DIY: Borax Magic

A few years back I saw several tutorials online for ornaments using Borax (the laundry additive with the mule team on the box) and pipe cleaners. While the idea was cool and I love anything crafty that involves science, the ornaments themselves didn't hold much appeal to me. I tabled the idea- figuring I'd eventually find something to use the technique with.

This year, when I started working at Anthropologie, the Display Coordinator I was working with mentioned that she had used the same process, but with feathers. This idea intrigued me-and while I didn't manage to get specific instructions for the crystalized feathers, I decided to give it a try anyway with both feathers and some geometric pipe cleaner shapes.

Ready to make some yourself? Here's what you'll need:

  • Pipe cleaners in your color choice
  • Clean feathers (available at your local craft store)
  • Borax 20 Mule Team laundry additive (available in the laundry soap aisle)
  • Pliers (preferably jewelry pliers)
  • Wire cutters
  • Paper clips
  • Embroidery needle and floss
  • Containers deep enough to submerge the item you're crystalizing
  • Wooden dowel long enough to rest on top of the container
  • Hot water

Once you've gathered everything, let's get started...

1. Bend your pipe cleaners into the shapes you like. For our New Years party I wanted lots of geometric shapes. The wire cutters will come in handy here if you're making shapes that are shorter than the full pipe cleaner. Use the pliers to bend the ends of the pipe cleaners around each other so they'll keep the shape you form.

2. Prep the feathers by poking a hole in the quill with your large embroidery needle. If the quill is too tough for the needle a bead reamer or awl will work as well. Once you have a hole thread the needle and string the feather onto the embroidery floss. *Update- I have since discovered that a fine gauge wire works better than thread since the crystals won't form around the wire. You may also skip this step if you'll be doing numerous feathers or don't have a container deep enough for them- see step 6.*

3. Unbend the paperclips to make a little hanger for the pipe cleaner forms. Place the loopy end of the paperclip in the spot you will be hanging the form from once it's crystalized (if you'll be hanging them at all).

4. Prepare the Borax solution. For a 1 quart container you'll use:

    3 c boiling water
    9 Tbsp of Borax

Once the water is hot, mix with the Borax in a container (preferably glass or at least a heat proof plastic). Stir until the Borax dissolves- the solution will be cloudy at first, then fade to just slightly opaque. Since I was making a large amount of solution I had to work in batches, heating about 2 quarts at a time- as long as the solution is hot at the end, it will work properly so don't worry about a little cooling down from boiling.

If you're crystalizing larger, or many, objects you'll need a large container deep enough to submerge them in. In case you don't feel like doing the math, here are the measurements I used for a few standard container sizes:

5 qt container = 3 qts + 3 cups water and 3 cups Borax
3 qt container = 2 qts + 1 cup water and 1.5 cups + 3 Tbsp Borax

5. If you didn't mix the solution in the container you'll be submerging things in, transfer it to that container now. Place the dowel across the top of the container (use tape to secure if it tries to roll away).  If you're using a smaller container, a pencil can be used instead of the dowel.

6. Submerge your items.

For the pipe cleaner forms, loop the top of the paperclips over the dowel. For best results, make sure the entire form is submerged, but not touching the sides or bottom of the container.

For the feathers, you have two options. If you're doing just a few like in the above photo, you can stretch the thread (or wire) across the top of the container and secure it with tape or by bending the wire over the edges. Since I was doing many feathers I decided to just try floating them all in the same tub (photo below). I made sure the feathers were fully saturated with the solution at the beginning and tried to arrange them so they didn't touch each other or the container. This method worked great, and was much easier than suspending them and used less solution.

7. Set the containers somewhere they won't be disturbed, and wait 8-12 hours or so. You may not be able to tell if it's working or not, but don't dismay- it is. You'll probably see some crystals forming on the surface of the solution in a few hours and by the 5th hour or so you may be able to see crystals on the objects as well. Patience is important with this part. (The penny in this photo was an experiment the mister tried- it didn't work because it turns out the crystals won't form on metal).

8. Around the 8th hour, gently remove one of the objects out of the solution. If it's crystalized to your liking, you can remove them all.

9. Let everything dry on a paper towel, then decorate with them!

For our party I used some of the feathers to add a little sparkle to the living room, but today I'll be making them all into a garland for our bedroom (photos to come soon).

Fun, right? This project is great for kids too- The Discovery Museum made a great how-to handout that also covers the science aspect. You can even add food coloring if you want colored crystals. 

Safety note: Borax is actually just the mineral Sodium Tetraborate and is all natural, however you should use care, especially if you're getting the kids involved. You may want to use gloves and eye protection, and make sure to wash hands. Don't use any porous kitchen objects to mix the solution and make sure to wash everything thoroughly afterwards. 

I hope you have fun trying this at home. I'd love to hear or see what you make- leave me a comment or email me your photos!