Is your refrigerator boring? Marble magnets are one of those fun, simple craft projects that have become very popular in the last few years. They've shown up on plenty of craft communities, shows, and books, sometimes with a theme. Once you learn how to make them, you can churn out a nearly endless variety, and you can also find other ways to use the pictorial marbles. But there are a few potential pitfalls in the process, so it helps to have someone show you how.
First of all, what are they? Flat glass marbles, sometimes called half-marbles or cabochons or glass pebbles, have long been sold to line plant pots and fish tanks. At some point, someone noticed that the marble acts like a lens if you place it over a picture or printed design. Eventually, people started gluing these pictorial marbles to things, particularly magnets, and an endless craft trend was born.
They're a great project because they're easy and inexpensive, but also relatively unique. They make good gifts: you can tailor them to the recipients' tastes, and they cost very little to make, so for $10 a teenager can cover presents for a whole group of friends.
To learn how to make pictorial marbles for magnets and other projects, join us after the break!
- Flat colorless glass marbles, 1/2" to 1" across (try to find the kind with no iridescent/"AB" coating)
Small, interesting images, about 1/2" across (around the size of your marbles)
Glue: E6000 or Bond 527 (see "Choosing between glues," below)
Strong button/disc magnets - around 1/2" (the size of your marbles or smaller)
Circular hole punch - 1/2" to 1" (the size of your marbles and images)
Something to spread glue with: toothpicks, Popsicle sticks, bamboo skewers, etc.
Throwaway paper to protect your working surface (newspaper, sketch paper, etc)
Heavy white paper (Optional but recommended. Bristol board, etc)
Pencil (possibly optional)
Craft knife & cutting mat (possibly optional)
Sharp scissors (Optional, if you have no hole punch or craft knife)
Spray Fixative for artwork (Optional but recommended. Krylon makes a good one, but super-hold aerosol hairspray like Aqua Net also works. Avoid "Workable Fixative" for this project.)
Candy tin (Optional, as are supplies to decorate it with: decorative paper and glue, or enamel paint.)
Work on a flat, hard surface protected by throwaway paper. This project can be messy.
Choosing between glues:
- E6000 has a texture like rubber cement, is archival after it has cured (dried for 24-48 hours), is pretty forgiving to work with, and is less likely to cause your images to go transparent. However, until it's cured, the bond to glass isn't very strong, and it takes longer for the bond to set up in comparison to Bond 527.
- Bond 527 will make some images run or go transparent easily, is more liquid than E6000, and isn't archival (to my knowledge). Its bond sets faster, though, and I think the bond is stronger in the long run: I can peel the paper off of a gem an hour after it's been stuck on with E6000, which is not the case with Bond 527. Use it if you're in a hurry.
- Both glues have safety warnings and are not good for use by young children (no glue that can really stick something to a button magnet is likely to be usable by little kids). Older kids can probably do this project with supervision, assuming they're considered old enough to build models. Any kid who can handle enamel paints and model glue should be responsible enough to do this project without eating glue or getting it into someone's eyes. Either of these glues should be used in areas with adequate ventilation.
You can follow along in the Marble Magnet Tutorial Gallery if you want, or just click on the links throughout the rest of this article.
Step One: Select marbles for use.
Glass marbles/cabochons/pebbles usually come in a plastic mesh bag, where they knock around together. They're made for the floral craft industry, so individual optical quality is not one of the manufacturer's concerns, and overall quality can vary drastically. I've purchased AB-coated clear marbles that were a little larger than their stated sizes, almost perfectly round, with few bubbles, and I've purchased non-coated clear marbles that have a lot of air bubbles in them, the occasional scrape or chip, and lots of "crackles" on the surface from the manufacturing process. I'm using the latter marbles for this tutorial.
Some people sort through their marbles to find the ones that are the most perfectly round, with no scratches or chips and as few air bubbles as possible. I wouldn't use a marble with chips, but air bubbles and minor scratches don't show much in the final product. What does show is "crackling" or ripples anywhere on the domed upper surface of the marble: both distort any image you place under them.
If you're using simple, graphical images, you might like to try AB-coated marbles: they have an interesting pearly effect. Choose images that are uncomplicated and that have colors that go well with the iridescence (purple, blue, light green, pink, etc -- even solid colors would be fine). The coating is translucent, but it will "cloud" images, and you won't be able to see them from certain angles.
You can also try manufactured plastic cabochons: some people really like them. I am not one of those people. While they don't have air bubbles, and are less irregular than glass marbles, they also feel less organic to me (which means "less cool!"). Also, the ones I've seen don't have a rounded edge on the flat side, so every potential gaffe in your craftsmanship shows. Finally, I don't like the way they "sit" as magnets. I'd rather accept the bubbles and flaws in the glass than use the plastic cabochons, but if you feel differently, they're out there. You will probably need to use different glues than those recommended here.
Here's a gallery photo of the materials set out on the work surface.
Step Two: Select images for use.
You might like to make a matched set with wrapping paper, but other things to consider include catalogs, magazines, scrap-booking paper, origami paper, etc. Use a marble as your "viewfinder": move it around until you see something you like. Using the bottom of your hole punch will also work: just turn it upside-down.
If you want to do a theme, go ahead: the only thing that makes your project "Mexican" or "Chinese" is the images you choose to use. I've made a few "indie comics" magnets in the tutorial with images cut from an old Fantagraphics catalog (which isn't for everyone; they do publish some comics that are for "mature readers" only); people wanting to make a "vintage" set might choose images from the Victorian Trading Company catalog.
You can also try color photocopies of your images. This is a good idea if, for example, you're using icons from a dingbat font and have printed out your own image sheet. (It's not a good idea, though, if you want to make multiples of an image that you cut out of a catalog or magazine: that's illegal.)
Step Three (Optional): Check paper for compatibility with adhesive.
If you are using Bond 527, make sure that the print on the paper can stand up to the solvent in the adhesive (I learned the hard way that some origami papers, including those pictured in the tutorial, cannot). Choose an area about 2" square near the edge of the paper, and use a toothpick to spread some of the glue over it. If your image starts to smear (like the purple one in this gallery photo) , you can still use that kind of paper for the magnets, but you'll need to spray it with some kind of fixative, first. This process also allows you to use your own art.
To use fixative, put the paper that needs to become water-resistant on a waste paper surface in a well-ventilated area, and spray either according to the instruction on the fixative can, or in a fine mist about 16" or so above the surface of the paper, trying to avoid drips. Allow to dry. Coating both sides (drying between coats) and doing a second coat on the front are both good ideas.
Step Four: Prepare image for use.
Use your hole punch to punch that image out! If you don't have a hole punch, or if you are adamant that no paper should be seen from the side around the edge of the marble, you can set a marble on the image, trace around the marble with your pencil, and use the line as a guide to cut the image out with a craft knife or sharp scissors. Since the marbles tend to be slightly irregular, keep that marble and that image together: the next image gets a new marble.
This gallery photo (same as the last) shows some images that have just been punched out.
Optional: If you're using images on relatively thin paper, like magazine paper, it's a good idea to back them with thick white paper: if you don't, the glue can make the paper transparent enough to see the magnet through it, which can ruin light-colored images. (This is another step that's more likely to be necessary if you're using Bond 527, but is also necessary with origami paper and E6000.)
If you have a hole punch, this is easy: just punch a circle from the white paper for every image you punch out. If you don't have a hole punch, you're going to have to repeat the tracing trick from the previous step on the white paper.
Glue the white paper rounds to the backs of your images. A dab of glue applied with a toothpick is fine. Let dry. Make sure that no white paper edges are sticking out from behind the images: if your images are smaller than your marbles, the edges could show in the finished product.
Step Five: Glue image to marble.
Put a drop of glue on the flat side of the marble (gallery photo). Put your image face down onto the glue, centered as much as possible, and press down (gallery photo). Look at it from the front (marble side) to make sure there aren't any air bubbles in the glue and that the glue has spread all the way out to the edges: if there is a problem, keep pressing, or lift, add a little bit more glue, and try again.
Clean up any excessive leaking glue with your toothpick: a little leakage around the edges is fine, but you don't want it to go to the back of your paper. If you're using E6000, you won't have any problems cleaning glue around the edges with your fingertips and wiping it off on your covered work surface. If some has gotten on the back, just rub it off with your fingertip. No trouble.
Let dry. At this point, you should stop for an hour or two, or even a whole day. Run a few errands, have a snack, watch some TV, or go edit the article you're writing about marble magnets (ahem). If you feel like too much glue is seeping out around the edges, lift the marbles from the drying surface every few minutes, to keep them from sticking.
Optional: If you are unhappy with how much of your image is sticking out around the back of the marble after it's dried, you can place the marble flat side down on the table and use the craft knife to carefully trim away the edges of the image. Wait until the glue has cured: if you don't, you can accidentally catch the glue with your knife and pull out enough to break the bond between the paper and glass. This step is not really necessary unless you can even see stuff sticking out when you look at the marble from the front.
Step Six: Glue magnets to glass image marbles.
Lay out as many magnets as you require for how many image marbles you've made. Do not allow these magnets to get closer to each other than about an inch. Put a drop of glue on the top of the magnet, and spread it out with your toothpick. Put the flat side of the marble, with the image glued to it, on top of the magnet, centered as much as possible (gallery photo). Press down and allow to dry for a day or two.
If you are using E6000, and find that you can see the magnet through your image within a minute or two after you glued the marble to the magnet, you should be able to pull the magnet off pretty easily. Add a circle of white paper to the back of the magnet, with another dab of glue, let dry for a half-hour or so, then try sticking the magnet on again.
Step Seven (Optional): Gift packaging.
The popular method for packaging these as gifts has been to use decorated candy tins, since the magnets stick nicely to the tins. However, I have also used the little organza bags with ribbon drawstrings that are sold for wedding favors. I line the bags with the iridescent clear plastic "grass" that's sold for packing gifts, lining Easter baskets, and so on.
Other things you can do with the marbles, aside from gluing them to magnets:
- glue to metal tack pins
- glue to a flat-front picture frame
- set into mosaics (coat back of picture with glue and allow to dry, first!)
- glue around edge of plant pot
- use in jewelry (there are cabochon findings that will hold these marbles)
- use in scrapbooks (if you used E6000 and have allowed it to fully cure)
Sometimes, when you see jewelry made from the pictorial marbles, you'll see a polymer clay "cradle" made for the marble and image; other times, you'll see that the marble has been painted halfway up its edge, so only the dome is visible. These processes aren't within the scope of this article, but might be worth investigating if you're interested. It seems like most of them would have to be accomplished before the image is stuck to the marble.
There are other tutorials for this sort of thing online: for more perspectives, you can check out the pages at NotMartha, MormonChic, LittleCabbage, and RoxyCraft. For example, Megan at NotMartha didn't have a hole punch, so she used a circle template. That doesn't make the project quite as easy as a hole punch does, but it means that you don't need to keep the marble you traced with its specific picture.
Several people have mentioned that even the final result of this project should be kept away from small children. They're shiny and tempting, and swallowed magnets pose a serious health threat.
Now you have another quick, easy, and fun project under your belt. This is the perfect thing to teach someone if they don't think they're crafty at all, and also an interesting activity for groups and gatherings. Keep the supplies around, punch images out as you see them, and every so often, have an afternoon of magnet-making!
Your refrigerator will never be boring again.