How to Install Guitar Fretboard Inlays

Written by lisa wampler
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Building your own guitar can be the ultimate way to have a one-of-a-kind, personalised instrument. But what's a custom built guitar without the personal touch of inlay? Inlays are extremely popular on guitars, and your custom guitar doesn't have to be any different. With just a few tools and some practice, you can install inlays on your guitar that look very professional.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • Pre-cut inlays
  • Scribe or X-acto knife
  • Epoxy
  • Inlay filler
  • Dremel
  • Carbide downcut inlay router bit for Dremel
  • Dremel routing base plate
  • 24" straight edge
  • Compressed air
  • Blue painter's tape
  • 600grit sanding block

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  1. 1

    Confirm that your fret board is flat by checking the board against a straight edge. Place one end of the straight edge in the upper left corner of the fret board and put the other end in the lower right corner of the fret board. You should not see any gaps the length of the board. Now check the fret board with the straight edge in the upper right and lower left. If there are no gaps between the fret board and the straight edge your fret board is flat.

  2. 2

    Line the inlay up where you want it to be located on the fretboard and trace it with a scribe or X-acto blade. Trace as close as you can to the inlay to ensure the tightest fit. Set inlay off to the side for now.

  3. 3

    Set the depth of the Dremel router attachment using a piece of scrap wood. Your inlay should sit slightly proud of the top of the fret board once glued in to allow for levelling.

  4. 4

    Route the cavity using the Dremel attached to the Dremel routing base. Use slower speeds to prevent the router from pulling on you. It should be set to a speed that allows you to cut but also control the direction. Route from the middle out to the edges, paying close attention to where your outline is. You should route as close to the outline as possible without going over the line.

  5. 5

    Clean out the cavity with compressed air to get rid of all excess material. This will ensure the inlay sits flat in the cavity.

  6. 6

    Place a small amount of epoxy or glue into the base of the cavity and then insert the inlay. Tape the inlay into place using blue painter's tape and do not remove until the epoxy has dried.

  7. 7

    Sand inlay flat to the fret board using a 600 grit-sanding block. This should be done only after all inlays have been glued in.

  8. 8

    Use the inlay filler to fill in any gaps between the inlay and the fret board. Once the filler is dry, the fret board can be radiused and then fretted.

Tips and warnings

  • All inlay work should be completed on the fret board prior to completing the radius. Therefore, you need to make sure your inlay is thick enough to prevent sand-through when you complete the radius. A common thickness is 1/4".
  • Your work will be more accurate if you inlay the board before you install the frets. It will let you get closer to your work.
  • If you are inlaying an ebony fret board, you can use black epoxy to avoid using filler. You'll need to be more liberal with the epoxy so it seeps above the inlay to fill in the gaps.
  • Many suppliers sell pre-cut shapes out of MOP and abalone. This is a great way to get started and will yield positive results on a finished project.
  • Practicing on scrap wood is always a good idea if you are a beginner. It's better to learn on a piece of pine then a £130 Brazilian rosewood fret board.
  • If your inlay does not want to go into the cavity because the cavity is slightly too small, you'll need to remove more material from the fret board.

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