Beginner’s Guide To Wood Inlay
Wood inlays are beautiful details that can give any project an extra level of elegance and sophistication.
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Take a stroll through an antique store, and you’ll likely find some pieces of furniture that stand out from the rest. That’s often because of exotic wood or other materials embedded in the surface. This almost magical effect is known as inlay, and it always seems to elevate the finished product.
The shape and style of an inlay is only limited by the imagination and skill of the woodworker. An inlay can be intricate and decorative or simple and practical. This flexibility makes inlay a perfect skill for a DIYer to master.
What Is a Wood Inlay?
Creating a wood inlay involves cutting a recess on the face of a wood base, filling it with new material, then finishing the surface so the final product is smooth and even.
Note that “inlay” can refer to the finished product or the inserted material. It can even be a verb describing the physical act of laying one material into another. The wood that receives the inlay may be called the base, setting or matrix.
Inlay material can be wood itself (usually a contrasting color or grain to make it pop) or another material like bone, mother-of-pearl, brass or resin. For our purposes, we’ll focus on wood-in-wood inlays.
The difficulty level depends on the size and intricacy of the design. A beginning woodworker can inlay a basic shape, while a complex, overlapping inlay requires a mastery of the craft.
Why Inlay Wood?
Here’s why woodworkers often work with inlays.
- Decoration: Inlays can add an accent detail or act as the primary decoration of a piece. A complex inlay pattern can transform a table or dresser into a show-stopping work of art.
- Practicality: An inlay may also have a practical function. Bowtie inlays often join two pieces of material together with a touch of visual flair. Similarly, if a woodworker sees a damaged section on an otherwise beautifully constructed piece, he or she may cut out the damaged area and replace it with an inlay.
- Signature: Inlaying a logo or initials can be the woodworking equivalent of a painter’s signature on a portrait.
Wood Inlay Tools
Specific tools and materials are required to lay out, cut, glue and smooth out the inlay.
- Gauge or square: Inlays are generally laid out freehand or with a pattern. Freehand woodworkers still use gauges or squares to make clean, symmetrical patterns.
- Transfer paper: If you’d rather use an existing pattern, you’ll need some way to transfer the pattern before making your cuts. Carbon paper is one option. Others are stencil or even plain printer paper.
- Marking knife: Use this to trace over the outline of the inlay material. (Always mark the cuts on the base material with the finished inlay material, even if using a pattern or template.) At this stage a knife creates a groove in the base surface, helping align the chisel blade during clean-out. Some woodworkers choose a dedicated marking knife for this, but any thin blade will do.
- Double-sided tape (optional): Can be handy for holding transfer paper on the inlay wood or holding the inlay wood on the base material as you’re laying it out.
- Hand saw or scroll saw: When cutting the inlay material, you’ll need a saw capable of fine detail.
- Chisels: Sharp chisels clean out the recess where the inlay will be seated into the base material. It’s possible to cut an entire inlay with chisels, but most woodworkers prefer a router to remove the bulk of the wood, then clean up to the edges with chisels.
- Router: A plunge router will easily remove the bulk of the inlay design.
- CNC router (optional): This is a computer-controlled router capable of incredibly precise, detailed work. They allow woodworkers to take inlays to another level of complexity and detail.
- Glue: Holds the inlay material in place. Common glues include wood glue, CA glue (e.g. Super Glue) and epoxies.
- Pull saw or hand plane (optional). If your inlay sticks out of the base significantly, remove the bulk of it with a pull saw or hand plane. This step is optional. Many times, the inlay will be close enough to flush that you can skip straight to sanding.
- Orbital sander: This blends the inlay flush with the base.
- More glue: A favorite trick of woodworkers is mixing sawdust with CA glue or epoxy and filling it in any gaps between the inlay and base material.
Inlay vs. Marquetry
Inlay is sometimes confused with marquetry, a similar technique. Marquetry is the art of cutting multiple shapes from different veneers, then assembling them into a final image placed onto the subject material. Marquetry tends to be more complex than inlay and works well with thinner subject material.