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The hobby of beachcombing -- tips and tricks

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The hobby of beachcombing -- tips and tricks

What is beachcombing?

Beachcombing is the act of searching the shoreline for anything of value or interest to the searcher (commonly termed "the beachcomber").

Why beachcomb? Beachcombing is a great way to get some fresh air, exercise, and sun. We can all use more of that!

Beachcombers in general are good stewards of the sea who have a vested interest in sea conservation. They hold the environment in great respect, and will work with officials to monitor favoured beaches for any issues such as erosion or pollution which may arise.

Beachcombing finds

While beachcombers tend to collect anything that isn't nailed down, many beachcombers will specialize in a particular type of find. These finds generally consist of marine debris such as:

The hobby of beachcombing -- tips and tricks

Sometimes however a find may be actual trash such as plastic bottles, cigarette butts, and food packaging. If you find trash, have a bag ready to dispose of it in an appropriate manner. (Recycle what you can, of course.)

Glass fishing floats

glass fishing floats Glass floats have been used in the fishing industry since the 1840s to support fishing nets while in use. These floats would often break loose from the nets and drift around in the ocean until coming ashore many years later.

Early glass floats were hand-blown by glassblowers using recycled glass. In Japan, glass floats were made from broken or otherwise used sake bottles, which accounts for their light green colour. Newer floats which are made of cork and aluminum came into common usage during the postwar period due to their durability.

Glass fishing float colours

The common colour for glass floats is a light sea green due to the recycled sake bottles using in the crafting process. However, other colours include amber, clear, cobalt, violet, and red (very rare) are sometimes found.

Float shapes and sizes

Floats are commonly spherical, but other rarer shapes such as tube rollers and double floats have been found. They range in size from a few inches in diameter to over 16" in diameter.

Common float markings

Japanese and Norwegian floats are frequently marked with their maker's trademark on the pontil. Russian and Korean floats are marked on the sides in addition to having side seams from the molds used when creating the floats.

Warning: Beware of imitations. The glass of authentic floats is thick to enable survival during heavy usage. Remember, these have been floating around the oceans for decades. They don't break easily. Not only do most authentic floats have bubbles, but they will also have "sandblasted" wear patterns on them from the cording which originally held them in place. Occasionally you might even find a float with its original cording intact.

Floats of unusual colour that show no signs of wear are likely reproductions, so buyer beware if you did not collect the float yourself.

Sea glass

collecting sea glass Sea glass (sometimes called beach glass) is glass from broken bottles or jars which is left in large bodies of moving water. The tumbling effect of the water and sand smooths the rough edges of the glass to create pieces of frosted glass. New sea glass has sharp edges with clean breaks. The older pieces are easily identified with their frosted edges which have been ground down by the nearby waters.

Many beachcombers collect sea glass as they search their local beaches for treasures. Some colours are harder to spot than others, and accordingly are considered more valuable by collectors.

Sea glass colours

The colour of a piece of sea glass depends on its origin. While quite a bit of sea glass comes from bottles, some comes from broken ceramics, old jars, even tableware.

white sea glass -- or blue, pink, green?
Tip: Not sure what colour it is? Try these two tricks to determine colour.

The most common sea glass colours are kelly green, brown, and clear. Most of these come from old beer bottles.

Uncommon sea glass colours include soft green, soft blue, forest green, lime green, golden amber, amber, and jade green. These are mostly from old soda and alcohol bottles.

Rare colours include pink, aqua, cornflower blue, cobalt blue, opaque white, citron, and purple. These are primarily from art glassware.

Extremely rare colours are sea glass colours include orange, red, turquoise, teal, yellow, black, and grey. Most of these were originally art glassware or slag glass from glass factories.

orange
orange
red
red
turquoise
turquoise
teal
teal
black
black
yellow
yellow
grey
grey
pink
pink
aqua
aqua
cornflower blue
cornflower blue
cobalt blue
cobalt blue
opaque white
opaque white
citron
citron
purple
purple
soft green
soft green
soft blue
soft blue
forest green
forest green
lime green
lime green
golden amber
golden amber
amber
amber
jade green
jade green
brown
brown
kelly green
kelly green
white
white

Warning: Beware of imitations. Sea glass can also be artificially created in a rock tumbler, but it's not the same. It takes years of wear and tear from the water to create the distinctive wear patterns on authentic sea glass. Such glass is usually called "craft glass" by collectors.

If you see rare colours priced the same as common ones, the seller has craft glass.

sea pottery Sea pottery

Of special note is what is termed "sea pottery" or "sea ceramics". These shards are from broken ceramics and porcelain. They can be distinguished from beach stones by their colourful glazes. A maker's mark may be visible on some pieces to identify its origin.

The edges of each piece are worn by water and sand in the same manner as sea glass. Sea ceramics have a tendency to show more wear than sea glass does due to the nature of its material.

The basic rules of beachcombing

Where to go beachcombing

Start at your favourite local beach. The best time to search is at low tide if you want to largest area of beach available. Determine where the high tide line is to set that as the outermost point of your search.

When to go beachcombing

Hobby beachcombers watch the weather and ocean currents to predict the appearance of a rare find at their preferred location(s). A wild storm can and will cause finds to end up much higher on the beach than usual.

Beachcombing gear

Before setting forth on your first collecting expedition, I would recommend acquiring the following gear:

Displaying your finds

Once collected, any finds will be cleaned prior to display if both needed and appropriate for the find. Collectors often enjoy researching the likely origins of their finds. Glass is best to be displayed where the light can shine through it to show the colours.

Keep a stash of small jars to hold your smaller treasures such as shells or sea glass, then display the filled jars on a bright windowsill. Larger pieces can be displayed as-is.

How to make a sailor's valentine

a modern sailor's valentine Sailor's valentines are shell craft souvenirs that were brought back by sailors during the Victorian era (1830 to 1890). They are usually octagonal in shape and in the form of a glass-fronted box filled with sea shells arranged in a design.

While there is a romantic notion that these "valentines" were individually handmade by each sailor from sea shells he personally collected, most such souvenirs originated on the island of Barbados, as evidenced by newspaper remains seen in damaged sailor's valentines boxes.

Today they are a highly desirable collectible, but it is easy to make your own from collected sea shells.

Supplies

A typical sailor's valentine is made like most such shell crafts: a wooden or papier-mâché base, strong glue such as E6000, and an assortment of shells.

Tip: I also find tweezers helpful when placing the shells.

Start off by laying out the design you want to ensure you have enough of each type of shell. Adjust the design as needed, or acquire more shells. Once it is arranged to your liking, choose one shell and glue it in place. It is up to you whether you wish to begin in the middle of the design or around the edges.

Continue gluing shells in your design until the pattern is complete! The completed design can be framed for display.

Further reading

You might also enjoy these books:

Beachcombing the Pacific Beachcombing the Pacific by Amos L. Wood (Schiffer Publishing, 1997): While many of the tips in this guide are specific to the Pacific Coast, this book is helpful in giving a sense of the types of things likely to be found while beachcombing such as sea beans, glass floats, and driftwood. There are also excellent practical tips for both gear, safety, and group size when going out.   Florida's living beaches Florida's Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber by Blair and Dawn Witherington (Pineapple Press, 2007): An all-around excellent guide to the things one might encounter while beachcombing in Florida. This includes beach features, living creatures, sea shells, and other "beach finds" such as sea glass and sea beans. Each entry includes "about" info, a fun fact, and a colour photo for ease of identification.
Flotsametrics and the Floating World Flotsametrics and the Floating World by Curtis Ebbesmeyer & Eric Scigliano (Harper, 2010): A fascinating study of ocean currents and their influence on which drifting items end up on which beaches. A must-read for serious beachcombers.   Florida's seashells Florida's Seashells: A Beachcomber's Guide by Blair and Dawn Witherington (Pineapple Press, 2007): An excellent guide to the native mollusks of Florida. Includes identifying features and habitat for each mollusk, a fun fact about that type, and colour photos for ease of identification.
art of shelling The Art Of Shelling: A Complete Guide To Finding Shells And Other Beach Collectibles At Shelling Locations From Florida To Maine by Chuck and Debbie Robinson (Old Squan Village Publishing, 1995): A basic guide to finding sea shells. The important thing to remember about this book is that it is a guide to collecting shells while beachcombing rather than a guide to sea shells. There are no photos of shells in this, only a few illustrations. This includes a listing of the best beaches to collect certain types of shells, and there is also info on cleaning and displaying any shells found.   Beach stones Beach Stones by Josie Iselin and Margaret Carruthers (Harry N. Abrams, 2006): Although there is some text explaining the minerals and colours of beach stones, this is primarily an art book of beach stone photos. Photos generally include info on where that particular group of stones were collected. The photos are quite lovely, though.

Sea glass hearts Sea Glass Hearts by Josie Iselin (Harry N. Abrams, 2012): Not a whole lot of information in this, but it is a very pretty little art book. This is one for the coffee table.

Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats by Amos L. Wood (Binford & Mort Publishing, 1975): This book is interesting for its first-hand accounts of the author beachcombing for glass floats in the early days of finds drifting in from Japan. However, the real gem here is the illustrated and annotated list at the back of the book about the markings on the glass floats. This includes a translation if applicable in addition to any information about the manufacturing of that particular type of float. This is invaluable for float collectors. Glass Fishing Floats of The World Glass Fishing Floats of The World: The Collector's Price Guide and Identification Handbook by Stu Farnsworth & Alan D. Rammer (self-published, 2001): This is a very thin spiral-bound volume focusing on the maker's marks for glass floats. Each entry includes a hand-drawn illustration. This includes European made floats in addition to Japanese, Korean, and American made floats. There are also some illustrations of different float shapes. If you collect any floats besides Japanese, this book will be useful.
A Passion for Sea Glass A Passion for Sea Glass by C.S. Lambert (Down East Books, 2008): Rather than a reference guide, this is more of a craft inspiration book for collectors who are not content to display jars of sea glass as-found. If you enjoy working with sea glass, there are several project ideas included in the book. Sea Glass Hunter's Handbook Sea Glass Hunter's Handbook by C.S. Lambert (Down East Books, 2010): Not a bad resource for sea glass collectors, but the ratio of personal reminiscences of favourite finds from various collectors compared to the actual information on finding and organizing a collection of sea glass seems large.
The Official Sea Glass Searcher's Guide The Official Sea Glass Searcher's Guide: How to Find Your Own Treasures from the Tide by Cindy Bilbao (Countryman Press, 2014): Very useful and practical tips for those new to the hobby of collecting sea glass. Sea Glass Treasures from the Tide Sea Glass Treasures from the Tide by Cindy Bilbao (Countryman Press, 2014): Lovely photos if you are in the market for an art book on sea glass, but definitely light on the content. This one is for the coffee table.
Sea Glass Chronicles Sea Glass Chronicles by C.S. Lambert (Down East Books, 2001): I would categorize this as an art book rather than reference book for sea glass collectors. For each large photograph of a particular grouping of shards, there is a bit of trivia on where there were found and the probable origins of those particular pieces. Very pretty, but not useful for those who need a general reference. If you just need a coffee-table book, though, pick this one for the lovely photos.   Pure Sea Glass deck Pure Sea Glass Identification Deck by Richard LaMotte (Sea Glass Publishing, 2009): This includes a deck of cards for colour identification, one card per colour. The back of each card lists the rarity of that colour, how often it might be found, and sources of glass produced in that colour to help in dating your sea glass finds. Also included are some extra cards about different types of bottles and glassware that might produce different shapes of sea glass. This is a must-have for any sea glass collector.
Pure Sea Glass Pure Sea Glass: Discovering Nature's Vanishing Gems by Richard LaMotte (Pure Sea Glass, 2004): A must-have reference with regard to sea glass colours and their origins. Which colours are rarest, and why? There are full-colour photos for each sea glass colour, helpful in determining the difference between citron and lime, for example.   An ocean garden An Ocean Garden by Josie Iselin (Harry N. Abrams, 2014): An interesting combination of art meeting botany. Not only are the photos absolutely stunning, but many of the seaweed photos have an explanation of their origins. A fascinating read which is also suitable for the coffee table.
Sailors' Valentines Sailors' Valentines: Their Journey Through Time by Grace L. Madeira (Schiffer Publishing, 2006): While there is the usual history of the sailors' valentine, only the first section deals with actual antiques. Most of the book is given over to the work of modern artists. This is less useful than it could be unless someone is planning to have a reproduction made, especially for the amount of space it occupies within the book. Throughout the book, all the photos are large and full-colour though, so if you are planning to make your own, you do have plenty of good images to inspire you. Neptune's Treasures Neptune's Treasures: A Study And Value Guide by Carole Smyth (Carole Smyth Antiques, 1996): An excellent guide to the historical usage of sea shells for craft purposes. This spans from antiquity to TV lamps (1950s). Includes numerous colour photos of examples so that it is easy to identify like pieces. The value guide consists of a single page at the end. As this is an older book, I wouldn't trust the stated valuations.

These books can be difficult to find since many are out of print. Some great places to buy used books online include:

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