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inlay tutorial.. blue shark- part one


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Hi guys.

I know I promised this a while ago but I have been working on a lot of commisions. Some huge, others as small as signatures in truss rod covers.

I'll have to do this in installments. Here is part one..

Basically I decided to show you how I am going step by step on the blue shark that will go on the chimera headstock classical guitar. For Dr. Douglas Fields.

First things first- this is on a NON radiused classical fretboard- that makes this one easier. It's totally flat. the board is ebony, also easy. So- this is an EASY inlay!

I am using epoxy for the first time on this one, so we'll see how I like it. Normally I use the CA, and touch up afterwards.

so- start out with a picture right?

Here is the inlay so far- this photo includes the original art, (lower right), the photocopies for cutting the pieces, the odder materials, (blue/teal plastics in this case, and black tahitian pearl) other more regular materials include ebony, and regular mother of pearl.

The inlay is already cut out and glued up together.

I use 003 jewelers blades, and a normal jewelers saw as well. Nothing special there.

Recently I have started to use size 1 blades, as they seem to be much more tight against the cut, and give you a more even edge cut from top to bottom.


Post questions as you see fit. I know I am leaving a lot out but I assume you guys know the very basics already.

The main thing with inlay design is originality.

For example..

start out like this- " I really want a killer inlaid tropical rainforest scene on a guitar" how can I make that happen? THEN worry about materials, etc..

If your staring at a single piece of pearl in front of you wondering what to do with it you are limiting yourself a lot!

You'll notice design-wise.

For one the shark is extremely fore-shortened, he's going to look like he's swimming out of the fretboard. Also the top fins are cut off, he's swimming through the board. You don't need to shove or fit the whole design into a small space. The human mind wil piece in what is missing as long as the main parts of the image are there. To much and it looks off, but done correctly it adds a new dimension to the art, and looks really unique.

More soon.


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Some more on drawing up your inlays....

1) Make sure all your lines join each other so they can be cut out seperately later like a puzzle. Any unjoined lines mean starting over. You can creat free ending lines with a graver tool later, as your engraving skills get better. More on engraving later

2) I draw all my art for patterning with a drafting pencil. I use #8H leds- very hard, for drawing thin clear lines. These lines wil photocopy nicely, and are good for getting extremely close tight cuts. The thicker the pattern lines, the more off your cutting will be, the more gaps between pieces you will have in your inlay. These are hard to hide, so just prevent them with good cutting to begin with.

3) When photocopying you can shrink the pattern a little, making the lines thinner.

4) Make about 15 or so photocopies of your original, and use these to piece out your inlay materials.

More on materials and thicknesses later.


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ryeisnotcool2 is correct in that there is a little filing most times to get a perfect fit, and yes I use the little jewelers files. However, if you take your time cutting, especially when piercing (when shell is going into shell, for inside pieces) then you won't have to file. Typically there is always some filing.

Also make sure when you cut to stay on the outside track of the line, aspecially as a beginner.

It's easy to file to fit, you can't add shell if it's cut down under the fit, you have to re-cut. I re-cut any piece that's not acceptable. It's wasting a little bit of shell, but my names on these projects. if they are not exactly what the customer wants, and they are not totally blown away I have failed. I rather re-do an entire piece then have someone be unhappy.

More soon, Craig

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About the backing- I do not use any backing. I glue the pieces together with the liquid CA from stew-mac. I am most interested in the surface color of my materials. Sometimes I will glue everything FACE down, unpside down, so that the surface of the inlay is completely even, and the back is uneven. I can then rout to the deepest piece, and use dust or something to life the other part of the inlay up. The glue will fill in the back. This preserves your surface colors. Just make sure the inlay sits flush in the rout pocket. Any shell sticking out will get sanded down, and your color patterns will go away. This is a little tricky on radiused fingerboards, but it can be done. More on that later.


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I have some experience cutting shell but wouldn't call myself much more than a learner at this point. On the topic of filing the edges - my experience has been that the cut should be made as accurately as possible and not plan on filing to make up for anything. I think that's what Craig was saying, but I'm not sure.

If you approach the cut like you would a piece of wood and leave a bit to be sanded later, I think you will be pretty dissapointed in the results. I think it is hard to file the edges to meet. If there are some small areas that need filing, that's OK but if you are talking about cutting outside a line for the entire length, I don't know about that. I guess it depends on the shape/size of the inlay. I have done a lot of small/thin pieces and hate having to put any additional pressure on them after making it through a cut (sometimes after several attempts of cutting). For a small burr, no problem - for the entire edge of the piece - no thank you.

That was one hard learned lesson and it may not apply to everyone. I first thought I could treat cutting shell like I cut wood and found out that I was making a lot more work for myself. Please remember that these opinions have been formed after cutting about 3-4oz of shell in about 2 months time. Far from being an inlay expert.

Hope that helps someone.

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Thanks Dave.

That's exactly what I was trying to say..

Filing is for the areas where you didn't cut as accurately as you SHOULD have. Don't PLAN on doing it, and if your going to make mistakes cut outside the line, so you don't have to throw out the piece. The goal is to cut away the lines, leaving a completely tight fit, each piece having it's half of the original line shaved off, totally tight. But you will gain those skills as you go. For a completely new beginner some filing is goung to happen. It happens to me in almost every piece (total piece that is- not each piece of shell) Most are tight from the start. Pierced pieces almost always need at least a little something filed off.

More pics soon, I am already engraving the shark. He's almost done.


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i agree i dont plan on filling its just sometimes yu have to, but im no expert either! ive been thinking of my next intricate inlay and i think im gonna do a tropical island scene on my bubinga/cannary hollow body

im thinkin a palm tree with coconuts,and maybe a hoola dancer or a tropical fish or something, im getting tired of just using abalone and mop. i want to start getting some more color on the intsrument!

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