Handcut Inlay




About: 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 my mother- Kathy Wingert! www.wingertguitars.com)I am also a full time stud...

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.

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Step 1: Getting Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!

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80 Discussions

Kink Jarfold

1 year ago on Step 10

Hi, Jimmi, I just finished going through your wonderful instructable. Your attention to detail is amazing. I'm seriously going to give this a try.


thumbs up.png

1 year ago

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


2 years ago

Nice job and instructions. Thanks for sharing.


3 years ago

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...


3 years ago

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...


3 years ago

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!


3 years ago

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?


4 years ago on Step 10

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

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.


5 years ago on Introduction

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: www.exotichandcraft.com
If you want these inlay materials, please contact us to this email address: exotichandcraft@gmail.com
Thank you


5 years ago

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


7 years ago on Introduction

For anyone who missed the site plug at the start of this instructable go to ........>>>> http:\\www.wingertguitars.com ........<<<<<<< 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!

Emu face.jpg

7 years ago on Step 4

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)?