How to Drill Holes in Shells

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If you love beachcombing, you may have collected a lot of shells that you would like to turn into some kind of art, or make into jewelry. It might be intimidating to think about drilling a hole into one of your shells to make it into a necklace or to use it for another artistic purpose, but you will be surprised at how easy it is to drill holes in shells without breaking them or damaging them.

Clean the Shells

The first step is always to clean your shells thoroughly. You will want to

  • bring a small pot of water to a boil on the stove
  • let the shell sit in the hot water for five minutes to kill bacteria
  • some shell types cannot tolerate heat and must be washed with soapy water thoroughly instead
  • let the shell rest until it is cool and dry.
Seashells

If you have purchased shells from a store, you may be able to skip this step. Be aware that some stores do not clean their shells before packaging them up so you might want to open the bag and check for bad smells or dirt and grime before you assume that they are clean and ready to go.

Beachcombers will not usually wash the shells they gather and the bag of shells you receive might still need to be cleaned before you can use them.

Use the Right Drill and Drill Bits

You will not want to drill your seashell with a regular drill, even if you are using a very small bit. The weight of the drill will likely break the shell, or the drill bit can get so hot that it can damage the shell. You can drill with a Dremel, or you might use a hand drill.

Using a Dremel

Dremels are incredibly versatile and handy tools, and if you own one, they are the perfect tool for drilling holes in shells.

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If you are going to use a Dremel, make sure that you use a small drill bit with a very sharp point and drill slowly. Dremel bits can heat up just like regular drill bits and you might not realize how hot the drill bit is getting until it is too late.

Most Dremel drills will come with a variety of regular drill bits, which might also include sanding bits. A sanding drill bit is great for smoothing out the hole after it has been drilled through.

If your drill bits need sharpening, make sure to address this prior to drilling. You can pick up the best drill bit sharpener to make this a quick and easy process.

Using a Drill

The process for using a drill for sea shells is very similar to using a drill. Generally speaking, a drill is going to have more power than a dremel, so you’re going to have to be more careful when using it.

Use the drill at a lower speed, and dial the torque back as much as you can. Make an indentation in the shell to help ensure you don’t break it when you start up the drill. Similar to drilling into glass, breaking the material is the most common problem.

Always use a test shell to practice before going to work on the shell that you want to use for your project. This is especially true with a hand drill as there is some associate skill related to holding the drill in place and using it to make the hole, at least in the beginning.

The Drilling Process

1.     Mark the Shell

Using a marker, make a small spot on the back (inside) of the shell where you want the hole to be. Make sure that you check to see if there are any thin spots or possible damage areas near this location before you start drilling.

You can check the thickness of delicate shells by holding them up to the light and seeing if you can see through some spots more readily than others.

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If you are making a necklace, you will be drilling at the top of the shell in most cases, but other projects like wind chimes might make it necessary to drill lower down or in the middle of the shell.

Always consider carefully where you want the hole to be before you actually start drilling as you will not be able to hide the blemish if you change your mind partway through the process.

2.     Set up a Water Dish on a Solid Surface

To make sure that the shell does not get too hot while you are drilling, you can pour a stream of water over it as you drill.

You can also put the shell in a dish and submerge it in water was you drill. This is where a non-breakable dish comes in handy to collect or hold the water needed to protect the shells from overheating as you are working.

Place your drilling set up on a solid table or any other surface that will not move around as you drill. Using a small drill bit, about 1mm or smaller, will reduce the chance that you will overheat or break the shell as you are drilling. 

You can always start with a smaller drill bit and work your way up, but you can’t make the hole smaller again if you pick a drill bit that is too big.

3.     Drill the Hole

Start out slowly, and make very certain that you have placed the drill onto the spot that you marked for the hole in the shell. If you need to lift the shell out of the water to check that the mark is still in place, do so.

Cordless drill placed on a pavement
  • Start drilling slowly and gradually increase pressure.
  • Move the drill up and down as you work to flush out the hole and to prevent the drill bit from heating up.
  • If you are sanding the hole smooth or rounding the edges of the hole with the sanding bit, make sure to check that the shell is not getting hot as you do this part of the process. Sanding bits can get quite hot as you use them.

Read our review of the best Dremel tool to pick up the right one for the job.

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4.     Hold Up to the Light

To make sure that your hole has been drilled correctly and is smooth enough to pass a necklace cord or other material through, hold the shell up to the light and check out the edges of the hole that you have drilled.

Make sure that the hole is smooth and that there are no sharp edges that are sticking out.

If your shell has some sharp edges showing around the hole, use the sanding bit to smooth these out.

Shells are sharper than you think, and if the hole is not smoothed out, some materials that you might be planning to use for your project would be cut through by these sharp edges.

Best Shells to Use for Art and Jewelry

The best shells that you can use for jewelry might be different than the ones that you would use for a larger art object like a wind chime.

Use Delicate Shells

Delicate shells are the best choices for jewelry and art projects because they are often more vibrant in color and are light enough to wear around your neck or wrist.

Some shell jewelry will only use a single shell, while other styles are made up of strings of small shells all held together to turn into a bracelet, keychain, or a necklace. Not all shells are the right shape to be use as continuous strings and some shells are best turned into inlays or used as single pendants on a necklace.

Always make sure that you know what kind of shell you are working with before you start planning your design as not every shell can be used for every kind of process.

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The most common shells used to jewelry are:

  • Conical Shells: These shells are some of the most popular for use as jewelry because they are usually colorful and they have a spiral effect in their design that is appealing to the eye. The most colorful shells of this type are usually created by cone-shaped sea urchins and are known as “conus”.
  • Abalone Shells: These are colorful shells that are commonly used for jewelry due to their beautiful iridescent color. This is a soft shell that must be handled with care when drilling or adding to any other kind of art piece where other surfaces might scuff or scratch it.
  • Puka Shells: These are always popular and are common as beach souvenirs. They are a pretty color and can have an iridescent effect when cleaned up. They are often worn in strings as bracelets or necklaces.

Not all of these shells might be found when you are walking on your local beach, but you can often order them online to be sent to you directly. Some of the shells that you can buy will have been cleaned and prepared for your use, while others are purchased from people who are beachcombers.

If you want to make sure that you are getting authentic shells, you should always buy from a beachcomber instead of from a large online supplier of art products.

Summary

Drilling holes in shells does not have to be an intimidating process. You can drill a hole into most kinds of shells if you make sure that you have the right tools on hand and if you are willing to be patient as you drill. Make sure to keep the shell from getting hot and always use a small drill bit.

No matter if you are planning to use a hand drill or a Dremel, you can drill precise holes into shells with ease as long as you plan out the drilling process carefully in advance.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.