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
Grip, and The
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!