Introduction: How I Make Cool Metal Inlays

Picture of How I Make Cool Metal Inlays

Have you been trying to figure out how to make your woodworking really stand out? Yeah, me too...

Luckily for both of us, inlays are a great way to set your work apart in a crowded market full of carpenters. Or maybe you just want to make a kick-ass wedding present... Either way, follow these instructions and you'll be sure to make something bad-ass. In this instructable, I'll be sharing with you how to make shiny metal inlays with copper and brass wire. With enough talent, creativity, and practice, people will be thinking you stole your pieces from vault in Asgard! This is my first instructable to hold onto your pants, kids!

Step 1: Things You May Need

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It is worth pointing out that the key in making clean looking inlays is precision. This is why you want various pliers with different head shapes and a rolling mill. In the coming steps, I'll talk about some workarounds if these tools are hard to come by for you.

Here is a list of what I use:

Hard wood (oak for example)

A rolling mill

Copper/brass wire (the gauge I use varies but start with 14 gauge)

A heat source like a torch or stove (anything that will get your metal red hot)

Various pliers (I recommend using jeweler's pliers as it is more forgiving on the metal)

Various wire cutters (flush cutters are my favorite)

A file (I use the one on my multi-tool)

A tiny hammer

Lots of super glue

Sander and sandpaper

Polishing accessories

And exactly one metric ton of patience

Step 2: A Note About Hardwood

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Use hardwood only.

I can already hear some of you saying "But it may crack when you're just pounding the metal in."

And you're right. It will crack if you're just pounding the metal in. But we're making our inlays look bad-ass, remember? This requires that we use skill.

It will not crack if you

a) match the size of your wire to the void you cut (that is the space that your inlay will be filling)

b) cut a clean void into your wood

c) anneal your metal (that is what your torch it for)

d) tap the wire in with a tiny hammer

I will absolutely do my best to explain the finer details when we get to them. But please understand that there is no teacher like experience. You will probably mess up the first couple times but that's what markers do, right? There is no better teacher than experience.

Step 3: Make a Void in the Wood

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There are several ways to cut your void.

I use vector based software and a laser cutter, but it is entirely possible to do this any number of ways. But in my opinion, laser cutters are as precise as it gets (plus they're freakin lasers!) so that's why I've gravitated towards them.

Not many of us have access to a laser cutter so I recommend using a rotary tool with a bit the same size as your desired void width. I'll include a couple pictures from when I didn't use a laser cutter. I encourage you to experiment, make jigs, or make friends who have the tools you need.

...Or you make a pantograph. I have not tried this method but this is probably the next best thing to a laser cutter or cnc router. Also it is very affordable to make. Check this link out to see what I mean:

Also, subscribe to this guy if you like woodworking and cool jigs.

Step 4: Prepare Your Wire

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Using your mill (or a hammer), get your wire to the desired thickness.

"What is the desired thickness" I hear you say. Allow me to answer:

The desired thickness is when you can push your wire into your inlay by hand. But not easily.That is the best way I can put it. You'll have to experiment a bit to see what I mean.

After you have gotten the wire to the right thickness, you should anneal the wire, especially if you have to hammer it to size. Annealing for our purposes here means heating it up to red hot and letting the metal cool. This makes the wire soft enough to manipulate into your void without cracking your wood.

First, I roll my wire to size using my mill. Then I take a length of the rolled wire, coil it up, and heat it with my propane torch. After I get the wire red hot, I dunk it in some water and voila! Soft, easy to work with metal.

Step 5: Apply One Metric Ton of Patience

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This is easily the most time consuming step, depending on your design. Straight lines are very easy to inlay and won't take you long at all. Curves are rewarding but very time consuming. Keep this in mind when choosing your design.

Your inlay should not be one continuous wire around sharp corners. There are a couple reasons for this:

1) It is really difficult (impossible) to get sharp corners by bending wire

2) Sanding (the next step) will cause the metal to expand. Having multiple metal pieces instead of just one long connected piece provides room for expansion. Otherwise, the metal will bend up and out of the void, ruining your work.

Lay a bead of superglue into the void that you are about to inlay. If it is a small portion, lay the bead along the entire length (small = 1 - 3 inches). But it the portion is long, lay a bead intermittently. The wire inlay is also being held in with friction so there is no need to go overboard with the glue.

Be sure to use jeweler's pliers on this step. Anything with teeth will damage your already soft metal. For curves, bend your wire to shape first, then set the inlay. Light taps with your hammer should be enough to get the inlay set into the void. Do not hammer it in all the way. This is important for the next step. Hammer it in 3 quarters of the way.

Be mindful of how the wire cutters effect the ends of your wire. The flush cutters work great for me here. Just make sure you orient them to suit your needs. Use the file to shape the ends of your wire if you need to. If the tapping sound bothers you, try putting a piece of cloth under the workpiece. This will help dampen the noise.

Just to be safe, give the glue a day to set completely before moving on to the next step. This is where a lot of trial and error comes into play so don't be to hard on yourself. Mistakes are where learning happens.

Step 6: Sand Sand Sand and Polish

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We can move onto sanding once all the metal is in.

Please don't use a belt sander. You'll probably ruin your piece that way. Use a random orbit sander. It's slower but that is the point here.

You need to keep sanding until you get the metal flush with the wood. Use your sense of touch to gauge this.

Once you have it flush, gradually use higher and higher grit sandpaper using a palm sander or just a block and sandpaper. I go all the way up to 2000 grit but that is because I like a near mirror finish.

Speaking of mirror finishes, rub n brite and a polishing cloth for jewelry is what I use for my final polish. Polishing this way make the pieces look like they're glow-in-the-dark. You'll see what I mean when you try it.

Step 7: Show It Off!

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What you do with you piece at this point is completely up to you.

Sell them. GIve them away. Show them off in your living room.

Whatever you want, really.

Use my video in the intro as a guide if any of my instructions don't cut it for you. Be sure to check out my instagram if you like seeing pieces like these:

I'll try to put some new pieces up on etsy too:


nikkikitty245 (author)2017-12-01

Hi there, excellent work! Quick question: Using 14 gauge wire, how thick are your engraving paths? Did you start with 2mm void width or a 4pt line in Adobe Illustrator? I started making a vector file to try this method and am looking for the void thickness for the drawing so I can laser cut to fit the wire. :)

nikkikitty245 (author)2017-11-30

Hi there, excellent work! Quick question: Using 14 gauge wire, how thick are your engraving paths? Did you start with 2mm void width or a 3pt line in Adobe Illustrator? I started making a vector file to try this method and am looking for the void thickness for the drawing so I can laser cut to fit the wire.

JamieP96 (author)2017-09-11

Do you coat the wood and copper afterwards with a finish? If so, what do you use and what works?

aleji77a (author)2017-07-26

Could I use carving tools to make the groves? Awesome tutorial! Thanks for sharing!

world of woodcraft (author)2017-05-04

Nice one, and congrats on winning a prize :)
I saw this a while back an then saw the work again on a design blog.
Really nice work :)

Ralphxyz (author)2017-04-02

WOW, absolutely WOW. I have always wanted to do this.

Now I do not have any excuses, well I do not have a laser or cnc router (yet).

This is really beautiful, thank you!!

re:After I get the wire red hot, I dunk it in some water and voila! Soft, easy to work with metal.

Actually you are case hardening the wire when you dunk it. Just let it air cool to be truly tempered. Case hardening just hardens the outside layer of the wire the

inside stays soft, possible you are using the hardening effect.

Anyway I love it, thanks again.

ddoug42 (author)Ralphxyz2017-04-02

Copper based metals anneal by quenching, unlike iron based that harden when quenched.

russellh31 (author)ddoug422017-05-03

No, they anneal by heating to red hot. But they DON'T harden by quenching, unlike carbon steel. So, quenching is quicker, and also tends to clean scale off. But not necessary.

Ninjosh (author)ddoug422017-04-20

I had no idea that was why. Thanks!

Ninjosh (author)Ralphxyz2017-04-20

Funny story about that step:

I was originally trying to case harden my wire for a different project (I can't remember what it was). So I got it red hot and dunked it in water only to find that it became very plastic; not hard in the slightest. Since then, I've adopted this method of annealing copper and brass wire after work hardening it.

sculptor985 (author)2017-05-02

Have you thought about inlay with soldering...?

Ninjosh (author)sculptor9852017-05-02

Yes I have. I've only done it this way so far because I like the color. I'm not sure I can make solder shine as well but I suppose I'll give it a try some time in the future.

paraquat (author)Ninjosh2017-05-03

Solder is mostly lead, so while it's bright immediately after melting, it quickly oxidises and dulls. You could see if oxygen-free varnishes exist.

Cris DIY (author)2017-05-02

wow, this is really amazing work!

hartliebr (author)2017-05-02

Splendid work and great technique!!! Many thanks to share!

I saw some 18th century pistols with silver inlays in the hard wood. As I believe they didn't had any rotary tool (certainly no laser) do you have an idea how they were making the groove so precise?

Uncadoo (author)2017-04-25

This is probably a dumb question, but here goes. Could you use the laser to cut the wire very cleanly?

jellmeister (author)Uncadoo2017-05-02

Most hobby lasers lack the power to cut metal. The metal conducts the heat away as quickly as the laser puts it in. Also the reflectivity means most of the laser power just bounces off.

Ninjosh (author)jellmeister2017-05-02

I have seen people "cleaning" metal with a laser cutter, though in reality they are just burning away a layer of whatever was on the metal (in the cases I've witnessed I think it was paint and rust). Not really cleaning but if there is something flammable covering the metal I suppose it won't be there much longer.

Ninjosh (author)Uncadoo2017-04-26

I suppose you could clean wire this way but it would be a very inefficient way to clean. You have program a path for the laser cutter to follow and it would only follow that path. You would also have to place your wire in that exact same path. Also also, the focal point of the laser is a very fine point (forgive me if I don't know how small :p). It's reaaaaally tiny. The best analogy I can think of is that it's like blindfolding someone and making him clean a floor with a toothbrush. Is it possible? Sure. Will it take forever? Yes. Will it be inaccurate if you gave the machine even the tinniest of nudges? Absolutely.

I prefer cleaning the wire with some steel wool.

Mickleblade (author)2017-04-24

nice, I tried a piece last year but had trouble with the random orbit sander sanding the wood more than the metal. Presumably due to flex in the base

matt instr (author)2017-04-02

How do you keep the metal dust from staining the wood fibers? I was practicing with a nickel inlaid in to cherry. It was fine with the 80 grit on the belt sander but when i switched to finer grits, the dust got in to the wood pores staining it dark.

Ninjosh (author)matt instr2017-04-20

I haven't worked with nickel so it could be what makya has said; that it is oxidizing. There are some color changes in my projects that I just kind of accept. I don't really have an idea how to avoid the color change as in my experience, any staining or treating of any kind almost completely goes away while sanding. Maybe try something that would plug up those pores in the wood? Let me know if you get past this issue.

LauraB302 (author)Ninjosh2017-04-23

Try a product called PC Hardener. It original use was to fill in voids in rotted wood, but it should h e lp keep the dust from penetrating. Use this only after you have cut your void as you will dull your cutting tool. One last thing. There is a product available in most hardware stores made by Minwax. I dont reccomend this product as it is acetone based and is nsty to work with.

der_fisherman (author)matt instr2017-04-02

I'm guessing, but you might think about painting or sealing the wood first maybe. Or maybe ultra fine grain wood might be best....Just a thought....I have not yet done this myself, but your experiences will help me too I feel...



Ninjosh (author)der_fisherman2017-04-20

The times I've tried that, it just goes away while I sand. I didn't find it worth the extra preparatory step as it hardly did anything to stop the color change, but I don't mind it.

makya (author)matt instr2017-04-08

IIRC, Nickel has a different reaction to heat and moisture than nickel. nickel can and will oxidize quickly with small particles reacting to the acidity and moisture in the wood.

corycar (author)2017-04-01

thanks for this. I like to make stuff with wood, but could not figure out how to do something like this. thanks so so much?

Ninjosh (author)corycar2017-04-20

You're welcome!

der_fisherman (author)2017-04-02

Very well thought out and the end result is superb.
Thanks for sharing.

Ninjosh (author)der_fisherman2017-04-20


daveanokie (author)2017-04-02

You failed to mention the computerizes laser engraver in the simple how to text!???

Ninjosh (author)daveanokie2017-04-20

I think your asking why I didn't explain how to use the laser cutter for this method, right? Well that's because learning how to use a laser cutter is a whole 'nother instructable. How you make the void is up to you. That said, I'm thinking of making another instructable about how to use a laser cutter but those are a dime in a dozen...

byates (author)2017-04-02

I would also suggest a drawplate for forming the wire

Ninjosh (author)byates2017-04-20

Never heard of those before. I'll look into it. Thanks!

dbenedetto (author)2017-04-02

could you inlay the metal say 1mm below the surface? Would this simplify sanding?

Ninjosh (author)dbenedetto2017-04-20

If you can make all the metal at every point measure 1mm below the surface, go for it. But mind you that the metal is very soft at this point so it will deform as you tap it in. You would also have to get rid of a lot of wood before you could get the wood flush to the metal. It's easier to get the metal flush to the wood rather than the other way around.

Waste Of Space (author)2017-04-02

In step 5 you say that it is important not to hammer the wire all the way in, but you do not say why this is so. Surely the wire would be more secure if it all the way into the cut void.

Thanks for the idea of using a laser, I had previously only used a CNC. I will try out lasers now.

Ninjosh (author)Waste Of Space2017-04-20

If you hammer it all the way in, you would have to get rid of some wood with the sander and then the metal to make it flush. By letting it stick out a little, you only have to sand the metal flush to the wood. I do this because it takes less time and I keep the dimensions of my piece more consistent that way.

Step 5 refers to step 6 for the reason - in order to give a sheen to the metal, you need to sand it. If it's flush to the wood, you are also sanding the wood, not just the metal.

SeanH5 (author)2017-04-03

"Apply One Metric Ton of Patience". Ha! Great step...

Ninjosh (author)SeanH52017-04-20

Arguably the most important one.

StephenL57 (author)2017-04-03

Nice work! I imagine you would make a killing with a Lord of the Rings map.

Ninjosh (author)StephenL572017-04-20

I'd kill my figures doing that haha

But it has crossed my mind. I like the doors of durin design as well.

cdavenport (author)2017-04-02

Thank you for this excellently detailed Instructable. I have been hanging onto silver wire I purchased in Egypt almost 30 years ago in preparation for a cap pistol project. I'm just about ready with this Instructable.

Ninjosh (author)cdavenport2017-04-20

Egyptian silver! Sounds exotic.

Post pictures when you get it done.

"...almost 30 years ago...."
Love it. No point in rushing a project.

Ninjosh (author)2017-04-20

Wow there is a lot of feedback. Thanks guys. Sorry I haven't had the time to respond to your questions but I'll be doing that right now! I should emphasize that this is the process that I came up with that I feel most comfortable with. I'm sure there are better ways of doing metal inlays and some subtleties that I have now concept of. Post pics of your projects!

Modern Rustic Workshop (author)2017-04-05

Brilliant! Absolutely stunning!

Natalina (author)2017-04-03

Thanks for sharing this technique! Really beautiful pieces.

AMbros Custom (author)2017-04-03

its a really nice art.

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