Simplified Wire Inlay on Wood




Introduction: Simplified Wire Inlay on Wood

About: In which I turn the thoughts from my head into objects in my hands

This tutorial began in my head when I watched a video on how wire inlay is created. From what I saw, it was a time-intenstive process that involved lots of superglue, plus intense wire-flattening (and special cubic cross-section wire too..). Being short on time at the moment but still interested in wire inlay, I wondered if there were any way to shorten the amount of processing time while maintaining that wire-in-wood look.

Fast forward to my days of having access to a laser cutter, and the idea to use a laser cutter for cutting precise grooves in wood for inlay work slowly germinated until it became a full-fledge project. I wanted to make something special for a lovely new friend I met (through instructables, incidentally -- hello if you are reading this..) and spent some time perfecting the technique to laser cut deep grooves for wire inlay. This tutorial catches some key parts of how to design for the inlay (taking into account the uniform grooves needed to fit wire without gaps and such) and then how to properly find the right cutting settings for the wood and laser of choice.

Step 1: Materials

  • wire (I used 20 gauge colored copper wire, but you're free to use any you want. Just be warned that the patterns I've provided will need to be adjusted to fit different gauges -- but I'll go over how I created my template, so you can figure out how to customize designs to the wire you have)
  • graphics software (Any will do, but this tutorial walks through using the functions in Adobe Illustrator. Any other graphics software should have the same functionalities though in different locations. This would include Inkscape, CorelDraw, GIMP, etc.)
    • FILES ARE ATTACHED ABOVE for your reference
  • wood (I used simple 1/8" birch and also 1/4" aromatic cedar. The power settings for making the grooves were the same for both of these woods, but this might change if you use thicker, harder woods like bamboo flooring and such.)
  • wood stains (Dark walnut for me, since the high laser power setting left scorch marks)
  • super glue (not too necessary if your wire happens to be a tight fit, but it's good to use for security. Also, Loctite Gel Control superglue works best for only $2-3)
  • pliers (for bending and cutting)
  • laser cutter (I used a 40 watt laser cutter at UMakers in Claremont, CA -- Full Spectrum, hobby 20x12")

Step 2: Drawing a Vector Design

I used Adobe Illustrator as my graphics software of choice, but you could use the free Inkscape or GIMP, or CorelDraw is a great alternate. The functionalities that I used can be found in the other programs, though in different locations.

To make your original designs for wire inlay, begin by pasting an image to trace into your choice of vector graphics software (Adobe Illustrator, in my case). Grab the pencil tool (NOT brush, since brush leaves a fill but pencil is just a path) and draw the outline of the object. Use the smooth tool to smooth out any lines so you have nice curves. To fit 20 gauge wire, I found that my grooves had to correspond to 2pt thick lines, so set the stroke of your lines to 2pt if you're using 20 gauge. Adjust according to your personal experiments for thinner/thicker gauge wire (I used 1.6pt for 26 gauge, for example)

To get perfect symmetry, be sure to make use of rotational and reflection tools. You can see lots of options to get the symmetry you desire. There's also the rotation tool over on the left tool bar (or press R hotkey).

Quick suggestion: if you plan to design your own designs, I don't recommend making lots of little loops as seen in the last image above, which I created (you'll see it in future steps). You'll find that the little hoops' cut ends look messy -- see the last image above, which I did attempt (a bit of a failure, but it's all good...).

Step 3: Vector Cut Vs Raster

As I mentioned, I did test out several different settings in order to get to the right settings on the laser cutter to create the perfect grooves to fit my 20 gauge wire. I tried vector cutting and rastering: I knew that vector cuts were thin but powerful so I duplicated many of them next to each other. I also knew that a raster would have a nice controllable footprint on my wood, but there would need to be adjustment to get the line in the right depth and width.

Testing can go many different ways, but the way I did it: I grabbed a piece of scrap wood (similar wood to what you want to eventually use) and tested out different settings, adjusting after my trials to account for too high or too low speed/power settings. For real fine tuning after you establish one technique that works relatively well, test a range of values around that setting: in my example, I found that 95% power at 10% speed and 1000x1000 dpi worked well for the 40 watt laser, but test 90% power at 10% speed (better for your laser bulbs) or 95% power at 5% speed and play around to see what works. 500x500 dpi also worked just as well as the 1000x1000 dpi, as I later found out, so I chose 500x500 dpi to cut my lasering time in half.

Step 4: Failures

With every success comes multiple failures, and the layering was especially a trial-and-error experimentation. Vector cuts were just too powerful, and optimizing the amount of vector cuts to power ratio was more work than I wanted to invest in, since the rastering trick worked out really well in the end.

Step 5: Image Tracing for Designs

image from:

Another way to make the patterns is by using the image tracing function in which an outside image is traced to create vector art. In this case, I wanted to make a complex Celtic knot pattern with wire but didn't want to go through the hassle of drawing it to get exactly 2pt stroke.

Begin by importing your picture into the graphics software and tracing using the sketched art option (turns into simple black and white object). Then press expand to turn the image into paths.

Now, the problem with this is that I want my wire to go in the white spaces that you see, which define the braid, but since they're white I'll have to change the color into an RGB pure blue so that the laser can recognize it. If I use the magic wand tool to select the white shapes and turn them black, I get the awkward blank spaces between the knot too (see fifth image above).

What I do is enter the clipping mask: double click the image to isolate some parts in particular -- you can see a top gray bar appear with how deep into the clipping mask you are. Double clicked again, and you can enter another group again. At this point, I can actually select individual shapes inside the clipping mask, so I just select all the grooves I want to make, meaning that I select all the paths of the celtic knot and ONLY the knot. Copy and paste what you selected to verify that you have the correct grooves selected.

Change that final pattern into RGB pure blue for rastering, and make sure that the grooves are the appropriate width to fit your wire. Then you're ready to send to your laser cutter for cutting using the power/speed ratio that you discovered! (don't forget to add red lines for cutting if you want to do that)

Step 6: Image Tracing: Part 2

To select good images to trace for making grooves, you want to make sure the Celtic knot (or whatever you choose) has fairly uniform widths -- see the first image's notes for what I mean. Also, this Celtic knot in particular is a good illustration of the grooves since the knot in the previous step looks a little confusing. In the black and white rendering of the knot in the first+second images, you can clearly identify the white parts to be the grooves that I want to turn pure blue for rastering and the black is just the background that I later delete.

Step 7: Lasering

Use the tips I wrote in step 3 to discover the perfect settings to getting the right grooves at the right depths. Again, for the 40 watt laser I used, 95% power at 10% speed worked perfectly, 500x500 dpi.

You'll notice some scorching at the edges of the grooves, which is to be expected since the rastering burns the wood quite a lot to get deep grooves. Read on to see how to cover them up.

Step 8: Post-processing

Since the lasering leaves lots of scorch marks on your wood, it is advisable that you stain your wood to hide them. I'd highly recommend that you use a belt sander to sand down the wood to remove the scorch marks before you actually stain, since the scorching is still a bit visible behind staining (turns out slightly yellow, in my experience). I also suggest dark stains like dark walnut if you use light/brightly colored wire like the silver and rose gold that I used. Rose gold and dark walnut look especially nice together, since pink and brown are a good color combo.

Step 9: Adding Wire Inlays

Decide what color wire you'll use to go with your stain. I really liked the combination of walnut stain with rose-gold wire, but other possibilities to consider would be gold, silver, etc. colors.

You can add wire in two main ways: first way is to eyeball (overestimate) the length that you'll need, cut out the amount, and bend it. Then hold the piece against the wood and trim off if necessary for adjustment. This is great in that you can still adjust to get the perfect fit, but then it's a bit of a game to eyeball correctly.

The second and my preferred way is to pinch the end of the wire into the groove and bending the wire from there (see second image above). This gives you a way to bend wire without weird estimations, so just follow the path of the groove directly. For sharper curves, see the next step for advice.

Step 10: Tips

Here are some tips to help you with this project:

Make sure that your grooves are properly sized, not overly large or small, for your wire. You especially don't want overly small, since this will make your fingers hurt lots as you try to shove something into a groove that it won't fit in. If you're having trouble making the wire fit in the grooves, you should probably redo the grooves to save yourself time and pain.

If you're mass producing these, I'd suggest cutting out all the wire you need for all your pendants before going back and gluing them all in one after the other. This is a class mass production technique: separate your task into comparable parts so that you are in the mood of doing one thing continuously. This isn't always a good idea if you're bad at accounting for the slightly wire overlap (at the places where two pieces of wire meet, there's a bit of interference), so be mindful of that and ignore that advice if you need to. For the bigger pieces, I definitely needed to just start at the center and glue the pieces on immediately after cutting, else I'd get confused with all the parts and forget to account for the slightly interference.

For tight curves (see third image above), just use pliers to curve the wire approximately and adjust until it finally fits. It'll take time, but it's harder to do this without pliers - especially curling the ends of the wire.

Step 11: Finished and Future Work

What other applications can be done besides the simple jewelry I did? I also made little pins with these (since the designs were dime sized or only slightly bigger). On the larger scale, I made a box with the wire inlay running around the borders. I'd really want to try thicker wire (so 18 gauge and up) so I could have larger grooves and make larger artwork.

I also tried sanding down with some galvanized steel wire that I had, and the wire kept flying off even with lots of Loctite and long drying time. I'm hoping that with thicker wire I would use longer strips that would have even more glue and surface area: hopefully that'll stay put more than the thinner wire. To be continued....

As always, feel free to leave comments and questions below. Enjoy!

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    4 Discussions

    Penolopy Bulnick
    Penolopy Bulnick

    3 years ago

    These are all super cute! I love inlay on wood and celtic designs :)


    Reply 3 years ago

    Thank you! I love them too, hence this instructable. ;)

    spark master
    spark master

    3 years ago

    Perhaps it is me, but there is a dearth of commentary here. Although the laser cutter is a tad over kill for the process(to me, maily as I am jealous at not having one), Your idea is quite nice, there should be some takers uppers on this!

    Done differently this easily would work nicely into anything wood and home made, or even CEMENT WORK, as in table tops, book ends and pavers! Then there is plaster work with faux finishes with very sweet lines or definitions. Wire comes in may colors so it is accentting is ready to go!


    Reply 3 years ago

    Even without a laser cutter, perhaps there are online laser cutting services and possibly makerspaces where laser cutters can be rented by the hour? Great ideas and suggestions for future takers uppers -- thanks!