You’ll want to have a way to cut down on airborne shell
particulates. I remember hearing (on this list, maybe?) about a
workshop-full of mother of pearl inlay workers who ended up with
nasty lung problems from inhaling the particles. I’m sure
someone here can either corroborate or debunk that story for us.
The workers in Polynesia who carve mother of pearl shell use a
vacuum hood right in front of their work (at the back of the
bench), with goggles, masks, and ear protection. This is
assuming that you’ll be working with power tools. I have no idea
if you can hand-saw abalone.
They mark out the pattern they want by either scribing it on the
surface, or using magic marker, and polish it off when they’re
If you don’t have a vacuum setup, my cheapo solution would be a
shopvac hose clamped down on the bench, at 10 or 11 o’clock (to
your sitting at 6 o’clock, with 9 at your left and 3 at your
right), assuming you’re right handed. I wouldn’t hang it down,
or place it above bench-top height, to ensure that it won’t pull
the particles up (and into your lungs…)
As far as I know, well cleaned abalone shell (soap and water, no
acids) shouldn’t pose any toxics, since it’s just a form of
calcium carbonate (at least if it’s the same as pearl oyster
shell, which I think it is).
Closing off with a flashback to an old topic: Make sure your
bench area is always well ventilated!
Have fun, and take pictures if you can…we’d love to see what
you come up with.