Bevel-Edge Inlay

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This article is from Issue 94 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Prettify and personalize your projects 

By Michael Kehs

Everyone loves a project that has been personalized for them. Inlay provides a beautiful way to reflect someone’s interests or personality, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Using a simple butterfly design as an example, I’ll show you how you can augment just about any project with tools you probably already have. (See page 50 for the table that displays this butterfly.) As for the materials, it’s not likely you’ll have to buy any, as you have here an opportunity to finally use some of those small scraps of precious wood you’ve been so jealously hoarding.

The sweet thing about the beveled-edge technique I’ll show you is that it allows you to finesse the fit, creeping up on a perfectly sized recess to ensure near-gapless results. Beveling the perimeter of the inlay material causes it to effectively wedge into its recess in the same manner that a tapered cork snugs itself into a bottle opening. Also, the relatively thick inlay material will stand up to abuse much better than thin veneers. If this is your first time making and installing inlay, not to worry. This butterfly motif is simple enough to guarantee success at first try, while introducing you to the basic techniques that will allow you to expand your design repertoire going forward.

Order of work

  • Saw the design profile
  • Trace profile onto surface
  • Rout recess in surface
  • Glue inlay into recess
  • Level inlay to surface

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Construct the inlay assembly

For this simple 3-piece design, it makes sense to glue the parts together before inlaying them as a whole. When cutting out the parts with a scrollsaw, keep in mind that the mating edges where the wings connect to the body must be cut at 90° for good gluing contact. All of the other edges constitute the perimeter of the assembled piece, and should be beveled at a 3° angle. 

After printing out the pattern, mill blanks of your selected wood species to a little over 1/8" thick. Stack the blanks, attach the pattern, and then cut out the parts as shown. (I use a 28 tpi blade.) Separate the pieces (drizzling denatured alcohol between them to soften the tape, if necessary) and mark the top face of each. Then assemble the reconstituted parts as shown to complete your inlay assembly.

Blanks at the ready. After milling the inlay blanks (here, sycamore for the wings, and walnut for the body), tape them in a stack with the pattern glued to the top piece. Stack-cutting a design like this will actually yield two sets of parts, with the woods reversed for the second assembly.
Saw seams square. Set the scrollsaw table at 90° to the blade when separating the discrete sections of a design, such as the butterfly body and wings here, which will be glued together as a unit before inlaying the assembly.
Bevel the perimeter. Saw all perimeter edges with the scrollsaw table tilted 3° downward to the right, keeping the workpiece oriented to the right side of the blade as you cut. This creates a beveled edge at the design perimeter.
Taped and ready for glue. After separating the stacked sawn parts, place the body between the wings, and tape the parts together across the top faces. Prime the mating edges with diluted glue (50% H²O), then lay the assembly on a dowel with the joints open for 45 minutes. Afterward, apply full-strength glue and lay the assembly flat to dry. 

Recess, inset, and level to finish up

Place the assembled inlay top-side-up on your target surface, and use a very sharp pencil to trace around the perimeter. Outfit a small router with a 1/8"-diameter down-cut spiral bit, and set the cutting depth to 1/32" less than the inlay thickness. Then rout out the recess. Test-fit the inlay in the recess, using graphite as shown to indicate any areas that may need further cutting. Ever so slightly re-rout these areas until the inlay fully seats in the recess. Glue the inlay in place, and trim it flush to the surface. Then fill any gaps with a mixture of fine sanding dust and CA glue, sanding the excess away after the glue dries. When bridging two different woods, use dust from the darker wood, which will make the filler less noticable. 

Adjust for a shy cut. To set the cutting depth of the recess, unplug the tool, lay the butterfly on the base of an upended trim router, and adjust the bit to project 1⁄32" shy of the piece’s thickness. 
Cutting up at recess. To rout the recess, first hog out the majority of the waste, staying a safe distance from your layout lines. Then blow out the chips and rout as close as possible to your perimeter without broaching the pencil lines. As when sawing, good light, a magnifying visor, and a steady hand all contribute to accurate work. 

Getting tight with graphite. Rub a soft-lead pencil around the perimeter of the inlay (above). Then press the piece into the recess. The graphite will transfer to any areas that still need a bit of trimming, as noted at right. Press the tip of a craft knife into the edge of the inlay to lift it.

Flush with success. After gluing and clamping the inlay in place, trim everything flush to the surface using a plane or scraper and sandpaper. 

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  • JP
    Thank you for this article. After a recent visit to the Stickley Museum here in New Jersey, my wife and I will be building a long-needed headboard in the Craftsman style, and plan to try inlays to add visual interest.

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