Falling Sand Art Picture Repair




About: I'm a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University. I do a lot of hobbies, including amateur astronomy, woodworking, and Lego modeling among many others.

One of my favorite decorations in my study has always been a falling sand art picture. These are classic desk distractions -- two panes of glass with a small separation between them, filled with sand and water. You flip the frame over, and gravity pulls the sand to the bottom, making all kinds of interesting patterns and pictures. Each flipped picture is unique.

Over time, the water in my frame has escaped, to be replaced by air, rendering the art non-functional. This has always made me very sad -- I'm particularly fond of this one because it's green, and it glows in the dark!

You can find new frames in the store, but they usually have bubbles in them that are only going to get larger. Finally, it struck me that I ought to be able to add water -- after all, the frames were filled with water somehow when they were first assembled!

This instructable outlines how I successfully repaired my falling sand art picture -- hopefully it will help you rescue yours too!

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Step 1: Disassembly

The frame is in a simple cradle with little axle pins, that allow you to flip the pane over each time you want to make a new picture. There were no permanent attachments, and a little flex with my fingers popped the frame right out so I could work with it.

Some investigation revealed what I was looking for -- on both sides of the frame, there is a small hole in the plastic, behind which is a gasket that seals the gap between the two frames. Some gentle poking with a needle showed it was pliable.

The plan: poke a needle through the gasket, and squirt water into the gap between the frames. Just like inflating a ball, when I remove the needle, the gasket should seal behind it.

Step 2: Supplies

In addition to the frame that needs repair, I used:

  • Distilled Water: I didn't want the water to cloud up or have any chance of growing something in it. I could have boiled tap water, but decided it would be easier to work with distilled water
  • Needle: I needed a needle to pierce the gasket; it needed to be thin so it would go through without causing much damage or leaving a potentially unsealable hole behind. I didn't have any syringe needles around, but I have a little bottle and thin gauge needle that is used for applying cement when gluing plastics -- perfect for this task!

Step 3: Clearing the Port

My sand picture had been dead for a long time. When I stopped using it, I unknowingly had left the sand built up on the side of the frame with the gasket ports.

I didn't want to insert my needle and encounter sand that might clog my needle, prevent the injection of new water, or contaminate the opening in the gasket and prevent it from closing.

So I had to clear the sand from the gasket port. This took about 10 minutes of tipping what little water there was in the frame over the sand near the port and slowly washing it away to another part of the frame.

Step 4: Filling With New Water

Insert the needle through the gasket until you can see it between the glass panes.

Gently squeeze water into the space.

I think in the end the squeeze bottle worked better than a syringe because when I stopped squeezing, the pressure from the new water pushed the air back into the bottle, removing it from between the panes!

In the end, there was only a tiny bubble of air left -- no problem, as there is always air between the frames (some frames work with air as the barricades that the sand falls around, so some air is necessary).

Step 5: Finished!

Remove the needle, and you're done!

Sand started falling almost immediately as I added water, and no sooner had I removed the needle that it started behaving just like its old, wonderful self!

As I said, I love this frame because it glows in the dark. :-)

Good luck repairing your own Falling Sand Picture!



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    14 Discussions


    Reply 5 months ago

    Cant take and not give something back pulling water out with no vent hole can make glass suck in and crack


    7 months ago

    I have a round falling sand picture and can't find the access hole, any help would be appreciated. Thanks

    1 reply

    Reply 7 months ago

    Hi Brotchie -- I don't know. I have a round one, and the access hole is a small circle in the middle of the frame (I attach a picture here). Is your frame integral to the piece, or just cosmetic? Maybe it is under the frame somewhere?


    8 months ago on Step 5

    Thank you so very much for making this tutorial as it seems such a waste to just toss it and buy a new one. I am so happy to be able to fix the one we have. Many thanks!!

    1 reply

    Reply 8 months ago

    I'm glad you found it useful! I was just looking at mine and it is time to fix it again. I'm also glad I wrote it up so I know what to do now!


    Question 1 year ago

    My problem is clumping sand. I have read about a concentrated soap that can be used to get rid of bacteria that causes this problem, but I can't find where to buy it. Can you tell me about this soap ... and/or if I can use something like Dawn to solve the problem? Thank you!


    1 year ago on Step 2

    I saw on severals sandpicture's sites that the Distilled water isnt recommended.

    They says that must be used the boiled tap water.

    I dont hope so.....

    1 reply

    Reply 1 year ago

    I have always used distilled, and never had an issue in my sand pictures. I always shy away from tap water, because we are on well water that is high in minerals ("hard water") and I didn't want it in the art. In principle, distilled water is boiled off and then reclaimed from water vapor, so should be much lower in any sort of contaminants like minerals. If you ever heard why, I'd love to hear the reason!


    1 year ago

    What kind of water?

    CAUTION: Only use still water - spring water or artesian water from a bottle. They are UV treated and therefore free of bacteria or spurs of algae. Minerals are harmless because there are anyway minerals inside the picture.
    Tap water is not safe and should only be used after boiled and cooled down.

    Purified or distilled water is the worst. It is denatured because water has the urge becoming saturated with minerals or ions. The same job does purified water in your Sandpicture: it will destroy the soap and the preservative. Keep your hands off it. It is as harmful for the Sandpicture as it is for the human body.


    We know how much air a picture needs in average for a gentle and slow movement building mountain landscapes.

    For you are able to control the air perfectly, we established the Airscale and provide it with every Sandpicture showing the right amount of air for proper function.



    1 year ago

    There is an air scale to obtain the correct amount of air too.

    There are some genius people, here in Instructables. I wouldn't have the thought of doing something like this, not to mention the patience. Great work.

    computer freak3

    4 years ago

    great repair.the only problem i can see is i want one.great info.thanx


    4 years ago

    Thats a really cool one!