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Smart Guide to Shell Shopping

There are a number of shells currently available and each set has different features. I have compiled this guide in an attempt to help the prospective con man fit his needs to a set of shells.

Each person should take the time to actually try each set of shells before buying to see which suit their individual needs. I do feel that it is important for the consumer to be informed and consider all features in a set of shells before buying.

A lot of people believe that the Chanin Dip is a major feature--perhaps the defining feature--when looking for a set of shells. In fact, there are many other things one should consider. There are many other factors to take into account when comparing shells: The Look, Dimensions, Weight, Color, Texture, Construction, Special Work, The Chanin Dip, The Grip, and The Pea.

The Look

Whenever you are picking props for a performance you should consider how they reflect and enhance the overall performance. Do the shells communicate something about your character? Do they contribute to the atmosphere you are attempting to create? Can you connect with the equipment on a personal level? What feels comfortable? Do the design elements of the shell allow you to forget the technique and concentrate on the audience?


The size of a shell can make certain moves more natural. A low profile can make for difficulty gripping. While a large shell might appear to require a slightly larger table space for performance, the actual difference in performance area is negligible (an inch here or there).


A heavier shell provides more fluid response and keeps the shell from flipping over when not deliberately held (as in under a glass or in the "Kick Steal").


This may be a matter of preference, but you want the shell's color to look like actual walnut shells that you might buy in a grocery store. This means, not too light or dark, but just right. If your audiences have nothing to compare them with side by side you can probably get away with almost anything. The more "right" they look, the less time your audience will spend wondering if the shells are "real" and the more they will actively participate in the game. It is also nice if you have the option to adjust color to suit your preference. Optimally, you want a set of shells that are identical in color, with no distinguishing color variations to indicate which shell is which.


The natural ridges on the sides of the La Maggiore shell form finger positions. I literally sorted through hundreds of shells to find the right balance of natural grooves. I was the first designer of synthetic shells to recognize and integrate this very important feature. The deeper grain (compared with smaller conventional walnuts) makes for a sure grip. The interior of the La Maggiore shells have been smoothed and sloped to each of the compass points to ensure a fluid, controlled steal from any direction (as in the oddly-named "Escobar" move). Whit Haydn has described his thinking for the interior design of the School for Scoundrels (SfS) Street & Golden Shells on various boards, and, while I can appreciate his reasoning, I find that while high internal walls may aid the novice in learning the limits of shell motion, they also impart a higher hop when stealing the pea from any direction other than back and forth.


Look for high durability. Both the SfS and La Maggiore shells are cast out of polyurethane resin and are designed to last (and last and last). In the case of the La Maggiore shells, the thicker walls and special high-impact resin make the final product virtually indestructible, washable, and, as described next, modifiable. The resin formulation was specially designed so that La Maggiore shells are virtually indistinguishable from the original shells they were cast from. An additional note: because resin shells are colored completely through, you can modify the shells to suit your purpose. If you prefer a deeper dip, simply sand the shell to your required depth. If, like, me, you prefer a flat-bottomed shell as they come, do nothing. Also, the resin formulation used for the La Maggiore shells may be stained using Woodkote's Jel'd (we like Heritage Oak) to darken, enhance the texture, or create an aged look.

Special Work

At the minimum, any set of good shells should have the gentle "inverted V" sculpted in at the rear of the shell (where the branch would meet the shell). The height at its apex should be roughly half the height of the pea (or the height of the pea in its most compressed state. This minimizes motion during rear steals.

The "Chanin Dip."

Jack Chanin's personal modification of the shells was designed for use primarily in conjunction with the "You Hold It" move from his book Hello Sucker! Chanin emphasized this preparation for use when a spectator held his finger on the shell while it was moved. The steal was made and (according to Chanin) no tactile sensation of a steal could be detected. The design was not made for enabling steals on a hard surface. Chanin (and many other performers) do refer to working on a hard surface, but the necessity here is the right kind of pea, not the shell. He never (or at least rarely) sold shells with this preparation. I own several sets of original Chanin shells, none of which are prepared in this manner. This was mainly due to the time and effort it takes to prepare the shells. It would not be cost-effective to manually prepare actual shells for resale. Nowadays, this preparation, while time-consuming initially, can be replicated fairly inexpensively, but is it really necessary?

I spent much time and effort on various treatments of the shells (including a set with the Chanin Dip). I had never used shells prepared this way in my own work, but when I was developing the La Maggiore shells I wanted to look at all the options before proceeding.

Personally, I feel the Chanin Dip is generally over-valued. Most people perform on a soft surface; here the "Dip" provides no advantage.

On a hard surface, the Chanin Dip may make it initially easier for the novice to steal a pea, but it adds a motion to the shell and hand that serves as a tell. Unless you spend a significant amount of time learning how to limit the rocking motion upon releasing the shell, each shell will wobble when you release them, sending up a red flag to astute spectators. A conscientious performer will put in the time to negate this movement, but why complicate the process more than necessary?

This is not to say that the Chanin Dip does not have value to a performer who may have a specific use for it, but I generally feel that it may be being used as a selling point more than an actual beneficial feature. Those interested in this feature can easily modify the La Maggiore shells to add the Dip.

The Grip

When a pea is stolen from any shell on a hard surface, the shell can rebound and slam against the surface with a resounding "clack." This is true regardless of how the shells are prepared and is not the fault of the shell's preparation, but rather a fault in grip.

People who use a Chanin Dip in their shells often develop a grip that exerts downward pressure at the front of the shell (to take advantage of the rocking motion described above). Regardless of the shell you use, I recommend developing a grip that is focused on the sides rather than the top. This allows you to "glide" the shells, providing more control and minimizing any potential for undue noise. An extra benefit of this grip is that it allows for consistent handling of the shells regardless of whether you are executing a steal or simply changing shell position. Spend some time learning how to really work the shells for maximum impact.

The Pea

It is not the shell that enables working on a hard surface, but having the right pea will enable anyone to perform on virtually any surface.

I designed my La Maggiore shells because I wanted a set that I would use professionally. No one was yet making a set of shells that had the features I was looking for, so I made them. For many years I used actual walnut shells which would eventually crack and break. As for peas, I used to make my own out of sponge rubber (cosmetic sponges work great) and occasionally would dip them in liquid latex.

Now I use the Perfect Pea made by School for Scoundrels. No one else currently makes a pea that does so much for so little. With a Perfect Pea you could almost use any covering (have you tried seashells yet?). I could have saved a good chunk of money and made some rubber peas to put in with my shells, but I wanted to support someone who put out a really great product, so I supplied my customers with the Perfect Peas, which I wholeheartedly endorse.

The Blow Off

Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice based on your determining factors. The SfS shells have been designed to fill certain needs, and the La Maggiore shells for others. Determine what features you need from your shells and buy accordingly. Both sets have been designed by professionals who feature the shells prominently in their paid engagements and you can't go wrong with either set, once you've determined exactly how they need to work for you.

In my experience, the larger shell and deeper grain on the La Maggiore set actually make manipulating the shells easier. I know many, many people with small hands using the La Maggiore shells exclusively. With only a small bit of effort, the La Maggiore shells may be used on any surface with no modification of handling.

Shell aficionados live in a wonderful time to have so many choices!

Copyright © 2002-2013 Andrew J. Pinard. All rights reserved.

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