Silver Inlay questions

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Forum topic by patlam posted 03-12-2007 04:23 AM 39957 views 8 times favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1 post in 5655 days

03-12-2007 04:23 AM

The mrs wouldn’t let me build all the cabinets for our new kitchen (something about wanting them done before we retire…) but I did convince her to let me build the table for the kitchen nook. I have some black walnut planks that have been waiting for the right project for quite some time now so I’m thinking of slicing them into “veneers” and laying them over a plywood substrate for stability.

The table will be about 32 in diameter, round with a single pole support.

To mirror the spiral light fixture in the dining room, I was thinking of forming a similar spiral in square silver wire and inlaying it into the surface. Plenty of jewelry sites sell the wires but I’m wondering on best practices to cut the groove (is there such a thing as a 1/16 router bit?) what glue would work and how deep? Is silver soft enough that I will be able to sand or scrape it down if I leave it proud of the surface or should I try to set it flush? Is it compatible with normal finishes? Maybe there is something better than silver I should be using.

Any advice would be great! Thanks!

11 replies so far

View Karson's profile


35301 posts in 5897 days

#1 posted 03-12-2007 04:47 AM

I don’t know if there are 1/16 Router bits but there might be 1/16 Solid carbide Milling Cutters

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View Dollarbill's profile


91 posts in 5635 days

#2 posted 03-12-2007 05:01 AM

Dremel produces a small router base and many small bits available at most home centers. About 100 years ago I put some fake gold wire inlay in a gunstock. I cut the groove by hand and the problem was that if the depth is not consistant the inlay was not of equal diameter when sanded down. BUMMER. I used a fiber glass based glue for bedding gun barrels available at most gun stores and it worked well.

Best of luck,


-- Make Dust

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 5671 days

#3 posted 03-12-2007 05:16 AM

For really small inlay bits, check out the Stewart-MacDonald luthier website. They have lots of inlay bits for small stuff. Here’s a link…,_attachments/Carbide_Downcut_Inlay_Router_Bits.html

-- Ethan,

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5902 days

#4 posted 03-12-2007 06:58 PM

Hey Patlam: I have a lot of “pent-up writing” in me from laying on the couch all week, so I will apologize early, and try to keep on focus to your question. Since I feel like typing, and you’re the victim, I’ll give you the full load of both barrels, so to speak.

As Ethan explained, you can get some specialty resources for this type of work in a luthier (stringed instrument) maker supply store.

I might be all wet, but I will try to head you 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 thin line look, there really isn’t any subsitute for it, other than the old traditional method of doing it, which is not done with a router.

To answer your specific question on router bits, you can buy down to a 1/32” solid carbide flat bottom single flute cutting bit, but you will have to buy it from a machine tool supply store, and you will need some type of chuck in your router that will accept the small shanked bit. You can have a smaller bit custom made for you by a machine tool sharpening source.

A Dremel Tool with the accessory adjustable chuck can hold the small bit, which will most likely be 1/8” in diameter shank. You just need a Dremel Router Base accessory for it.

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 he was given 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.”

To answer your other question, 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 by hammering the chisel point directly down into the wood, and then pulling it out, and going to the next cut and repeating until the lines are cut. No wood is removed.

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.

*One Last Method to Consider”
Epoxy Inlay can be quite fun, and might have a longer life on your breakfast table. I have successfully colored clear expoxy with a variety of paint colors, and metal shavings, to use for inlay.

I have made epoxy look like ivory, and have even used three or four colors to mix a fake looking turquoise color, and have made it look “metalish” by using silver paint and metal filings. I have also used gold paint and brass filings. I have used copper paint and copper filings.

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, and 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?). I learned this from the pool cue maker, as he finally explained to me that the “ivory” inlay was not ivory, only cream tinted clear epoxy.

The only caution I have for you in this material technique is that is seems that the more paint that is introduced 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.

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

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 5811 days

#5 posted 03-12-2007 08:01 PM

Now arn’t you glad you didn’t ask how to get your wife to let you build your cabinets!

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5902 days

#6 posted 03-12-2007 09:45 PM

Dennis: I couldn’t help with that topic, my wife wouldn’t let me build ours either. In fact, I’m still not finished installing the Big Box store cabinets we bought for the kitchen almost 6 years ago now. But, I have done a lot of cool inlay work in that time frame.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

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dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 5811 days

#7 posted 03-12-2007 11:52 PM

Too bad they would have been soom awsome cabinets!

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 5671 days

#8 posted 03-13-2007 02:10 AM

Mark, I hate to aid and abet, but… you should really consider copying your post and making it a blog entry.

-- Ethan,

View ginasdad's profile


15 posts in 4856 days

#9 posted 03-17-2009 01:27 AM

Mark, great description. One suggestion. I don’t know if you were suggesting pure or sterling silver wire but pure silver will make the job much easier. It is softer and won’t tarnish. A pure silver 1 ounce bar at about $15 can be cut into strips with tin snips and pulled through a draw plate. This will give you wire of any size required (given the size if the bar ).

-- so much wood, so little time

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 5485 days

#10 posted 03-17-2009 03:28 AM

If you wanted to make you own tool, you could make one of these:

Click for details

Just get the size of wire to match the slot it cuts.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View Tim Pletcher's profile

Tim Pletcher

90 posts in 4571 days

#11 posted 01-11-2010 08:47 PM

wow Mark, I’ve never seen that long of a post! :)


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