String and Fan inlay Made Simple

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This article is from Issue 27 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Pre-made parts let you focus on the fun.

For centuries, furnituremakers have employed moldings and inlays not only to delight and direct the eye, but also to command a higher price for their work. The stringing and inlays that I used on the top of the candlestick table on page 54 were very popular during the Federal period, but the technique is timeless. The combination of sophistication and simplicity makes inlay just as effective and interesting today as it was 200 years ago.

Most of us don’t realize—perhaps because those Colonial cabinetmakers never wanted their clients to figure it out—that the basic inlay process is straightforward and easy to master. Like a clever magic trick, inlay looks harder to do than it really is. Broken down to the basic steps, it’s nothing more than cutting a recess to fit some stock. To do this trick yourself, you need only a few basic tools and the inlay material.

At some point you may want to try your hand at making your own bands and sand-shaded fans, but a time-saving (and historically accurate) option is to purchase the materials from an ebonist, a veneer and inlay specialist. The biggest advantage to using pre-made lines is that they are roughly thicknessed to fit standard bits. After your first attempt, you can choose to expand your inlay skills, or stick with the strip and bit trick and employ it in any number of decorative projects, from tables to boxes to picture frames.

Note: For tools and supplies mentioned in this story see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide on page 64.

Stringing and banding are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically, stringing implies narrower lines and banding refers to wider and more intricate designs.

Use a light pencil line about 3/8" in from the edge molding fillet to mark where the stringing will turn around the edge of the top.

Groove the top using a Dremel-type tool with a router base and edge guide.

Chisel out the corners of the groove and clean out any packed-in chips using a small chisel or pick.

Create the slot

Before starting, inspect your tabletop. The surface should be flat and smooth. Too much scraping or sanding after the inlay’s installed could mar or pull out the thin decoration. Following a light finish-sanding, use a pencil and straightedge to mark where the stringing will change direction as shown in Photo A.

To cut the narrow inlay channel, hand-tool enthusiasts might want to go the traditional route and use the corner of a cabinet scraper or special cutting tool. However, for speed and convenience, I recommend using a Dremel or similar rotary carving tool with an edge guide and an end mill. The disadvantage to using a plug-in tool is that you can make an irreparable mistake in an instant, but considering that one router pass does the work of a dozen or more passes with a scratch stock, I think the benefit outweighs the risk. Here, we’ll cut a 3/64" wide groove to accommodate the 1/20" stringing, which measures a hair wider.

The depth of cut depends on your material, but I try to adjust the height of the bit so that the installed inlay sits about 1/32" proud of the surface. This height minimizes the amount of time required to scrape and sand flush, and reduces the risk of splitting or pulling out the inlay.

Once you’ve set your bit and made a test cut in scrap, you’re ready to rout. Holding the edge guide firmly against the edge of your workpiece, rout from right to left as shown in Photo B. Stop routing at your penciled corner lines. Finish the groove and clean out the packed-in chips by hand as shown in Photo C. To do this, you can use a #11 blade and a hobby knife or make your own custom clean-up tools.

Test-Fit the stringing

At this point, the 1/20"-thick stringing should be a little too thick to fit the groove. So far so good. The best-fitting lines require some fine-tuning and test fitting.

The first step is to taper the thickness of the stringing so that it fits the groove. To do this, first lightly bevel the stringing on one side as shown in Photo D. The exact angle isn’t critical; I simply rest the back end of my block plane on my bench, skewed about 25° to the stringing, and make a few light passes over it to create the taper.

To miter the stringing ends, all you need are two simple jigs and a sharp chisel. Starting with a long strip, use a 60° ramp to cut the miter on one end (Photo E). Now fit the strip into the groove and cut the miter on the opposite end. In time, you’ll be able to do this by eye, but starting out you might want to mark out the miter angle on a wedge, as shown in Photo F. Focus on cutting the stringing perfectly perpendicular so that the joint is tight from top to bottom. You don’t want the joint to open up when leveling the inlay with the top. Cut the stringing exactly at the layout line so that the ends squeeze together when pressed in place. Once cut and fit, leave the stringing halfway in to help position the fans.

Plane a slight bevel in the edge of the stringing for a cork-tight fit.

Guide the chisel with a 60º ramp to make precise miter cuts.

Trim the opposite end of the stringing in place. The annotated 5º wedge protects the top and provides a handy miter guide.

Fit the fans

The pre-made fans come with the outside face covered in veneer tape and surrounded in a piece of veneer to protect the delicate edges during shipping. This means that you’ll need to cut them free before positioning them on your workpiece. The only trick here is to take your time. Using a hobby knife with a fresh #11 blade, lightly score the perimeter of the fan to avoid catching the grain, as shown in Photo G.

Gradually add pressure with each successive pass, until you cut through the veneer and paper. Clean up the edge with a sanding block. Keep the edges square for a seamless fit.

This six-sided top has more corners than most tables, so you’ll get plenty of practice, but the inlay process is the same regardless of the corner count. First, register the edges of the fan tightly against the installed stringing. Sand the straight edges of the inlay so that they fit tightly against the stringing. Holding the fan in place with one hand, veneer tape facing up, carefully score the outline of the fan’s radius in the top. As before, make the cut in several passes so that the blade does not get caught by the grain.

After scribing the fan’s outline, chisel out a shallow trench on the fan side of your line as shown in Photo H. This trench not only provides a safe buffer when routing the recess freehand, but it also reduces any chance of tear-out along the good edge.

Now you’re ready to rout. Use the inlay to set the bit depth so the inlay is just flush with the ground. After making a test cut, remove the stringing and rout the recess. I cut the recess in two steps. First, I use a Dremel-type tool with a 5/16" flat bottom mortising bit to hog out most of the waste. To sneak up to the lines I switch to a router plane as shown in Photo I, but you can also use a sharp chisel. Temporarily reinstall the stringing as you go so the lines do not get mixed up.

Free the fans from the backer veneer with a hobby knife. Use a sanding block to square the edges.

Chisel a shallow groove to defend the scribed line against accidental bit or blade contact.

Use a router plane to work up to the scribed line and adjust the recess depth. Regrind the square tip to a point to clean out tight corners.

Install the string and fans

When installing inlay, the trick is to work quickly. Moisture from the glue will swell the walls of the groove and the inlay, making a once snug fit impossibly tight. Working one side at a time, inject a small bead of yellow glue into the bottom of the groove. Butt the stringing against its mating face and press it in place, as shown in Photo J. Apply pressure gradually until the inlay is evenly seated and the excess glue is squeezed out. Wipe off excess glue with a damp rag. To install the fans, brush glue into the recesses, then press and clamp the fans into place (Photo K).

After the glue sets, chisel or plane off the high spots as shown in Photo L, then level the inlay with a sanding block or scraper. Top off your newly inlaid tabletop with your favorite film finish.  

Press the inlay into the grooves with a burnisher or chisel handle. Be careful not to split the stringing.

Clamp the fans in place with custom-cut cauls. Wrap the faces of the blocks with packing tape so they don’t stick.

Using the chisel bevel down, pare away the excess stringing. Work with the grain to avoid splintering.

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