A tip on inlaying

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Blog entry by Ron Tocknell posted 09-04-2015 11:54 AM 1239 reads 2 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This is really an extention to my metalwork blog which featured a butterfly inlay on rosewood. The inlay is primarily mother-of-pearl with outlines and wing veins in copper. The pierced copper design is inlayed into the wood and the MOP sections inlaid into the piercings. This is quite an involved process and would require a separate entry with photos so I’ll do that at some time in the future. This is just a tip for cutting the recess to accept the inlay. Sorry there are no photos of the process to accompany this but it can be explained without them.

Whether you choose to cut the internal pierced sections first or the overall shape, you will be left with a piece of metal with the shape cut out of it. Normally, to use the metal economically, you would cut as close to the edge as possible. However, in this case, you should leave a good margin of at least 2 inches and preferably more around the design. This forms a perfect stencil for the piece you are to inlay. The aperture is precisely one fine saw-kerf larger than the piece to be inlaid and this allows for a neat and easy fit. You can either cut the piece out by drilling a section of the edge of the design and threading the blade, which would give an intact and solid area of metal around the aperture or you can saw in to the design from the edge. Either way makes no real difference. The scrap becomes a cutting guide that is attached to the wood with double sided tape. Make sure that the whole of the stencil is covered with tape to ensure that it does not move when cutting. The stencil should be gently filed and sanded around the edges to remove any burr that might damage the surface of the wood. Once stuck down into place, you have a solid stencil that protects the wood around the area to be recessed so, if you are a little clumsy with the cutting, you’ll scratch the stencil and not the wood.

I don’t use a router for this method as the router cutter would also cut into the stencil. instead, I use a scalpel or craft knife with a fine blade to cut around the perimeter of the aperture. Fine block-cutting chisels or good quality lino cutting tools are then used to remove wood. It is important not to cut deeper than the thickness of the metal (I used 2mm copper). Once the edges have been cleared, it would be okay to use the router although I chose to continue with the chisel rather than risk a slip at that point.

Depending on the wood being used, care should be taken when removing the stencil as it could lift the fibres around the edge of the cut. Although it came cleanly away from the rosewood, which tends to be fairly dense, with more fragile woods, I would be inclined to give the edges a good soaking of lighter fluid to ease the adhesive before removing the stencil.

3 comments so far

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Charles Maxwell

1100 posts in 4410 days

#1 posted 09-04-2015 12:41 PM

Great post! Thanks.

-- Max the "night janitor" at

View Northwest29's profile


1688 posts in 3093 days

#2 posted 09-05-2015 12:53 AM

Ron, thanks so much for the post. The info is great!

-- Ron, Eugene, OR, "Curiosity is a terrible thing to waste."

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Ron Tocknell

42 posts in 1600 days

#3 posted 09-05-2015 06:53 AM

Interestingly, the reason I came up with this method was quite accidental. I had cut out a butterfly design and infilled the wing details with coloured polymer clay (FIMO) intending to make a piece of jewellery but abandoned that when I couldn’t decide what to do with it after that. I had cut it from a small copper blank and later cursed myself when I wanted to make some hinges for a rosewood box I had made but, having been totally uneconomical and cut this butterfly from the middle of the blank, had left myself no room for the hinge designs. So I duly cursed my stupidity and ordered more copper. I finished the box but it looked a little bare. “You know what would look nice?” my wife said “That butterfly you made. Could you inlay that on it?”. Well, I’d never attempted inlays before and a wise man would have practiced first on some scrap wood… but a wise man wasn’t doing this job… I was.
As the box was for my wife, her wish was my command.

I checked out a number of YouTube tutorials on inlaying, all of which involved using a router… a tool with which I am not particularly skilled. Convinced that God would not allow me to ruin this box and would guide my hand, I went straight in there with the router. God was busy that day, presumably, there being a number of global events that apparently took priority over my box. In short: I made a pig’s ear of it. So I took a section of rosewood and made a plug somewhat larger than the mess I had made but of a simpler form to route and inlaid that. Despite my attempt to match the grain, it stood out like a sore thumb. However, I felt that, if I can get this butterfly inlaid, it would focus the eye and the plug would be less obvious. Then my eye fell on the piece of copper with the butterfly shape cut out of it. My uneconomical stupidity suddenly became brilliant ‘foresight’ as it made a perfect stencil to cut around. Not willing to risk the router again, I used hand tools. The more observant among you will notice the tell-tale plug around the inlaid butterfly.

So this method came about as a result of [a] wasteful stupidity [b] not having the faintest idea how to inlay and [c] being an idiot who should never be allowed anywhere near a router.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

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