tips on shelling

by | Jun 1, 2021 | Travel | 35 comments

As I’ve shared before, my favorite thing to do at the beach is to hunt for shells.  I’ve been shelling since I was a little girl, helping my Oma hunt for olive shells at Long Beach, NC.  When we cleaned out her attic, we found several five-gallon buckets filled to the brim with shells she had collected.  She definitely passed that along to me and combing a beach is the first thing I’ll do when my feet hit the sand.  As I was sharing about shelling in my Instagram stories, I was asked if I’d share some tips on shelling, so here they are…

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | make sure it’s permitted

The first step to shelling is to make sure it’s okay to pick up and keep shells from that beach.  When I shared the shells I found on Instagram, I received some questions about that as well as a couple of snarky comments.  If shelling isn’t permitted on that particular beach, which is often the case in protected areas, state/national parks, etc., then definitely don’t do it.  If your conscience is violated by beachcombing, then don’t do it.  But, on your run-of-the-mill beach in the US, it’s permitted and perfectly fine to collect deposited shells, coral, fossils, sharks’ teeth, driftwood, sea glass, etc.  Just make sure the shells are no longer occupied (or living in the case of sand dollars & starfish.)

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | familiarize yourself with the kind of shells available on that beach

I sort of like to just go out and see what I can find, but if you’re not sure what you’re looking for, it’s nice to do a quick Google search to see what tends to wash up on shore in that location.  It’ll help you hone in on the shapes and colors of specific shells, but it will also set some reasonable expectations.  In the case of Isle of Palms, shells that are commonly found there are olive shells (the South Carolina state shell), whelks, lady’s ears, sand dollars, oyster shells, snail shells, and sharks’ teeth.  (I made a concerted effort to find sharks’ teeth, but didn’t find any on this trip.)  My mom found a few starfish when she went a couple of years ago.  Remember that shells can be seasonal, though, and dependant on weather, tides, and even what kind of dredging, etc. happens offshore.

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | time around the tides

Low tide, or in the window about two hours before and after low tide, is the best time to look for shells.  That doesn’t mean you can’t find shells at other times, but more of the beach is exposed at low tide and there will be a lot more deposits of shells to pick through.  There were times when my mom and I went out at the right time and still didn’t find very much.  There were other times when we found more than we could fit in our bags and we started putting shells back!  Some mornings, we found a lot of whelks, and other times we found tons of olive shells.  It can be very hit or miss, so going out to look daily will increase your chances of finding good shells.

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | know where to look

We learned pretty quickly that the pools formed on the beach during low tide were great places to find shells like whelks and larger olive shells.  They would get trapped in the pools and sink to the bottom.  I usually went barefoot, so I would wade through the pools and get the shells in the deeper areas.  Beyond that, there would be times when there were hardly any shells in front of our chairs, but if we walked 1/4 mile in one direction, there would be large areas of shell deposits to pick through.  We discovered that we would find more shells if we walked to the left of our chairs than the right for some unknown reason.

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | collect what speaks to you

While there are specific shells that are prizes for me, I try to keep an open mind and will often collect “common” shells that I find beautiful.  After walking over oyster shells for a couple of days, I started collecting ones that were interesting, pretty colors, unique shapes, or ones that were worn completely flat and smooth by the surf.  I also started collecting white oyster shells when I noticed they were less common than the blue/gray ones.  It’s fun to find big, showy shells, but sometimes the run-of-the-mill shells can be fun to collect, too.

I sort of loved some of the ones that were broken and crusted or filled with holes.  The boys quipped that they knew I would like them because they “looked really old!”

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

It’s a fun activity to get kids involved in, too.  Marshall loved any excuse to go in the surf, so he was great at finding large whelks rolling around in the waves.  Calvin had a great eye for spotting unique shells and was so proud when he found this perfect sand dollar.  It’s also fun to see what they are drawn to.

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | washing the shells

I wash the shells as best as I can in the surf (or tide pools) before I put them in the bag.  For spiral shells, I’ll dip them in the water and then turn them twice against their spiral.  I’ll get some out on the first turn, but the bulk of sand and shell pieces come out on the second turn.  I’ll repeat the process a couple of times until the water comes out clear.  For the rest of the shells, I’ll just rinse off and agitate a little bit with my fingers to get off the sand.  Once I get them home, I’ll rinse them in clean water and soak them in some gentle dish soap, then rinse again, and lay them out in the sun to dry.  If there are small shells stuck in the olive shells, I’ll gently pick them out with a butter knife.  If you follow those steps, you won’t have a stinky, briny bags of shells when you get home!

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling | displaying shells

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten home from the beach with a bag full of shells and no idea what to do with them!  I just enjoy collecting them and I figure I’ll sort them out when I get home.  In recent years, though, I try to have an idea for how I’ll use or display shells as I collect them.  Of course, they look beautiful in a bowl or glass jar, but there are so many other ways to display them.  Mount them in a shadow box (you can find a tutorial for that HERE), larger shells look great lining a window sill, put them in your garden beds, tuck them in a vignette on a shelf…  And they can be great for projects.  My Oma had a beautiful mirror with shells covering the frame and I remember making little animals out of collected shells when our family went to the beach.  We’d make turtles, mice, rabbits, and more by collecting shells that could be bodies, ears, feet and then gluing them together.  It was a fun project that created a memory that sticks with me today.

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

I also decided to collect white and blue/gray shells to use as pigments for paint.  As I was combing the beach one morning, I noticed a piece of shell that was bleached by the sun, so it was a bright white.  I picked it up and immediately thought of the scene from Tangled when Rapunzel asks mother Gothel to get white shells to make paint.  I added that white shell to my bag and then looked it up when we got back to the beach house to see if making paint from shells was actually a thing.  And, it is!  It was a common way to make paint in the middle ages.  Well, I have to give this a try, so I gathered bright white shell pieces as well as ones that were blue/gray.  I’ll share the process and what I learn from it in another post.

tips for shelling & beach-combing | miss mustard seed

making paint pigment out of shells | miss mustard seed

making paint pigment out of shells | miss mustard seed

And, my other use for the shells is to use them as still life subjects.  I’ve already painted a few of the oyster shells and I’m looking forward to painting more as well as some of these whelks.

original oil oyster painting | miss mustard seed

making paint pigment out of shells | miss mustard seed

So, the next time you’re on the shore, I hope you’re inspired to do a little beachcombing!

Are there any tips that I missed?  Any fantastic beaches for beachcombing?  Any other questions?

35 Comments

  1. Ginger K Evans

    You have a beautiful collection. Searching for seashells is a wonderful adventure. As a child we were down on the beach at first light after a storm. (that early because my Dad had a favorite spot to fish) and I found a glass float. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. I found the biggest glass float that dya at least 12 inches diameter and my sister found a 5-6 inch glass. We also found a metal one and a couple of plastic. My girls love to find the sea glass and the red and the blue are extra special. We have our jars of treasures they are attached to great memories with family.

    Reply
    • Margaret

      I have a glass float that I got in Oregon in 1965. I bought it–they told me they were mostly found after winter storms. It’s always been one of my most treasured possessions. I envy you finding your own.

      Reply
  2. LindaSue

    Thank you for this lovely post. My eighty-seven year old mother has been collecting shells since she was a teenager. For her 85th birthday, we built her a lift top table from a vintage eight-pane window. We filled it with just over an inch of cleaned sand and my mom now has her most prized shells displayed. Mom enjoys telling the story of each shell, where it was found, and her life story at that moment in time to the great-grands. There are also books to teach them about the shells. I believe Mom enjoys playing in the sand a bit too.

    Reply
    • Dara

      How nice…love your post

      Reply
    • Cynthia Johnson

      What a beautiful gift for your mom! Thank you for sharing ~ my mom also loved shells. I wish she were here to continue collecting with her 💕

      Reply
  3. Teresa C.

    Love LOVE LOVE this post about shells! And WHO KNEW that they were used for paint pigments?! Anticipating your post about your results on that!
    Also, thank you for sharing the pics of your beach house, so much like YOUR DECOR only without your “homey” touches.

    Reply
  4. monique odman

    The sea shells are the jewels of the ocean, I find them fascinating to look at, see the big grey ones you found with the very fine strips, such beauty. On the French and Belgian shores, think North Sea the choice is slim, only small shells, tiny sand dollars, but I picked some anyway. By the cliffs of Normandy a different type of shells pop up, they are remnants from the war, small exploded pieces of metal.
    You could wear you big sand dollar as a pendant which would look great on one of your large flowing summer dresses! Wind shims can also be made etc..
    But making paint with shells, no way, it would break my wrist, in the middle ages men were probably using extremely strong stones to break the shells and power them. In fact they are made of calcium carbonate. When you think of it: good for human bones, and as anti-acid! Have fun.

    Reply
    • monique odman

      Sorry, I should have said: to turn the shells in POWDER, not power even though that is what is needed.

      Reply
  5. Terry

    I was born and raised in Manhattan Beach, California and now live in northern California and have to tell you we do not have hardly any shells out here. I collected some as a child 60+ years ago but it amazes me what you find in the east. BEAUTIFUL

    Reply
    • Margarita W.

      It is true Southern California does not have as many as Marian has pictured but I live about 45mins from Zuma beach (in So Cal) and you can find some there or at Will Rodgers State beach is another good beach to go shelling. I have a small collection of shells from those two beaches displayed in vintage bottles w/ cork stoppers sitting on my window sill of my sewing/craft room. I also collect stones that have been smoothed down by the ocean waves.

      Reply
  6. Darby Miller

    Sanibel & Captiva Island Florida on the west/Gulf Coast are widely acknowledged as the shelling capital of the world.. Absolutely worth a special trip.

    Reply
  7. Kathryn Casey

    Beautiful! Throughout this post I just continued to think of “Gifts from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Have you read it? I’ve never seen such amazing array of shells in person, I wonder if it is an Atlantic vs Pacific difference.

    Reply
  8. Lisa Grant

    Oyster shells are the best. Leave them out in the sun and let the sun bleach them. They make beautiful natural Christmas ornaments.

    Reply
  9. Kathy Kaufmann

    I ‘m amazed at how many olive shells you got! My favorite! Next time you go to IOP, I can recommend ways to get sharks teeth.

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      Yes, please! I’m usually pretty good at finding them (I found several at Myrtle Beach where the shell pickings were pretty slim), but I did not find one at IOP. I read that Folly Beach is a great place to look, but the boys didn’t want to drive there.

      Reply
  10. Elizabeth Sandoval

    Hi Marian, I love this particular post.. I live on Oak Island, home to your beloved Omas Long Beach , NC home.. enjoyed reading this very much 💗

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      Oh, lucky you! It is a beautiful place, but I’m sure it looks very different from when I went there as a child. I believe most of the homes we used to rent were destroyed by hurricanes. I loved it there, though. Such amazing memories.

      Reply
      • Elizabeth Sandoval

        We’re still a small hometown beach.. not commercialized.. so other than more homes and a new grocery store, restaraunts the same,5,000 year round residents .. i feed lots of wildlife, deer, Fox, raccoons , box turtles etc all with earshot of the ocean waves .I make shell wreaths, fill lamp bases and because of your inspiration I’m starting to paint still life’s of them.. God bless

        Reply
  11. Mary

    I agree with Darby Miller—Sanibel and Captiva Islands, in Florida, are where you need to go if you collect shells. I have been going there for over 65 years, and I must admit the islands have changed over time. When I first went there, there were live Olives that you could find by following their trails. You could also find left-handed whelks (the ones from your beach are right-handed specimens.) The best time to go is during the Winter, or right after a storm (storms seem to either wipe the beaches clean, or deposit tons of really good shells.) The shell beds seem to “move around” from year to year, so that what you find this year at point X may not be what you will find next year at the same place. For the novice, go to West Gulf Drive on Sanibel. It’s usually pretty good. If you can stand the heat, mid-June, when there is a super low tide, is a good time, also. I did not know you could use shells to make paint, but then I would consider grinding up shells as almost sacrilege! I even get upset when I see a shell broken by the tires of golf carts from the beach patrol that look for turtle nests. There are more hurricanes now, and the water is rising; the prediction is that Sanibel will be under water in 40 years or so. If you plan to go, you might want to go sooner than later.

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      I’ll have to check out those beaches sometime! Thanks for the suggestion. 🙂 And I only picked shells to grind up that were already in pieces! I accidentally broke a whole sand dollar when I was shaking it off after a rinse and it was so sad!

      Reply
    • Wendy - aka Beachpea

      Mary,
      You brought back such special memories….after a stom (in the early 50s)…my grandmother and I would drive from Hillsboro on the East Coast to the ferry to go over to Captiva to shell. We would stay at an inn there- over night- get up before dawn with flashlights to shell for a few hours. It was magic….there were unbelievable shells in those days…she had a light blue velvet lined table with glass on top and a drawer- all the best ones went in there. On the east coast she found a paper nautilus that is a family heirloom! Special memories of Grammy the Shell Whisperer!

      Reply
  12. Rachelle

    Goodness, Marian, you’ve got me missing Southern CA, the beach, sand, shells and sea breezes!

    Love the picture of the shells lined up on paper, so just had to pin it 🙂

    Reply
  13. Emily

    Thank you for sharing! I don’t get to the beach as often as I would like (we’re not near the water), but no beach trip is complete without collecting a few shells.

    Reply
  14. Cindi Brewer

    Oh dear, I’m going to be like your Oma except I’m Nana to my grandchildren. I too , have been collecting shells for years and I already have shells everywhere and give shells in pretty glass jars as gifts tied with a pretty ribnon…

    Reply
  15. Karen B.

    I love shell searching however, living in Southern California doesn’t afford as many shells as the beach you and your mom visited. I end up with lots of muscle shells but it’s still a fun pastime.
    I imagine your art will capture the beautiful shells you’ve found.
    xo,
    Karen

    Reply
    • Kathleen

      Well, in addition to shells, I’m the crazy one who also collects interesting rocks from the beaches (Ventura CA beaches and now in Pt. Roberts WA where I now live). I look for rocks with interesting markings, colors, shapes. I say “crazy” because, as I’ve moved, I packed/moved rocks (along with shells, driftwood)—who DOES that?!!! ;-D

      Reply
  16. Vicki

    Marian, thanks for this post and for being the catalyst for so many sweet memories and images to come tumbling up from our past, to “wash ashore” in our memory bank of our long ago beachcombing days. My daughter and I really love to walk the beach and look for keepsake shells. I have shells from Myrtle Beach, Pawley’s Island, Daytona and Sarasota, all collected in the 60’s and 70’s. I still have a beautiful wind chime made from shells and fishing line that my brother and I found on Pebble Beach, CA. It is a special treasure of mine to this day. I can almost hear our laughter and see our creativity flowing, as we tied the line onto those shells in the warm sunshine with the gleaming waves in continual motion stretching before us. Each time a breeze stirs the flat shell shaped like a small paddle my memories are stirred and I smile. Now our grandsons have gifted us with shells and sea glass from the Atlantic to the Pacific and I display them in silver bowls to remind us of the people we love and the good times we have had. And especially, for the hope we have for many more good times to come. God Bless!

    Reply
  17. AnneMarie

    The “Snarky comments” bit is what makes me stay off most sites in general. The world is full of too many people going online to set someone right. Maybe it’s time to bring back classes on hospitality and manners. Lol

    This post and the comments above are going in my homeschooling notes for Nature Study! Such great ideas! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  18. Kim

    Growing up, we always spent every holiday and vacation down South on the Gulf beaches of Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Collecting shells was a favorite pastime! I’ve never seen any welks like those gorgeous blue-gray ones that you found, though. They look like worn denim and old linen and chambray, SUPER cool. It is just impossible for a collector type of person to not pick up all the charmers on the beach. It is amazing when you think about it that the supply is always there, tide after tide, year after year.

    Reply
  19. Susan

    I’m not a collector by nature but I can’t seem to get enough shells! They are such a testimony to me of God’s extravagance and attention to detail. We were on a Caribbean cruise in 2019 just after a hurricane and couldn’t port in St. Martin as planned bc of the storm so we spent an extra day at St. Croix. Boy did we ever hit the motherload there! Filled a small duffle (locals said there were no restrictions) with welks, conchs, coral and all kinds of unique shells and sea glass. Then we even made it through the airport screening. Filled a long old dough bowl with them that now sits on our dining room table. Just gorgeous!!!

    Reply
  20. Suse

    Marian: Please wear an N-95 mask or respirator when grinding and working with powdered shells. Inhaling the the shell dust can cause serious lung problems.

    Reply
  21. Shelly F

    I received your post while sailing on a chartered sail boat while in the British Virgin Islands. We moored at a different island almost every eve. I walked many miles of beautiful beaches there. Most of the shells I found were quite small and different from the ones I found on beaches on the East, West and at the Gulf. But, we did sail to an isolated island 12 miles away from all of the others (Anegana) where while snorkeling found dozens of extra large Conch shells…..all with fresh conch happily living inside. I let every one of them go, but oh what fun finding them! Thank you for this post! I’ve been collecting shells for over 50 years now.

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      Oh, that sounds delightful! And, yes, I always leave occupied shells alone. I picked up one that had some kind of a hermit crab in it. It started waving its little claws around and I set him back down. 🙂 Your trip sounds like such a wonderful, relaxing excursion!

      Reply
  22. Anne Barhydt Krall

    Hello Marian! We have collected shells for as long as I can remember. My sister even had a coffee table with a glass top so she could show off her collections. There is a comment above about your color pallet (which I love too) and it made me realize we must be kindred spirits. It took a lot of years and effort with contractors but I was finally able to get my little North Hollywood cottage painted a color I call “coffee with a lot of cream” on the outside walls with “country blue” (similar to your blues) shutters and white trim. I love that combination and it is so similar to colors you use. But more than that, thank you for all you share in your blog posts. You are an inspiration! And due to one of your Christmas time blogs we are collecting the silver bells! Our first bell is the date of our wedding. P.S. We sold that beautiful cottage and now have a ranch with that barn red siding. It’s not the love of my life like that little cottage, it’s a work in progress, so maybe one day…

    Reply

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Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…

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