How To Polish Wampum (and Other Seashells)

Got your hands on some seashells like Wampum, but not sure what to do with it? Well, there’re a lot of ways to go, but there’s one place we always end up: a good polish. Getting a good polish on this material isn’t too hard, you just need to know which steps to take to help you get to your end game.

So, let’s dig in and I’ll show you how to polish Wampum without needing any expensive tools or exotic materials.

What You Need

You don’t need a lot to work with Wampum. After all, the original people who used it didn’t have access to any of our modern tools and equipment. Instead, it’s just settling down for a bit of elbow grease.

You can replace any of the three steps I’ll go over with power tools and the appropriate fittings, but to keep things simple I’ll describe how to do this, mostly by hand.

You’ll need the following:

  • Wampum- Purchased or self-collected. The pieces of shell should be big enough to handle easily, just ½” across is plenty.
  • Sandpaper- Progressive grits starting at 120-320 grit are ideal. You can find packs that will have everything you need online if you know where to look.
  • Steel Files- A set of 
  • Container for Water- You’ll need a bucket or some other way to hold a gallon of water. You don’t want to do this in running water in a residential system, but even a large jar will be fine in this case.
  • Sponge and Dish Soap- For the initial cleaning of the specimen before we get to work on it.
  • Jeweler’s Rouge or Zam Polishing compounds for finishing up the stone. While ideally used with power tools, you can do the final buffing with a soft cloth as well. Any compound suitable for turquoise, opal, and other soft stones will work fine.
  • (Optional) Tile or Piece of Plate Glass- Usable as a flat surface for sanding bigger flat sections of the shell. Having something smooth and hard to place the sandpaper on gives you a consistent surface.
  • (Optional) Drill- If you’re planning to make beads or otherwise string together your finished Wampum you’ll need a drill. Drill presses are best, but you can even use a pin drill for this purpose.

You’ll also need a dust mask, preferably an N95 or better, especially if you’re going to be working indoors. Gloves can also be used for cleanliness, but shell dust won’t cause any skin irritation for the majority of people.

Caution: Do not grind or work shells if you have an allergy. In addition to the calcium compounds that make up most of the shell, they’ll also contain proteins that may trigger your allergy.

How To Polish Wampum

Step 1 – Cleaning

The first thing you need to do is clean the piece. While the piece is going to end up dirty later, as we shape and sand it, this is an important early step. The reason?

Simple: even the relatively hard shell of the Quahog clam is soft compared to many minerals. Beach sand, for instance, is usually silica and can actually gouge the surface of the stone.

The last thing you want is for that to happen while you’re working your way through the grits farther down the line.

This is easy enough: warm water, a sponge, and a bit of dish soap will get everything off the surface quickly. Do this in a separate bowl if you’re cleaning several pieces with a lot of sand. Sand is awesome stuff (check it out with a microscope!), but it’s terrible for your drain and garbage disposal.

Afterward, you can chuck the pieces in your water container to begin the process.

Step 2 – Shaping

Wampum is still about a 3 on the Moh’s scale, so we have a ton of options for shaping. Most importantly for those without any specialized tools? A standard steel file, even a cheap one, will let you work Wampum without any issues.

That said, the dust that comes off of a shell is nasty stuff. You have the calcium dust, any spores or bacteria that may be contained in the shell, and even heavy metals that are absorbed by the organism during its lifespan.

So treat it like stone: wear a mask and cut it underwater. That said, I’ve seen some people treat shells in general like they’re made of arsenic wrapped in asbestos fibers. That just doesn’t pan out in reality.

Don’t work it dry but it’s probably less of a risk than sanding agates with all proper precautions taken. Use gloves if you’re particularly worried about it.

At this stage, use your files or 80-120 grit sandpaper to shape the outside edge of the shell, and use your drill to make any holes that you’re planning on using further down the road.

If your goal is to create beads similar to the historical ones, you’ll need to find thicker pieces and drill them lengthwise. Use a vise to hold them still while you’re doing this, and it’ll be even easier if you have access to a drill press. You’ll then use a steel file to rough out the “round shape” before moving to the next step.

Most of us just want a pleasing-looking piece of Wampum, in which case you can just shape with a file and get ready to get into proper sanding.

Step 3 – Sanding

Unlike working with stone, you probably don’t need to set aside hours per square inch to sand shells. It’s not fast to sand them by hand, but it won’t take all day either.

You should start with a lower grit and work your way up higher. Most Wampum I’ve seen could be started at 400 grit with no issues, the sea tends to take care of the lower grits. If its particularly rough you may need to go a little bit lower.

Spread the sandpaper on a flat surface if you have one. The bottom of a Pyrex baking dish filled with water is ideal, since you’ll have a smooth, flat surface and won’t have to worry about dust. Otherwise, you’ll need to repeatedly dip your bit of Wampum.

Your best bet is to use a figure-8 motion. It’s an awkward trick to learn, but once you have the muscle memory for it you’ll find it makes any kind of flat surface sanding much easier. You can also use small circles, varying from clockwise to counter-clockwise and back again, or just rotate the piece 45-90° every few seconds while going back and forth.

Stop periodically, dry the piece out, and take a look at it. If the scratches from the previous grit are gone and you have a relatively uniform surface you can move to the next grit.

Repeat until you’ve worked through 800-1200. Wampum takes a great polish, 800 is the upper end for most shells, and you may be able to get better results by pushing through to 2000 grit.

Step 4 – Polishing

After reaching the highest grit you’ll be working with, you can begin the final polishing.

I generally use a flex shaft for polishing. A simple mandrel with a charged felt wheel will handle most basic polishing tasks, and they’re ideal for smaller things like chunks of Wampum. A cloth is the go-to for particularly small pieces.

It’s pretty simple at this point: just work the surface with the polishing compound until it’s as shiny as you’d like. It’ll take a few minutes, but you can get an incredible finish on Wampum if you were careful about sanding out all the previous scratches.

At this point, you’re done!

For those who will be handling their shells frequently, it’s not a bad idea to also lay down a layer of gloss spray acrylic on the exterior. This will protect the relatively soft shell that you’re working with.

And lastly, all you need to do is enjoy!

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