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How to Carve Shell Material for Jewelry Making

Updated April 17, 2017

The earliest known form of jewellery fashioned by our ancestors was made from shells and carvings from mother-of-pearl. The use of shell in whole or part is still very much in vogue today, with carved elements of shells as inlays or suspended pieces. You can carve shells for every use in jewellery by using the tools and techniques presented in this article.

Select a shell with a smooth surface and good iridescent colouration. Draw the shape of your design with a pencil and then carefully trace the outline with a Sharpie marker. The marker will leave an indelible ink line, so refine the pencil drawing to the final shape of your design before tracing.

Begin rough-cutting the shape using the Dremel tool and a narrow cutting disc. Use the tool at medium speed. Take care to make straight linear cuts. Avoid twisting or turning the cutting disc, because this may make the disc break or shatter. Work slowly and steadily, making longer cuts around the outside of the general form, then working down to the details with smaller cuts into inset areas. Leave a little excess on the outside of the marker lines; the excess will later be ground off with metal cutting burrs and grindstone-tipped bits.

Begin the refinement of the shape using larger and coarser grindstone bits. Cut out and shape the smaller and tighter areas with the metal burrs. Refinements such as bevelling the edges are accomplished by using successively finer grades of grindstones.

Use the grindstones to remove the surface of the outside back of the shell. A large, flame-point grindstone works well on the outside surface. Remove the surface until it has an even, white texture.

Use fine sandpaper to smooth the surfaces. Emery paper, which has a very fine grit, can be used for the fine polishing in the last steps of sanding.

Finish with felt buffing bits (used with the Dremel tool) to impart a high-gloss sheen on the surfaces of the shell.

Use your finished carving as an inlay, embossment or suspended ornament. The piece pictured here was fitted with a bezel and wire hook for use as an earring.

Warning

Always use safety glasses or goggles whenever operating a Dremel tool or other grinding and cutting devices. Ensure that the shell pieces are adequately secured in place with powerful clamps or a vice. Grinding and cutting shell material can cause it to heat up to temperatures that may cause severe burns.

Things You'll Need

  • Shell of oyster, clam or mollusc
  • Sharpie marker - fine point
  • Dremel tool
  • Cut-off discs and bit
  • Grindstone disc bits, assorted
  • Metal cutting-burrs, assorted
  • Fine sandpaper and emery paper
  • Felt buffing bits
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About the Author

Artist, author, musician and researcher—the contemporary equivalent of the Renaissance Man—David A. Claerr is a professional graphic designer and a certified Adobe expert. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and Bachelor of Art Education from Eastern Michigan University.