This Instructable describes an easy way to use a laser cutter to create a wood inlay. This method does not require you to place the individual pieces. All of them are treated as a single piece and put in place all at once.
This Inlay shown in this Instructable is about 4 inches in diameter.
The example shows a maple inlay in a piece of walnut. Any contrasting types of wood could be used. The background piece should be a clean piece of wood 1/4" or thicker. The Inlay wood is standard wood veneer from your favorite woodworking store. The veneer I used was 0.025 thick. A little thicker would be better but as long as you are careful when sanding this thin veneer works.
As with any process, I recommend you practice this a few times before moving on to your final project.
Step 1: Step 1: Prepare Your Image
I used Corel Draw to create the images. Clean vector drawings are probably best but you should be able to use this technique with any black and white image.
- The first image is the image used to cut the image into the background. Note that I create the image with no outline.
- The second image is created from the first. It is used to cut the inlay material. A black rectangle is added behind the image. The image color is changed to a white fill still with no outline. The image is also mirrored because it is cut from the back of the material. When this piece is raster cut on the laser only the inlay pieces will remain.
Don't worry about compensating for the laser kerf. The water in the wood glue will cause the wood to swell and fill in the gap.
Step 2: Step 2: Prepare the Piece to Receive the Inlay
- Sand the top surface so a lot of sanding will not be required after the inlay is in.
- Cover the front side of the background piece with blue painter's tape. This will protect the wood during laser cutting as well as the gluing step. Make sure the tape covers an area larger than the area to be inlaid as the glue tends to go everywhere during clamping. Overlapping the rows of tape about 1/4" is fine.
Step 3: Step 4: Raster Cut the Back Piece to Receive the Inlay
This raster cut should be as deep as the inlay material is thick. I usually do a series of small rectangles to get the power and speed settings correct before cutting the entire piece.
On a 60 Watt Universal laser cutter I used 100% power and 40% speed for the walnut. Different densities of wood will require different speeds. Lower power systems may require multiple passes.
After the part is cut, use denatured (or rubbing) alcohol to clean the surface. Do it quickly and lightly to prevent the tape from releasing from the wood. Cleaning will prevent the resins and carbon from mixing with the glue and causing dark spots. Alcohol is used because it won't raise the grain of the wood.
Step 4: Step 4: Prepare the Inlay Material
- Cover the front side of the thin inlay material with blue painter's tape. This layer will protect the surface of the inlay and allow them to easily release from the tape.
- Cover the blue painter's tape with aluminum tape. This tape will not be cut during the laser cutting and will hold all of the pieces together during assembly.
NOTE: This tape is made from actual aluminum. It is available at stores such as Lowes or The Home Depot as well as here on Amazon.
Step 5: Step 5: Cut the Inlay
Place the inlay material in the laser cutter with the aluminum tape down.
I recommend doing several small rectangles to get the power and speed settings correct. The small square in the lower right of the picture above is a test cut. The power should be enough to remove all of the wood and most of the blue tape. A good starting point is a little less power (faster speed) than the back piece cut.
NOTE: It is best to leave a little more of the blue tape than shown in this image. When the adhesive on the aluminum tape is heated it tends to release the parts. A little blue tape left should help with this issue.
After the cut is done, inspect it to make sure all of the parts are still in place. I recommend covering the inlay with plastic and put some weight on in for a few hours as the tape adhesives regain strength.
NOTE: DO NOT try to clean the inlay. The small parts will almost immediately release from the tape.
Step 6: Step 6: Cut Out the Inlay From the Frame
Cut out the foil that holds the inlay. One edge should remain square to form a hinge. The rest should be cut close to key elements to allow you to align the 2 parts. The part will be fragile and bend easily so be careful.
Step 7: Step 7: Dry Mate the Two Parts
- Place the inlay foil side up on the back piece and gently align the 2 until they mate. DO NOT push them together fully.
- Apply a strip of blue tape along the straight edge to form a hinge and allow you to gently open the inlay.
Step 8: Step 8: Apply Glue
Apply glue to the back piece.
Use an old credit or gift card to spread the glue into all cut areas and remove most from the surface. That old Blockbuster card will work great for this.
Step 9: Step 9: Clamp
- Mate the 2 parts together and gently work them together.
- Place a piece of plastic (I use a zip top bag) over the inlay
- Add a clamping block to even out the pressure.
- Add Clamps to hold the 2 parts together.
NOTE: Clamp a lot longer than the minimum clamp time. The plastic and tape slows down the drying time significantly. I recommend clamping overnight and allow the glue to dry the full dry time recommended by the glue.
Step 10: Step 10: Remove the Tape, Repair Any Issues
Remove all of the tape and inspect the inlay. Small broken or missing inlay parts can be fixed with wood putty that matches the inlay color.
When patching the inlay, protect the background with blue painter's tape. The putty will get in the background grain and show on the finished product.
Step 11: Step 11: Sand and Finish.
Be careful when sanding. The inlay is very thin and easy to sand through. If the Inlay starts turning dark you have gone too far.
Finish with your favorite neutral color finish. On the sample I used Danish Oil. Polyurethane works well also.