By David J. Marks
The art of inlay can be traced back 4,000 years or more to the ancient Egyptians.
Throughout history, inlay has graced a wide variety of wooden objects from picture frames to furniture and accessories, to musical instruments. Inlay can also be found in most cultures but the French and Italians are recognized as the preeminent masters of this art form.
The technique itself is actually not that difficult, however it does take time, so it is helpful to be a patient person. I like to work with materials that are approximately an eighth of an inch thick. I begin by drawing a picture of the artwork. If drawing is not one of your strong points, don’t worry, there are plenty of books (Dover publishes many) that have artwork that is legal to copy. You can use tracing paper to copy the image and then make photo copies to use for your project. After selecting the woods that I think will best express the feel of the piece, I take the stock to the band saw and resaw it to an eighth of an inch.
To ensure the correct placement of the design, I place a photo copy of my artwork in the location that I want and tape one side of it so that it doesn’t slide. Next, I slip a piece of carbon paper underneath and trace it onto the stock. The next step is to number the individual pieces in the order in which they will be placed. This is important if one piece overlaps another and you need to be certain which piece gets inlaid before another goes over it. After that, I cut out the individual pieces of the photo copied design and glue them to the various pieces of wood. I use a little yellow glue to bond the paper to the wood. Once the glue has dried, I use a scroll saw with a fine toothed blade to cut out the pieces. Keep in mind that you will need to cut some areas oversize where the boundary of the next inlay overlaps them. This will give you some extra material to get a tight fit.
The key to getting a tight fitting inlay is to accurately define the margins. The way that I accomplish this is to start by using some double stick tape to attach the piece to the stock. Once it is secure, I use a sharp exacto knife and scribe around the perimeter. It is best to start off lightly and scribe all the way around and then add some pressure and scribe once or twice again. If you start off with too much pressure, your knife might track on some grain and move away from your intended boundary. Next up, take a putty knife and pry the inlay piece loose, remove the tape and take a fine pencil point and darken the scribe lines. Use a router with an eighth inch or sixteenth inch carbide bit to rout out the background. As you meticulously rout along the borders you will find that the scribing severed the fibers of the wood and you will see some fibers curl up and fall off indicating that you have reached the boundary line. Use a sharp chisel and a knife to remove smaller areas. After lightly chamfering the underside of the inlay to ease the fit, I apply some yellow glue and clamp it in. Once the glue dries, I use a sharp scraper to level it. Inlay is a great way to express your artistry and add a higher level of value to your work.