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Mother of Pearl Inlay: The Process

Mother of Pearl is the inner layer of oyster and mussel shells. Each shell is unique in color and texture with a shiny and iridescent finish, making it an ideal decorative material, especially as an inlay in rosewood furniture.

Preparation

preparing mother of pearl inlays

Mother of Pearl is brittle by nature. Preparing tools is important to ensure a high quality finished product. For example, the fret saw must be hand-sharpened with notches to effectively cut the Mother of Pearl designs out of the blanks.

Individual designs are drawn onto the shells before they are cut. Often times, a paper sketch of the design is glued to the surface in order to produce accurate designs. The curvature, colors, and patterns of the shell are all taken into account when determining where the design will be cut on the shell in efforts to minimize the arch on each piece.

Cutting

cutting mother of pearl inlays
 
cutting mother of pearl inlays

To begin cutting, a hole is first drilled into the shell where the fret saw will be inserted. The design is cut as the craftsman skillfully moves the saw perpendicularly up and down against the shell. Each piece is then hand-sanded against a large grinder to eliminate rough edges created by the saw.

Routing

The pearl design is then carefully arranged onto the surface of the wood to be inlaid. Water-based glue is used to temporarily secure the pieces to that their outlines may be precisely traced. The mother of pearl pieces are then delicately removed, avoiding breaking or chipping the pieces. A small router is used to carve a shallow silhouette onto the wood. The craftsman must be careful to cut only inside the lines to avoid a gap between the design and the wood when the pieces are inserted.

setting and gluing mother of pearl

Inlay

Each piece of the Mother of Pearl design is rearranged into the carved silhouette. Fine saw dust is used as filler under the design to eliminate cavities created by the pearl's irregularities. Using light and even pressure, a hammer gently fits each piece into the wood. Glue is added to secure the pattern. The completed inlay design is then sanded until flush with the wood to remove excess glue and uneven surfaces.

mother of pearl inlay technique
mother of pearl inlay technique
mother of pearl inlay technique

Etching & Finishing

The Mother of Pearl can be etched and filled to make the design come to life. Master engravers use various techniques to achieve diverse line thickness. They are filled with ink matching the wood finish to accent the depth of the cut. A polish is applied after all details are added to seal the design.

You can see our entire selection of furniture with mother of pearl inlays here