I spend many summer weekends with friends on the beaches of Fire Island, N.Y., and one of the things I like to do is walk along the beach and look for seashells. I have several boxes full of lovely specimens in my crafting closet. Seashells are fun to collect, but what do you do with them once you’ve collected them? Leafing them is a simple way to make them stand out. Gold or silver-leafed shells can be used to great effect in place settings, as accents in a bowl, even as soap dishes or jewelry. The process of leafing is very easy to do and very satisfying because the results are immediate. Giving the calcified remains of sea creatures the Midas touch may seem like gilding the lily, but if you let the imperfections of the shell — the flutes and ridges — shine through, the final result can be quite beautiful and not at all ostentatious.


Metal leaf
Leaf adhesive
Brush for adhesive
Soft brush for finishing work
Acrylic top coat
Brush for topcoat
Cotton gloves (optional)


Step 1: Apply adhesive.
If your shells are fresh from the beach, you’ll want to give them a good cleaning. You can soak them in a solution of 1 part water and 1 part bleach for a day or so. Occasionally scrub at them with an old toothbrush.
Once they’re clean and dry you can begin the leafing process by applying the leaf adhesive in a thin coat. The coat should be allowed to dry for 20 minutes to an hour, depending on humidity. The ideal surface for leafing is dry enough that no material comes off on your finger when you touch the surface, but still slightly tacky. If the surface is too wet the leaf will be dull. If it’s too dry the leaf won’t stick. The open time for working with the adhesive ranges from 1 to 3 hours, again depending on atmospheric conditions. If the adhesive dries beyond the point of workability before the project is finished, you can apply more adhesive to the areas still to be leafed.
Step 2: Apply leaf.
When your adhesive has dried to a nice tack you can begin to apply the leaf. Leaf is packaged in 2 ways: it’s either slipped between sheets in a book, or lightly adhered to tissue paper, and then slipped between sheets in a book. Both types of leaf are easy to work with.
If your leaf has been applied to tissue like mine, then simply lay the tissue over the shell and, using the cheese cloth folded into a pad, press the leaf onto the surface.
If your leaf is loose, then slide it out of the book slightly, so the edge is overhanging the pages, and apply it to the edge of the shell. Then pull the book away slowly, letting the sheet of leaf lay across the shell. Press it in place with the pad of cheese cloth. Continue this process until the shell has been covered in leaf. Don’t be dogmatic about covering every square millimeter, however. Let the shell shine through.
Tip: To keep the leaf from tarnishing you can wear cotton gloves.
Step 3: Brush away excess leaf.
Using a soft bristle brush, whisk away the little stray flakes of leaf and smooth down the surface. The larger flakes can be used to fill in spots on the shell that are missing leaf, or saved for future projects by placing them back in the book. They are easy to lift and place with the brush.
Step 4: Seal with top coat.
You may be tempted to eliminate this step, but it’s an important one. Apply a coat of acrylic lacquer to the leafed surface to protect it from tarnish. Most leaf will tarnish easily if allowed to stay exposed to the air. The exceptions are genuine gold and aluminum leaf.
About the Author:
Brini Maxwell is a domestic guru, television personality, and the face of the Felix Populi brand of home accessories. She lives in New York City.