How to Make Inlay Patterns

Now you can roll up your sleeves and display some of your artistic abilities! When you make the decision to add some mother of pearl or abalone shell inlays to your guitar, you need to have a plan to move forward with this.

The easiest way is to get a roll of sketch paper from an art supply store. This is the same sketch paper that architects and designers use. It is available in 12″ wide rolls and in 50 yard lengths. I prefer to use the heaver sketch paper rather than the thinner yellow sketch paper. The extra durability will hold up to more changers and a little more abuse.

Tools and Materials:

Sketch Paper:
Pentel 0.5mm Lead Sketch Pencil:
Polymer Eraser:
Paper Fretboard Pattern:

Paper Neck Pattern:

First you need a paper cutout of your guitar neck at full scale. Fo this you could trace over your Guitar Plan or simply print out another copy of just the neck area. We need to know the fret locations prior to starting the tracing process.

Assemble the materials I have outlined for you above. Select a flat or tilted drawing surface with plenty of daylight or a good artifical light source.

Take your neck pattern and tape it to the drafting surface with drafting tape.

Start by putting a centerline down the length of the guitar neck pattern. Next strike a line across the centerline at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th and 15th frets. Since these are the markers that guitarists look for when playing if at all possible place some significant element to identify at least some of these frets. Even if you select the 5th, 9th and 12th, that would be great.

Place the trace over the guitar neck pattern and tape in down with drafting tape. Begin with light sketching to formulate your ideas. Check out the different ideas on the Internet if you like as there are lots of examples in the images files there. Be sure though to make this uniquely your own design. So you could get some inspiration from others, but make sure to incorporate you own unique ideas.

Guidelines On Inlay Patterns:

You are likely to find this out yourself but here are a few guidelines for you to follow, if you are new to this process:

Guideline 1: Shell if very fragile and the thinner you cut a piece, the more care and support you need to give the piece while sawing it. If there is a weakness in the shell it will crack and you will need to start over. It always seams like this happens after you have worked for 30 minutes on an elaborate piece and you are 1/4″ away from finishing and then it happens – “crack”. Ouch!! that hurts.

So if your pattern has lots of thin vines 1 mm wide, you will probably be re-sawing some pieces until you become highly skilled. If you wish to use a very thin line in your design, consider using silver wire as an alternative.

Another alternative for you to consider with very thin pieces is to go the Abalam route. Abalam is a laminated abalone and exhibits much more strength that typical shell slabs. You also can benefit from larger pieces to work with.

Guideline 2: Always keep the shell size restrictions in mind. Have your shell blanks handy so you can size your inlay sketches to coordinate with the actual shell blanks. This is important in that you should develop natural start and stop points with your tracing pattern to disguise the joints.

Guideline 3: Don’t be afraid to start over. If a design isn’t working do no belabor to save it. Just scrap it and start over and save wasted time.

Finishing Up The Design:

Include all of the detail that you can in your design. Just free-hand the layout and keep it very light pencil lines. Once you have refined it to suit your needs, I would recommend that you take a very sharp drymarker and carefully trace around your design to lock it in.

Now you can take your trace pattern to a copy machine and make several copies to begin the next process – cutting the inlays.

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