Fun Inlay Options: Adding Decorative Elements, Taking a Project Further

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Blog entry by Mark A. DeCou posted 03-13-2007 04:09 AM 10773 reads 10 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I was totally content being tied with Ethan on the number of blogs tonight, heck, I was out some this past week, cut me some slack, I’m still in “recovery” for crying-out-loud.

But, when I noticed that Ethan suggested that my comment in the Forum section on Silver Wire Inlay, should become it’s own blog entry, I decided to jump at the chance to take a commanding lead in the blog count. I gave up on trying to catch Frank & Don, but Ethan and I are keeping each other going at the present time.

I have written extensively, you thought this was long, on inlay techniques, but I can’t find out where I did it. I think it might have been in my old yahoo group on Native American Flutes that I dropped out of last summer (see my Flute Project for why).

The topic in the Forum involved using Silver Wire Inlay to decorate a piece of walnut used in a breakfast table nook. I love Silver Wire Inlay, as it ads a stroke of subtle beauty that can make walnut look even better, if skillfully installed, and if the design is tasteful.

I started out so strong on the Forum Subject, that I decided to include some content on other ways to do inlay work. I would say that I do a lot of inlay work for a woodworker, but not as much as a professional guitar maker that does long string necks of ebony w/mother-of-pearl accents and art. However, I have learned a lot of do’s and don’ts. Since I’ve started this topic now, I’m hoping others with more experience than myself, and others with related experience, will be willing to share with the rest of us.

I have a lot of inlay work spread out through my lumberjocks posted Project Pages, and I added a few photos below that I have never posted before to show some of the ways I have used it in the past.

I’m no expert at inlay, but it does give you a feel for the concept, and then you can let your own skills and inspiration be displayed in your own work. I will enjoy seeing what each of you come up with.

Materials to Inlay?
For materials to inlay, you can use anything that might look good. In the past, I have purchased pieces of costume jewelry just for the semi-precious stones in the center, giving the rest to my daughter to play dress-up with.

I have used Cameo cut engraving, by pulling out the necklace ring. I have even purchased one of those Bolo Western Ties (ugly), just to pull out the piece of turquoise in the center when I found it at an antique store. After that great “find,” I also look for Bolo Ties now.

I look for small bits and trinkets everywhere I go, with the thought that it might look great as an inlay piece. It is suprising how many cool looking rocks there are laying around in the dirt. I mostly look down when I am walking now, you just never know what you will discover.

The kids are great helpers, as they love to go looking for new rocks. Their selection standards aren’t quite the same as mine yet, as they are young enough to view each limestone gravel road rock as a gem. I have passed that point of “wonder”, at least in this area of my life.

Grizzly has a great selection of inexpensive materials in the guitar making section of their catalog. Jantz Knife Supply has some great stuff on their website. There is also Berea Hardwoods, and many others I have purchased from over the years. I have shopped eBay and even scored Mastadon ivory, and legal elephant ivory.

One of my favorites is Curly Abalone. Why? I don’t know, I just like the pizazz it adds to a project.

One of my best deals was standing in a three-hour long line to buy all I could afford when a Lapidary Supply store in Wichita went out of business. It was indeed hard to explain to the Boss at the time why I was so late from lunch, but I have used those pieces I bought that day for several years now. It was equally hard to explain the expense to the “Wife”.

The Boss (“The Man”) did finally receive the benefit of my long-wait when he bought a custom knife from me this past Christmas (lumberjocks project: “Christmas Knife”). I forgot to tell him that I bought the abalone piece inlayed in his knife handle that day I was so late from lunch. I haven’t worked for him for more than two years now, and we seem to get along better. Funny how that works.

Silver Wire Inlay:
I might be all wet, but I will try to head others in another direction away from using a router bit to do “silver wire inlay.” There are several reasons, tradition is one that sticks in my mind, but more importantly, if you want that traditional thin line look, there really isn’t any subsitute for it I have seen, other than the old traditional method of doing it, which is not done with a router bit. More on this topic below.

Inlay Tools:
For hogging out a recess for normal inlay, a router bit works great. I do use a Dremel Tool with the accessory adjustable-chuck which can hold a small burr bit, usually a 1/4” diameter cylinder shaped bit with a flat bottom. I can cut smooth straight up and down lines with it. Then, I can switch to a small dovetail shaped burr but that I can undercut the sides of the inlay recess. I use the Dremel free-hand to router out the recess in most cases like this.

I start by carefully placing the item for inlay in position, and drawing around it with a freshly sharpened pencil. Then, I free hand cut the recess with either the Dremel burr, a Dremel-Router Base setup, or a Laminate Trimming Router Motor and an upcut 1/16” diameter carbide bit. Don’t buy the high speed steel bits, they get dull fast and start to burn the wood.

Sticking It In Place, Gluing:
In most of the places I have used Object Inlay, I use 2-part epoxy to hold it in the recessed area. I carefully mask off the surrounding area with blue-masking tape, and pull the tape back off before the epoxy is cured hard, pulling it right after it has stopped being “stringy.”

I then quickly cleanup any epoxy stickiness on the Object, or wood, with rubbing alcohol with a soft lint-free rag. Lint filled rags, like old bathroom towels, have a tendency to stick fabric into your inlay glue if the epoxy isn’t quite cured to the “rubbery” stage. So, you need to just be patient and stand there and wait until the “stringiness” turns into “rubbery” and then you can quickly clean up with the rubbing alcohol, and then set the item aside for awhile to cure.

Playing with epoxy some will help you see the stages of curing I have explained, and then it will make more sense. After the epoxy continues to cure, it will harden like glass if you mix it 50/50 with hardener. At times, I mix it a little light on the hardener, so that it stays more rubbery, especially if the Object is hard, such as rock, or metal.

Here is a photo of a Ladle I made out of American Bison Horn with Abalone Eyes. Copy from a museum piece. The Museum didn’t have such a cool display stand though.

Here is my “No-Sponsor” Provided Opinion:
I only use my Dremel-Router setup when I am doing extremely shallow cuts with the 1/16” bit, as the Dremel just doesn’t have the torque to hold up and cut without vibration and stalling. When you are cutting fine inlay detail, you sure don’t want the bit to keep stopping, or to go up and down in speed as you work with it. You want as consistent of a speed as you can keep, so that you can manage the free hand action of the climb-cutting to ease into a line you want to use as your edge line.

I know, I know, I recently saw “Norm” use a Dremel-Router Kit he was “donated” to show in a recent episode where he built a Thomas Molesworth-Inspired cabinet. Despite my deep respect for Norm & Dremel, I wouldn’t recommend a Dremel-Router for the type of work “Norm” did on that episode, even if Dremel gave me the equipment to demonstrate.

I use two different Laminate Trimming Router motors, and they have adequate power and torque to do the job for most of my work with inlay. Again, you want the consistent speed to make accurate free hand cuts, and you don’t want a router motor that slows when the cut is heavy, and then speeds back up as the cut gets lighter. I rarely use my $29 optional router base for my Dremel for this reason.

Back to the Small Bits:
I know a guy personally that uses a 1/32” size bit in pool cue making for inlay work, only he doesn’t cut by free hand, he uses a CNC program to drive the router motor. It looks great, really great, but it does have a “perfection” to it that looks “machine made.”

I buy all of my bits, including a 1/16” diameter carbide bit in a 1/4” diameter shaft size from They have a spiral up-cut 1/8” bit that I use often for cutting channels for inlay, mortises for hinges, and router based flat-carving detail areas with tight corners.

Old-School Silver Wire Inlay:
However, if you want to do authentic silver wire inlay which will be drop-dead-gorgeous on a walnut table top, my suggestion is to follow what gun makers use for silver inlay while making antique-looking firearms. In these cases, a gun maker draws a line on the wood where the inlay wire will be inserted, and then cuts that line with a set of small chisels, working to keep it as smooth and flowing as possible.

The main tool for this is a flat beveled chisel with a 1/8” wide blade. These are always made by the artisan themselves, and they have a shallow cut bevel, as you want more of a crack formed in the wood, rather than a chiseled channel. To help with cutting smooth curves, a chisel of the right curve is made. So, for a long sweeping line in silver that ends in a tight curve, the 1/8” flat chisel is used until it is too wide to make the curve smooth, and then a curved chisel is used.

I have not looked specifically for these wire inlay chisels in a luthier supply store although they maybe available. Dixie Gun Works may have them now, as they continue to grow and grow as the black powder and cowboy shooting hobby is busting out everywhere.

The wire inlay chisel is easy to make, grinding it slowly on a belt sander from a small hand-file material keeping it cool. So, I haven’t ever bought one. I made a small wedge bevel “graver” tool this way at Christmas time for some inlay details I couldn’t get done with the tools I had, and I think with making the handle and everything, it took less than 45 minutes. I just use empty .45ACP bullet casings for a ferrel around the handle tip, punching out the old primer, and using that hole in the end of the casing to insert the new chisel shank into the hole in the wood handle, held with a little 2-minute epoxy. I have also used finishing nails, hammering them on a small anvil to cold work harden them and make them flat for bevel grinding into a chisel point. Doesn’t take long, honestly. I think it takes me longer to figure out which of my small hand-files I am willing to sacrifice for the job, but once the decision is made, it doesn’t take long.

This is hard to explain in writing. The best resource I have found that teaches this lost Paleo-art form of Silver Wire Inlay is an older video featuring “Hershel House” making a Kentucky Flintlock Rifle. He was the historical gun maker at a living museum back East, and is considered to be a leading expert in old gun craft skills. His video set is excellent, and I learned way more from it than just gun making. Using the skills he teaches in the video changed some processes in my work, and also added some concepts I had not considered before. Such as the silver wire inlay, carving scrolls in gun stocks, molten lead inlay, blacksmithing, spring making, bluing steels for corrosion protection, making screws, cold work hardening of steel, etc., etc.

Here is just one link to where a list of resources are provided for historical gun making, which includes Mr. House’ video set.

The silver wire cut lines are done narrow, and not actually carved out, only cut down into the wood by hammering the chisel point directly down into the wood, and then pulling it straight out, and going to the next cut and repeating until the lines are cut. No wood is removed by the chiseling process.

Once the cut is complete, a piece of wire is selected and cut to length. This will be about 1/4” wide, and the thickness you want the line to be. The wire strip is hand filed to an edge on the bottom the full length of the wire, which will fit into the bevel shape of the cut groove. So, it is filed the entire length of the wire to be about the same wedge bevel as the chisels that were used to cut the line.

The wire, once prepared, is gently tapped into position with a little hammer and driven as deep as it will go, as you move down the wire a little at a time. It is a very long process, and makes a beautiful gun, albeit a very expensive gun. This hammering process provides a nice way to smooth any undulations in the cut, and also will provide a way to fill a wider cut with pounded metal. However, a smooth line will look like a snake after eating a dog if the cut line is thicker in spots than others, as the silver will be pounded to form the shape of the cut line. Bumps in the width of your silver line are not repairable, so practice first. It isn’t as bad as it seems.

After the hammering, a hand file is used to cut off, flush with the wood surface, the excess pounded wire that did not drive into the wood. It will be bent and smashed looking and pretty ugly, but after filing, it will look like a small silver line. Like I said, drop-dead-gorgeous if the cut lines were done carefully and smooth, without an sharp jerks.

The human eye will easily pick out even the smallest imperfection in a sweeping curve. Just ask a family member to look at your work if you can’t see the imperfection yourself, they will most likely catch it immediately. If your family doesn’t help you with this, take your work to any art show, and some “helping” soul will point it out for you. The difference between a Master at this technique and a “wannabe”, like myself, is the smoothness of the curves and consistency of the width of the line.

To do this hammered wire inlay method, only friction is used to hold the wire in place. Counter to our modern thought, glue is not recommended, as it will work out over the years with the two different materials moving against each other as the wood changes with humidity variations.

Examples of silver wire inlay work survives from some of the oldest guns in museums, but the ones I have seen either have missing wire, or the wire has been expertly restored, as it never stays completely in place over the years. This might be a concern to you for a breakfast nook table top that could see hot liquids, spilled butter, pancake syrup, etc. It might be a better art technique for decorating a wall clock, or mirror frame, or something that is less utilitarian in it’s designed purpose.

Another Method of Metal Inlay for you to consider:
I have done ceremonial pipe making projects and other metal inlay, where I have inlayed molten metal, simulating “lead”, or “pewter” inlay in stone to make a pipe bowl, using old traditional ways and also more modern ways. English Arts & Crafts, and the later Gustav Stickley work included Inlayed sections of Pewter, which I believe were all done with relief carved recesses and molten metal. I chose not to use the traditional method of using actual “Lead” for health reasons, but chose a silver-tin solder type material.

In this molten metal inlay work, the cavity for the inlay is carved, filed, and cut into the stone, or wood (material removed). The inside of the channel is then wedge under-cut to make an undercut dovetail fit once the metal has cooled from molten to solid. Any pits, bubbles, or other problems are filled in spot fills, and hand filed and sanded smooth.

If you don’t want to buy soldering wire to use for the inlay, you can get a tire repair place to give you some of the wheel weights they have discarded, and melt them down, removing the steel spring clamp, and the dross. It is mostly tin, so the color will be different from silver, but not much different. Tin is more whitish, silver is more yellowish in tint. A bullet making lead melting pot works well, but I just use an old kitchen metal pan and either a propane torch, butane torch, or acytylene torch, depending on what I am in the mood for. I have also used an old metal soup ladle, which worked well until it finally fell apart.

I have used this molten metal inlay technique in wood, specifically walnut, and it seems to work actually better in wood than it does in Catlinite Pipe Stone.

However, the thinner the cut line, the harder it is for the molten metal to overcome the capilary action of the liquid state and to fall into the cut channel. This capilary action is what causes water to turn up the side of a measuring cup when you are measuring water for a receipe. In some cases liquid capilary is a good thing, but not in molten metal inlay.

For instance, a 1/8” wide channel can be made to work with some effort and practice, but a 3/16” channel works much better with less bubbles and voids to repair, and it tends to fall to the bottom of the channel where it cools and forms the dovetail wedge that makes it impossible for it to pop out some time. However, a 1/4” channel gets to be harder to work, as the metal wants to bubble up, with the capilary action working against you on the top side, leaving unfilled areas along the edge of the wood. I use a solder handle tip from my old stained-glass hobby days to go back and spot fill in metal in all voids along the inlay.

This material if sanded with the wood surface to 600 grit and then buffed with wax and a soft rag, will shine up like bright silver, although if it has tin in it, there will be a little color variation, compared to actual silver.

One thing to be cautioned about in this process, is that a random orbital sander will more easily cut the wood than the metal, and so it is easy to get a “washing” out of the wood around the metal line. To avoid this, I sanded the area right around the metal with a wood block by hand, and then as I go up in grit, I switch to the random orbital sander, kepping it moving in long sweeps across the metal area.

The harder the wood, the less problem you will have with this “washing” out sanding problem. Also, the metal will get hot as it is sanded, so you will just need to keep a finger on it occassionally and stop when it gets hot and do something else for awhile until it cools. You don’t want to sand until you get scorched wood along the metal line, turning it charred black. I have done that, and it will ruin your day.

Here are some photos of work where I have used the “molten solder inlay technique.” For smaller lines that are thin and graceful, I recommend the chisel cut wire method described up above. In the molten work, I can’t get a real thin line to accept the molten metal, and it just sits on the surface without penetrating the wood. I don’t have any photos to show of the silver wire inlay work, but recommend the videos mentioned above. For $40 you will enjoy about 4 hours of intriguing work on the video, and learn things you had not expected to learn. The silver wire inlay section of the video is only about 10 minutes long, but he adequately shows you what to do, and then you just need to practice.

Depending on how “Artsy” you want the table top to look, you can incorporate stone, shell, and other materials in the inlay. I have used mother of pearl, rocks, turquoise, abalone, snail shell, legal ivory, coins, and on an on in this fashion.

For instance, I have removed an ugly knot by routering it completely out, and replaced it with an inlay of abalone and molten silver-tin metal. Other times, I have filled the cavities in a knot with turquoise and silver-tin metal. The options are endless.

An Easier Method to Consider
Epoxy Inlay can be quite fun, and might have a longer life on a breakfast table top. I have successfully colored clear expoxy with a variety of paint colors, and metal shavings, to use for inlay. I have used colored saw dust, antler dust, bone shavings, and so many different weird things I hate to admit it at times. Just mix it in the clear epoxy, and presto, you have an inlay decoration.

I have colored epoxy to look like ivory, and have even used three or four colors to mix a fake looking turquoise color that was ever bit as good as the fake turquoise you see in cheap jewelry. I created “metalish” looking inlay by using silver paint and metal filings. I have also used gold paint and brass filings, and copper paint and copper filings. I think you get the point.

Epoxy won’t have any of the problems you have with the metal in either of the other techniques, and you might find it works for what you want.

To color epoxy, just use any type of paint. I use acrylic hobby paints that come in endless colors choices. I either use them right out of the bottle, or mix some to get the color I want.

I mix the epoxy according to the instructions, and drop a single drop of the paint and stir. One drop of paint will be enough color to adequately color a spot of epoxy on your mixing board the size of a silver dollar (remember those?).

Where did I learn this Epoxy Coloring technique? From the pool cue maker, as he finally explained to me that the “ivory” inlay was not ivory, only cream tinted clear epoxy. Masterfully done, of course.

The only caution I have for you in this epoxy material technique is that the more paint that is added to the mix in ratio to the epoxy, the quicker it cures, and the more rubbery the final product is.

I use the paint sparingly, and figure if I am using 5-minute epoxy, I have about half of that time to mix and put it in place. Once I discovered that trick, I haven’t had any trouble. From then on, I have had a lot of fun with it.

I could go on and on, but in my weakened condition I have indeed grown tired. Just wait until I am fully recovered next week!

Still awake? Let me know what questions you have,
Mark DeCou

(This article protected by copywrite, all rights reserved, M.A. DeCou 3-12-2007)

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

10 comments so far

View Karson's profile


35126 posts in 4429 days

#1 posted 03-13-2007 04:19 AM

That’s one way to get ahead of him. Put it in three times.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4434 days

#2 posted 03-13-2007 04:22 AM

Thanks for catching my mistake Karson. I’m working on trying to fix it. Martin went to bed a few hours ago. I was having connectivity issues with my old-school dial-up and it surprised me also when I finally saw what I had posted.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 4266 days

#3 posted 03-13-2007 04:26 AM

How hot do you gotta get Silver? and how do you do it?

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4434 days

#4 posted 03-13-2007 04:32 AM

Hey Obi: Getting off of the M&M’s now huh?

The Silver Wire, you do cold, just hammer the strip into the cut line.

Silver-Tin molten metal soldering material varies in temperature depending on the component percentages. You can select a different temperature when you buy it. Electronics Soldering wire from Radio shack works great, melts at a low temp. Regular solder for normal repairs melts at a higher temp. Stained Glass Lead solder works and is nice and smooth, but the Lead Hazard keeps me from wanting to do it much. I prefer the fluxless solder when inlaying in wood. When I jump over to soldering metal together, I don’t mind the flux core wire so much. I used flux core soldering wire when I made the copper door handles.

For me, I don’t know the temperature it melts at, I just heat it up with a little torch, such as a propane bottle until it melts. If I am going to do a lot of it, I will drag out the acytelene torch hose and use the small tip you see jewelers use. For most of the work I have done, I only need to heat a small amount of it at a time.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View David's profile


1969 posts in 4168 days

#5 posted 03-13-2007 05:02 AM

Mark – Thanks for the excellent writing. This is very interesting. I am going to have to start experimenting. I used to make silver jewelery and did some basic lapidary work so your blog just sent my mind off on a tangent thinking of how to combine these skills and to pull out those old boxes of stones and metal. I have a bunch of silver wire and silver bezel strips that might be fun too work with. I also have some german silver (low temp alloy) that might be good to try with the molten techniques. Glad you are obviously feeling better and fully online again despite the multiple entries :-) ! I did that as well on my last entry and had to have Martin delete the duplicate.


View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4434 days

#6 posted 03-13-2007 05:04 AM

David: This sounds great. I am hoping that you will tell us some things you learn. Combining these two skills together can really make a cool piece of functional art. You’re response was just the type of thing I was hoping I could get stirred up.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4343 days

#7 posted 03-13-2007 05:12 AM

Really good information hope I get to play with it some day.

View johnjoiner's profile


160 posts in 3922 days

#8 posted 06-16-2008 11:04 PM

Hi Marc.

This is an excellent post.

I am considering doing a pewter and copper inlay like this craftsman inlay. I can see I’m going to have to just give a few of these things a try. One question though about the molten inlays: Don’t they burn the wood?

-- johnjoiner

View Grumpy's profile


24001 posts in 3880 days

#9 posted 06-17-2008 12:31 AM

Great Blog Mark, thanks for sharing.

-- Grumpy - "Always look on the bright side of life"- Monty Python

View THumphr's profile


9 posts in 3078 days

#10 posted 01-19-2010 09:13 PM

I found this entry while search for wire inlat techniques. WHat type of wire do you use? round, flat size etc.


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