Cutting Mother of Pearl Inlay

Tips on tools and techniques for working with mother-of-pearl. December 29, 2008

Question
I'm getting ready to do a box lid that will have a mother of pearl oval in the center, with a rose inlayed into the mother of pearl. This is my first time working with mother of pearl, so any suggestions on cutting it would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Veneer Forum)
From contributor J:
I have used a jeweler's saw. It looks like a coping saw only smaller, with blades that have a square (or nearly) cross section. They come in various tooth pitches, some so fine you need magnification or run your fingernail down the edge. Use a board in a vice, with a V-notch in the end that widens out below the surface, to support the work. Hold the saw handle below the work, and mount the blade to cut on the down (pull) stroke. Smooth the edges with a Dremel tool with a diamond burr. Glue with epoxy. Good luck. (Try jewelry making books in the library.)



From the original questioner:
Thank you. I was going to try an ultra-fine tooth spiral on my scroll saw. I've seen the jeweler's saw in the catalog before. Maybe it's time to purchase one.


From contributor B:
You don't need a power tool for this. The pearl cuts easily with fine blades. You get more detail and sharper corners than you would with the large kerf that the spiral bits leave. Draw or print your pattern onto adhesive labels and tape it to the pearl. Cut it out with a jeweler's saw on a v-notched jig as suggested. Then temporarily spot glue the pearl onto the work piece with some crazy glue and scribe around it with a sharp pointed scribe. Pop the pearl off and cut out the recess with a Dremel tool with a router base and a 1/8 or 1/16" router bit (it's easier to handle than a Roto-zip or a laminate trimmer). Glue the pearl in place, and file it flush before sanding. You'd be surprised how soft the pearl actually is to cut, file, and sand. Guitar headstocks and fretboards have pearl inlays and the luthiery catalogs are a good resource. Stewart MacDonald's has pearl (white, gold, and black) pieces and you can get sheets of pearl that are laminated together for larger work.


From the original questioner:
Thank you. I will definitely keep it in mind the next time I use MOP. I ended up using a laminate trimmer with an 1/8" downcut spiral bit to remove the bulk of the material, then a sharp razor knife to finish it off.


The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor W:
Also remember that the particles from cutting and sanding mother of pearl and abalone are very harmful to your lungs. Donít forget to wear an approved respirator.