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Shell cleaning

Everybody that comes to our office ask if there is any secret about cleaning shells. We have to tell those people that unfortunately we didn't find a secret liquid that makes the animal disappear Although, you have some options to have nice and clean shells:
1. Follow the tips we'll give bellow;
2. Exchange or Buy the shells already cleaned;
3. Hire someone to do the dirty job (we use this one);
4. Collect stamps (just kidding!!!!)
First of all, you must remember that every shell must be very well cleaned, collected live or dead. It is a good practice to wash even dead collected shells with bleach. A clean collection will last for years, even centuries. We've seem shells very damaged, because of dust and fungus. Byne's disease is one thing no one can solve yet. We saw shells affected by this " white dust" that covers some shells, near a perfect specimen. It does not spreads like fungus or anything else. Some conditions are known to worsen this disease as certain types of wood (especially if the wood is not completely dried before to make the cabinet).Another important point is the way the animal is preserved. If it is fresh, on alcohol, frozen, dried or rotten (the worst condition). We've learned the best way to carry shells when we travel is alcohol (30% alcohol 70% water). Some species are even easier to clean later. Freezing is another good way to clean, but sometimes you have to freeze and defrost the shell many times (two or three days doing that) to loose the animal.


You will need:
To wash:

  • Toothbrush;
  • A bigger brush as those used for laundry;
  • Some metal wiring, preferable made of stainless steel, to make different sizes of hooks to pull the animal;
  • Water hose, attached to a high-pressure tap. It is advisable to have at least two different sizes of attachments to bigger and smaller water jets;
  • Containers, in different sizes from ice tray to a bucket;
  • Mask;
  • Goggles;
  • Gloves;
  • Tweezers;
  • Foam trays to put the shells after you washed them;
  • Paper towel;
  • A dry place (on the shade) to let the shells dry out.


To clean the outside:

  • A power tool (as Dremmell) and different sizes of bits (dental bits);
  • A tooth pick;
  • White glue;
  • Goggles for protection;
  • Dust mask;
  • A piece of carpet to cover the table (to protect the shell in case you drop it);
  • Cotton;
  • A lamp with magnifier;
  • Tweezers;
  • Baby oil, or silicon oil (some people prefer to use this last one for its long lasting effects).


Tips: 1. Use different concentration of bleach for different types of shells:
  • Shinny shells: maximum of 20 % bleach for 30 minutes to one hour;
  • Rough surface shells: use a more concentrate solution up to 100% bleach for some minutes (NOTE: I'm mentioning here bleach used for clothing not industrial use or highly concentrate);
  • Shells with periostracum: concentrate solution and wash every 30 minutes. It will depend on the thickness of the periostracum;
  • Bivalves: the same rules as above, but watch closely to not damage the hinges;
  • Fragile shells (E.g. Pinna, Hydatina, etc.); Just let it in the mild solution for two or three minutes;
2. Never boil shells. It will crack most of them even if they are not shinny. Some people use to let the water almost boil and take the shells out of the water. If proved to be more efficient and did not damage the shell. Microwave can be used too, but do some tests with some shell you don't mind to loose. It is used by our friends in Hawaii to clean Terebra maculata - only with fresh animal (Never, ever, put a stinky shell inside your microwave unless you intend to dispose the microwave later)3. Periostracum and operculum can disappear on bleach: if you want to keep them intact don't let them immersed for a long period. Although, it is good to wash them in bleach for a few minutes to kill any bacteria;4. Landsnails' periostracum does not resist in bleach sometimes even for one or two minutes. In this case is better to use a toothbrush and soap;5. Always brush on running water very carefully all the shells after you take them from the bleach solution. If you can still smell bleach, wash it over again.6. Wear a mask when cleaning animals if you don't feel comfortable with the possibility of having it on your mouth 7. The same for goggles;8. Wear old clothes; as careful you seem to be, bleach will always find its way to your brand new shirt! 9. Start the job as neat as possible to avoid injuries, damage to the shell, clothes and work place;10. I use a suspended tray with a fine mesh on it on the top of the sink to hold the dirt, protect the shell and avoid that pieces of the animal go to the drain;11. Try to clean as many as possible the same kind of shell: rough or shinny surface; with or without periostracum; with or without operculum; bivalves or gastropods; marine or non-marine, etc.12. Try to use a sink with a light bulb placed direct above it (the useful way to see the rest of animal inside some shells);13. Some shells are cleaned just using a strong flush of water (you may try it before to use the hook)14. To loose the first whorls, shake hard hitting the shell on a thick piece of foam or cloth. Be careful with your hands!15. Try to reach the muscle on the columella with the hook and try to loose it from the shell.16. If you notice that the animal is too hard, you will probably have to do one of these options:
  • Let it stay on alcohol (30%) for some weeks;
  • Let it rotten for one or two days;
  • Freeze it again and try after some days using the freeze and defrost system (be careful since some shells can break using this system);
  • Prepare a bucket with a detergent solution and leave the shell there for 24 hours. Try to wash it again, and if not successful, let it on the solution for another day. Change the solution every 48 hours. Never let a shell to rotten in water only. And use lots of water for a small amount of shells. It will avoid the possibility of damaging the shell by the acids produced by the animal.
17. If you succeed put the shell on bleach reserving the operculum. Is always good to keep the original operculum with its shell.18. Try to get a container with a flat area on the border so you can put the operculum there. Or if the shells are small enough you can put them on the ice tray (remember to fill it before to put the shells);19. Wash of the bleach and let the shell dry. We have in our lab a dehumidifier that stays on all the time. But you can make your own using a box with a bulb inside (use a low wattage bulb to avoid fire hazard), and a top made of aluminum, so you can place the shells on it to dry faster.20. After the shell is dried, start the cleaning processes for outside:21. Use the Dremmell tool choosing an adequate bit, a big and sharp one for thick dirt, or a small one for details. Sometimes a very thick coral can be detached using small strokes with a hammer - it looses the coral.22. If you notice green spots (algae) under the dirt, you will have to bleach the shell again.23. Do not glue the operculum right away, wait a few days to see if there is no animal left on the shell. If you feel anything try to wash again.24. If the shell is smell-free, fill it with cotton and glue its operculum. Light operculum does not need lots of cotton and glue (e.g. Conus), heavy operculum you have to stuff the cotton very well onto the shell and use more glue, otherwise the operculum will stay loose and fall from the shell.25. After you wash Bivalves, you must let them dry with the valves closed. Use rubber band (avoid the colored ones); If you let the bivalve dry do not attempt to close it, leave it for a few hours on water and try again later.26. If the valves are already split apart, then glue them just placing a drop of glue on the hinge;27. To finish the service, use the baby oil (or silicon) on the surface of the shell using a painting brush with soft bristles.28. Some land shells have a nice periostracum that will disappear with oil, so leave it without oil.29. On shells with thick periostracum you may use a mixture of 50% alcohol 50% glycerin, it will keep the periostracum soft (apply it with the shell wet, do not let it dry first);30. As the last resource to take out the smell, give it to a friend, oops, We mean try to put some formaldehyde inside and let it stay there for one or two months. Do not immerse it on the solution, just fill the shell with it. After years cleaning shells, We have tried every way to do my best. Of course we're open to suggestions and we still have bad time trying to clean some shells. So, do not get mad at the shell if you can't clean it properly: remember, they were made in this shape for protection!

Enjoy your cleaning!


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