topic: Jewelry and Beads
Notice that I didn't use the word easy in the title? There's a reason! I like using natural elements in my jewelry designs. I love semi precious stones both natural, tumbled and faceted; I use feathers all the time; and I have been known to use squirrel fur an other found objects. And for a touch of beachy summery freshness all year long nothing is better than shell beads, shell paillettes and small seashells. If you've ever bought shell jewelry at beach themed stores you've noticed that some come in colors such as blue, pink, green and other not-found-in-nature colors. And you've probably noticed that dyed shells tend to be a bit more expensive than the non-dyed counterparts. Being the thrifty type I bought a few large bulk packs of paillette style shell bead in natural colors. I used them, but wished that I had more colors than just oyster grey, clam beige and scallop brown.
Finding plain shells and shell beads isn't difficult. You can get them pre-drilled and shaped at bead stores or simply gather shells from the beach. Be sure that you collect half shells only -the ones that are stuck tightly closed together contain a live animal so leave them in the lake to live out the rest of their lives in peace and harmony. When they die THEN collect them. For this article I used pre-drilled flat round paillette style shells. These are easily found and easy to turn into beachy jewelry. Coloring them, however; isn't quite so easy.
Shells are calcium carbonate based -along with protein and a few other minerals that add shine, luster and hardness. Getting the dye to penetrate the tough shell would be difficult so I researched alkali, neutral and acid based dye methods. To test the shells reaction to each I dropped a shell in a solution of lye, a solution of soda ash and a solution of acetic acid -vinegar. The alkali seemingly did nothing and it stunk. The neutral soda ash made the shell foam slightly and didn't damage it. The acid made the shell foam and form little bubbles on the surface. The acid seemed to react with the calcium carbonate of the shell.
For my first test I used powdered fiber reactive dyes with soda ash. I used a bright pink, a bright Bahama blue, a deep purple and indigo blue. Here are the results. The smaller shells reacted with the dyes a little better than the large shells. Pink and Bahama blue reacted the best, the purple ended up weird and the indigo blue was very pale. I buffed the shells to see if I could make them shiny and the dye completely wiped off the large purple and it slightly rubbed off the small indigo shells.
Conclusion? Soda ash and fiber reactive dyes don't work. There's no fibers to react with and the soda ash is too similar to the shells themselves.
If you've ever looked up dyeing shells on the interweb you'll see lots of e-how articles saying that it's quick east and permanent using Easter egg dye. No. It's not. While egg shells are similar to sea shells the acid in Easter egg dye tablets isn't strong enough to make the color stick to the sea shell. Eggs are far more porous than mollusk shells. As you can see above Easter egg purple ended up looking like nothing. The large shells took none of the color and the small ones look grey.
The other shell dyeing made EZ recipe is food color and vinegar. I used one tablespoon purple color and two tablespoon vinegar. I didn't add any water. I dumped the beads into the water and stirred around. I let them soak for about 15 minutes. The surface of he water foamed slightly telling me the acid was reacting with the shell. Above is the end results: the small beads are a nice deep purple, the large beads seemed to absorb the red part of the color but not the blue. Not a fail -but not fully successful.
So I stopped and did a bit of reading and thinking. An acid is needed and I needed to use a dye that works best on animal products in the acid. So next I tried some dye powder for silk and wool and vinegar. Here are the results:
This worked a little better. The small shells dyed a wonderful bright pink and the large shells looked tinted pink. The color didn't rub off when buffed. I put away the small pink shells because I was 100% happy with the results. I used an eighth teaspoon powder dye to two tablespoons vinegar.
After a bit more thought and research I decided to try one more combination. I wanted to see if a stronger acid would work better and an acid based liquid dye. I have liquid dye for silk painting and I decided to try that in combination with CLR cleaner. CLR works like gangbusters of calcium build-up on pots, glasses and in the dishwasher. Shells are calcium, so the CLR might help the dye get into the shell. Silk comes from an animal -and so do shells -so that might work better!.The CLR is stronger than vinegar but not so strong that it would dissolve the shells completely.
I used one teaspoon of CLR and a quarter teaspoon of silk dye. Both are very strong so not much is needed. I could have used less silk dye. I added the shells and enough cold water so the dye covered the shells. A layer of foam formed on the surface of the dye. The acid was etching the shells. Hopefully that meant the dye could penetrate.
And it worked tons better! The deep blue small shells on top are a perfect denim blue and the large shells are a wonderful Lake Huron turquoise! The denim blue was deep and denim-ish. The color did not buff off, it stayed lustrous. I decided to try a dye called Poppy, a warm true red.
This isn't all of the shells I dyed poppy -the larger ones were drying in the kitchen. On the floor. More later! The small ones took the dye perfectly. The larger shells at the top were dyed deep purple and the purple was almost too dark. The large difficult to dye shells turned a deep purple that doesn't quite show up in my cell-phone pictures.
This is Later! The day I was working was hot, about 31 degrees inside and it was about 10 degrees cooler than outside. On a day like that it's normal to get sweaty, including sweaty palms. and it's normal for the sides of glasses to get condensation on them. So sweaty palms + sweaty glass = bad things. Like dropping a glass of poppy red dye on the floor and the glass smashing to pieces. There was no more than a quarter cup of dye in the glass but it still made my kitchen look like I was re-enacting a gory blood soaked scene from CSI. So word to the wise: don't drop glasses of dye. It cleaned up. Eventually. Although the rubber sole of the flip-flops I wore are still sort of blood spattered looking.
I had one last project to try. I had some oval shells that framed some jasper beads. The shell ovals were a bright turquoise when I bought them but they had faded. I wanted to refresh the color. I didn't want to dunk finished jewelry in acid so I had to think of some other way to color the shell. I got out a fine paint brush, dribbled a little CLR in a small cup and painted some one the shell. While it foamed slightly I applied silk dye directly to the shell. I let the one side dry, flipped it and repeated the process.
After both sides dried I buffed off the excess dye to bring up the shine. It worked well and the shells are once again tinted a bright Lake Huron Turquoise. I didn't get any color on the jasper or the milk glass bead.
And here's the end result! Lots of brightly colored shell beads including poppy, pink, indigo, Bahama blue, turquoise, denim, purple, forest green and more. Universally the large beads were resistant to dye and the smaller ones more receptive to dyeing.
In conclusion: I don't have a fool proof easy to follow recipe that will make dyeing shells super easy and successful every time. Some shells are more porous than others and will dye better. Some are harder and highly polished and won't dye as easily. You will need an acid stronger than white vinegar -but not so strong it will dissolve the shell. You will need a dye that works on animal proteins such as a silk dye. A little dye will go a long way. I would like to try powder dye with CLR and warm water to see how that would work -but that project will have to wait for another day. You have to check the shells as they dye in order to get them out at the right time. Some colors require a longer dye time than others. Five minutes might be perfect for some colors on some shells, but nowhere near enough for others. You need to be willing to check the beads often and experiment with proportions of water dye and acid. I dyed on a very hot day and the water was very warm -even if I used cool water at the start.
Recipe for dyeing shell beads:
1 tablespoon CLR cleaner (acid)
1/8 teaspoon liquid silk dye
warm water to cover beads.
Be sure that the beads, buttons, shells whatever are clean and free from any dirt or grease. Use a glass cup for dyeing. The glass won't be affected by either the acid or the dye. Place acid in cup and drop in beads. They will foam and hiss slightly. Add the dye and stir in. Pour in enough warm water to cover the beads. Let sit for a minimum of five minutes. There will be some foam on the top of the dye-bath. This is a sign that acid is etching the beads. Check the color after five minutes. If the beads aren't dark enough then let sit another five minutes. Check every three minutes after that. Don't let the beads soak for hours or overnight. You could dissolve them completely! after dying place beads in a single layer of a couple sheets of paper towels. Let dry completely before touching them. When dry buff lightly. Some color will come off but more should stay. The color will vary from a bright to barely a tint of color depending on the shells.
Good luck and don't be afraid to experiment a little. And if you come up with the fool proof works on all shells and easy to do with stuff at home method then more power to you! And don't forget to share your recipe with me!
EDIT TO REPLY TO COMMENTS:
Fiber reactive powder dye and CLR was a total fail. the (probably alkali) powder plus liquid acid equaled a vinegar and baking soda reaction on steroids.
The brand of silk dye was Deka color -no longer available. I don't think there's any fixative in it -after using it on silk the instructions stated to soak it in a fixative liquid so the color wouldn't come out when washed. I've been switching to Dupont Classique from France (G&S Dye Supply) and it works very well on silk and also works on shells. I still use acid because it give brighter hues. According to some feedback I recieved Jaquard Green Label silk from DharmaTrading.com in the US works well too.
And finally, yes, I knowFire Mountain says use RIT. Unfotunately RIT dye just sits on the surface of the beads and wears away quickly/
Posted by lincatz
at 10:26 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 22 September 2015 9:59 AM EDT