The trade of inlay has been a master skill set for centuries all around the world. From pearl and precious metals to bone and exotic woods, artisans have utilized various types of materials to create ornate pieces of art. I first learned the art of inlay about ten years ago while working at C.F. Martin & Co., and instantly fell in love. Love you ask? Yes, this is a trade that stretches the imagination and encourages you to problem solve and think outside the box. Inlay does not enhance the sound of the instrument, on the contrary, it could do quite the opposite. Where to inlay, the type of materials, and the depth of the inlay, are all things to consider to maintain the sound quality of the instrument.
So why inlay an instrument if it does not enhance the sound? I guess you could look at inlay as the beautification of an instrument. I often tell folks that I’m a tattoo artist for guitars. It all depends on the individual’s preference of what they want on their instrument. Some like to have their name on it, or perhaps a simple dot fret marker, while others may like to have an elaborate art piece on the top or back of their guitar. This is where things can get interesting. When I inlay an elaborate piece on the top or back of the guitar, I carefully choose my materials to not only look a certain way but to react a certain way. I tend to use pieces of wood or other softer materials to help flex with the wood when the guitar resonates. When a guitar is played, the top of the guitar will bend and reverberate, which helps reflect the tone of the guitar. Other factors like the type of wood selected for the body, neck and the neck joint also play a role to the tone of the guitar, but the top is the key component.
As I mentioned earlier, the depth of an inlay plays a factor in maintaining the quality of tonal sound. Typically, the deepest pieces I inlay are .060” thick, that’s less than a 1/16th of an inch. Now how do you inlay a piece of pearl into a piece of wood, you may ask? There are actually a few ways to accomplish this task. In current day, I tend to use coping saws, pencil grinders and CNC machines. Before this technology was developed, coping saws and chisels were the common tools. Using pencil grinders and CNC machines, I create a pocket or void in the wood that the pearl will fit flush inside. The pocket I create to fit the inlaid piece is .003” larger than the originally piece. If you’re trying to think what .003 of an inch looks like, it is thinner than a piece of a paper! Now, this may sound like it is small tedious work, well, it is… but it truly is a trade that is fun and rewarding.
If you would like to learn more about inlay and NCC’s Luthier Certification Program, please come out to our free Luthier Information Session on May 5th at the Fab Lab located at our Southside Bethlehem Fowler Campus, 511 E. Third Street, 1st Floor. The information session starts at 5:30pm.