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Tips for drilling beach glass and seashells

Turn your treasured finds into jewelry, safely
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Incorporating natural materials and found objects into your jewelry is a wonderful way to create unique, one-of-a-kind pieces, and to preserve your memories of summer vacations or special adventures. But it's not always easy to figure out how to incorporate shells, rocks, or beach glass into your work. We've pulled together these tips to help!

BEACH GLASS

Beach glass (sometimes called sea glass) is formed when pieces of glass -- often broken beer bottles or similar -- find their way into a lake or ocean and are polished smooth by the natural motion of the water. Many people collect it and on well-traveled beaches, it can be very difficult to find. But you don't need to head to California or Florida to find good pieces. All the glass featured in these photos was found on the beaches of Lake Michigan here in Milwaukee, WI. You can also buy beach glass in craft stores, usually in the flower arranging aisle.

Beach glass is prized in jewelry making, and many people either bezel-set it (check out this project for more information) or wire-wrap it (here's another gorgeous example). But if you prefer to drill your glass, it can be done. Margaret Capitani of Funky Hannah's Beads in Racine, WI, showed us how in this video.

Drilling beach glass (or seashells!) can be tricky, but the final result makes it worthwhile. Here are some additional tips on how to achieve success. 

The drill: what to use

Anything that drills a hole can be used on beach glass: a hardware store drill, a Dremel, or a flex shaft. That said, some work much better than others. When choosing your tool, keep these safety factors in mind. 

1. You'll be drilling under water (more on that below). Electricity and water do not mix. Thus, if you're working with a corded Dremel or a similar tool in which the power supply is close to the drill bit, be very cautious not to submerge your tool. 

2. Glass skitters around when you drill it. Your drill bit may "jump" or "skate" over the glass, or your glass itself may move. If you are easily startled by your material moving (as I am!), a handheld tool may not work best for you. If your glass takes flight, and you jump back with a spinning drill bit in mid-air, be super careful of your surroundings, work area, long hair or any other situation that could result in a studio accident. If you have a device controlled by a foot pedal, use it. But if you have to use an on-off switch on the handle of your tool, be sure your nerves are steady!

3. A stationary drill or a drill press works GREAT. You can concentrate on applying slow, even pressure on your glass, and you don't have to worry about your actual hand moving or shaking. I own this small variable-speed mini drill (pictured above) that I use for everything, not just beach glass.

Harbor Freight bits
This is the Harbor Freight set. It's nice to have a variety of sizes and shapes available. 

The drill bits

Remember the old adage that you need to use a diamond to cut glass? Guess what? You must use diamond drill bits to drill through glass. Don't be afraid of that, it's not as exotic or expensive as it sounds! A diamond drill bit is a standard bit that goes into any drill, Dremel or flex shaft, and it's made from tool steel coated in a fine grit of industrial diamond. Some are hollow so that debris may flow up into the bit; some are just a standard twisting drill bit. You can also purchase diamond burrs, which are useful for widening a hole or smoothing or polishing edges. 

You can buy diamond bits and burrs anywhere that you buy other jewelry supplies. You can also find them at some hardware stones. They run the gamut in price and quality: Harbor Freight carries a very inexpensive set that comes with some interesting shapes and sizes, and Rio Grande carries extremely expensive bits that you only would use if you were drilling fine gemstones. Shop around and you'll find lots of options. 

bowl and workspace
My plastic bowl, set up on my drill press. Notice that I have very little clutter nearby and a lot of natural light. I like to position my drill near a corner of my worktable, so I can see what I'm doing from two angles (my eyesight is terrible). 
hockey pucks
I alternate between this giant owl eraser and hockey puck (Go Wolves!) as my drilling surface. Both are made from a material that allows the drill to penetrate. One is taller than the other, so I alternate, depending on the size of the glass that I'm drilling.
Not enough water
This water is NOT deep enough -- but it's close. The surface that you are drilling needs to be submerged, but only a portion of your drill bit. If the water hits the chuck of the drill, it's too deep.  

What you purchase is up to you and your budget, but know that regardless of what you use, the bit will only last through a few pieces of glass. It's just the nature of drilling through glass; it's tough on your tools. Be sure that the size bit that you buy will fit into your tool, and experiment with the cheap ones before you spend your entire jewelry budget for the month on the expensive ones. Performance will vary depending on how powerful your tool is and the hardness of your stone or glass -- something that can be impossible to guess when you're working with natural materials. 

The set-up

Yes, you really drill in water. There are several reasons for this. Both your drill bit and your stone or glass will get very hot as the drill works its way through a tough surface. The water keeps it cool. Also, the water washes away the minuscule bits of glass and debris as the drill bit kicks them up, keeping your just-drilled hole clear so that the drill can penetrate deeper. 

Fill a shallow bowl with enough water to cover the glass. USE A PLASTIC BOWL. If you do have bits of glass fly off, they will fly with such velocity that they could easily crack a glass bowl, or ricochet back towards you. I use this former to-go container -- it's nice and wide so I can see what's going on, and balances well on the base of my drill press.

Put something strong but relatively pliable in the bottom of the bowl to support your piece. I use either a hockey puck or a giant eraser. Some people use a scrap of wood. The drill bit will penetrate it, so don't use anything that you won't eventually be OK with throwing away.

However, much like a bench pin, the surface that you drill on can become more useful the more gouged up it becomes. Small divots on your wood or plastic can create nice hollows for oddly-shaped pieces of stone to rest. Feel free to hack at a piece of wood or a hockey puck to actually create some resting places for your glass or stones. 

natural divot
That little dented area on the amber glass makes it a nice piece to test. 
no fingers
DO NOT stick your fingers near a whirring drill. Use a wooden dowel or chopstick to reposition or hold your glass in place as needed. 
debris
You'll see the debris come up as you drill. Swirl the water with a stick a bit to wash it away. 
amber glass
I got a nice clean hole though the amber glass. Some minor chipping, because I was on deadline and went too fast(!), but nothing I can't live with. 

The actual drilling 

  • WEAR EYE PROTECTION! Glass skitters and shatters. Tiny bits go flying through the air at high velocity. Use good judgement and wear plastic eye protection, even if you wear prescription eyeglasses. 
  • Much like you use a center punch to create a guide for a drill bit on metal, see if you can locate a natural place on your piece for the hole. Drilling through the thickest part of a stone or piece of glass isn't always wise as the longer it takes, the more the chances of the piece shattering. If you can find a natural divot in the glass that the drill bit can catch, you will have a higher degree of success. 
  • Try to drill vertically. You may need to start at an angle to get a little divot started, but then the straighter you can stay, the less risk of the piece skittering or shattering. This is where a drill press can really come in handy. 
  • Start slowly, progress slowly, and finish SLOWLY. It could take a full five minutes to drill through your glass. Don't rush it. Apply steady pressure. If your glass spins around, you're not applying enough pressure, or you've broken all the way through. If your bit is whining loudly, you're pushing too hard. The glass will let you know the right pressure. 
  • Keep your fingers out of there! Use a chopstick or similar if you need to hold the glass steady until the drill catches. 
  • Some people drill halfway through a piece of beach glass, then flip it over and drill from the other side. Whether this is a good option depends completely on your piece of glass. The last thing you want is to have the two holes not align, so be careful when using this method. 

You will break some of your glass. 

There may be tiny cracks or fissures in your glass that are undetectable but will cause the glass to break. You may drill at an angle that applies pressure in the wrong place. You may sneeze in the middle and send your Dremel skittering. One way or the other, accidents WILL happen. 

Practice drilling on less-favorite pieces before tackling a special treasure. And know that if a piece does break, well, you can always use wire-wrapping to make a different design!

And hey, if the worst thing that happens is that you have to go back to the beach to find some more material, that's not such a bad thing!

DRILLING SEASHELLS

Drilling seashells is very similar to drilling beach glass -- you can use the same set-up. Shells are usually thinner, but can sometimes be just as hard (or harder!) than glass.  

For a project where she attached seashells that she found on Myrtle Beach to a crocheted cord, Kim St. Jean offered us the following tips on drilling shells.

  • Use a drill that will turn in slow revolutions. I use my drill press set at 1100 rpms. In most cases, a Dremel-style tool will go too fast even on the lowest speed. 
  • Use a titanium nitride-coated drill bit from the hardware store.  The ones I use cost about $2 for 10 bits.  
  • Drill shells underwater. Submerge the item to be drilled on a small piece of wood and lower the drill bit to the spot you wish to drill.
  • Start the drill moving very slowly and apply light pressure. Let the drill bit do the work.
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