Introduction: Handcut Inlay

Picture of Handcut Inlay

This should give you an overview of all the basic steps used to do inlay.
Inlay is the process setting in shell, wood, stone, metal...etc. into a cavity that has been hollowed out of the surface. It is then glued, filled, and sanded flush. The possibilities are endless and the techniques vary, but these are the key steps to create your own inlaid piece.
(I do all my work by hand! I would love to have the option of using some laser cut pieces!!!)

All of the work I do is for custom guitar builders. It is important to have a clear understanding of the instrument before working on it. I can't interfere with the guitar's appearance or structure in any way. The fingerboards are radiused and slotted for frets. I have to be cautious of the tools I use and conscientous not to sand away any material other than the material I inlaid. Its quite difficult, but well worth the effort. There are many more steps involved in working on insturments. For your purposes, the following steps are more than enough info for creating your own personal inlaid piece.

Your first project should be fun and easy. Choose something simple, like inlaying a wooden box, or plaque. Select a dark wood as the background for your inlay design. The design will stand out beautifully and gaps will be easier to manage. Choose a simple design.

Here are a few of my completed inlaid projects, to show that inlay is more than square fret markers and plastic dots.

Step 1: Getting Started

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Tools and materials:

To start your own inlay project you will need the following:

-jewelers saw(get at any wood working store or hobby store)
-saw blades(size 000)
-V-block(wood block with a v-shaped slot)clamped to the edge of a desk. You can make one out of any piece of scrap material.
-router with adjustable base
-router bits(1/32 inch to get in corners and larger sizes to clear material)
-Cyanoacrylate (CA)glue (Hotstuff or Zap)
-CA remover(optional but safer!)
-X-ACTO knife
-pen drill(with drill bits)
-small files
-mask(shell dust very harmful!)
-sanding block(just sandpaper with a flat block)
-wood,shell,stone,metal,plastic...etc.(about 0.004 thick)

Now you're ready to start!

Step 2: Create a Design

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Before you even pick up a saw, you need to make a pattern.
Create a design that is made up of separate, individual pieces.(think stained glass window)Do not leave any open spaces, or any stray lines.

After you've decided on a final design, make a lot of copies. Next you will cut out your pattern. You will cut around the outside of each separate piece, wich will make adjacent pieces of the pattern copy unusable. This is why multipul copies are required. Do not cut through the center of the line.*The main idea is, to have a clear line to follow when sawing through it later.

Now, glue all of the individual pieces to the chosen material. Try to plan ahead of time what colors/materials you want each piece to be.

Step 3: Sawing

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Before you start sawing, make sure you are wearing a respirator or good dust mask. Shell dust is really abrasive and harmful. Wood dust isn't very good either. Now, start at the edge of the chosen material. Hold your piece down with your left hand and saw with your right. The saw should be in the middle of the V-slot of the cutting block. Hold the saw vertically and saw straight up and down (forget about how you think a saw is supposed to be used!) Follow your line by turning your piece with your left hand and sawing with your right. It might take a few tries to get the rhythm. Try to saw slow and smooth, for now. Do not let the saw tip back, or to the side. This would result in a tapered cut, or a broken saw blade. Cut around the whole piece.

The pen drill that I mentioned in the materials list comes into play at this point. If you needed to cut the center out of a piece(something like the letter O) you will drill a hole in the center, thread the saw blade through the hole and secure the blade to the saw frame. Saw the inside of the piece, when done unthread the blade to work on the outside line. *plan on cutting out the inside of a closed loop before you cut the outside. It gives you more to hold onto while sawing.

Thats all there is to it!

Continue to cut out all of the pieces and keep them in order for gluing. You may want to touch-up your piece with a small file. Hold your pieces on the edge of the block and file the edges, holding the file straight up and down. *The key to clean inlay work is, straight, crisp lines.

*Shown below: I have a powerful fan with filters (that I regulary clean) that pulls all the dust away from my face.

Step 4: Gluing

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With all of your pieces cut out and in order, start piecing them together. Follow your original pattern. You can place the paper pattern under a piece of wax paper and use CA glue to put the pieces together on top of the wax paper. This makes separating the material from the pattern much easier. After the pieces are all glued together, chip away the excess dried glue from the edges. You can chip them away with an X-ACTO knife, or carfully file the edges with a small file. You will inlay it as one entire piece.

Step 5: Preparing to Router

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After your piece is all glued together, it's time to inlay! Place your complete piece on top of the material you will be setting it into.(ex. wooden box, plaque...etc.)Tack it in place with a silicone based glue.(Elmer's Stix-All works really well) This glue holds tight, but allows you to lift the piece, without breaking it. While the piece is tacked in place, scribe around the piece. Make sure you scribe around all areas; inside of closed loops. Use the X-ACTO knife for scribing. *The purpose of this step is to leave yourself a clear line to follow when routing. Once you have gone around the entire piece with the blade, remove the piece(slide a thin putty knife under the glued piece)and set it aside. Clean up the left over glue. Now, fill in the cut/scribed lines with white chalk. You should have white lines to follow now.

Step 6: Router

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Next, take your router and set the depth of the bit, by adjusting the base. To be extra safe, do this with the router unplugged instead of just off. The base has two sides that must be adjusted, to level the base and set the depth of the bit. The depth depends on the thickness of you piece. Keep the piece flat as you adjust the sides. The tip of the drill bit should be about level with the top of the piece.(With the router still uplugged, you can run your finger over the piece to see if your finger catches the bit)The reason for setting the bit depth is, to ensure that your piece will be flush with the piece you routed. If you set the depth too deep, the piece will sit below the surface. This will result in having to sand away the surface of the routed material to get down to the inlaid piece. If you set the depth too shallow, the piece will be above the surface and you will have to sand away a lot of the color and possibly sand some pieces too thin!

With all of that in mind, you can start routing!

Rout in the middle of your scribed lines. Try not to go past the white lines. *The idea is to go right up to the white line. When the line starts to get thinner and disappear, STOP! The tighter the fit, the better. You don't want to have big gaps that look bad and require a lot of filling.

*you should wear a mask and protective eye wear.

Step 7: Filling

Picture of  Filling

After your piece is set in, it's time to fill. You will need to fill the gaps in the routed cavity. This step is crutial in the final appearance. This helps create the illusion of a seamless peice. Take some ebony dust(if you're filling an ebony piece) and flood the gaps (Rub as much dust in the gaps as possible) Now, slowly let some CA glue seep into the gap that has already been filled with dust. Do not use a lot of glue. If you use too much it will float away the dust. It's better to dab it with a toothpick and let it flow into the gap. You will be able to see the dust get darker, as the glue works its way through. Repeat if necessary.

Step 8: Sanding

Picture of Sanding

Now that the piece is all filled and the glue has had time to cure(thin CA should cure in 5 minutes)You can sand the piece flush. Always sand with the grain. This will result in less visible scratches. Use a sanding block the ensure that it is being sanded level. You don't want any dips, or hollows. Start with 180 grit sandpaper to get majority of CA and hardened dust off. Switch to 220 grit when you are sanding away inlaid material. Eventually, you will use 300 grit to polish it up. This is the most tedious part for me. Try not to rush it, the outcome will be well worth it.

*you should wear a mask durring the sanding process, too.

Here is what it looks like all sanded out. Normally I will go back and cut through the shell to open the fret slots, so the guitar builder doesn't have to mess with the inlay. Guitars require to be re-fretted often, so I have to make sure I left enough material to be sanded again and that it is glued in solid.

Step 9: Finished!

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Finally, finished! step back and enjoy your new creation. There are so many things you can create in this medium. I try to create a one of a kind piece. I prefer to think of the guitar as a background, rather than a border. I dont like to limit myself to working in the confined dimensions of a headstock, or finger board. I attempt to create a piece that is free flowing and sometimes goes beyond the guitar itself. I hope you will be inspired to create your own inlaid piece.

The following design was executed in laminated black mother of pearl, gold mother of pearl, and walnut. It was inlaid into an ebony finger board.

Step 10: Copyrighted.

These example designs were commissioned by guitar builders and/or their customers. Some of the included designs belong to me (Jimmi Wingert) and/or the the guitar builders I used them for. The Mackintosh-style "Muse" is copyrighted by Christa Percival. Please do not replicate these designs. You can find many available designs through free clip art.

Thanks and enjoy!


deluges (author)2017-10-10

Stunning, added to the list of things to try...

vrema01 (author)2017-08-17

Nice job and instructions. Thanks for sharing.

jimbojones5678 (author)2016-03-27

Great tute!

I'm considering an inlay over using a sticker on a guitar I am restoring ATM .

I know the inlay will look better but it means buying all of the tools.

Mmmm, decisions, decisions...

jimbojones5678 (author)2016-03-27

Great tute!

I'm considering an inlay over using a sticker on a guitar I am restoring ATM .

I know the inlay will look better but it means buying all of the tools.

Mmmm, decisions, decisions...

jtjones73 (author)2016-03-09

I cannot even imagine being able to do something like this. The inlays that you have pictured here are quite simply gorgeous! I am envious of your talent!

BrandtJ1 (author)2016-01-04

Wow. Beautiful work. Thanks so much for putting this together. I'm going to try my hand at this in the next few days.

I had a question though - how did you get that 3D effect on the design in the first picture? Forgive me if I misinterpret it, but I'm talking about the design on the headstock that looks like a tsunami wave. How did you make those black accent ripples? Did you simply draw on the material with pen, or is it something different?

SarelV2 (author)2015-09-24

Thanks the piece is very informative

marriedwithpuppets (author)2015-08-24

Those are beautiful!

AndrewE9 (author)2015-04-05

thank you so much for this tutorial. I can't wait to try inlaying on some wood pieces. I am going to try and cheat a bit though, and use my CNC router to make the pieces to insert as well as make the routered out bit into which to put the inlay.

I was thinking of trying this with brass. Have you ever used metal and if so, do you use a file to smooth it off? Thanks

Corinbw made it! (author)2015-02-24

I made it sort of. I did some stone inlay in a ring I made. The ring was pvc and the stone was just a piece of gravel from my driveway, but it turned out great I think. Please tell me what you think. I will be making an instructable on how I did it also.

Thanks for the inspiring instructable. I absolutely love how your inlays shine. How do you polish it?

metalworkingdude (author)2014-08-28

Great writeup on inlay techniques! Thanks for taking the time to do this, I've been wanting to try this technique to embellish some of my furniture projects for a while.

sdinh (author)2013-11-30

hey Jimmi,
we supply the premium inlay material lie white mother of pearl blanks, gold mother of pearl blanks, black mother of pearl blanks, red abalone, green abalone, paua shell blanks. here is our web site:
If you want these inlay materials, please contact us to this email address:
Thank you

dondiegos (author)2013-11-16

hi jimmi, thanks for the tutorial, it really inspired me to try and inlay something, if you don't mind, could you tell me where to buy the inlay materials and what model router is best for the job? thanks, Matt

joewinmor (author)2013-07-13


loanshark (author)2012-05-16

Whoa! That is so cool!

NukeWeldor (author)2011-12-03

For anyone who missed the site plug at the start of this instructable go to ........>>>> http:\\ ........<<<<<<< to see the amazing work his mom creates as one of a kind heirloom museum quality accoustic guitars. There are numerous high quality images of her work with some amazing original one of a kind art inlays of a wide variety of subjects. ...........

I would not be surprised to learn that one of these guitars could sell for as much as $20-$25,000 dollars each. Possibly more given the present state of the worlds economy in 2011...............

Thanks Jimmi for a very inspiring and informative presentation of the ancient art of inlay. .............Not a shill______Just Impressed!

mr.frob (author)2011-10-29

That is really beautiful!

sjhuse (author)2011-08-27

Do the peices stay glued to the wax paper or do you remove the wax paper before inlaying it into your project (box, gutiar etc)?

grichardson6 (author)2011-07-13

This is really nice!

taria (author)2011-05-29

wow, amazing and time consuming I would guess..but the end results are stunning. I don't have the patients for something like that.

brass2 (author)2011-02-17

is that a black and decker rtx? and if so where did you get that router base and how well did it work with the rtx? anyone?

kobekid (author)2010-08-23

Jimmi Really nice instructable.....the pics are great and the work outstanding. I would like to be sure about thickness of inlay you are using..... Step 1 says -wood,shell,stone,metal,plastic...etc.(about 0.004 thick) That's about the thickness of a safety razor blade......controlling depth when routing for this thickness must need really careful set up and control during routing. Later on you mention in one of your replies 0.060 thick. I am hoping Step one should say 0.040 not 0.004.....sneeze and it's gone forever! Here in the land of the rising sun these inlay materials are really expensive particularly abalone shell.....The thicker shell is generally more expensive than the thinner.......

remzparadise (author)2010-07-20


busupholstery (author)2010-05-29

Googled "How to inlay"......Checked out your instructable.......Perfect......exactly what I needed........Nice work-woman-ship

snubber (author)2010-04-06

Great tips, and inspiring works. Cheers for the instructable!

Jonny Katana (author)2008-07-18

This really breathtaking work, and the Instructable makes the process seem very doable. The only router I have is very large and not-so-handheld, would a dremel tool have enough power to pull off the downcutting?

snubber (author)Jonny Katana2010-04-06

Absolutely.  I use a dremel and the precision router base found at Stewart-MacDonald (

snubber (author)2010-04-06

Can you show pictures of the jig you are using?   Looks like theirs some sort of support or something that the router is one?

oldanvilyoungsmith (author)2009-12-15

where do you get the mother of pearl (and the other stuff)?

I wanted to do an inlay on one of the knife handles im making.

helendamnation (author)2009-10-18

These are absolutely gorgeous. Just wow!

SeMi_AuToMaTic (author)2009-09-02

Beautiful! Love it! I want to do this to my acoustic. Did you take the neck off of yours? That would mean that yours has a bolt-on, right? I don't think mine has a bolt-on neck. (Its a classical). Please help! P.S. 5 stars

astrong0 (author)2009-08-05

just a quick question how many guitars did you jack up during the whole span of doing this?

astrong0 (author)2009-08-05

wow... that's incredible

Damage, Inc. (author)2009-06-03

Excellent instructable! Well written instructions, good pictures, and it's definitely fun to look at the amazing end results.

PaulNYC (author)2009-06-03

Love the Instructable. How do you keep the inlay affixed to the base when you set it?

mynameisjonas (author)2009-04-28

Very beautiful! are you a luthier, or do you just do the inlaying?

slappy-jacks (author)2009-04-18

These arnt just inlays that you made there master peices .

FeedTheGrid (author)2009-04-14

Highly impressive. Very nicely done!

NCchance (author)2009-04-07

Thank you for the excellent Instructable! Personally, I've had nothing but trouble with using an X-acto knife to scribe. What I do instead is take a small piece of stainless steel rod (approx. 1/8 in dia.) and insert it into the chuck of a drill. While spinning the rod I hold it at an angle to a belt sander. What you will get is a near perfect and very fine pointed tip that is plenty sharp to scribe with. It will also hold an edge quite well, but when the tip does become blunted just repeat the whole process. That's just me though. Great job and thanks again!

larrysak3 (author)2009-02-02

You do incredible work! What size bit are you using to rout the inlay channels?

magma6 (author)2008-12-20

I'm curious to know how you did the "stained glass window"-like black lines between the pieces ( like in the second picture of the intro). I imagine you use a black strip of something to separate the pieces, surely lot more easy than trying to create a regular spacing between pieces and fill it with ebony dust later.

bluesmetalism (author)2008-11-11

hi is my first time trying these. do you think shell tiles for walls have the same use as the shell inlays you use? by the way love the job.

maulgryve (author)2008-10-29

It is impressive that the dust matches exactly with the wood you used. When I do things like this I usually use the sawdust that I carved out mixed with epoxy. I love the way you did this. You are awesome.

lachapa (author)2008-10-28


johnanderton (author)2008-10-13

this is awesome.. i'm officially inspired

ghostrider2 (author)2008-05-27

how did you remove the frets?

abadfart (author)ghostrider22008-07-13

well you can pry them out they are held in with glue

Jonny Katana (author)abadfart2008-07-18

Professional repair shops steam the frets with something like an espresso wand, which loosens the glue.

abadfart (author)Jonny Katana2008-07-18

i had one fall out of my old telecaster

xharass_natox (author)2008-05-11

when looking for a jewellers saw I can only find 1/0 to 6/0 size blades with no mention of 000, are any of these sizes suitable? Thanks

About This Instructable




Bio: I am an inlay artist. I work with a number of custom guitar builders to create custom shell or wood designs for guitar. (Mostly for ... More »
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