The Inlay Process
Since inlays are featured in many of my works, it is appropriate for me to Provide some background on the inlay process as well as how I use them to create my works.
The biggest misconception is that the various colors I use in my work are created with stains, dyes, or paints. That is not so, I have spent a considerable amount of time searching out highly colored exotic woods from around the world and found that very few colors do not exist in nature. I utilize the natural color, and just as importantly, the grain of the wood to create images that will endure a lifetime.
There are several methods used by woodworkers to infuse art work onto the surface of their work. One process is Marquetry, where thin veneers of exotic woods are arranged to create the desired image. The thin sheet comprising the final artwork is then glued onto a substrate or other desired surface. Another method, Intarsia, is the process of creating an image using thicker pieces of woods left at different thickness to create depth and dimension. Due to the resulting surface texture, this method is often left as standalone art and used to decorate vertical surfaces.
Creating the Image
Virtually any subject matter can be inlayed; the only issue is the segmentation of the image to be inlayed. For the novice, the easiest source of pre-segmented images can be found on the internet, just search the internet for "Intarsia" patterns. Books can be another fine source of material. After you have a few projects under your belt, you will get a feel for how to segment on your own and you’ll learn to follow either hair or muscle patterns. Once I have the image drawn, I usually glue the artwork to construction paper and cut the whole thing apart, like a big puzzle.(Image 2)
Transferring the image to the wood
This is probably the most time consuming part of the entire process, it can also be the most expensive. Depending on the image you are creating, and how picky you are about you grain patterns and colors, purchasing the exotic woods can be very expensive. Note the Deer’s neck pattern (Image 8) that piece came from one piece of Honduran Mahogany that I cut from the middle of a fairly large board. The point here is that to get the desired effect you are looking and get the realism you are looking for you may have to be very open minded and flexible in using your materials.
Ok, so once I have the artwork cut apart, "Segmented", I began the daunting and fun task of finding the perfect piece, color, or species of wood to best get across or portray the image I am creating.(Image 1) Always have 2 copies of your artwork, one to cut apart, and another complete copy to use for reference. I actually have to search out, place and cut out each individual piece of the artwork.
Cutting out and assembly of the pieces
I use a scroll saw to cut out the pieces, and a lot of various sanders. If you have never used a scroll saw, practice for a while with your new saw on scraps to get a feel for how aggressive the saw cuts under the various speeds. I actually fit the pieces together as I cut them out in order to make sure the color and grain pattern are exactly what I was looking for (image 3 & 4). Frequently; when you are getting started, you try to use too many types of wood in a single piece and you end up wasting a lot of wood changing you mind several times. You should wait until all pieces are cut out and fitted before you glue the whole thing together prior to the actual inlay. Occasionally you get a piece that allows you the throw your whole color pallet at it, at that point, have fun.
Once the whole piece is finished and glued together I will usually lay out the whole thing on the piece of work I am inlaying into, sort of a dry fit. Once you are ready to go, you can trace your image onto the surface. I use a sharp scribe when I can. This actually scores the top grain, allowing for a clean cut with the router. (Image 6) If I can’t use the scribe, a very sharp #2 pencil will do as well.
Creating the recess
I generally use several routers in various sizes to make the recess in the wood and various chisels to tweak the final fit (Images 5 & 6) Usually several dry fits are required before the piece will actually fit into the recess. I start at the center and work my way to the edges till I get the proper fit. Once the proper fit is made, I glue the pieces into the recess (Images 5, 6 & 7).
After the inlays have dried for a day and if the piece is small enough, I put it through a sander, if not, I hand sand it with palm sanders. I generally choose my finishes based on the inlays I’ve used, I use either polyurethane, or a Polly/Oil finish on the pieces. See finished piece in (Image 8).