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Deck The Halls With Crystals And Chromatography

by Bethany Halford
November 30, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 48

Chemis-tree ornaments
Credit: Kathleen Havens (Both)
A chromatography butterfly and a pipe cleaner in a borax brew.
Credit: Kathleen Havens (Both)
A chromatography butterfly and a pipe cleaner in a borax brew.

If you’re decorating this holiday season and find yourself short on ornaments (perhaps a few glass orbs were lost to eggnog-induced clumsiness last year), you might consider embracing your inner geek and adding some chemistry to your Christmas tree.

Instinctively, the chemist in you might reach for the molecular model set. After all, substituted benzene would make a lovely tree topper. Of course, if you think stringing up models of molecules pushes the bounds of nerdiness, there are some cool ornaments you can make with chemistry know-how that don’t require a firm grasp of total synthesis or molecular orbital theory to appreciate.

Kathleen Havens, the assistant director of youth education at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, has a couple of ornament ideas that combine scientific savvy with artistic aesthetics. Writing for the museum’s “Beyond Bones” blog (, Havens suggests adding sparkle to the tree by making crystallized borax ornaments. It’s an experiment that Havens remembers doing as a young girl in school, she tells Newscripts.

To make them, you’ll need borax (which can be found in the supermarket detergent aisle), pipe cleaners, a wide-mouthed mason jar or other glass vessel, string, and a pencil.

First, fashion a pipe cleaner into a simple, festive shape. Havens suggests a star, circle, diamond, or angel. Tie one end of the string to the pipe cleaner and the other end to the center of the pencil. Make sure the shape is small enough to fit into the jar.

Next, boil water and pour it into the jar. Add borax, one tablespoon at a time, stirring until the material dissolves. According to Havens, three tablespoons of borax for every cup of water is the right ratio for achieving a saturated solution, although there may be some undissolved powder at the bottom of the jar.

Finally, suspend the pipe cleaner in the solution by placing the pencil across the mouth of jar. It should hang freely in the liquid without touching the jar’s bottom. Leave the setup overnight where it won’t be disturbed. The following morning, the pipe cleaner will be transformed into a crystal-encrusted decoration.

To add color to the tree, Havens suggests making an ornament based on the principles of chromatography. Gather Crayola washable markers, large coffee filters, scissors, a spray bottle filled with water, and, to keep things tidy, some newspapers.

Cut the filters into fun shapes, such as snowflakes or Christmas trees. Use the markers to make large dots—about an inch in diameter—on the filters. Place the dots about an inch apart. Spread out the newspaper and place the dotted filters flat upon it. Spray the filters until the paper is damp.

After about five minutes, Havens says, the inks will spread across the paper at different rates—chromatography in action. Some, which are made up of more than one dye, will separate, creating a color pattern. Finally, let the filter shapes dry, punch a hole in them, and thread ribbon through the hole so you can hang it from the tree.

Check out “Beyond Bones” for a third chemically crafted ornament idea that uses food coloring and shaving foam. There’s also a recipe for making pH paper from poinsettias, and Havens says to expect more holiday-themed science experiments on the blog.

Bethany Halford wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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