Marbling at Home




Introduction: Marbling at Home

About: The Maker Studio is a museum makerspace at Science City in Kansas City, MO. To see more of our creations follow us on Instagram @The_Maker_Studio or @ScienceCityKC

Marbling is an ancient method of water surface dying; it produces similar patterns to smooth marble
with fluid shapes and transitions. This is accomplished by paint or ink floating on either water or a more viscous solution called size. It is then transferred to absorbent surfaces, such as paper or fabric. With some paints it can also attach itself to none absorbent surfaces like plastics.

Marbling has ancient roots tying it to China, Asia, and Iran as far back as the 10th century. While their methods used inks, plants, and other types of paints. It wasn’t until the 19th century when English maker Charles Woolnough published his The Art of Marbling (1853). He explained his method of marbling onto book-cloth and it forever changed how marbling is achieved today.

What is the science behind marbling?

Buoyancy: It's the upward force on an object that is produced by a surrounding gas or liquid, such as water. Water buoyancy is connected to sinking and floating, a phenomenon you’re probably are familiar with. When the downward force of gravity is greater than the upward force of a liquid, an object sinks; otherwise it floats. Whether an object sinks or floats is connected to its density and to the tendency of water molecules to stick together.

Density: It's how close together the molecules of a substance are or how much mass a substance has in a given space. Materials with more density weigh more. For an object to be buoyant, or float, it must have less density that what it is floating in, or it has to have something attached to it that helps it float – like you with a life jacket on.

Water molecules cohere or stick together, forming a kind of skin called, surface tension. In physics, surface tension is a force present within the surface layer of a liquid that causes the layer to behave as an elastic sheet. It is the force that supports insects that walk on water, for example.

Surface tension: It’s caused by the attraction between the molecules of the liquid. In the bulk of the liquid each molecule is pulled equally in all directions by neighboring molecules, resulting in a net force of zero. At the surface of the liquid, the molecules are pulled inwards by other molecules deeper inside the liquid, but there are no liquid molecules on the outside to balance these forces, so the surface molecules are subject to a net inward force.


  • Nail polish – Any brand of nail polish will work. Enamel paint air dries to a hard, glossy finish and adheres (sticks easily) to smooth surfaces. Paints without large chunks of glitter work best.
  • Water container – This item needs to be large enough for you to immerse your item. It should also be something you don’t mind keeping for future marbling projects. If you use a food container be sure you do not try using it for food again in the future.
  • Water – Be sure to fill your container as much as you need to submerge your item. This water will need to be disposed of afterwards and not drank accidentally.
  • Newspaper/kraft paper – You will want to put down some kind of protective paper underneath your station so that if you accidentally spill the paint will stay on that surface and not cling to your actual table surface.
  • Wire/paper clips – Depending on what you are trying to dye you may need paper clips or wire to hook onto your item so you can dip it without holding it.
  • Toothpicks – You will likely need these to spread your paint around on the surface of the water.


  • Gloves – If your item is too large you will want to consider wearing gloves as enamel paint will attach to your hand.
  • Tape – The protective paper you choose might need tape to keep it in place while you work.
  • Nail polish remover – It's always good to have on hand in case paint gets on places you didn’t want it.
  • Clear nail polish or clear spray paint – These are only used at the end to seal your painted surface. *Spray paint should only be used with an adult’s supervision or help.

Step 1: Set Up Marbling Station

Lay out your protective paper on your work surface, if it’s necessary feel free to tape it to your station.

Choose what item you want to marble – we suggest finding a few test items in case it takes several tries to get the hang of it before you do it on your favorite item.

Fill your container with enough water to submerge your item into it.

Some items will need to have a wire or a paper clip attached so that it can be submerged in the water. You will want to do this before moving on to Step 2.

Place all other items within reach in case you need them quickly.

Step 2: Pouring the Paint

Carefully open your nail polish. Pour your paint into your cup very slowly so that a single drop comes out at a time. If there are too many drops at once the nail polish will sink instead of floating on the water. It's best to do this from a slight height of 3-4 inches. When it is dropped within 1-2 inches of the water's surface it will often fall to the bottom.

You want the nail polish to become a partially translucent and thin layer on top of the water, not a glob. If it is sticking in a glob try to break the surface tension of that glob with a toothpick. This doesn’t always work, if it won’t break just move on. Keep dropping until you have the entire surface of the water covered in a thin layer of enamel.

Using the tip of the toothpick draw lines through the two colors of nail polish so that they make a marble pattern - or a pattern similar to that which naturally occurs in stone.

Step 3: Dipping the Items

Slowly take your item and submerge it into the water.

You should see the paint wrap itself around your item’s surface. Once it has been fully covered and is below the paint level gently move it around so that and extra paint on the surface adheres to the side of the container or to your wire. This ensures that your item will not get extra paint on it as you pull it out of the water.

If you are doing several items you will want to make sure your water does not have old paint still on the surface. Take your toothpick and push it to the side of the water container until it is clear again before pouring new paint on top.

Your water can be reused several times before needing to be poured out and fresh water added again to keep dying more items.

Step 4: Letting It Dry + Completion

Once you have removed your item from the water it will need to be left to dry.
If it’s already on some kind of wire, hanging it is easiest. Don’t touch the painted surface until it has had enough time to dry completely.

As added protection you can use clear nail polish over the surface to seal your painted surface. With the help of an adult clear spray paint may also be used to seal your project.

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    2 years ago

    I love marbling. What a nice way to customize pendants! :)

    Maker Studio
    Maker Studio

    Reply 2 years ago