Cutting and inlaying mother of pearl – Part 2: Tools of the trade
In order to inset precut inlays, only a few items are needed:
- good directed lighting,
- a laminate trim router,
- small down-cut bits,
- some Elmer’s stick glue,
- and 24-hour epoxy.
For cutting inlays out of blanks, a few more items are needed:
- a jeweler’s saw,
- jeweler’s blades,
- a simple birds-beak cutting board,
- dust masks,
- a double-outlet aquarium pump,
- a Dremel tool (preferably with a keyless chuck),
- a special router stand for the Dremel,
- some clear packing tape,
- a set of small files,
- and for those who are visually challenged, strong reading glasses or a magnifying headset.
Let’s start with the routers
A laminate trim router can accept the small bits required and can be used for cutting out the larger spaces.
Pros – you probably already have one.
Cons – in cutting, the line of sight is hindered by the closed throat.
Stewart McDonald, a luthier supplier, offers two specialized router bases that hold any Dremel tool, new or old:
Again, Stewart McDonald is my go-to for excellent quality 1/8″ shanked carbide down-cut bits that fit in the Dremel keyless chuck. At $20 each, they make the more expensive Dremel router base worth the price. The smallest of the bits are delicate and snap easily (oh, so easily) when forced to cut too much material. The black router base provides a way to easily make controlled, progressive depth settings based on the thickness of the inlay material.
Here’s why you need to use downcut bits:
Stewart McDonald also supplies a good quality jeweler’s saw and jeweler’s blades by the dozen, but they are expensive. A preferred option for a less expensive saw and buying high-quality blades by the gross is PJ Tool and Jewelry.
One of the assets of using a jeweler’s saw is the narrowness of the throat, which lessens the unwieldiness of a saw with a large opening. I’ve tried using my Knew Concepts coping saw and found it difficult to maneuver around tight cuts.
The blade size most commonly used is the medium # 3; the #1 fine is good for more detailed work; and the very fine 3/0 blades are good for cutting accent lines. These blades are super thin: from .0120” to .0070” and they snap easily from overheating or too much pressure.
Keeping the cutting line clear of pearl dust is necessary for making good cuts. Petco and online stores provide a plethora of reasonably-priced double-outlet aquarium pumps and tubing. A single outlet pump doesn’t generally push enough air to keep the line clear unless it is immediately close to the work, which I find to be too close. But if you are looking for something like that, again, Stew Mac to the rescue.
My setup is over ten-years-old, and I’m sure someone has developed a more glamorous method of doing this, but it works for me.
Some people call this a doe’s foot, some people call it a bird beak, but can be made from scrap wood and is necessary to have if you plan on cutting pearl. The measurements are approximate.
Here’s how it’s used to support the pearl from breaking as you cut (sometimes I use a small clamp to hold the pearl down on long cuts).
or to start a cut:
Glues and adhesives
Using Elmer’s stick glue is one good way to secure your inlay to the wood before scoring around it and marking the area for routing. Walgreens (and any store with school supplies) carries it.
For inlaying, long-set non-brittle epoxy is preferable to 5-minute epoxy unless the inlay is 1) simple and 2) easily fitted. No more profane diatribes can be uttered than when 5-minute epoxy or super glue sets before the inlay is properly placed and inset. I use T-88 from System Three, a company that also supplies epoxy pigments that come in handy if you tend to make overcuts.
A small, inexpensive set of needle files goes a long way toward correcting poorly cut pearl edges.
Cutting and inlaying mother of pearl – Part 1: Materials
For both the artistic and not-so-artistic woodworker, mother of pearl and inlay materials come in a variety of selections:
Mother of pearl and paua abalone by the piece, referred to as blanks.
Reconstituted stone, available in sheets:
Ablam® sheets (laminated abalone):
Simple precut designs:
and complex precut designs:
If you would like to explore a little and get a feel for prices and availability, here are the top US suppliers of mother of pearl, in order of my preference.
Notes of interest: Marquetry
In the fall of this year, we plan to have demonstrations on hammer veneering – using hot hide glue – and a presentation on how to cut and inlay mother of pearl. What will be missing in those presentations is the art of marquetry, a natural extension of those two skills. To fill that need, I have contacted a woodworking acquaintance named Paul Miller, a retired boat builder from Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island, who has devoted his retirement to mastering and teaching the art of French marquetry. Paul was happy for me to pass along information for his school, share some of his photos, and introduce our members to a new aspect of woodworking.
Paul and I first met online in 2010 through the Lumberjocks woodworking site, and we hit it off immediately. We both shared an interest in ornamentation in wood, and my big decision at the time was what form of ornamentation work I wanted to pursue in retirement: woodcarving or marquetry. My shop is modest in size, so it had to be one or the other. I had already been doing mother-of-pearl inlay, and the jump off into marquetry would have been a logical step, but somewhere in my soul was the need to be more intimate with wood; I wanted to touch it, study the grain, watch it respond to my tools. In the end, I chose woodcarving. Paul, on the other hand, went full tilt into the study of marquetry, attending Patrick Edwards’ American School of French Marquetry in San Diego.
Within four short years, Paul’s skill level went from this:
He is now the proprietor of the Canadian School of French Marquetry in Cowichan Bay, where he delights in sharing his passion for marquetry.
Have you ever driven a chevy?
The go-to tool for those interested in traditional marquetery is the chevalet de marqueterie (pronounced like Chevrolet), designed by the French in the mid-1700s and introduced to Americans by Patrick Edwards, who studied the art of marquetry in France. Cheval, in French, means “horse,” and the chevalet is an object upon which one sits and cuts marquetry. The genius of the chevalet is that it always holds the work at a 90 degree angle and allows the user to cut packets of the intricate pieces required to create art in wood.
Once a complicated piece to build and maintain, Paul has taken the chevalet to its next logical form, making a version that is easy for the average woodworker to construct. Instead of using solid wood, which is susceptible to movement and misalignment, Paul has devoted his time, money, and energy into developing a handsome CNC-cut plywood version that is easier to assemble and requires minimal adjustments over time. He jokingly calls it the plywood palomino, but it is a work horse, and it has brought French marquetry into the realm of possibility for the average woodworker.
I highly recommend Paul’s school to anyone who wishes to bump up their woodworking skills a notch or two. A super nice guy and an accomplished woodworker, Paul can set you on the path to a new adventure in your woodworking journey.
“If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fiberglass trees.” – Paul Miller
More work from Paul’s shop