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Pearl Inlay Method

Pearl Inlay Method

by John Thierman

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #29, 1976

Many instruments made today, as well as in the past, have included the added artistry of inlaid patterns. Inlay is the process by which one substance is inserted into a background, then sanded off flush, creating a pattern within the background substance. Inlay work, or marquetry, can be beautiful and impressive; or it can be gaudy and impractical in terms of the stability of the instrument, and in the problems encountered in future repair. If the inlays are designed tastefully, and are put in correctly, you can achieve an added dimension in instrument building, and not noticeably impair the practical aspects of the instrument.

The two major materials used in inlay patterns are wood veneer, and shell (abalone or mother of pearl). Thickness of this inlaid material is of prime importance to all practical aspects of the instrument — the thicker, the better — (up to 1/16"). For wood inlays on the headstock, I use 1/28" veneer, or thicker for, if it needs to be refinished in later years (hopefully many), I don’t want someone, myself included, sanding through the inlaid pattern. On fretboards, sufficient depth is imperative, as the board must be sanded down when refretted. If your inlays are too thin — they will disappear before your very eyes. Therefore, I only use 1/16" wood stock for inlays on the fingerboard, and I have to keep that pattern simple, as 1/16" wood stock is not as easy to cut as pearl. Wood veneers of many colors and grain patterns are readily available from most supply houses, Pearl of abalone is harder to come by, and more expensive. As with wood, I use as thick as possible, without having a hernia cutting it. .080" seems to be my limit, and it’s just thick enough for arched fretboards. Shell comes in different grades — #1 will have more color and brighter hues; whereas #3 may be pale, or have some pin holes (caused by worms), or have bad grain.

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