Before we begin, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I went down a few “rabbit holes” while I was putting this post together. As a result, I have included information about Death Valley Days, the history of Borax and how borax crystals are formed. This was supposed to be all about making beautiful Borox snowflakes, but … I just can’t help myself. Feel free to skip ahead to the pdf if you really just wanted to know how to make the darned snowflake.
I won’t mind.
(On the other hand, won’t you feel silly if you are a contestant in a trivia contest and a question is asked about the mules that carried borax out of Death Valley or how a crystal is formed)?
When I was little, Twenty Mule Team Borax was the ‘clean machine’ for every 50s housewife. It was used for everything from washing clothes to washing dishes. I guess it has fallen out of favor in this age of high efficiency, lavender scented, enzyme laden, bleach added, fabric softener and brightener detergents, but it was the big cat daddy of cleaners in the “old days” of my youth.
As for me, I remember Twenty Mule Team Borax for two things:
1. Twenty Mule Team Borax commercials and Death Valley Days (this may seem like two separate things, but the commercials and show were inextricably entwined).
2. Borax Snowflakes
My family watched Death Valley Days with my Grandma and Grandpa S. in the living room of their farm every summer. There was no remote and only three channels, but that was just fine. We knew exactly what we were going to watch: Bonanza, Lawrence Welk, Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Candid Camera and Death Valley Days.
I watched the Death Valley Days episode below while I was writing this and it brought back great memories. (If you decide to watch, the actor who plays the U.S. Representative from Nevada is Jim Davis. He played Jock Ewing in Dallas). For those of you who are not old enough to remember, Ronald Reagan (yep, the President) was one of the hosts of Death Valley Days for a number of years.
Enough about my black-and-white-tv watching days. Let’s return to our regularly scheduled program.
Borax has been around for about 7 million years, but it became important in the United States in the late 1880s. Unlike silver or gold, it was something that prospectors in Death Valley could mine and make quite a bit of money with in the process. The only problem they faced was transporting the borax out of Death Valley. Mule teams were necessary to move the more than 12 million pounds (over 5 years) of borax from Death Valley to the nearest railroad spur, and they needed 20 mules to actually move the wagons. The wagons were loaded up with borax, the mule teams (all 20 of them) were hitched to the front and the water tank for the mules and men was hitched to the back.
“Don’t worry about the mule, just load the wagon” (quote from my friend, Tom. He assures me it is just a work euphemism).
Why all the excitement? Evidently borax is useful as an additive to glazes, is used in fire retardants, moth proofing and anti-fungal foot soaks. I’m guessing it was used for a lot more than foot soaks, but you get the drift. Seems it was a very useful element.
In the 50s and 60s, it was also used to clean, freshen, whiten, deodorize….
… and snowflakes!!!
I hadn’t really thought about Borax in quite awhile, but last year my sister, Cathy, mentioned that she wanted to make Borax snowflakes with her grand-children and couldn’t find any Borax in the town where her kids lived.
I was pretty sure our local Piggly Wiggly Grocery store would carry the key ingredient for these sparkly snowflakes, and I was right.
Finally, on a grey cold day after Christmas we gathered our pipe cleaners, dusted off the Borax and made beautiful sparkly snowflakes.
Wait. If we made these snowflakes shortly after Christmas, why are you just hearing about them now? Why did it take me three and a half weeks to show you how to make these wonderful, sparkly, crafty, “gee, ain’t it too bad it’s cold out but you can make this if you want to” snowflake?
Here’s what happened.
I really thought it was important to take time-lapse photos of at least one Borox snowflake.
I thought it might get you excited enough to make one of your own.
Unfortunately, I had NO IDEA how hard it was going to be to actually stick around long enough to take a picture every half hour. It’s entirely possible that I have a setting on my camera to do this, but I never found it. As a result, it took me until now to get something that was even remotely close to a time-lapse. As you look at the pictures, you will see the results of several batches of Borax snowflakes, but I am sure you will forgive me. (You will, right)?
Here it is. Forgive me.
Want to make some for yourself? Follow along..
How To Make A Borax Snowflake:
What you will need:
- Borax Laundry Booster (not Boraxo)
- Pipe Cleaners
- Food Coloring (if you are using white pipe cleaners and want to color your snowflake)
- Pencil or Long Stick
- Wide Mouth Glass Jar
- Boiling Water (this MUST be done by an adult. The kids can make the snowflake shapes out of the pipe cleaners).
- If you want colored snowflakes, you can use colored pipe cleaners. You will need two for a fancy snowflake.
- Using a pair of scissors, cut a pipe cleaner into three equal sections.
- Twist the three pipe cleaner sections together at their centers to form a six-sided snowflake. You need to be sure that this shape will fit through the mouth of your jar without having it touching the sides. If necessary, you can trim the ends of the pipe cleaners.
- For the fancy snowflake, cut six 1 inch pieces of pipe cleaner.
- Wrap one piece around each of the snowflake ends.
- If the ends touch each other, you may wish to trim them.
- Cut a piece of string to one side of the snowflake.
- Tie the other end of the string to the stick or pencil.
- You want the length of your string to be enough that the snowflake hangs into the jar but doesn’t touch the bottom. Once you have your length set, remove pipe cleaner snowflake from the jar while you prepare the solution.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and pour into the jar (yes, I am aware that I am now using a different jar, with a different pipe cleaner and using it in a different house. Remember what I said about this taking me longer than it should have? Now you know why).
- Add 3 tablespoons of Borax for each cup of water (if you use 6 cups of water, then you would use 1 cup of Borax. That was easier for me so I’m thinking it might be easier for you).
- Stir until the Borax is dissolved. Some of the Borax may settle in the bottom of the jar, and that’s just fine.
- Hang the pipe cleaner snowflake into the jar with the stick or pencil resting on top of the jar.
- Make sure that you’ve added enough water so that the snowflake is completely submerged.
- Now, you wait. Be sure you don’t disturb the jar. You might want to put it somewhere out of the way so that it doesn’t get jostled.
- In my experience, it will take anywhere from 4 to 12 hours for the crystals to form.
- While the water is still hot, not much happens, but once the water begins to cool crystals will begin to form.
- Once you see crystals formed all over the pipe cleaner, you can take the snowflake out of the liquid and enjoy.
We used colored pipe cleaners to make these snowflakes.
A lovely blue snowflake. I won’t tell you that I took this picture under a perfect blue sky on a sunny day in Florida. That would just be too mean.
I’ve never seen a green snowflake, but I still think this is pretty. I don’t want to tell you what to do, but you might want to avoid yellow snowflakes….you know….yellow snow….
You don’t need to limit yourself to snowflakes. Let your imagination run wild. Our friend, Tom, made this star (with great precision).
I know, I know … this took far too long. Since we are so close to Valentines Day, I made this heart for you. Am I forgiven?
And just one more. A little starfish.
Oh, by the way. When you are done, you will have a bit of a challenge getting the Borax out of your container (actually, I thought it was rather pretty). We tried soaking it in hot water, but to no avail.
I took a knife and chipped away until I got a chunk of Borax to break away from the glass (those crystals really loved each other). Once I got a chunk loose, the rest just fell away.
In case you are interested, here’s the science behind the magic (my version). If you want a more “scientific” explanation, you might want to head over to Steve Spangler’s Science (highly recommended, by the way).
Because Borax is a crystal (like salt, sugar and Epsom salts), it has flat sides and a symmetrical shape with a unique, repeating pattern. When you heat water, the water molecules move farther apart. This makes room for the Borax crystals to dissolve. When the water/Borax solution cools, the water molecules move closer together again so there is less room for the Borax crystals. What’s a crystal to do? As the water gets cooler, the crystals begin to form and then, frightened and alone, they get close together and build on each other. They have flat sides, so they can easily adhere to each other, the container, the pipe cleaner and the string. I’d like to think they are now happily enfolded in their little crystal family.
This is the same thing that happens to snowflakes. As the water cools the molecules move closer together and form a snowflake. Because all water molecules are shaped the same, they form a six sided crystal.
You’ve been so patient, I am including a pdf of this craft.
Feel free to download and make your own snowflake. If you do make one, could you take a picture and share with everyone on the What Will We Do Today Facebook Fan page? That would be loverly.