One of the questions I seem to get a lot is “what is inlay?” In its simplest form, a shape is cut from one material, then a hole or cavity is cut to the same shape in another material and the shape is then in set into the cavity, glued in place and then sanded flush with the surface. In musical instruments the most common inlay material is one of the various types of shell, such as Mother-of-Pearl or abalone. The most common place for an inlay is the fretboard as a position marker and the most common shape is a simple dot. Inlays are cut using a saw, similar to a coping saw, called a Jewelers saw. The Jewelers saw uses very fine blades that generally come in 16 sizes from #8 down to #8/0. The largest are #8 which are still only .0197” thick, meaning a stack of 50 would be 1” high. The 8/0 blades are .0063 or a stack 158 per inch. As a common point of comparison, the #8/0 blades are about 1 ½ times the thickness of a human hair. Inlay material for musical instruments is generally about 1/16” thick before it is sanded flush. What I do is somewhat more involved than inlaying a dot into a round cavity but the process is still the same. A shape is cut and then inlaid into another material, I simply repeat that process many times to create a mosaic before the finished product is set into the fretboard, headstock, pickguard, bridge or guitar back. I also use a much broader selection of materials than typical inlay work. To create 3 dimensional looking, photo-realistic inlays sometimes dozens of different materials ranging from wood and stone to plastic and other synthetics are used to create the realistic effect. Sometimes the individual pieces are tiny. In order to do this kind of detail I really only use the #8/0 blades (I really wish they made them smaller…) because the blades are so fragile I buy them by the gross and expect to break one every few minutes. On a project like the Samurai I used several hundred blades.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in doing photo-realistic inlay is material selection. Because colors can’t be mixed and blended like with painting it’s a challenge to find just the right material that not only is the right color but might also have variations that look like hair or fabric or shading etc. If a material has a pattern to it that must be taken into account to makes something look correct. For instance a face needs to be cut from a material like ivory that has the right color but has no obvious pattern. A dress cut from wood needs to make sure the grain direction helps to show the texture of the fabric as well as the direction of the weave and so on. Sometimes to create the desired effect a material must be chosen that has many variations in color and texture so that different areas can be highlights and others in shadow. If that isn’t possible I try to select different materials that have the same color but different tones. One of my favorite materials for this is wood. As an example, here is an inlay of the campfire scene from the first Martin project I worked on, the “Custom Cowboy”.
In this inlay is a Martin guitar is leaning against a log. The soundboard is made from the sapwood area of African Blackwood which gives it the look of aged and worn spruce, the side is cut from mahogany but the grain pattern is running from top to back so that it gives depth to the guitar and also follows the curve of the sides, if I had the grain going from end to end, like a normal guitar side, there would be no way to get it to follow the curve and it would look strange and one dimensional. Throughout this website I will be referring to the selection of materials for effects and how they add to the realism of the final result. As you explore I hope you will be able to enjoy the creation of these inlays as much as I did while we were working on them and maybe even learn a little more about those dots in the fretboard of the guitar you might have in your guitar stand at home.
Thank You for stopping by! Harvey Leach
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