Abalone strips that are added to a guitar rosette, edge binding, center purfling strip or peghead, can be one of the most stunning effects you can add to a guitar.
If you do it correctly and with good taste, you can add a lot of punch to a handmade guitar and it also can add a lot of value, as this is a very labor intensive endeavor.
Martin made Abalone Shell inlay very popular when they introduced it into their higher end Dreadnought series guitars, such as the D-41 and the D-45. The D-41 sports Abalone around the rosette and the top, as well as hexagonal position markings inlaid in the fretboard.
The D-45 goes all-out and uses the abalone in every location that the white purfling strips would be typically used, including the sides, back, center strip etc.
Where Does Abalone Come From?
For those of you who don’t know, Abalone is a sea shell or mollusk. Here is a little description from Wikipedia:
The shells of abalones have a low and open spiral structure, and are characterized by several open respiratory pores in a row near the shell’s outer edge. The thick inner layer of the shell is composed of nacre or mother-of-pearl, which in many species is highly iridescent, giving rise to a range of strong and changeable colors, which make the shells attractive to humans as decorative objects, and as a source of colorful mother-of-pearl.
The shell of the abalone is exceptionally strong and is made of microscopic calcium carbonate tiles stacked like bricks. Between the layers of shells is a clingy protein substance. When the abalone shell is struck, the tiles slide instead of shattering and the protein stretches to absorb the energy of the blow. Material scientists around the world are studying the tiled structure for insight into stronger ceramic products such as body armor.
The High Cost of Abalone:
If you surf around on the luthier supply house websites you will find Abalone strips at various prices, depending of the amount of figure, the size of strips, if they are straight or curved and the color, which ranges from green to red to pink.
An average price you will find will be about $1.00 per inch or per 25 mm. Since it takes about 70 inches to go around the top or the back of a guitar, you are looking at close to $100 per plate, which starts to add up in a hurry.
The Dangers of Working With Abalone Shell:
The dust created through the grinding and cutting of abalone shell can be dangerous; appropriate safeguards must be taken to protect people from inhaling these particles.
An N95 Rated Respirator, a ventilation system, and wet grinding are requirements to working abalone shell safely. The calcium carbonate dust is a respiratory irritant and the particles can penetrate into the lower respiratory tree and cause irritant bronchitis and other respiratory irritation responses.
The usual symptoms are cough and sputum production, and secondary infections can occur. If there are proteins left in the shell matrix, it is also possible that they can trigger an allergic (asthmatic) attack. Allergic skin reactions can also occur.
So if you decide to work with any seashell product, be sure to wear proper protection and use the proper tools. Do not risk a lung disease to make a fancy guitar!
Look for articles on installation of Abalone and How to Make Your Own Abalone Strips.