How to Make Guitar Inlays

Written by rob billeaud
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How to Make Guitar Inlays
Guitarist Carlos Santana playing a Paul Reed Smith guitar with its distinctive bird inlays. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

For the guitar builder, learning to cut and install fingerboard inlays is one of the most challenging tasks he or she will take on. The mother-of-pearl or abalone material is delicate and breaks easily and routing the wood is a precise operation that requires a steady hand. Despite the inherent risks, the careful builder who ventures beyond the standard "dot" inlays can greatly enhance the artistic appeal of his or her instrument.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Abalone or mother-of-pearl inlay material
  • Pencil
  • Dremel tool with router base
  • Cut-off wheel
  • Jeweller's files
  • Router bit
  • White glue
  • 220 grit sandpaper

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  1. 1

    Draw the design of the inlays on the inlay material. There are several ways of doing this. If you are attempting elaborate inlays, it may make sense to lay them out on paper before transferring them to the inlay material. When doing position markers, remember to take the fingerboard width and fret spacing into account. If you are doing simple dot inlays, it may be simpler to find a round item about the size of your dots, such as a pencil eraser, and simply trace around it.

  2. 2

    Intall a cutter wheel on the Dremel tool and cut out the inlays. Cut them a little big so you can touch them up and smooth them with jeweller's files.

  3. 3

    Smooth out any jagged or rough edges with the jeweller's files. Be very careful since the inlays will be extremely delicate.

  4. 4

    Place the inlays where you want them to be on the headstock or fingerboard and one at a time trace around the outline of the inlay with a sharp pencil.

  5. 5

    Chuck the smallest router bit available for the Dremel into the tool and use the thickness of the inlay material to set the depth of the rout. Press a piece of the inlay material flat against the router base and moving it to near the bit, adjust the depth of cut so that it is just a hair shallower than the thickness of the material.

  6. 6

    Carefully rout the headstock and/or fingerboard to the outline of the inlays that you traced. It is important to be as precise as possible; however, minute errors are inevitable and can be repaired when the inlays are glued in. Try to Keep as much of the sawdust contained in one area as you can.

  7. 7

    Apply a thin coat of glue to the underside of each inlay and place it in the position routed for it.

  8. 8

    Mix a small amount of glue with some of the sawdust from the routs to make a thick paste. Press the paste into any tiny gaps that exist between the inlay and the rout.

  9. 9

    Allow the glue to dry, then using 220-grit sandpaper, sand the inlays so they are flush with the surface of the headstock or fingerboard and to remove any glue residue.

Tips and warnings

  • Dremel tools spin at several thousand revolutions per minute. Always wear safety glasses when operating the tool and keep hands and fingers clear of the cutting wheel.

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