Making Borax Crystals

Borax is all the rage based on my experience in not finding a {single box} at FOUR grocery stores. It is typically found in the laundry detergent aisle and is around $5 for a smallish 4 1/2 pound box. I know this because energetic poodle walking neighbor was walking past my house and suggested to my children that we google “borax crystals.” I hadn’t heard of it previously and put a box of 20 mule team borax on our grocery list once my kids “oooohed” and “ahhhhhed” at the miracle crystals we watched grow on Youtube!

According to Twenty Mule Team Borax’s website “Borax gets its name from elements that make up the compound; Boron and Oxygen. Though it also is made up of sodium and water, Boron is one of the most important ingredients and gives Borax its stain-fighting power. The element helps convert some of the water molecules into hydrogen peroxide and is what makes cleaners most effective.” I also wasn’t familiar with the name 20 mule team or borax and found their story interesting too! “Teams of mules were used to move millions of pounds of Borax from remote mines in inaccessible Death Valley to the railroad at Mojave. Originally, teams of eight and ten mules were used, but the trek proved too much. A man named Ed Stiles came up with the idea of hitching two 10-mule teams together—twice the normal amount—resulting in a 100-foot-long team that took 10 days to carry 10 tons of borax one way across the desert. In 1894, a steam engine named “Dinah” was brought in to replace the mules, but Dinah was no match for the epic 20 mule team’s power. She broke down and was towed back to town by the very mules she tried to replace.” So there you go – more than a century old and still available as a handy cleaning product AND home experiment ingredient to this day!

They should add “makes cool crystals” to the tag line!

First pass for buying this fine powder by the hubby was a fail, he couldn’t find it and I assumed it was he didn’t look the right way (ha!). Cut to me looking at Walmart, then Loews (it was across the street) with no luck. Then off to Meier where I had high hopes that were immediately dashed. A woman there told me “try Jewel Osco – they usually have it” – LIES!! Just kidding, she was a very nice woman, and the Jewel, Meier AND Walmart were all sold out. Maybe a bunch of woke people finally realized the cleaning power of BORON? Moral of the story, keep an eye out and IF there is a box, grab it and don’t plan on this experiment until you’ve got it!

If you can imagine how frustrating it is to find the shelf where these dang boxes are and see there are NONE there, I was, and I basically gave up on this project. I don’t like to buy online (and overpay in some instances) if I don’t have to and I figured I would find a box eventually. In comes my neighbor again – as she walked by with her dogs the afternoon I gave up, I lamented that the Borax was no where to be found and she had an extra box! Boom! Now, (per usual with my craftventures) we waited another three days to figure everything else out!

The next step was the vessel. On the video, there was a one LITRE beaker. To make these crystals, you have to have VERY HOT if not BOILING water in order for the borax to dissolve enough the the solution to be super saturated. Beakers aren’t a common item in my home so that was the first issue. Next, they are typically used over a bunson burner (remember those from science class?) which I also don’t have. On the various sites and blogs I searched through for tips there were many options. The heating source seems to be of concern as some people heated a beaker directly on their electric stove and even cracked it – which is clearly a bad option and DANGEROUS – do not attempt!! I decided to microwave the crap out of a water filled old Costco marinara sauce jar. You can really choose any clear glass that can be stirred, a wide mouth jar or anything “beaker” shaped works best based on how this experiment is set up. Make sure the shape you are putting in the jar is more narrow than the opening too, since the crystals growing on it will make it larger than the pipe cleaner and you don’t want it to get stuck! You also need it to be clear so you can tell if the borax has dissolved and deep enough to hang the pipe cleaner without touching the sides or bottom.

A side note on “vessels.” After moving and realizing how many plastic bins I had, I try to avoid plastic for storage in general. Instead, I save most jars that my food comes in and repurposed them if possible! Ball Jars are great as glasses as you may be aware but did you pickle jars make great marker holders as well as old candles (with the wax completely removed)! I have my markers and colored pencils on display in glass jars on a shelf instead of plastic bins that can be cumbersome and awkward to find and area for. Giving people flowers? Take the extra step to gift them in their very own recycled vase! As far as using them for this project, since you know anything canned was heat treated to seal the jar, you know you can put hot water in them (or microwave it as long as there isn’t any metal present).

Me, I said this.

There are measurements floating around the internet for the amount of powder to put into the water but I am going to be honest, I just winged it. Before you follow these very precise steps (note the sarcasm here) – you are going to want to get the rest ready FIRST – a pipe cleaner, some thread, a stick/pen/doll rod (to hang the pipe cleaner off of with the thread) and a piece of cardboard to cover it. After you get the super saturated solution piping hot, you need to be ready with these items to finish the project! According to Wikipedia, a Supersaturation is a solution that contains more of the dissolved material than could be dissolved by the solvent under normal circumstances – we are changing said circumstances by increasing the temperature of the water and allowing more borax to dissolve – so much so that when it cools there’s enough to form hard crystals!

From what I read, I had to at least a full cup of borax into my 1 liter-ish size jar, so I started there. After microwaving the jar filled with TAP water for 3 minutes, I carefully took it out with an oven mitt and added the whole cup of borax at once. You will want to leave a little room at the top since the borax will dissolve but will take up some space in the jar and you don’t want hot water splashing out. <might want to wear safety goggles as a rule here too> As you mix it (I used a metal butter knife), it will appear cloudy so don’t use that as an indicator – use the amount of powder floating around at the bottom to tell you if there is enough powder in the jar. After the first pass, even if there is no more powder there, add more borax and heat! I microwaved it again a few more minutes (one at a time) and kept adding until I almost had two whole cups of powder in the jar. Once you start to see the borax stop dissolving, microwave it one more time and its onto the next step! For reference I microwaved my jar a total of 6 minutes adding about 2 cups of borax. As you can see below, it still appears cloudy but will clear up!

Add food coloring. You can do 2 drops / 10 drops – whatever, mix and match – great! The color isn’t going to be very prominent in the crystal and it doesn’t really matter so go crazy. I mixed it slightly after adding the drops and then dropped the curly Q pipe cleaner into the concoction, making sure it hung center, and not too close (at least an inch or two away) to the bottom of the jar. You can see the green jar on the left is in the morning (clear, like I said it would get!) and then on the right side, you can see about 5 hours later the crystals had formed! Speaking of which, they won’t just form on the pipe cleaner, you will also see that the glass also grows them as the temperature cools and you don’t want your creation stuck to the jar so keep the pipe cleaner centered too!

Cover it slightly to keep the moisture in and let it sit for EIGHT HOURS. This a great night time experiment since the crystals will done in the morning! After about 5 or 6 hours you will see the crystals forming and its important to leave the jar be (AKA DON’T TOUCH IT!) so any new ones aren’t broken before they can establish themselves and continue to grow! Once its been at least 8 hours, or the jar is room temperature, you have a crystal that you can pull out and dry off. You can cut the thread from where it was hanging and knock all the extra crystals back into the jar if you plan to reuse. The crystal may redissolve if you get it wet again and is fairly harmless but standard “detergenty” rules apply here – don’t put it in your mouth and don’t let kids hold the crystals unattended!

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So that’s it! It way easier than I expected, now that I have done this and I can see the possibility for many other potential fun projects! You can shape the pipe cleaners in all sorts of ways or you can change the color instead of using white like I did and that will give you different results as well! You can make snow flakes by bending the pipe cleaners into the 6 different arms or perhaps a heart or star shape! Regardless of the shape, your kids won’t care how big the crystals are and they will be sparkly and fun no matter which way you bend the pipe cleaner. This would be a fun sleep over science project to wake up to or winter break project to watch through out the day!

Finally, If you feel underwhelmed by the results on your first go round, don’t fret! Take the same jar, remove the hanging pipe cleaner, heat the crap out of it in the microwave (dissolving the crystals that formed when cooling) and ADD MORE BORAX. You probably didn’t add enough to begin with and its the cooling of the super saturated borax solution that causes the crystals so you just gotta super saturate the sh*t out of it! Lastly, be careful when you are reheating and stirring. The borax settled at the bottom will form a sort of disk and will eventually melt away but it is tempting to poke at it to break it up. So – DON’t poke it and keep an eye on the bottom of your vessel while stirring so it doesn’t crack (glass jars aren’t designed to handle poking from the inside <wink>).

These are the jars POST crystalization / cooling off. that can be reused!

Let me know if you have success! In the end it was way more fun and easier to do than I expected!

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