Looking for black powder, white powder
February 20, 2013 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Somewhat of an odd and hard to Google question: I'm looking for materials. Specifically, some kind of white powder, some kind of black powder. Specs for black: grain size would be just fine until about the size of salt/sand, ideal weight would be somewhere in between salt and flour (needs to have a short momentum in the air, but not as volatile as, let's say, ground up charcoal). Specs for white: salt could work out, but something slightly less heavy would be even better. Anything you encounter in your life/hobbies/work that would fit those specs?

This is for an art piece, so it really doesn't matter "what" the material is, I'm really looking for an effect of motion. As long as it's safe (it will be in an open space where people circulate), it's good to go!

Also, I need loads of it, so the cheaper, the better.

What I've considered so far (for the black; keeping salt as a back up idea for white): black salt (expensive, heavy), ground up charcoal bricks (tried this one and it's really too volatile and messy), ground up marble/granite/other stone (still considering, depending on price of other options I find).

Anything else? Excited to read everyone, there's such a great mixture of backgrounds here.
posted by kitsuloukos to Science & Nature (18 answers total)
Aquarium/aquatics/reptile/pet stores usually have this sort of dyed sand used for aquariums and terrariums, which comes in various grain sizes that seem to range anywhere from sand-sized to tiny pebbles. You might call around to these sorts of retailers.

Activated charcoal extracted from water/aquarium filters might meet your requirements for black powder too
posted by BrandonW at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2013

If salt is just about the right consistency, how about sugar? They make colored sugars for decorating (your search term is black sanding sugar).

Not necessarily the cheapest stuff, but it seems like it's what you need.

You can also put it (as well as the salt or whatever you're using for the white stuff) into a blender/food processor for a couple pulses, and it will break it down to a bit finer consistency--might be better for your project.

You could also used colored sand like they manufacture for craft projects and such.
posted by phunniemee at 9:36 AM on February 20, 2013

Embossing powder. Check your local craft or stamping stores. If they have a big selection they may have flocking powder as well, which would give you two different consistencies.
posted by shesbookish at 9:45 AM on February 20, 2013

Rice powder? Just put dry rice in a food processor or blender. It stays pretty heavy and granular (more like salt, less like flour), and would be super cheap. I imagine you could also color it with powdered food coloring.
posted by HotToddy at 9:49 AM on February 20, 2013

Scouring powder, like Ajax? Baking soda? Corn starch?
posted by molybdenum at 9:59 AM on February 20, 2013

My mind immediately went to food options, since you're looking for non-volitile. White is for sure your easiest. Flours, Icing Sugar, Baby Powder (not food, obv)... lots and lots of options. For black, have you considered griding up black cookies, like oreo cookie wafers (not the delicious cream part, obviously)? I personally wouldn't mind oreo powder on me as much as charcoal...
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:15 AM on February 20, 2013

Splenda crystals are about the same size as kosher salt but weigh nearly nothing
posted by supermedusa at 10:23 AM on February 20, 2013

On the heavy/coarse side: Abrasive Blasting Media... I don't know how black the Black Beauty Grit is. Glass beads are white and can make a pretty rainbow effect. Harbor Freight stocks Glass Beads and Baking Soda at my local store.
posted by tinker at 10:28 AM on February 20, 2013

You can make colored sugar, a process which would probably also work for dying salt if you decided that salt was a better consistency. Since you're not planning on eating it, you could probably even use a black ink as dye instead of trying to find a good food color that was sufficiently black.
posted by aimedwander at 10:31 AM on February 20, 2013

Aluminum oxide powder would probably work for the white. It looks like sand but is brighter white and lighter. I believe it's used as sandblasting media.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:41 AM on February 20, 2013

Fingerprint powder comes in a variety of colors and is fine grained.
posted by LightMayo at 11:03 AM on February 20, 2013

Play Sand is super cheap at your local big box hardware store, finer than salt, and could probably be dyed black. It is white right out of the sand box.

Finely ground dark roast coffee (maybe espresso?) might work for a black powder. Used grounds can probably be obtained for free.
posted by steinwald at 11:33 AM on February 20, 2013

Coarsely ground coffee?
posted by halogen at 11:47 AM on February 20, 2013

Embossing powder would look the way you want it to, but it is NOT cheap!

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is very fine and light, non-toxic, and easy to clean up. How much do you need? It's also really cheap and you can get it in any store, but if you need a lot, Amazon has a 13.5 POUND bag for $16.77, prime eligible.

Sanding sugar--used in baking and decorating--is available in black. Amazon has some so you can see what it looks like.

You can color your own sugar, but you need to use paste or powder food coloring to keep that sandy quality. I find it a pain to color frosting or sugars black myself, because you usually have to use a lot to not end up with grey, purple or indigo, my fingers end up stained black and it is hell to clean up afteward. I'd just spring for the sanding sugar.

Also, black lava salt is just sea salt that has been mixed with activated charcoal--maybe that process would help your black powder come out the way you want it?
posted by misha at 12:12 PM on February 20, 2013

Oh, and here's a recipe for homemade fingerprint powder, using just starch powder, candles and porcelain dishes (you light the candles to make soot and mix that with the starch powder).
posted by misha at 12:15 PM on February 20, 2013

I came here to say aquarium sand, which is available in many different colors and grain sizes, but Brandon beat me to it.

Another option is the sort of sand which is sold for model-making hobbyists (model trains, wargame miniaturists, etc.) I seem to recall that this sand tends to be sold in smaller amounts for higher prices, though.

Another possibility is the kind of wax or soap crystals which are sold in bulk for candle and soap-making hobbyists, though those might be a little too tacky to pour smoothly.
posted by oblique red at 12:56 PM on February 20, 2013

You should be able to get black or white sand of the grain size you need. Talk to people in construction, landscaping, aquariums, etc. You can put salt in a food processor to make it finer; I've done it with sugar. Sugar is a mess if it gets wet; both sugar and salt will attract moisture, so if it's humid, you could have trouble. Laundry powder is white and light. Salt and detergent aren't 100% safe so you may want to talk to someone at the venue about safety.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on February 20, 2013

Response by poster: Waow, that's great guys, thank you so much for all the great ideas! Some things I had thought about a while ago and forgot about, some things I just never would've thought of! I'll probably try most of what I have on hand from these suggestions, plus maybe one or two other options I find interesting, and maybe I can come back here and tell you my experiment results :)
Thanks again !
posted by kitsuloukos at 10:27 PM on February 23, 2013

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