Router-Based Inlay Process Pictorial

I’ve been getting a bunch of requests lately for a video on my decorative inlay process. This is definitely on our 2008 to-do list. But until then, I decided to resurrect an old WWA forum post from 2005. Enjoy.

The project is an ottoman tray. It will be a simple piece of 3/4 maple ply with a substantial solid padauk border. The inlay, is a simple interpretation of the sun. So here we go. It all starts with your design. Draw it out exactly how you want it to appear. It helps to have center-line and reference marks as they will make your life easier when it comes time to keep things aligned. Next, position your drawing over the substrate and tape one side in position. Now you can slide in a piece of carbon paper. Simply trace your design thereby transferring it to the substrate. For this design, the reference marks aren’t all that critical since I only need to transfer my design to the substrate once. But if you are doing a more complex design like one of my leaves, you will be re-tracing the design several times. Reference marks are then imperative.

If you haven’t already done so, you want to prepare your inlay stock at this point. I milled up few pieces of padauk for the large spikes and canarywood for the small spikes and the body of the sun. I like to aim for 1/16″-1/8″ thickness for my stock. My drum sander belt is broken so these are a bit larger than I was shooting for. Since I have repeated geometric shapes, my next step was to make a template for each piece out of 1/4″ ply. I simply used the carbon paper to trace the design onto the ply and cut it at the bandsaw.
Then I finessed the edges with sandpaper. If I were doing a leaf design, I would just trace my design directly to my inlay material and cut it out at the bandsaw or scroll saw. So now I use my templates to make my actual inlay pieces. I double-stick taped the template to my inlay stock, rough cut them on the bandsaw, then flush-trimmed them at the router table. These pieces are awefully small to rout, but with the proper precautions, it is possible. Any spots that send up the caution flags were touched up using sandpaper. Then I quickly cut the cararywood into a half circle using a quick rig at the bandsaw.

Now comes the fun part. This part of the process is exactly the same whether you are doing straight lines, geometric shapes, or complex designs. Start by double stick taping the piece to be inlayed into the substrate. Notice that the spikes are being done before the circle. This is because I want to circle to overlap the spikes. If I did it the other way, the continuity of the circle would be ruined. This concept is very important when creating the illusion of depth. The next few steps require a steady hand and patience. Lay off the coffee for a few hours. Or if you like a challenge, drink three cups before you start like I did. With an X-acto knife, carefully trace the outline of the inlay piece. Don’t rush this part. Start with a light touch just severing the top fibers. After a few passes you can increase the pressure and you will have a nice sharp outline.

Once the entire piece is outlined, carefully remove it with a putty knife. Now we need to make that outline a bit more visible. Simply grab your pencil and trace around the outline. Its OK to be sloppy. Then erase the line using strokes perpendicular to the outline. This will make sure the pencil residue gets loaded into the cut while cleaning the rest of the marks.

Now its time to do the routing. I generally use two bits. I hog out the material with a decent sized straight bit. Then I sneak up on the line with a 1/16″ bit. Yes, its THAT small!!! Set the router to cut just a bit shy of the thickness of the inlay material, strap on your helmet, and pray for mercy. A critical tool in this process is the hands-free magnifier. With good lighting, they are worth their weight in gold. Which is probably about $20. Coincidentally that is how much they cost.

Now unfortunately, no picture can do this part justice. With the 1/16″ bit, you really need to be careful when sneaking up to your line. I usually lock the router in the on position and put both hands on the base of the router. This gives me exceptional control. If you aren’t comfortable with this type of maneuver, then don’t do it. But I can’t think of any other way to get the control I need. A key point here is to watch the tearout of the router bit as you approach your line. The cool part is that as you sneak up to the line the little tearouts are clearly evident. But as soon as you kiss the line, the tearouts fly out leaving a nice clean line. That’s how you know you are there. Pre-cutting with the X-acto knife is what makes this possible.

Once the routing is complete, its time to test the fit. The piece will rarely drop right in. Usually the recess needs a bit of work. I use the X-acto knife and a chisel to hit the corner and clean up my edges. As a final touch, I sand a slight chamfer into the inlay piece. This ensures a nice tight wedged fit. Once all the pieces fit nicely, I glue them in place and clamp them down with some sort of caul. In this case, a piece of scrap ply does a fine job.

At this point, I took a lunch break. Turkey, swiss, on wheat. Light mayo. Yogurt (mixed berry). Back to the shop. Now we need to flush everything up. You can use a variety of tools for this. I like to use a block plane to remove the bulk, then I switch to a card scraper or a cabinet scraper. I finish up with a quick sanding. This is also a perfect time to hide any flaws or oopsies. Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue and a little dust from the offending inlay can give nearly undetectable repairs. A quick sanding at 150 and we are ready to add the circle part of the sun. The circle pretty much goes in like the other pieces. After hitting the circle with block plane and smoothing plane, I sanded the whole piece to 220.

As you can see, it is important to plan out the order in which you will apply the inlays. As mentioned before, I wanted to circle of the sun to be the “top-most” part of the image, so it goes on last. With my leaves, I will do one half of a leaf at a time. The leaf that is in the background is done first. The overlapping leaf is then done on top of the first leaf, giving the impression of depth.

And here is the final product with the sculpted padauk frame and several coats of lacquer.

Category: Techniques


  1. Denis Rezendes June 30, 2008

    cool. don’t forget about inlay bit sets from rockler and lee valley.


    Hey Denis. I actually learned how to inlay free-hand before I got my first inlay kit. Oddly enough, I made an identical version of this same ottoman tray using the inlay kit. If you can believe it, I really didn’t enjoy the process at all and I haven’t touched the kit since then. Once you get comfortable with the free-hand technique, you will find the template system to be limiting and restrictive as well as tedious (at least I did). And that second tray has rounded points, instead sharp points like this one does. The templates do not allow you to create sharp points or tight curves, which can really limit your design options.

  3. Denis Rezendes June 30, 2008

    i totally agree marc. i am working with free hand but i got the kit mainly for repeatability on not so complex parts. such as circles. i’m working on the free hand skills though. just have to get a 1/16″ bit and maybe a couple of carving gouges for curves. all in time though. i think the job i am getting will help that along though ;)

  4. John P January 5, 2009

    Did a show on inlay ever get made in 2008? I want to do an asian inspired jewlery box, with inlay similar to the side tabe you did, but use a similar design to the gadget station… make sense?

    If you have comments regarding inlay kits I’d appreciate that too – inlay is new to me !!

    thanks for your thoughts.



      Unfortunately John, I have yet to make a video on inlay. Its in the works though. Definitely this year!

      And inlay kits are ok, but I never really use them anymore. I am a big fan of free-hand. But if you have multiples of something to do, or if you need to make a more or less geometric shape, and inlay kit is a good idea.

  5. Mitch Howard May 29, 2009

    I just found it, so sorry to trouble you!

  6. william July 25, 2009

    hey mark thanks for the help with this inlay technique. its awesome to personalize a regular piece of furniture with this technique. quick question mark, whats the difference between an inlay and marquetry? trying to find the difference but having trouble. and a video on this would be real awesome. i saw david marks had a quick video overview of his inlay class on youtube. but obviously doensnt show any technique. thanks again mark, really enjoy your hard work.

      thewoodwhisperer July 25, 2009

      First of all, you are not alone here William. In fact the first time I published this article years ago, I referred to it as marquetry. So here’s how I think of it. The process you see above it inlay. That is, you create a recess in a surface and you inlay another piece of wood into that surface.

      With marquetry, you are typically working with a sheet of veneer (shop sawn, or commercial). It gets confusing because you are technically “inlaying” a thin piece of veneer into another thin piece of veneer. But you will eventually take the whole sheet of veneer (with your design embedded in it), and veneer that to a substrate. So with a technique like David teaches (double bevel marquetry), we are cutting two pieces of veneer at the same time at a slight angle so that the pieces will fit together perfectly, and the angle serves wedge the pieces together.

      Make sense?

  7. Rob Young August 7, 2009

    You can find even finer bits than 1/16″ at

    Need 1/64″ perhaps? I’ve used down to 1/32″ but had to be pretty careful about it, too much side load or feed rate will snap it off.

    Routers with the LEDs built into the base are great for this, you can really see what is happening. If your router doesn’t have the lighted base, look around for the cheap little goose-neck LED clip lights and work out a way to attach one to your router.

    Also, a slick trick to give you more control of the router in this mode is to make a set of skis. Fit two pieces of all-thread rod, use the largest diameter that will fit through the holes on the baseplate normally used for the edge guide. Add washers and nuts so that you can clamp onto a set of skis/feet/outriggers made at least 1-1/2″ wide and with slots for the all thread to move up and down. With the skis supporting the router off the workpiece (this is great for smaller workpieces) you don’t need to worry about bobbling the router near an edge. Take a little time and level the router before you start so the base is in contact with the workpiece and both skis are sliding along the table top to the sides of the workpiece.

    Note, the router is not meant to slide along the all-thread. Use the little thumb screws in the router base to lock the all-thread in place.

    Also you can lock down one ski by holding it steady with your left (right) hand while moving the other ski with your right (left) hand. With the skis well out from the bit, a large motion at the ski translates into a small motion at the bit. Sort of a reverse pantograph.

    I’ve been using a 1/4″ sheet of melamine covered particle board to slide the skis around. Double stick tape down the workpiece and the skis glide very nicely on the melamine.

    This takes a lot more to describe than to do…

    • DAVID DILLON November 24, 2010

      Hello ROB.I’m in the U.K. but I surf the web quite often looking for tips on woodworking,I’ve started self teaching inlay (marquetry) and spotted your post on the wood whisperer site,can you post a few pictures of your sled idea and a more in depth explanation,I’m a dummy I know but I would like to try what you have done,thanks for your time,MAC.

  8. Dennis Stickles February 9, 2010

    Marc, what are the dimensions of this tray and what does the profile of the frame look like? I would like to build somthing like this for my wife for Valentines day. I have the material, I just need some hints.

    Thanks and keep up the awsome work!!!

      thewoodwhisperer February 10, 2010

      Oh boy, that was a long time ago and I don’t have those in my posession any more. I can take a measurement the next time I am at my mother in laws. The profile was just a big fat cove on the underside, with a wide roundover at the top outside corner. And of course, another cove on the inside where it meets the panel. Wish I could give you more info but that’s about all I have.

      • Dennis Stickles February 10, 2010

        Thanks Marc for the reply, I know your busy. I came up with a profile that looks pretty close to what you’ve discribed. As far as the size, it looks like your’s is about 12 x 30 (not including the frame). I’m going to shoot for something around that size. I’ll post pics when finished.

        Thanks again!

  9. miguel August 27, 2011

    beautifully done but i have a question if i was doing an inlay on pine with some zebra wood. i would like to use a stain for the pine but am afraid that it would also stain the actual inlay any suggestions?

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