Working with Mother of Pearl
Pearl is just like any other material in that it has advantages and disadvantages. Mother of Pearl will not shrink, expand, bend, or move.
Most knife makers are skeptical about initially working with Mother of Pearl. This is usually because they have heard horror stories about pieces shattering or chipping right before the knife is complete. The truth is, Mother of Pearl is actually as easy to work with as bone, stag, or ivory. You can use the same tooling to cut, grind, shape, sand, and polish it. It does take a little more care, but once a Mother of Pearl handle is in place, that's where it will stay. You may have had the experience of taking an ivory handle knife across the country, through changes in humidity and climate only to find that the handle has come back to life and practically crawled off of the knife. You will NEVER have to worry about this problem with Mother of Pearl.
When grinding or shaping Mother of Pearl, do not allow the piece to become excessively hot as this can cause a burn mark that is deep and hard to remove. I recommend working with water. If you do not or cannot have some sort of water stream or spray while you are working, I recommend that you have a small container of water to dip your pearl into every time it becomes semi-hot to the touch. Any saw will generally cut Mother of Pearl. These include bandsaws, jeweler's saws, hacksaws, Dremel tools, table saws, etc... The key is to have good, sharp, clean teeth on whatever your choice of tools, and always KEEP IT COOL.
When drilling Mother of Pearl always make sure to:
1. Keep the bit cool with a few drops of mineral spirits.
2. Make sure that your bit is sharp and in good condition. I know a few makers who, after drilling for all their pins, actually throw away the bit to make sure that the next time they use a new one. While this can be expensive, these makers know that drilling won't be the cause of a chipped pair of $100.00 scales.
3. Drill your holes slightly larger than your actual pins. When you tap the pin in it expands and fills the hole. Remember that Mother of Pearl is 100% stable and if the pin is set too tight, something will have to give.
4. When setting pins use a little superglue in the hole. This helps seal the area from polishing compound and from absorbing the oil and grime that comes from being handled and carried.
When grinding Mother of Pearl, I recommend that all shops have a dust vacuum system. A simple system can be made from a 1/3 hp. Dayton blower, using the suction side of the blower and sewer PVC pipe for your connections. This, coupled with working under water, should greatly reduce the amount of dust in the room and that could potentially enter your lungs. At the very least, grind with a fan nearby to blow the dust away from your face.