A very old time rockhound who is looking to share information on a very fun hobby. Great for STEM enthusiasts and other science geek reading
For some people, sand is an inconvenience that gets stuck between one's toes and inside one's swimsuit. For others, it is something fun from which to build sand castles, or to research, collect and display. Some consider it a means of owning that desired beach front property in Florida -- in a small scale version. Collectors of minerals in general may find their usual rock collection serves as a gateway into sand collecting. How small of a sample can you find of a particular mineral?
If you collect sand yourself, or if you are just interested in the hobby of sand collecting, read on to learn more about how to get started collecting sand from around the world. Sand collecting is a fun hobby that everyone can enjoy!
Why would anyone collect sand?
Each sand collector (called an "arenophile" or "psammophile") has their own reasons for collecting sand. Some collectors are interested in geology. Others like to learn about the area of the world each sample has come from. Still others collect to meet other collectors around the world and learn about their cultures and local environments.
What is sand?
Sand is a naturally occurring material composed of minute rock and mineral particles. A single particle of sand (a grain of sand) ranges in size from 1/16 mm to 2 mm. The next size up from a sand particle is called "gravel", while the next smaller size is called "silt". When it is handled, sand has a distinctive gritty feel.
Size your sand
For collection and display purposes, it can be useful to sort one's sand by size. This makes for a nice, uniform display. Sand can be classified by the size of the particles:
- very fine (0.05 - 0.1 mm)
- fine (0.1 - 0.25 mm)
- medium (0.25 - 0.5 mm)
- coarse (0.5 - 1 mm)
- very coarse (1 - 2 mm)
The Colours of Sand
It may come as a surprise to you, but not all sand is "sand-coloured." The colour of any particular grain of sand is determined by its chemical composition. A microscope and a good crystal identification book may be helpful in identifying the type of sand you have.
- Clear and opaque sand is quartz (from granite or sandstone erosion).
- Dull black, grey, or reddish-brown sand is basalt
- Olive-green or brownish sand is olivine (from basalt erosion).
- Black (shiny irregular shapes) sand is obsidian (from basalt erosion).
- Clear, yellow, or pink sand is feldspar.
- Light-coloured or pink sand is granite.
- Dark pinkish sand is garnet.
- Translucent white sand is gypsum.
- Red sand is hematite.
- Yellow or brownish sand is monazite
- Shiny black magnetic sand is magnetite.
- White, tan, or pink sand is calcium carbonate (from sea shell erosion).
In addition to the mineral-based sands, there are also biogenic sands which contain the remains of animals and plants, shell fragment, tiny skeletons, micro-mollusks, and other sea creatures often almost too small to see by the naked eye. These remains are called "foraminifera".
Getting started with a sand collection
Start collecting in your own area. Sand is found around the world, so you should be able to find sand near your own home. Check the local laws on collecting samples, and ask permission to collect a sample from the land owner. Some areas may not allow the removal of local minerals without a permit.
Collecting samples for your sand collection
When you collect a sample, get enough to trade with others. I like to carry around a plastic spoon for scooping and small zipper bags for storage. This provides plenty of sand for my needs, and extra to share. Once you have your sample (and this is important), immediately label the sample so you know which one is which. Some things to include on the label are the location from which the sample was obtained, the date of collection, and the type of sand (beach, desert, sand dune, etc.).
Once you take your sample home, some cleaning might be in order. I prefer to leave samples in their natural state, but other collectors like to wash them out to remove organic material. If you choose to wash it, be careful not to wash the entire sample down the drain! Before storing the sample, be sure that it is completely dry.
Sand microscopy -- why use a microscope?
One reason someone might collect sand is to look at it under a microscope. This will allow a closer look than you might get with the naked eye.
However, a standard microscope has too high a magnification to view such as a large an object as a grain of sand. The best type of microscope through which to view sand samples is a tri-nocular head stereo-microscope with no more than 10X magnification. That means the microscope has two lenses for viewing, plus another lenses onto which a camera can be mounted for photos.
Tip #1: Once your microscope is set up, arrange two or three lamps nearby to allow plenty of light from all sides. No flash photography!
Tip #2: Your photos might require some photo editing software to colour-correct for yellow lighting.
Storage and display of your sand collection
It's important to decide early on how you would like to store your samples. If you choose a large container, you won't be able to display as many samples.
I display my samples in small Ball jars. These are especially nice since all components (jar, lid, and ring) are replaceable if something becomes damaged.
Another display option might be the "slabs" designed to store and display the coins in a coin collection. Use a round sticker across the back to hold your sand sample in place, then snap the "slab" together for storage.
Extra sand can be stored in small labelled zipper bags for ease of trading.
Tip: Use a label maker to create a waterproof label for each jar lid, "slab", or trade bag.
How to trade sand
Why should you consider trading sand samples with others? Because accepting samples from others will help your collection grow quickly!
The fastest way to get new samples is by trading sand samples with other sand collectors. If you know other sand collectors, talk to them about trading samples. Other collectors will likely have access to sand sources which you do not. By trading, both collections can be mutually enhanced. Everyone can benefit from sand trades in the best possible way: having more sand!
Once you have found another collector, discuss how large a quantity of sand will be traded. Since not all collectors like to display the same amount of sand, the number of samples per weight will vary in each trade if you are trading equal amounts of sand. A small digital scale will be helpful to determine the weight of each offered sample. Be certain it can show the weight your sample in grams and ounces rather than pounds and kilograms as most of us only trade small samples.
Note: Remember to tare your scale for the weight of the sample's container!
Packing and shipping your trade
Before any trade is agreed upon, check the laws of your respective countries. Some countries restrict or prohibit the exchange of mineral samples, so consult a customs reference beforehand. If the exchange is permissible, determine which customs forms will be needed (your local post office can help you with this). Mark the form to indicate the package contains mineral samples of zero value.
Carefully package and label all samples. I like to use zipper bags, but other possible containers include film containers if you have any. Small plastic bottles or other plastic containers can be used so long as they have a screw-top lid. Tape the container openings closed to prevent any spillage in transit, then put all samples into larger gallon zipper bags for extra protection.
Depending on the size and number of samples, this can be shipped in a padded envelope or a small box. So long as it is large enough to affix your shipping label, it's large enough to ship.
If you are so inclined, you can include a note about origins of the samples for your trading partner. Happy trading!
Tracking your sand collection
Once you have more than a few samples, it's easy to forget which is which, or the details of each sample's origin.
For each sample, make an entry into a ledger or spreadsheet. Some things you might like to record include the sample number, location of collection (including latitude and longitude, if you like), type of sand, sand colour, and whether there is extra to trade.
If you know the name of the person who collected the sample for you, that is always a good thing to include as well.
You also might enjoy these books:
A Grain of Sand: Nature's Secret Wonder by Gary Greenberg (Voyageur Press, 2008):The basic premise of this book: to photograph individual grains of sand under a microscope. It's an excellent premise which results in amazing photos of sand in all its microscopic glory, and it makes this a lovely coffee table book.
The Secrets of Sand: A Journey into the Amazing Microscopic World of Sand by Gary Greenberg (Voyageur Press, 2015): A sequel of sorts to A Grain of Sand with more microscope photography. The text is repetitive from the previous volume, but the photos are a visual treat.
Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland (University of California Press, 2009): An excellent guide to the science of sand, from its geological origins to its creation as individual grains of sand. A must-read.
© 2021 M Bonnardel