Stars To Steer By

The misadventures of a creative mind

Whittling Away December 10, 2014

‘Tis the season for giving, which in my world means it’s the season for crafts. I love being able to give someone something completely one of a kind that was made just for them. Boys make this particularly hard – they never seem to want earrings or scarves, but this year I decided to try my hand at customizing a knife. (Here’s a preview of how the project turned out, I’m really happy with it.)

Knife 3

I had the good fortune to be able to travel to New Zealand this year with my boyfriend to visit some friends and travel around the islands. On the south island we stopped in a little shop that sold jewelry made from local semi-precious stones and abalone shells. They also were selling loose unpolished pieces of abalone leftover from cutting pieces for jewelry. I picked out a few thinking I’d polish them up for friends.

When I was thinking about the knife I figured customizing it with New Zealand would be a nice personal touch. So I sized an outline of the islands to fit on the handle of a pocket knife and picked up a Dremel. Note to any readers – I’ve never used a Dremel before, so if that makes you nervous, please forge bravely ahead – you can’t screw up that much.

I spent awhile carving out the two islands (three actually, there’s a little one just south of the south island), and getting nice deep cavities in. The plan of attack was to grind up some of the smaller abalone shells and mix them with epoxy as shown in this instructable. And I did try that. Technically it filled all the gaps, but you lost all the sparkle from the abalone – there were a few large pieces that still caught the light, but most of the inlay was just flat gray…not quite what I was looking for.

Back to the drawing board, I was wondering if I could use the Dremel to re-hollow out the carved spaces in the knife so that I didn’t have to try to find another one. Turns out that worked really well, so rather than try to fit each little piece in to catch the light, I grabbed the Dremel and a flat piece of shell, put the outline of New Zealand on it, and started carving the shell into a solid inlay piece.

Warnings: abalone shell dust is not good for you. If you try this on your own, please wear a mask and goggles, and work in a well ventilated area.

After a little bit of jiggling to get the pieces to lay in the knife properly, I added a layer of epoxy over the whole thing, sanded it smooth, then varnished it, and poof! I present to you a pocket knife, inlaid with the island country of New Zealand.

Knife1 Knife2

I apologize for the weird lighting – The varnish kept reflecting the flash, but the lighting in my room isn’t the best for photos, so I’ve given you one of each to show the changes in the abalone shell.


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