Epiphone Sheraton II with Mother of Pearl Custom Guitar InlaysIf you’re just now join­ing us, be sure and check out part I and part II of this 3‑part series on moth­er of pearl gui­tar inlays tech­niques by Gui­tar Inlays Head­quar­ters guest writer Sean Bar­ry.

Part III–Routing and inlaying

By now you should be fin­ished cut­ting your cho­sen pearl pat­tern, and you are prob­a­bly tired of repeat­ed trips to the safe deposit box to safe­guard the prod­ucts of your efforts. Undoubt­ed­ly you have been star­ing at the high speed rotary tool and the router base that you pur­chased after you read Part I and are won­der­ing what they do. Now you shall find out.

Go one last time to your safe deposit box and retrieve your entire inlay set, and arrange it on the table in the prop­er ori­en­ta­tion. Per­haps place all of the inlays on black con­struc­tion paper so you’ll have a pre­view of your fin­ished prod­uct. With a pen­cil, num­ber each inlay, and draw a small arrow that points toward the end of the peg­head. The arrow is only nec­es­sary for radi­al­ly or bilat­er­al­ly sym­met­ri­cal inlays or for iden­ti­cal com­po­nents of such an arrange­ment with sev­er­al iden­ti­cal pieces, such as petals of a flower. Once you have scribed and begun to cut the mor­tis­es, you must avoid con­fu­sion regard­ing the pre­cise loca­tion and ori­en­ta­tion of each piece. From this point for­ward, you must not change your assigned positions–to do so will result in con­fu­sion, bro­ken inlays, and prob­lems dur­ing the final inlay­ing process. This is your last oppor­tu­ni­ty to recut any inlays that are not up the lev­el of qual­i­ty of the oth­ers, and to rearrange and rematch pieces to best advan­tage.

The next two steps are real­ly the most crit­i­cal in the entire inlay process. Up to now, if you broke an inlay or your pat­tern was uneven in qual­i­ty, the prob­lems were fixed eas­i­ly by cut­ting new pieces. After you (tem­porar­i­ly) glue your inlays in place and scribe their shapes into wood, it will be tricky at best to replace any, so take spe­cial care not to break any or to change your mind about place­ment or replace­ment.

Glue your inlays in place on the sur­face to be inlaid. In my expe­ri­ence, this is best done with DUCO cement, because this glue can be dis­solved away with ace­tone. “Spot” the glue light­ly in sev­er­al places on the bot­tom of the inlay, and press the pearl firm­ly in place on the sur­face. Check and dou­ble check the inlay posi­tion and remem­ber that it may move by itself before the glue sets up. If any do, run a few drops of ace­tone around the inlay edge, let it soak in for a few sec­onds, lift the inlay, remove the glue with more ace­tone, and try again. Script inlays (writ­ten text) are espe­cial­ly tricky and obvi­ous­ly frag­ile, and should be glued thor­ough­ly on the bot­tom. Endeav­or to clean up as much of the glue squeeze-out as pos­si­ble while it is still soft. Dou­ble-check that all inlays are prop­er­ly posi­tioned (remem­ber: gui­tars are inlaid on the 9th fret, ban­jos and man­dolins on the 10th), and set the object aside for at least 24 hours. I used to use white glue instead of DUCO, but had prob­lems remov­ing the inlays when the scrib­ing step was done. The only options are to pry up the glued inlays or to soft­en the glue with water. The for­mer can result too eas­i­ly in bro­ken inlays, and the lat­ter tends to obscure the scribe lines, so I went to DUCO (which is not per­fect but works well enough). Again, once your inlay shapes are inscribed it is essen­tial to use the same inlay that was inscribed, because it is impos­si­ble to cut anoth­er piece exact­ly like the orig­i­nal. So don’t break any by being care­less or rushed.

The next step, the most crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant in the entire process, is to inscribe the inlay out­line into the wood. Use the scribe that we dis­cussed in Part I, and trace around the inlay as close to the edge of the inlay as pos­si­ble (which should be flush with the edge). Avoid under­cut­ting the inlay, and most of all avoid push­ing on the inlay itself with the side of the scribe. At best you could dis­lodge the pearl (this only hap­pens, accord­ing to Mr. Mur­phy, to com­plex inlays and then only after the out­line is about 50% but less than 75% inscribed), and at worst you could break the inlay. This is a calami­ty if you have already inscribed any of the out­line. If your scribe encoun­ters a mound of glue, scribe care­ful­ly over it sev­er­al times until it sep­a­rates from the inlay, then scribe the wood. The wood grain will tend to divert the scribe point, so be aware of grain direc­tion changes (rel­a­tive to the inlay). Ebony is so hard that it is best inscribed by mak­ing repeat­ed pass­es. Be slow, be cau­tious, be metic­u­lous, be a per­fec­tion­ist. This is your only chance to do this step cor­rect­ly, and the qual­i­ty of your final prod­uct depends on the scribed line (and your abil­i­ty to fol­low it with the high speed drill). I have tried to deep­en the scribed lines lat­er, after the inlay is removed, but with very lim­it­ed suc­cess. Even though the pearl is not sup­posed to be a “fence,” its pres­ence offers a much bet­ter visu­al lim­it than does the scribed line alone. Inspect each scribed line care­ful­ly and make cer­tain that all are com­plete and deeply inscribed.

With a glass eye­drop­per, drib­ble some ace­tone care­ful­ly around each inlay, but just do one or two at a time. Be extreme­ly care­ful not to allow ace­tone to con­tact fin­ish or plas­tic bind­ings, as it will cor­rode them. Also, heed the fire haz­ard. After the ace­tone has con­tact­ed the inlay for a few min­utes, gen­tle side pres­sure will usu­al­ly dis­lodge it. Allow very del­i­cate inlays to soak up the ace­tone for at least 30 min­utes, and then use the gen­tlest side pres­sure dis­trib­uted over the entire inlay to dis­lodge it. Be very careful–it will be almost the ulti­mate in dis­heart­en­ing feel­ings to break the inlay now, exceed­ed only by break­ing it lat­er. After each inlay is dis­lodged, take a moment to clean the resid­ual glue from the inlay bot­tom and crevices, and renew the label and arrow (the ace­tone may tend to dis­perse the pen­cil marks, and it will dis­solve away vir­tu­al­ly any ink). Arrange the pieces care­ful­ly because you don’t want to make any fit­ting mis­takes dur­ing the rout­ing process attrib­ut­able to try­ing to fit the wrong piece or ori­ent­ing an inlay incor­rect­ly.

Fre­quent vari­a­tion: Some arti­sans trans­fer inlay shapes to the wood sur­face by coat­ing the wood with a spray adhe­sive such as 3M, hold­ing the inlay in place by press­ing on it with a tooth­pick or some oth­er slen­der imple­ment, and coat­ing the entire wood sur­face with blown or shak­en fine white pow­der such as tal­cum or corn starch. No scrib­ing is involved, and the inlay shape stands out on the dark wood in stark con­trast to the white pow­der which is bound to the adhe­sive. This method is eas­i­er and less involved than scrib­ing and its adher­ents main­tain that it makes the inlay shape more dis­tinct and eas­i­er to fol­low than scribed lines. Draw­backs are that the pow­der may not cov­er even­ly which you won’t know until the inlay is lift­ed, and that when you start your mor­tise work you may have prob­lems see­ing the bound­ary between black and white clear­ly, espe­cial­ly if you inad­ver­tent­ly cross into the “no cut” zone. Anoth­er con­cern is that you are poten­tial­ly aerosoliz­ing fine pow­ders that have unknown poten­tial when inhaled so if you use this tech­nique remem­ber your res­pi­ra­to­ry pro­tec­tion. Talcum’s pur­port­ed haz­ards are con­tro­ver­sial and uncon­firmed but the mate­r­i­al is like­ly pret­ty innocu­ous if not inhaled. Some peo­ple are sen­si­tive to tal­cum so if you start itch­ing when you try this tech­nique you should prob­a­bly aban­don it.

Now comes the three-step rout­ing process, the most dif­fi­cult part of inlay tech­nique. You must wear gog­gles and a res­pi­ra­tor or N95 mask, you must keep a steady hand, you must STOP if you can’t see clear­ly where you are cut­ting, you must cut very slow­ly, and you must keep the faith in your scribed lines, even though many times they don’t seem to be cor­rect. The first step is to cut the inlay out­line deeply with the point­ed den­tal bit (again, the point­ed bits offered by Dremel tend to be too large, but they will work for many larg­er inlays as long as there aren’t tight cor­ners). Use the drill free­hand, not in the router base, and cut down­ward and side­ways with the point of the bit from the line into the wood. Hold the drill like a pen­cil and use the low­est speed, but vary this to suit the hard­ness of the wood and the part of the out­line you are cut­ting. This is actu­al­ly the most dif­fi­cult of the three steps, and it must be done slow­ly. BE SURE TO CUT INSIDE THE LINE!! Only expe­ri­ence will help you improve, but this step will estab­lish how “close” your inlays are, that is, how much filler space results. Try to cut 2–3 mil­lime­ters down into the wood. If you can’t see your scribed line clear­ly, stop and rearrange the work­piece until you can. For­mer­ly, I used two or three 25-pound bags of #7 lead shot (avail­able from shot­gun reload­ing sup­pli­ers) to pad and sup­port a typ­i­cal fin­ished neck but I sus­pect that too much lead dust emanat­ed from those bags so I now use sand bags instead. These give great flex­i­bil­i­ty on repo­si­tion­ing and do not dent or nick the wood. For unshaped necks as described ear­li­er padding is less impor­tant but the bags still help for posi­tion­ing. Cut com­plete­ly around the inside of each scribed line, and exam­ine each very crit­i­cal­ly to make sure the ini­tial mor­tise is of uni­form depth and that the cor­ners and tight curves are cut ver­ti­cal­ly and clean­ly. When you are sat­is­fied that all is well, exam­ine the work­piece once again. I have nev­er failed to find spots that need­ed work, even after two or three exam­i­na­tions.

Next, chuck the router bit or minia­ture end mill (not the ball-end bit) into the high speed drill, and mount the drill in the router base. Leave enough bit exposed so that it will cut a mor­tise to about 95% of the thick­ness of your inlays. To check, use scrap wood and adjust the bit depth so that one of your inlays pro­trudes just slight­ly above the mor­tise. If you are inlay­ing large pieces in a curved sur­face (D‑45 hexa­gons in a gui­tar, for exam­ple), your mor­tis­es will be curved as well unless you shim the bot­tom of the router base with tape and wood veneer so that it rides per­pen­dic­u­lar to the peak of the fin­ger­board. For these inlays, set the cut­ting depth to 95–98% of the pearl thick­ness. If you are inlay­ing a lam­i­nate such as Abal­am, you must cut your mor­tis­es so that the inlay is flush or very near­ly so—the out­er lam­i­nate is very thin and easy to sand through dur­ing the lev­el­ing process (described lat­er). Lam­i­nates obvi­ous­ly won’t usu­al­ly work across curved sur­faces. Straight router bits func­tion best at very high speed, so use the high­est speed set­ting. Use the router bit to remove as much of the inlay mor­tise wood as pos­si­ble, but do not encroach the edge too close­ly because if you slip this bit will cut real­ly fast and do ter­ri­ble, irrepara­ble dam­age. For that rea­son do not try to take large “bites” of the wood in the mid­dle of the mor­tise either. Work slow­ly and method­i­cal­ly, and be care­ful. If you can’t see very clear­ly, STOP and rearrange the work­piece so that you can. Cut out all of the mor­tis­es and then exam­ine them crit­i­cal­ly. Do not yet attempt to fit the inlays, because the mor­tis­es are not quite ready, and you may break an inlay if it binds in a mor­tise.

Now chuck the tiny ball-end bit into the drill (leave it in the router base) and set the bit depth so that the ball cuts flush with the bot­tom of the rout­ed mor­tise, not into it because you don’t want to deep­en the mor­tise any­where. How­ev­er, if with this set­up the top of the ball is flush or with­in 1mm of the wood sur­face, the bit must be set deep­er because oth­er­wise it will great­ly enlarge your mor­tis­es along the edges. You are going to under­cut the edges of the mor­tis­es, and if the ball is too close to or at the sur­face it will over­cut them too. The ball diam­e­ter of this bit should slight­ly exceed the shank diam­e­ter, and should nev­er be small­er than the shank–the shank rubs against the wood “fence” (the edge that you estab­lished with the point­ed bit) and thus keeps the ball from under­cut­ting too deeply, but it must under­cut a lit­tle or the inlay may bind when it is insert­ed. Use low or medi­um-low speed and go around the edges of your mor­tis­es very slow­ly and care­ful­ly with the ball. Be very aware of the pre­vi­ous­ly estab­lished mor­tise lim­its, and do not exert any pres­sure against the wall of the mor­tise with the bit shank. Oth­er­wise the spin­ning shank will tend to erode the wood and enlarge the mor­tise, and unfor­tu­nate­ly you will be unable to see this because your scribed lines are now obscured. Tight cor­ners and nar­row curves may not admit the bit shank, and so these will be unreach­able with the ball. Use the point­ed bit free­hand again to under­cut these. When this job is com­plete inspect each mor­tise care­ful­ly and recut any ques­tion­able spots. It is not unusu­al to spend hours with each large mor­tise (and some­times with small ones as well). Be pre­pared to devote lots of time to a large inlay project.

Now remove the drill from the router base and chuck the point­ed bit again, and begin fit­ting the pearl inlays in their mor­tis­es. Once again exam­ine each mor­tise for any rough edges or uneven lines, and smooth them care­ful­ly with the point­ed bit. Gen­tly press the inlay into place. If it won’t go in eas­i­ly, stop and find out why. Some inlays go a short dis­tance and bind, and then yield to slight­ly greater pres­sure and slip in to full depth. This is undesirable–remove the inlay, find out where it is bind­ing, and smooth the edge. If you don’t, even slight expan­sion of the wood dur­ing sea­son­al changes may crack the inlay. Tight spots are usu­al­ly vis­i­ble after the inlay is removed because the pearl leaves a white mark. Exam­ine such spots care­ful­ly and decide how deeply to cut into the wall of the mor­tise. This is where all of your care­ful ear­ly work can be com­pro­mised by impa­tience, so use good judg­ment about enlarg­ing the mor­tise. If you stayed with­in the scribed line any bind­ing has to be the result of lit­tle ridges and bumps on the mor­tise edge between the top of the ball-cut and the top sur­face of the wood. Look care­ful­ly for these and smooth them a lit­tle, then try to fit the inlay again. I have mod­i­fied a dis­card­ed den­tal “ele­va­tor” into a tiny chis­el for clean­ing out areas that will not admit even the tini­est of den­tal bits. I don’t need it very often, but when I do noth­ing else seems to work. It is rel­a­tive­ly rare for any inlay to fit per­fect­ly on the first try, but it will become more com­mon as your skill and expe­ri­ence accu­mu­lates. Now and again a del­i­cate inlay (espe­cial­ly script) will become wedged in the mor­tise so that it is very dif­fi­cult to remove. You must resist the temp­ta­tion to 1) pry it out oth­er than extreme­ly gen­tly; 2) leave it in place and attempt to pack filler around it. Work very care­ful­ly with tooth­picks around the edges, and lift it out. It will come, but if you don’t work care­ful­ly it will break. Then find out where it is bind­ing and smooth the edge.

Once all of the inlays are fit­ted they can be glued into place, and any gaps between the pearl and the mor­tise edge filled at the same time. The process is sim­ple: fill the mor­tise with a glue/filler, press the inlay into place, lev­el it, allow the filler to set up, and file, scrape, and sand the inlay flush. The stan­dard glue/filler has been epoxy with dust from the same type of wood mixed in for col­or and tex­ture. This works well with ebony, but far less so with rosewood–finely-divided rose­wood dust mixed with epoxy is usu­al­ly much dark­er and green­er than sol­id rose­wood. Some arti­sans use tint­ing col­ors, such as are used to tint house paint, with some suc­cess for rose­wood, but I have yet to see a per­fect match for rose­wood with any col­or­ing sys­tem. I just use rose­wood dust and try to keep the mor­tis­es as close as pos­si­ble.

Not all epox­ies work well as inlay filler. My pearl inlay men­tor exper­i­ment­ed dur­ing the 1960’s with var­i­ous epoxy brands to find those that set up hard (with­out a tacky sur­face) and that crept min­i­mal­ly. Epox­ies are tech­ni­cal­ly flu­ids even when set, and tend to flow just like water, except much slow­er. Real­ly creepy epox­ies soon leave gaps and pits in the fill space, and a supe­ri­or inlay job can end up look­ing very infe­ri­or. My men­tor select­ed Wil­hold epoxy, and I fol­lowed his advice with good results for years. Wil­hold epoxy is no longer with us and I now use Epoxy 220, a long-cure two part prepa­ra­tion avail­able from jew­el­ers sup­pli­ers and oth­er sources and I’m about as sat­is­fied with its per­for­mance as I was with Wilhold’s. I know that many are using five-minute epoxy, and I guess this is all right except that one must mix sev­er­al batch­es in the course of an inlay job, and many of these prepa­ra­tions nev­er lose a slight tack. I think the best choice is the light-col­ored long-set/­long cure mate­r­i­al, and the appro­pri­ate goal is to devel­op your skills enough so that you need very lit­tle or no filler at all. What­ev­er epoxy you use, be sure to mix dead-equal quan­ti­ties of resin and cat­a­lyst, because a mix­ture of unequal quan­ti­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly an excess of resin, tends to creep for­ev­er. I make up the mix­ture, stir care­ful­ly to ensure uni­for­mi­ty, and mix with just enough wood dust to yield a flu­id mix­ture of the cor­rect col­or. In my expe­ri­ence, the best dust is pro­duced by fil­ing wood with a met­al file, as oth­er dust may be too coarse or may be mixed with “impu­ri­ties” (sand­pa­per abra­sives, etc). Some arti­sans insert the inlay, pack wood dust into the crevices, and then sat­u­rate the dust with cyano­acry­late glue which sets up in sec­onds. The work I’ve seen that used this method looked good, but time will tell whether the glue remains sta­ble enough to keep the inlays in place down through the decades. I have my doubts.

If you are using long-set epoxy, you can fill all of the inlay mor­tis­es to about 3/4 depth with the epoxy filler. If you are using five-minute mate­r­i­al, only fill one or two large mor­tis­es at a time. I empha­size this–if your epoxy sets up before you embed the inlay, you will have to re-rout the mor­tise. After the req­ui­site num­ber of mor­tis­es is filled, press each inlay into place, and lev­el it by rock­ing gen­tly with a cou­ple of tooth­picks or thin dow­els. Anoth­er advan­tage of long-set epoxy is that there is time to self-lev­el pri­or to embed­ding the inlay. Be very care­ful not to let epoxy flow into the fret slots! Embed all of the inlays and dou­ble-check each to make cer­tain that they are seat­ed to full depth and that the filler has oozed out all around. Make sure that no inlay is tilt­ed. In the past I have applied heat from a high-inten­si­ty read­ing lamp to each inlay-filler to increase flu­id­i­ty and allow bub­bles to escape, but this prac­tice is now dis­cour­aged because it has been shown that most epox­ies lib­er­ate tox­ic gas­es such as phos­gene when heat­ed. This prac­tice also accel­er­ates the cure, so that long-set epoxy when heat­ed may hard­en in just a few min­utes. In any case, allow the epoxy to hard­en com­plete­ly before pro­ceed­ing.

The final steps are to clean up the excess filler and lev­el the inlays with the sur­round­ing wood. I use a cab­i­net scraper, a dou­ble-cut mill file, and a hard rub­ber sand­ing block with var­i­ous grits from 80 (pret­ty coarse) through 600 (pret­ty fine). Start with the (dull) scraper and shave away the epoxy from around and on top of the inlay. Be very care­ful in this and the fol­low­ing steps not to gouge or oth­er­wise dam­age the sur­round­ing wood. Con­tin­ue to shave until most of the epoxy is gone. A coarse mill file can take the process a step fur­ther and begin to lev­el the inlays with the wood, but again please be care­ful not to dig into the wood. Final­ly, use the sand­ing block alter­nate­ly with the scraper on each inlay (avoid the sur­round­ing wood, because it is much soft­er than the inlay and will erode at a much high­er rate–this will result in high and low spots). Change to 120 grit after the inlays are com­plete­ly lev­eled and flush with the wood, and sand care­ful­ly to remove the 80-grit scratch­es. I emphasize–use a sand­ing block, or at least use sand­pa­per fold­ed over a thick piece of cork. Do not use your fin­gers as a sand­ing pad for this or any oth­er oper­a­tion in lutherie. If large bub­ble holes show up in the filler, take an extra day to fill them and to cure the new epoxy, then lev­el with the sand­ing block and scraper. After the 80-grit scratch­es are gone, move on in turn through 220, 320, 400, and 600 grits (all used dry). Sand the entire fin­ger­board with all of the grits from 220 and fin­er. By the time you get to 600, the inlays should be free of vis­i­ble scratch­es and they should look pret­ty good against the dark wood. You should be beam­ing with pride.…

Care­ful­ly clean out the fret slots with an X‑Acto knife and #11 blades, and with a vac­u­um clean­er hose before you attempt to install frets.

I don’t oil fin­ger­boards, oth­er than to allow skin oils to put the char­ac­ter­is­tic pati­na in the board with time and play­ing. I have found that a final vig­or­ous pol­ish with a cloth dia­per or dish tow­el does at least as nice a job as oil on the board and inlays, and does­n’t add any chem­i­cals to the wood, so I rec­om­mend that approach over any oil, plant-derived or not. Oils also soft­en fin­ger­board wood, may cause fin­ish to peel away from the wood along the edges of the fin­ger­board, may loosen frets and inlays, and do not actu­al­ly pre­vent mois­ture move­ment across fin­ger­boards (prop­er sea­son­ing does that). Avoid them—they’re up to no good.

Engrav­ing: If your pat­tern involves engrav­ing, now is the time. Engrav­ing is an advanced tech­nique that requires much prac­tice and study to mas­ter, and the tech­nique itself when done well has sub­tle­ty that defies sim­ple instruc­tion. The basics of engrav­ing are sim­ple enough–purchase some gravers, draw some lines on the inlays, etch, deep­en, and widen the lines as appro­pri­ate with the graver(s), and use Laskin’s black filler, the epoxy-ebony dust mix­ture, or per­haps col­ored inks to dark­en and col­or the engraved lines. If you’re just copy­ing an estab­lished pat­tern all you real­ly need is practice—glue some scrap pieces of pearl to a piece of wood and prac­tice your engrav­ing on them until you have the con­fi­dence you need to do a cred­itable engrav­ing job.

To become a mas­ter engraver you need to devel­op your graph­ics skills as much as your engrav­ing tech­nique. If you want to inlay a “real” object (human, ani­mal, etc) to be engraved, start with pho­tographs and detailed sketch­es of the object, and a sketch of the inlay. Use the pho­tographs and oth­er visu­al aids lib­er­al­ly to help you envi­sion the accents need­ed to lend dimen­sion and real­ism (assum­ing that’s the artis­tic goal). Pen­cil the lines on the sketch, ver­i­fy that each line is need­ed, and then when the inlay is com­plet­ed exe­cute each line on the inlay with style and con­fi­dence. Strive to achieve smooth curves, cor­rect­ly tapered and deep­ened cuts, appro­pri­ate accents and shad­ing, anatom­i­cal accu­ra­cy, good per­spec­tive, and dimen­sion­al res­o­lu­tion, all of which char­ac­ter­ize expert engrav­ing. As with every­thing else that we have dis­cussed, start sim­ple, build method­i­cal­ly from there, and don’t rush. Inex­pert engrav­ing can detract from oth­er­wise good inlay, so be sure of your skills before you com­mit to an inlay job that requires engrav­ing. Hint: try to devote some time watch­ing an expert inlay engraver at work.

Dot inlays: Pur­chase the cor­rect dots, pur­chase a match­ing brad-point drill bit, pur­chase a drill press. Do not attempt this with a hand drill. Drill the holes to near­ly full depth, press each dot into place, put a drop of cyano­acry­late glue (Crazy-Glue or sim­i­lar) around the edge of the inlay, let it set up, sand off the glue and pro­trud­ing pearl and pol­ish as above. I’m not so con­cerned about the longevi­ty of cyano­acry­late for this appli­ca­tion because the dots usu­al­ly fit tight­ly and the glue may just cre­ate a vac­u­um under the inlay so the dots won’t move even if not tech­ni­cal­ly “stuck” in place. Some of the old Gib­son Mas­ter­tone pat­terns use small dots in flo­ral array—purchase the appro­pri­ate size dots, don’t try to cut them with the jew­el­er’s saw because such hand-cut dots will usu­al­ly make an oth­er­wise glo­ri­ous inlay job look clunky.

Resources: There are web­sites galore devot­ed to inlay—take time to vis­it as many as you can. Most steel string gui­tar con­struc­tion books include sec­tions on inlay tech­nique, as do Roger Siminoff’s books on man­dolin and ban­jo con­struc­tion. All of these ref­er­ences have much to offer and some have rather dif­fer­ent approach­es than what I have described. An old­er but very use­ful print ref­er­ence on inlay tech­nique is James Patterson’s “Pearl Inlay,” (revised in 1988) which cov­ers lots of ter­ri­to­ry includ­ing how to pro­duce your own blanks and strips from raw shell. A some­what new­er ref­er­ence also now in its sec­ond edi­tion is Lar­ry Robinson’s “The Art of Inlay,” which includes instruc­tions on the inlay process and has many great pho­tographs of Larry’s phe­nom­e­nal pieced inlay work. Lar­ry “works large” and has devel­oped an elab­o­rate tech­nique for filler-free inlaid motifs with mul­ti­tudes of amaz­ing­ly well-fit­ted com­po­nent pieces. His work is stun­ning, his book is superb, and you should be able to get lots of ideas on using var­i­ous inlay mate­ri­als to best advan­tage. Lar­ry has also pro­duced a series of DVDs on inlay which I haven’t seen but I can’t imag­ine would be any­thing less than great. My oth­er favorite book on inlay is William “Grit” Laskin’s “A Guitarmaker’s Can­vas.” Grit also does phe­nom­e­nal pieced work with numer­ous inlay mate­ri­als, and like Lar­ry he is a mas­ter engraver. I nev­er tire of gaz­ing at Grit’s aston­ish­ing and evoca­tive inlaid scenes and it is tempt­ing to think that he and Lar­ry have tak­en instru­ment inlay as far as it can be tak­en. But Grit, Lar­ry, Renee Karnes, and oth­ers are proof that at about the time we think we’ve seen the apex, along comes some­one whose design tal­ents and inlay tech­nique sur­pass that apex by a mile. New hands will bring fur­ther accom­plish­ments, more inspi­ra­tion, new pin­na­cles. Prac­tice, think, use your imag­i­na­tion, con­tin­u­ous­ly improve your draw­ing, lay­out, and inlay­ing skills, think some more, devote the learn­ing time, prac­tice some more, and try to make your hands the new hands.

Sean Bar­ry
Davis, Cal­i­for­nia
Octo­ber 2011