Basic Inlay Techniques

This will be the first installment of doing a retrofit inlay on a 40’s Martin D-28.  While we’ll be doing a signature, something that on the surface is simple, it is very demanding in technique and execution.

The great thing about doing inlay is that there is very little in the need of tools.  With the exception of big manufacturers’ use of CNC, very little has changed.  A jewelers saw, a rotary tool, such as a Dremel or Foredom and you’re in business. 

The piece of plywood you see in the picture is called a birds mouth and it’s used to support the substance to be cut, in this case mother of pearl.

The customer was having the neck reset and a refret and wanted his stage name inlaid in the fret board.  After we picked out the type style, I made copies for adhering to the MOP.  After gluing the type I start making cuts using the saw with a very fine blade that is .011″ thick.  When you’re starting out I would recommend a heavier blade of .021″.  You will break less of them but are limited in the fineness of the cut.  With practice, you can use finer and finer blades without breaking them.  I can usually do an entire signature without breaking a blade.  The actual “Country” measures about 1 1/4″ so you have to be very careful in placement on the birds mouth, making certain it’s supported on both sides of the cut.  Other important things to remember are to make sure the blade is perpendicular to the piece and to use the full length of the blade.  If the blade is not at a 90 degree angle to the piece you will put stress on the blade and produce a piece that is very hard to fit.  Make sure that you allow the blade to do the work and not to force it.  By using the entire blade you will cut faster and keep the blade from overheating.

You will notice from the picture that I am using my two fingers on top and thumb on the bottom as a temporary clamp.  You might also find a magnifying head band works to keep eye fatigue to a minimum.

Another thing to take into consideration is keeping the dust to a minimum by using a shop vac.  The dust is calcium based and something you don’t want to breathe in.

The thick and thin letters in this can be tricky so I always look to the hardest part first.  In this case I did the bottom of the letters first because they had the most turns and would be the most likely to break.  I don’t stop the blade when I come to a 90 degree turn but keep the blade moving rotating it until I get to the position I want, then continue.  If you’re careful you can cut the entire piece without breaks but if you do simply super glue the pieces together when you’re done.  Small needle files can be used to clean up and rough edges and as you can see, in this case I left the “O’s” and “A’s” closed.  They will be engraved when they are installed into the fret board.

Next week:  Inlaying the letters into the fret board.

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