The unknown is always mysterious, and sometimes unfamiliar territory looks downright scary. Of course, looks can be deceiving. Inlay – the art of cutting stones or shells to fit snugly within the recesses of a setting – may seem difficult at first, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn.

The Basic Techniques of Shell Inlay

shell inlayMost of us have seen and admired the beautiful inlay created by Native American artists. They cut and polish the stones, then arrange them in plaques (recesses defined by thick-walled bezels). The plaques themselves have intriguing shapes, depicting animals, geometric forms, and even landscapes. Almost any type of stone or other hard, organic material can be used for inlay, but the most common materials are turquoise, coral, onyx, and mother-of-pearl shell. The results can be stunning.

To learn the art of inlay, it’s best to start with the basics. This project will walk you through the fundamentals so that you become comfortable enough to move on to a more challenging project. Once you master this simple circular design, you’ll be setting stones and shells in plaques of various shapes and sizes in no time!


  • Sterling-silver wire: 8- to 10-gauge, square
  • Sterling-silver wire: 18- to 20-gauge, round
  • Sterling-silver sheet: 20- to 22-gauge
  • Mother-of-pearl shell
  • Jump rings
  • Clasp

Tools & Supplies

  • Cutting/polishing lapidary machine
  • Wire cutters
  • Flux
  • Anti-flux or yellow ochre
  • Torch
  • Solder: hard, medium, easy
  • Pickle solution
  • Jeweler’s saw
  • Metal files
  • Trim saw
  • Scribe
  • Cardboard or cardstock (optional)
  • Safety goggles, particulate respirator, apron
  • Dental pick
  • Two-part epoxy
  • Scrap wood
  • Charcoal stick or colored pastels (optional)
  • Wooden dowels, thin
  • Colored paper or fabric (optional)
  • Dental floss (optional)
  • Buffing wheel
  • Jeweler’s roug
Inlay 101

Fabricate a plaque.

Cut a piece of 8- to 10-gauge square wire to your desired plaque size. Bring the ends of the wire together to form a ring, and solder the seam using hard solder. Pickle, then rinse the ring in hot, soapy water.Cut a piece of silver sheet metal to the size of the ring. Solder the ring to the sheet metal using medium solder. Pickle the plaque, rinse it in hot, soapy water, and dry it. Use a jeweler’s saw to trim around its perimeter, forming a cup. File the cut edge until it is smooth.

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Inlay 101Solder a small, U-shaped piece of 18- to 20-gauge wire to each side of the plaque using easy solder. Pickle, rinse, dry, and set it aside.Make as many plaques as you’ll need to connect into a bracelet or necklace of your desired length. Although this project calls for circular plaques, you can make them different shapes; though, consider that you’ll be custom-cutting shell to fit each one. For an efficient and accurate plaque-reproduction method.
Inlay 101

Cut the shell into workable pieces

If the shell is a large slab or chunk, use a trim saw to slice off manageable pieces close to the size of your plaques.

Inlay 101

Scribe the shell pieces

Measure the interior circumference of the plaques. Using a scribe, draw a circle with the same circumference onto the face of the shell pieces. Optionally, make a circle template out of cardboard or cardstock, and scribe many circles onto your shell at the same time.

Inlay 101

Cut the shells to size

Cut the shells to size using the second- or third-coarsest-grit wheel on your cutting unit (the coarsest are usually on the left). It is important to keep the blade and shell pieces wet while cutting.Begin by cutting the back of the shell flat, if it isn’t already. Then, hold the shell firmly between your index fingers and thumbs, and move it into a position near the lower third of the wheel.

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Inlay 101Hold the shell against the wheel, and rotate it in your hand often to grind away the shell outside of your scribed line. Frequently test the shell for fit in the plaque.
Inlay 101Continue cutting until the shell fits snugly in the plaque. Thoroughly dry the pieces.
Inlay 101

Prepare your tools and materials for setting.

Epoxy dries fast, so prepare your work area with all the materials you’ll need: circular plaques, shell pieces, dental pick, two-part epoxy, scrap wood, charcoal, and thin wooden dowels. Place each shell piece next to its respective plaque so you can work quickly once the epoxy is mixed.

Inlay 101

Score the plaque beds

Use a dental pick to score the plaque bed (not the walls). This will give the epoxy a rough surface to adhere to.

Inlay 101

Set the shell pieces

Squeeze equal-sized portions of the two epoxy parts onto a scrap piece of wood, and mix the parts together. You can add charcoal powder or colored-pastel powder to the epoxy to enhance the shell’s appearance after setting.

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Inlay 101Apply the adhesive mixture to the inside of a plaque using the dowel.
Inlay 101Press a shell piece into the plaque, and use another dowel to lightly tap it into place.Repeat this process for each of your plaques. Remember to work quickly as epoxy dries fast. Allow the pieces to dry for at least an hour or, even better, overnight.
Inlay 101

Trim the shells flush with their plaques. Use your cutting unit to trim the shell pieces flush with the top edge of their plaques. Remember to wet the wheels and shell pieces. Be careful not to cut into the silver – it will leave streaks on the shell and may damage the cutting wheel.

Polish the shell surfaces. Polish the shell surfaces with your cutting unit. For each piece, begin using the coarse-grit wheels, and progressively move toward the fine grits until the shell has been polished on each wheel. Again, always wet the wheels and shell pieces, and rinse the shells in water between wheels.

Polish the plaque. Polish the plaque on a buffing wheel loaded with jeweler’s rouge.

Assemble the jewelry. Connect the pieces to one another using double jump rings, and attach a clasp for completion.

Time Saver

If you’re long on creativity but short on time, here’s a short-cut to help you achieve the best of both worlds. Design and fabricate one link of your bracelet, and send it out to a casting service. The casting service will make silicone molds of your link, inject wax into the molds, then proceed with a method called “lost wax casting,” where molten metal takes the place of the wax piece. When you receive the castings, they will need a little filing, sanding, and polishing, but that’s all.

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Besides saving time, casting also ensures that each one is identical to the others. Check for casting companies in your local phone directory under “jewelry” or “casting,” or search the Internet.

Technicolor Settings

When setting stones or other objects, the color of the plaque’s interior often affects the stone’s appearance, depending on the type of stone. Black coloration beneath mother-of-pearl shell gives the shell’s surface a gray, blue, and purple haze. You can produce a fine, black coloring pigment by rubbing a wooden dowel against a charcoal stick. Grate the charcoal powder directly into your epoxy, and mix it in. You can also use this technique by grating colored pastels into your epoxy. Coat the lining of your plaque with the colored adhesive, then set your stone, shell, or other object.

Before you create a colorful mess experimenting with colored epoxies, try different color and stone combinations using colored paper or fabric. Temporarily place the material inside the setting, place a piece of dental floss across the opening (as a removal tool), and press the stone in to see how the color affects the stone’s appearance.

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Safety First

Dust produced when cutting, grinding, polishing, or drilling shells and stones can be hard on your lungs. A particulate respirator should be worn when undertaking heavy-duty production work, or if you’re particularly sensitive to dust. It’s also a good idea to protect your eyes with safety goggles. Always keep the grinding wheels and stone or shell wet to reduce airborne dust, keep the work cool, and prevent the wheels from clogging. Water is the most common coolant used.