I’ve always been enamored by sea glass. When I was eleven, growing up in Kansas, I vividly remember opening an envelope from a pen pal on the coast that contained the beautiful soft frosted glass pearls she said were known as “mermaid tears” in her family.
As I’ve become, in my professional life, a person who helps people cope with trauma in their story, I’ve come to see sea glass as an amazing media that represents the process of healing trauma: Humans are like vessels that contain stories that churn and rub up against each other. Traumatic stories enter as shattered shards- and when we allow ourselves to be present in relationships instead of turning inward and isolating, we create in our lives the movement that leads to a softening and transforming of the sharp shards of trauma. I love how seaglass captures in a very physical way this reminder that painful stories don’t have to remain painful forever.
Because this image meant so much to me, my artist-self began to develop lots of ideas for incorporating sea glass into my art.
So, Can you DIY Real Sea Glass?
Disappointed with the spray-on version of sea glass finish, I wondered, could I make my own sea glass using broken bottles and a rock tumbler? Spoiler: YES. Keep reading to learn my method for making your own sea glass.
As you can see in the image below, the finish on the finished glass is frosty and matte- in every way just like Sea Glass. With this method you aren’t creating a faux sea glass finish- but actually creating the environment that forms real sea glass in the same way the sea does!
Making Sea Glass in a Rock Tumbler
It turns out, making sea glass in a rock tumbler was way easier than I expected. For my first batch, I simply used a few tablespoons of play-sand to sand down my glass, but then I purchased a pack of carbo grit and I found that harder, coarser grit helped speed the process of making glass shards into sea glass and also gave me more control over how round and frosty the sea glass ended up.
What You’ll Need:
- Motorized Rock Tumbler – I use a $100 Lortone 3lb Capacity Tumbler for fast, professional results but this not-quite-so-well-reviewed $50 rock tumbler should work if you are patient.
- GLASS (see below for tips on recycling glass. For hard-to-find colors, you can buy the colored glass chunks made for high end firepits in red, black, and colbalt blue, )
- 5 gallon bucket
- 2 large thick plastic bags (clothing storage bags work great)
- a fry basket or a colander with big holes (turns out, fry baskets are perfect for sorting and shaking tiny glass fragments out from usable sea glass pieces)
- cut-resistant work gloves
- safety glasses (seriously, do NOT do this project without safety equipment)
- shallow cardboard box (to contain small shards of glass)
- grit (you can use sand, but a coarser grit gets the job done with less time and less electricity used. If you think you might also tumble rocks, try a variety pack of abrasive media, but for just turning a few loads of broken glass into sea glass, you can buy coarse abrasive media in 1lb packs.
Can I use Broken Glass?
YES. You can use broken glass from just about any source for this project. If you found this article while teary-eyed over a sentimental glass vase or even a ceramic plate you just broke, this is a beautiful way to repurpose the broken pieces of glass in a way that you can enjoy and appreciate for many more years. Even if you aren’t an artist, sea glass can make an elegant display dropped into the bottom of a clear glass vase. And broken plates with sharp edges removed make beautiful mosaics or stepping stones.
Can I use a cheaper kid’s rock tumbler?
YES. This method works via time + friction. Professional tumblers and carbide grit offer lots of friction and can finish sea glass in as little as 48 hours. If you use a cheaper kid’s tumbler and/or sand, you’ll get a lot less friction- but if you have lots of time to wait, you’ll still be able to create finished sea glass by running the tumbler for much longer (7-10 days).
To create my sea glass, I followed the following steps
Step 1: Find Glass
Depending on how picky you are about color and thickness, acquiring the glass to make into sea glass can be the easiest or the hardest part.
- Sources for colored glass:
- your own recycling
- yard sales and recycling centers
- thrift stores and garage sales
Wine bottles and liquor bottles can be used for making sea glass, although in my experience only the glass at the upper rim of the neck and the bottom of the bottle is thick enough to make pieces of sea glass that are substantial in size.
IMPORTANT: For colored sea glass: if you are shooting to create sea glass in many colors you’ll find a challenge: most colored glass in retail shops and thrift stores is given a colored appearance by a post-production coating of colorant- this color will be rubbed off immediately when the tumbler starts running. Spot the difference between colored glass and glass with a coating by turning the piece upside down and looking for telltale marks where the colorant isn’t even, has dripped, or overlaps.
Recycling Center – this is by far my best source for good glass pieces to turn into sea glass. In Joplin, the main recycling center features huge open bins where glass is collected until it is hauled away once a week. Since repurposing is the lowest-impact form of recycling, ask your recycling center if you can take glass for free. Joplin’s recycling employees were happy to provide bags for me to take all the bottles and jugs I wanted.
The recycling center gives me access to lots of different types of bottles. High-end liquor bottles and vintage glass pieces tend to be made from thicker glass and make great sea glass.
My BEST sea glass results were achieved using old telephone insulators. When I decided to smash an already-cracked aqua colored glass insulator, the resulting sea glass was a gorgeous blue-green color that created beautiful, thick stones of manufactured sea glass. (I’ve since discovered you can get the same result by tumbling the coarse stones of colored glass made for decorative firepits, they even have glass stones in this vintage turquoise shade)
Step 2: Break Glass
This is by far the most dangerous part. Please be smart, safe, and glass savvy. Glass is pointy and dangerous, handle with extreme caution and with all appropriate safety equipment. And for the love of your eyeballs, do not skip protective eyewear.
A. Have the barrel of your tumbler open and nearby. Place the unbroken glass in a heavy plastic bag, then place that bag into another heavy plastic bag. Put on goggles and gloves and place the bagged object inside a cardboard box.
B. With goggles on, use the flat side of the hammer to strike the object until it breaks. Continue striking the large pieces until the pieces are somewhat uniform in the size range you desire for your sea glass products (remember, tumbling will make pieces a bit smaller!).
C. Carefully, with hands protected by cut-resistant gloves, dump the contents of the plastic bags into your colander or egg basket (over a safe receptacle). Tiny shards of glass will fall through the basket leaving the big chunks behind. (When I do this part, I work over a double-bagged trash can, to minimize cleanup) Gently shake the basket of glass till the small shards are removed, then with gloved hands manually move the larger chunks of glass into the barrel of the rock tumbler.
Step 3: Turn Broken Glass into Sea Glass!
Now is the fun part!
A. Add glass until the barrel of your tumbler is about 1/2 to 2/3 full of glass (I usually fill to 2/3rd of the way full) If you don’t have enough glass shards, you can add a few clean rocks. IMPORTANT: The 1/2 – 2/3 fullness is required for the contents to tumble instead of slosh.
B. Check the manual for your tumbler, but for my 3lb capacity tumbler, I used about 3-4 tablespoons of grit. The coarse silicon carbide grit I linked earlier makes the process go about twice as fast.
C. Add enough water to cover the glass and abrasive but DO NOT OVERFILL. (You want a sludgy tumble with each barrel turn, not a constant slosh)
D. Run for 3-5 days. After 48 hours you can pop the barrel open and take a look if you are impatient like me. At this point, you should notice some frosting on the glass and significant dulling of sharp corners. Continue tumbling until the pieces are evenly frosted with rounded edges. The longer you tumble, the more the final glass pieces will have the appearance of being very, very old sea glass.
Step 3: Cleaning and Finishing Homemade Sea Glass
After a few days, your glass will be ready. To finish each round of sea glass, I hold my egg basket/colander over a bucket and gently pour the newly made sea glass into the basket, allowing the water and grit to drip through leaving the glass behind in the basket.
Take your egg basket, glass, and bucket to an outdoor area with a hose and hose down the sea glass, washing away all remaining grit and any grime picked up in the polishing process. (Do not wash the grit down your drains!)
TIP: Reuse the (kinda expensive!) carbide grit by leaving the bucket of rinse water to sit for a few hours. Once the grit settles at the bottom of the bucket, you can carefully dump off the water and save your grit for reuse.
Spread your homemade sea glass on a clean, dry surface to dry (a towel or a cooling rack from your kitchen works great). Once completely dry, your sea glass is ready for any project you have planned for it!
Homemade sea glass is beautiful for home decor, jewelry, fused glass art, and I’ve even used it in mixed media epoxy resin pieces with a lot of success.
What will you do with your sea glass? I’ve love to hear your questions, comments, or stories about how this technique worked for you!