How to Fix Beads with Too-Small Holes

Sep 17, 2008

Whether you’re a stitcher or a stringer, chances are you run across beads with too-small holes. You have choices: 1) jam your needle or wire through the bead, often resulting in frustration and a broken bead; 2) throw the bead over your shoulder (like with salt, it’s considered good luck); or 3) use a tool to enlarge the hole. If you want to go with Option 3, but aren’t sure how it’s done, read on.

For all these techniques, be sure to wear safety glasses.

Bead Reamer
This hand tool comes with a selection of tapered, diamond-coated tips to accommodate different-size bead holes. They work well for enlarging and smoothing the holes in gemstone, shell, pearl, and glass beads. To use one, hold your bead in one hand and the reamer in the other hand. Working under water (a pan full of water or under the tap works), use the pointed tip to sand through the bead hole, first from one side of the bead, then from the other to keep the hole even. Bead reamers also come in electric versions, which go quite a bit faster. The increased friction will heat up your bead, so hold it under water (the bead, not the electric reamer, for heaven’s sakes!) with a cushioned tweezers to avoid burning your fingers. Note: Water is very important to the success of bead reaming: It not only makes the process go faster, it helps keep your tool sharp.

Want to see the technique in action? Katie Hacker does a nice job in the Beads, Baubles, and Jewels Series 800 DVD. She shows exactly how to use a battery-operated bead reamer to drill a pearl under water.  Buy Beads, Baubles, and Jewels Series 800.

Pearl Reamer
This hand tool is similar to a bead reamer, but it’s built just for pearls. It has a straight handle and a very fine corkscrew-like tip. You hold the pearl in one hand and place the tip into the pearl hole with the other hand. Working “dry” (not underwater, like with the bead reamer), use the tool to slowly and carefully sand the pearl’s hole from one side, then from the other. The action will produce a fine pearl dust.

Needle File
For polymer clay, acrylic, and wood beads, a needle file can do the trick to enlarge and smooth holes. Use it the same way as you would the pearl reamer.

Dremel or Foredom Drill
These electric drills have tiny bits that are perfect not only for making new bead holes, but enlarging them. Use the same technique as with the bead reamer, keeping the bead (not the drill, of course!) under water.

Do you have more tips for enlarging bead holes? Share them on the website.


Jean Campbell writes about beading and life every Wednesday on Beading Daily. If you have comments or questions for Jean, please post them on the website. Thanks!



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Comments

Kelli@23 wrote
on Sep 17, 2008 1:17 PM

Stone beads can chip, crack, and even split wide open while enlarging holes if not careful. Briolettes are susceptible because of the way the hole is placed in the narrowest part of the stone. Go slow. Also, knowing that stone beads can be damaged by enlarging, have more that you think you'll need. I've tossed many a bead that is simply not enlargeable, or broke in pieces, or the drill bit got stuck, etc. Better safe than sorry.--Kelli P.

CharityS@3 wrote
on Sep 17, 2008 2:35 PM

I agree with Kelli on the briolettes,they are a big pain in the rear end.I do not kow how many I have ruined be it crystal,gemstone, or glass ones.

Lisa Arrow wrote
on Sep 17, 2008 3:38 PM

I second (or is it third?) the briolette issue!  I would not even dare to try enlarging a hole on one since I know I would break it.  Sometimes when just wire wrapping, I find they can break or chip.  If a briolette bead looks particularly pointy and fragile, I won't even attempt to wire wrap it.  Instead, I'll use a jump ring and save the bead as well as my frustration!!!  It works well and still looks great.

Janisjaske wrote
on Sep 17, 2008 5:07 PM

Thanks so much for this instruction about bead reaming. I have been beading for a long time, and have always used the over-the-shoulder method. I recently bought a bead reamer, but haven't used it yet and didn' know you had to hold the bead under water! Thanks again

CoonCat wrote
on Sep 17, 2008 5:14 PM

I am a dental assistant so I have witnessed first hand the effects of drilling on glass - porcelain crowns are essentially "glass" fired at 2000 degrees.  The best method to drill into glass is slowly and with copious amounts of water to keep it cool.  Even under the best treatment small defects in the glass will cause it to chip and fracture.  Unless I really need the bead for that piece I'll save it for another project.  

ValerieD wrote
on Sep 17, 2008 5:35 PM

Thank you.  I didn't know about using water.  This explains my unsuccessful efforts!

on Sep 17, 2008 5:56 PM

I agree totally with MicheleA.My jewelry has evolved into drilling through cabs and small semi and precious stones my husband and I collect and finish. I can't emphasize enough the need for water-for that matter I do a lot of my drilling completely under water with a variable speed dremel. I use 1.5mm-2mm diamond core drills or diamond twist drills from Rio Grande. They have a great selection of hand and power drill parts. I have still broken my fair share of drill bits even being as careful as I can. I did manage to find a bead vise that actually holds the bead you want to enlarge the hole on but again it takes water and a good drill. I wish I had access to dental drill equipment although I am finding the core diamond drills probably as effective. Core drills allow for water to flow through the drill as it gets heated up by the drilling process. It is very much a learning process for me but when I made that first perfect hole in a beautiful handmade cabochon it was worth every broken bit and tear!

on Sep 17, 2008 10:57 PM

Two rather important safety considerations about the above:

Be aware that the dust created when sanding pearls or other nacreous (shell) items can be quite harmful to your lungs. Always be sure that the resulting dust is completely collected and removed before it can be stirred up and ingested; working them in front of a vacuum intake, for instance, can help prevent a fairly serious health hazard.

The other safety item is that, whenever using electrical equipment around water, it's a good idea to make absolutely certain to avoid any potential for shock.  The Foredom (or other flexible shaft tools) is a good way to do this, as your tool is not actually conducting electricity.  If you are using a Dremel, or other directly motorized tool, make sure that it is a cordless version, and not something plugged into the wall.

Bead working can be exciting enough on its own, without adding the unnecessary risk of electrocution.

( I just re-read this, and it sounds like something my mother would lecture me about......but she would be right this time.   Does this mean that I've finally turned into my parents?Gaaaack!)

on Sep 18, 2008 7:55 AM

Anytime you are creating particles small enough that you can inhale them, you should use a mask to protect yourself. Of course when thinking about which ones, it's always better to err on the safe side! Just because the powder of a pearl seems to fall to the ground, does not mean extremely fine powder has not come upwards in the air you are breathing. If you keep a box of inexpensive masks, protective eye glasses, cotton gloves and rubber gloves should cover most bases. Another trick I used to teach my painting students was to scratch the surface of the bar of soap before they started painting, to avoid having paint (or powder or liquids) go under the nails.

DebWAZ wrote
on Sep 18, 2008 12:45 PM

I also agree about briolettes - I don't even bother trying to enlarge or open a hole. I've chipped and broken too many to even THINK about wasting my time with them any more. They either get the "over the shoulder" or put aside for another project - someday. <grin!>

There've been very good warnings posted here about water and electricity and wearing a mask and eye protection. I agree with all of them.

Pam - good tips about gloves, eye protection and masks - from my brief foray into making stained glass, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have the protective tape to put on your fingers under the rubber gloves, just in case the bead reamer slips.

A vacuum system is a little overboard if you are "just" a hobby beader, but you can always set a fan to blow across the work away from you or from behind you to help prevent breathing any dust. I don't have too many beads that I *have* to enlarge the holes - most of the time, if the hole's too small, I go for smaller thread/wire and if the smallest is still too big, the bead gets added to my stash of pretty rocks!  

Pearl and shell dust aren't the only things to be concerned about breathing. Bone dust isn't too healthy, either.

There are bead vices that you can use to hold the bead. I'm a hands-on kind of person, so I would find it awkward to use, but it would certainly be safer than holding a bead in your hand. And, again - IF you are a hobby beader, you probably wouldn't want or need to buy one. If you do, it SHOULD cost less than $10, but *I* would rather spend that $10 on BEADS! <grin>

Hope this helps someone!

Deb - AZ Bead Depot