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Canadian Woodworking

Make a solid wood bird inlay

Author: Rob Brown
Published: September 2023
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Solid wood inlay gives you a lot of flexibility to create a unique piece of furniture with a very strong focal point. It can be a small but powerful addition to your next project.

This small inlay took me probably one-third of the time that it took me to make the rest of the table. (See “Make a Stylish Bistro Table” on page 20.) Don’t think that just because the inlay is small, it’s going to be easy. Having said that, I don’t want to scare you away from trying your hand at these techniques, as they’re a lot of fun and very rewarding once complete.

Computer Aided
Brown often uses his digital photos or images he finds on the internet to guide his design. Placing a piece of paper on the screen, then gently and carefully tracing it is a great way to obtain a shape to inlay.

Computer Aided

Trace Then Excavate
After cutting out the main branch for his inlay, Brown used a narrow bit in a trim router to remove the waste wood. With a steady hand, he trims close to the pencil line without cutting into it.

Trace Then Excavate

Adjust the Inlay
If the long, narrow cavity isn’t quite wide enough in all the areas, you can always make the inlay narrower to fit the groove. Here, Brown uses a small drum sander to remove material on a certain section of the inlay.

Adjust the Inlay

Bevel the Inlay Base
Once the inlay is sized for the groove it’s a good idea to put a slight bevel on the underside of the inlay. Once glue is applied to the inlay and cavity the wood fibres will expand slightly, causing a slightly snug fit. The bevel will make it easier to insert the inlay.

Bevel the Inlay Base

Order of Operations
It’s important to consider when is the best time to add details like the small berry stems and other small but critical items. If the main branch were glued in place before the berry stems it would mean you would likely have to cut into the main branch to create the stem grooves.

Order of Operations

Start Big
The first piece of inlay Brown cut was the large piece towards the centre of the inlay. He placed carbon paper on top of the inlay wood, then applied the working drawing over the carbon paper, aligned with the correct grain direction of the wood. Tracing the shape of the first piece with some pressure transfers the shape to the workpiece.

Start Big

Alignment Marks
A pencil mark lets you know exactly how the parts mate, so once you apply glue to the parts you’ll know how to line them up with each other. Glue squeeze-out will hide any gaps during glue-up, though a gap is more noticeable once the glue is dry.

Alignment Marks

Spring Clamps
Though CA adhesive is an option to quickly bond parts, Brown chose to use PVA glue for this project. Adjustable Bessey spring clamps provided the perfect amount of pressure and jaw width.

Spring Clamps

Exceptions to the Rule
Though one of Brown’s guidelines says not to cut off any waste at the perimeter of the inlay assembly, he found it easier to remove the outer waste from this section, since the lower half of his bird was complete. Notice the extra material still intact where the upper half of the bird will eventually mate with this half.

Exceptions to the Rule

Joining Sections
The piece of mahogany that separates the lower and upper portions of this bird has been backed with veneer. It was applied cross-grain to strengthen the four tips of the cut piece. Two were going to be weak, while one corner was going to be very weak, without the cross-grain veneer backing to hold those corners together.

Joining Sections

Double-Sided Tape
When aligning two parts to be cut along a shared joint, Brown used double-sided tape to keep the pieces from shifting. Here he joins the mahogany bird crest for the top of the bird’s head to wenge that will become the area surrounding the bird’s eye.

Double-Sided Tape

Cut the Perimeter
With the bird inlay assembly complete, mark the perimeter and cut it out. Placing sandpaper on a flat, hard surface and carefully smoothing the underside of the inlay assembly is the next step.

Cut the Perimeter

Create the Cavity
Once the inlay outline was traced onto the main workpiece, Brown removed most of the waste with a trim router and 1/4" diameter straight bit. From there it was a mixture of 1/16" diameter straight bit, chisels, gouges and other hand tools to ensure the inlay assembly fit into the cavity with minimal gaps.

Create the Cavity

Apply Glue
Apply glue to the cavity, and a small amount to the edges of the inlay assembly, then press it into place. Too much glue will cause squeeze-out and make a mess of the situation.

Apply Glue

Clamp It Up
This inlay is fairly small so only one clamp is needed. The finished inlay assembly wasn’t perfectly flat on its top surface, so Brown added a folded piece of shop-grade paper towel and placed it between the caul and inlay to help even out the pressure.

Clamp It Up

Trim It Flush
Once it’s dry, trim the dowel that makes up the bird’s eye. The only remaining tasks to compete this inlay are to cut, drill for and insert the reddish plugs for the berries.

Trim It Flush

Design

Start with a simple design, improve your skills, and before you know it you’ll be inlaying all sorts of solid wood designs into your projects. You really don’t need to make the inlay design fancy for it to be effective.
Small parts are a bit harder to work with than large parts, but not a lot. I find the sheer number of parts is sometimes confusing, but if you work in a systematic way, and just add on one piece after the other, things don’t usually get too crazy.

Having a full-sized drawing is a great starting point. I work off images on my computer, whether they’re photos I’ve taken or pho­tos I’ve found on the internet. Trace the shape onto a piece of paper so you can work directly from it in the shop. I generally inlay more organic shapes and objects, though there’s nothing wrong with working on geometric shapes. In fact, geometric shapes are often easier to cut out, fit together more cleanly and are easier to inlay into the surface of another piece of wood. I chose a cedar waxwing sitting on a branch with a few berries as that’s what these birds eat.

If you’re using shapes and lines derived from the natural world don’t worry about being too perfect with copying them. The human eye understands that there’s variation in nature, and although we woodworkers can’t ignore our mistakes, everyone else sees them as nature intended: perfectly imperfect.

Thickness of pieces

The pieces of wood I inlaid were about 1/8″ thick. I find thinner pieces harder to work with, while thicker ones get difficult to work. Every situation is different, though. At 1/8″ thick the parts still work like solid wood, but thin enough to be worked easily, and they are still quite strong and resistant to breakage. Inlaying veneer is a much more exacting process, and you have so little material to play with after the inlay is complete. It’s so easy to sand through veneer, while a 1/8″ thick strip of solid wood is less problematic.

General approach

I find it’s easiest to first inlay the parts that will eventually be overlapped by other parts. For instance, since the branch the bird is sitting on will be overlapped by the bird, I inlaid the branch first. Each design is going to be different, but my order of operations was as follows: main branch and small twigs to hold the berries at about the same time, followed by the bird, then the bird’s eye, with the berries last.

Inlay your first piece

For me it was a portion of a branch, but for you it could be just about anything. I first drew the branch onto some dressed wood, then cut it out with a scroll saw. I positioned it on the table top, traced it with a fine mechanical pencil, then set to work to hog out the cavity it would fit into.

I used a trim router equipped with a very narrow straight bit to do most of the work. I set the bit so the inlay would protrude ever so slightly above the top of the tabletop’s surface. Leaving the inlay piece thicker than the cavity ensures I will be able to apply pres­sure to it during glue-up. I removed the bulk of the material from the centre area of the cavity first, then followed up with light passes along the edge of the cavity, working up as close to the line as I could without going across it. Very little about inlaying wood goes quickly, and this is where patience will come in very handy – not only for your own sanity, but for the quality of the finished project.

Testing the fit of the inlay often, I removed small amounts of material from the sides of the cavity wherever needed. I also thinned the inlay with a small diameter sanding drum and a sharp knife if that was easier. A narrow chisel, a skew chisel and sharp knife were also used to shape the corners of the cavity.
I didn’t aim for a perfect fit, as that’s very hard to accomplish. If only a slight bit of pressure will be enough to press the inlay into the cavity then I’m fine with that. If there are narrow gaps here and there, that’s not the end of the world, either. Glue will fill that space, and if you want you can use epoxy to fill any gaps that remain. It doesn’t look perfect, but you might be the only one who notices these small imperfections.

When the fit was good I added a slight bevel to the underside of the inlay. This helped with pressing it into the cavity during glue-up. The glue will only cause the wood fibres to swell slightly, so having a narrower inlay undersurface might save the day.

There’s a bit of blind belief here, as I didn’t press the piece of wood to be inlaid completely into the cavity. If I did press it in, there would be little chance to pull it back out.

Adding more detail

With the main branch complete but not yet glued in place, I turned my attention to the tiny stems that held the berries. If I installed the main branch now these tiny stems would be hard to rout, as I would surely rout slightly too far and cut into the main branch. After drawing on the location of the berries, and neces­sary tiny stems, I used a trim router and a 1/16″ diameter straight router bit to create the cavities where the stems would go. I did this freehand, and made sure to enter the wood where the main branch cavity was, and to lift the router bit out of the wood where the berries were going to be located. This gave me some freedom to make small mistakes, yet have the other inlay and berries cover up the mistakes.

I only needed a few 1/16″ wide strips of wood. I set the rip fence on my table saw so the offcut would be 1/16″ wide, and cut a few inches into that piece. After stopping the saw, and removing the wood, I was able to make a few small pieces of wood that would fit into these tiny stem grooves.

I added glue to the grooves that would accept the stem inlays, and pressed them into place. Once dry I used a sharp chisel to trim them where they extended into the cavity for the main branch. I also flushed them with the tabletop’s surface.

The main event

The focal point of my inlay design is a bird. For you that might be a star, initials, a leaf or a geometric shape. The focal point doesn’t always get inlaid last. It has more to do with overlapping than anything else. For instance, if I wanted to add a few small branches and a few leaves in front of the bird, those branches and leaves would be added after the bird.

If you’re making a bird it will very likely be the most difficult part of the inlay. Sometimes just keeping all of the parts organized, and the design moving in the direction you want, is the tough part. I cut inlay parts as I went, as grain direction and colour played a big role in the look of the bird. These parts were also about 1/8″ thick.

Three basic guidelines

Though these three guidelines aren’t gospel for every single situ­ation, they are good starting points. They don’t really apply to the smaller added details, like the branches and berries in my design. They’re geared to working with the focal points of the main inlay design, where many small wood parts are cut out then glued together. For me, this was the bird.

1. Start with the larger pieces of the design, then move towards cutting and adding the smaller pieces. Getting the size and shape of the large pieces correct is more important, as they make a larger difference in what the finished inlay looks like.

2. Always cut mating edges at the same time. Cutting an edge of one part, then trying to cut the edge of another part to match it isn’t easy, and is more likely to result in larger gaps.

3. Don’t cut the outer edge of the inlay focal point (the bird, in my case) until the entire inlay focal point is assembled and glued together. It’s a lot easier to judge what the size and shape of the overall design will be once the parts are all cut out and completely glued together.

A full-sized drawing will also go a long way in helping you end up with the design, species, colour and grain direction you want.

Make the first cut

With those basic guidelines in mind, I put carbon paper between my drawing and the workpiece I was going to make and transferred the lines of the largest part of the bird to the wood I was using for that part. I cut the part out so it was oversized, and easier to work with. This meant leaving at least 1/4″ extra material on the waste side of the line.

This is where the magic of cutting two pieces at once to create an even joint happens. The first mating piece was a smallish detail that would be added to one side of the first piece. I cut it out very over­sized, so there was about 3/4″ overlap with these two parts, then used double-sided tape to secure them together. I then drew the joint onto the upper piece and used my scroll saw to cut to the line. If I was slightly off the line it wouldn’t matter, as both the upper and lower piece would end up with matching “mistakes” and there­fore have the same joint line.

After removing the tape from the parts, I aligned them and added a small pencil mark so I could clearly see how they align. I added a light layer of glue to both edges, used a spring clamp to press them together and ensured their upper and lower faces were co-planer. Once dry I had the first two parts assembled, and these parts were oversized on all sides.

Curves = gaps

I continued adding pieces, one at time, making sure to always cut both pieces that make up a joint at the same time. This approach works wonderfully with pieces that fit together with a somewhat linear or straight joint. The more curve there is to a joint, the more of a gap you’ll have at certain sections of the joint. The gap is never more than the width of the scroll saw blade, so it’s not huge, but it does start to create unsightly gaps from time to time.

One way to counteract this, and to end up with heavily curved pieces that fit snugly together, is to angle the scroll saw table. How much angle to introduce into your pieces depends on how thick the workpieces are and how wide the kerf of the blade is. Trial and error with some scrap pieces will allow you to dial this in, but as a starting point a few degrees is likely all you need. This is a technique that has been used to produce gap-free marquetry for centuries.
If there aren’t many heavily curved pieces in your design you might be able to get away with using hand tools to reduce the gaps when they appear. A small file or drum sander, or maybe even a sharp knife, will allow you to fine-tune the parts to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Watch for short grain

Short grain is when sections of a part have grain so short that breakage becomes likely. You could rotate the grain 90° to increase its strength, but there are times when the grain direction will nega­tively impact the look of the finished inlay. In these cases, I glued a piece of veneer to the underside of the part, so the grain of the veneer met the grain of the main workpiece at a 90° angle. This formed a tiny piece of plywood, which held together nicely. While making this bird I only felt the need to do this once, but every situa­tion is different.

Adding thin lines

There will be times when adding a thin layer of contrasting coloured wood between two layers makes for a nice effect. Rather than use the standard approach I just inserted a piece of contrast­ing veneer between two pieces while gluing them up. As long as the joint was on the straight side this approach worked well. I used this technique to add a light line of maple between this bird’s mahog­any cap and wenge eye region.

Things can get confusing

I’ll be honest, there were many times when I really had to think carefully to keep these parts looking like a bird. Marking and cutting out the parts can make you scratch your head, all the while trying to keep the grain direction correct and the colour of the woods appropriate. This is where the drawing has to be consulted carefully.

Once the entire assembly has been cut and assembled, one piece at a time, cut the perimeter of the assembly.

Create a cavity

To ensure the assembly is flat, place a piece of 100 grit sandpaper on a flat, hard surface like a table saw and press the assembly down as you move it repeatedly across the sandpaper. This will even the bottom of the assembly and remove most of the dried glue.

Position the assembly on the piece that will accept it, and carefully draw an accurate line around it. Patience is also critical here. I started with a trim router with a 1/4″ diameter straight bit set to a depth that’s slightly less than the inlay is thick. You want the inlay to finish slightly proud of the surface so it can be sanded or planed flush.

With very ample lighting I used the router to remove the bulk of the waste to form the cavity. It’s so easy to lose sight of the pencil line, so be extra careful when routing close to the lines. A 1/16″ diam­eter router bit was next, which helped me get deeper into corners. From there it was an assortment of chisels and curved gouges that assisted with creating a preci­sion cavity for the inlay assembly. When complete I added a slight bevel to the underside perimeter of the inlay assembly, as this would help me insert the assembly once the glue was added.

Glue it in

Apply glue to the main surface and the edges of the cavity, and a bit to the underside and edges of the inlay assembly. Too much and you’ll create an ugly mess when glue squeeze-out gets all over the inlay.

Because the top surface of the inlay assembly wasn’t perfectly flat I folded over an extra-thick shop paper towel and placed it between the inlay assembly and the small plywood caul I used to distribute clamping pressure. The paper towel applied pressure to the entire inlay assembly while it dried. When dry I used my belt sander to level the inlay.

Add details

To add the bird’s small, round eye I tapped a narrow piece of wenge through a 1/8″ hole that was drilled in a piece of steel. As long as the strip is only a hair over 1/8″ square, the four edges are planed down slightly and the tip is chamfered a bit it works quite well. I then drilled a 1/8″ hole for the eye, added some glue to the hole and 1/8″ dowel and taped it in place. Once dry I trimmed the waste.

Adding berries was the easiest part of this whole process. I used my 3/8″ countersink bit to bore holes at the ends of the small stems, then used a 3/8″ plug cutter to make some padauk plugs. Serviceberries, which are red, are a cedar waxwing’s favourite food.

Prep for a finish

My inlay technique is far from perfect, and there were a few small gaps here and there. To hide the larger gap (about 1/8″ x 1/16″) I cut a small sliver of walnut, added some glue to the gap and sliver, then pressed it into place. When dry, I trimmed it flush. Use whatever species will blend in best with the inlay and keep grain direction in mind when you do this.

For a few of the smaller gaps I mixed up a bit of epoxy, dabbed a small amount into the gaps and let it cure. Epoxy is great at filling gaps, and since it’s clear it tends to take on the colour of the wood near it when used in very small quantities.

I use a belt sander to level and smooth the inlay, followed by my regular approach to whitewood sanding. A finish will make the different species of wood grain and colours come alive.


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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