Wood Inlays on a Guitar
January 18, 2014 9:07 AM   Subscribe

So, my wife has purchased an acoustic guitar, and plans to try her hand at inlaying a rosette around the hole on the soundboard. Have any of my fellow mefites tried something of this sort, and if so, could you share your knowledge / words of wisdom?

In particular, any tools you used, or wished that you had used; tips to make the process go smoothly; things to be especially careful of; really any advice at all is appreciated!

Some details that may be relevant:
- she is a very patient scientist, and is good at detailed work.
- she has a Dremel, and we can purchase any attachments that may be useful
- she has done very well learning woodworking in general - we've made several pieces of furniture, and she's very creative, both in general, and in terms of using tools / materials for unusual purposes.

As always, thanks in advance for your advice :)
posted by PlantGoddess to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total)
Check out the Fretboard Journal. I'd also look on message boards for luthiers.

Don't crack your top. What is the make/model?
posted by Ironmouth at 9:13 AM on January 18, 2014

Couldn't that change/alter/damage the tone/sound?
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2014

Response by poster: It's a Suzuki Nagoya sd335, built in 1987.
posted by PlantGoddess at 9:38 AM on January 18, 2014

I am a fine woodworker, but not a luthier. I would be very reluctant to attempt this on an instrument I cared about. A dremel won't be much use. I've done a bit of inlay work, and the idea is generally to let the inlay in to a depth such that it sits just a hair above the surrounding surface so that it can be scraped/sanded flush after gluing. This is all done before the whole surface is finished. Expecting to inlay something perfectly flush in a finished surface, without requiring sanding or scraping or damaging the surrounding finish, is unrealistic.
posted by jon1270 at 10:07 AM on January 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'd want to practice on a cheap Craigslist guitar or the like first, if it were me.
posted by thelonius at 10:28 AM on January 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: If she hasn't already done so, please ask her to check out stewmac.com, aka Stewart-MacDonald, probably US leader in luthier supplies, tools, instructional materials, etc. That said...this is a hard thing. She may be very good, and a quick learner, but it would be much better to practice on a truly crappy guitar than anything even half way decent. Just figuring out how to make the right sort of jig is going to be a challenge, never mind using the tools on an awkwardly shaped instrument.

On preview, what thelonius said, too.
posted by mosk at 10:29 AM on January 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've got enough experience mucking around with electric guitars (which are basically tanks compared to acoustics) that I'll second thelonius and mosk re: doing a practice round or two or three on a cheapo guitar or even a hunk of wood where she's OK if things go horribly awry.

Although maybe this guitar is the practice guitar - I can't really find much info on the suzuki nagoya, and what little I found suggests it's nothing special.

In any case, also seconding Stew Mac for info and tips and instructions. I have ordered parts from them and had good experiences. They don't always have the best prices, however (they seem to have a bit of a tendency to sell, say, a certain kind of file as a "[guitar speciality] file" for top dollar when you can actually find the same file not marketed as a speciality file elsewhere for less.) And quite a few of their genuine speciality tools & devices make sense as purchases if you're a pro repair person and time is money, not so much for the hobbyist.

Luthiers Mercantile International also seems to generally get good mentions various places on the web - no personal experience, though.

There's the Build and Repair subforum of the Acoustic Guitar Forum.

I found this searching through the Tele Discussion Page ReIssue (a.k.a. tdpri.com.) Even though it's a forum supposedly focused on Telecasters, they cover a lot of ground, and their "DIY Channel" group of subforums is quite active. Searching or asking on there could get her some useful info or tips on other places to look.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:05 PM on January 18, 2014

Best answer: I have dabbled with lutherie though not, as yet, to the extent of making an entire guitar.....

I think this is going to be a very tall order - normally the rosette is inlaid before (a) the guitar top is radiussed to give it a curve, (b) before the top is attached to any of the other bits, (c) before the sound hole is cut out and (d) before it is finished/varnished/polished etc. So you'd be taking on a job that's tricky enough when being carried out on a flat, loose, unfinished piece of wood and making it much more difficult.

Normal ways to cut the groove for the rosette are either some sort of rotating blade in a drill press (not possible on a finished instrument because of a, b and c) or using a dremmel with a circular cutting jig (won't work because of a and c).

If you're still keen to go ahead then I would advise stripping the finish off the area around the sound hole, then building some sort of custom dremmel jig that follows the edge of the sound hole to cut the groove. Even then, I think it will be very difficult to then re-finish the wood in that area to match the rest of the top, so it might end up looking like a mess.

Why not buy an acoustic guitar kit - or even a kit for something much simpler - and then you can have fun going to town adding inlays to the top without the stress of possibly ruining a nice instrument?
posted by primer_dimer at 2:02 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers and the very helpful links! I'm going to leave this open a little longer in case anyone else wants to add anything :)
posted by PlantGoddess at 8:31 AM on January 19, 2014

Best answer: I think it will be very difficult to then re-finish the wood in that area to match the rest of the top

primer_dimer makes an excellent point here (as I am reminded of as I work on my own guitar projects this afternoon) - applying or repairing the finish on a guitar is kind of a whole separate project in itself, and in some ways more similar to automotive painting than furniture refinishing.

Here's a page from LMI giving a basic rundown of some of the finish possibilities. I would actually disagree with one statement there - "solvent-based nitrocellulose lacquer system used on most other commercially available guitars" - an awful lot of guitars, especially inexpensive ones, use some form of polyurethane as a finish. And I don't think poly can really be repaired or patched, which is something to watch out for - lots of info out there talks about how to patch a finish, but they're talking about lacquer or shellac finishes, even though they don't specifically mention it. IME with poly finishes it's better to sand the whole guitar (or at least the top) down to the bare wood and start over.

Even if you've got a lacquer finish that can be patched, matching the new to the old is a bit of an art, not least because finishes can change color with age, plus the question of how the final color of the guitar was arrived at in the first place - is it the "natural color" of the wood under a "clear" finish that is actually inherently slightly tinted? Or a clear finish that's truly clear? Is the wood itself stained? Is the finish stained? As an example, on one of my own "natural" colored lacquer-finished guitars (from the 70's), a finish repair involved staining the wood itself slightly, and then using a tinted lacquer pen from Stew Mac.

Also note how often the LMI page above talks about spraying on finishes. A high-gloss finish, especially, is the result of applying a lot of very thin coats, and it can be hard to do that with a roller or brush, or even a spray can - at least not without some practice (speaking from experience here.) Lots of thin coats tend to give the guitar a good layer of protection without stifling the resonance of the instrument. The process of applying these thin coats and the final polish may involve much finer sanding than your wife is used to from furniture work, like 800 to 2000-grit sandpaper and various buffing compounds.

I don't mean to sound at all discouraging - lutherie can be a fun hobby. But every bit of advice I've ever heard or read and every account of guitar work I've heard or read and my own experience says that it's very much worth it to get some hands-on practice and experience and experimentation and testing on "disposable" guitars and other pieces of wood before you take a whack at what's intended to be a showcase guitar.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:20 AM on January 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks again for the help - after reading this thread and doing a bit more research, she decided that, rather than doing an inlay (and possibly destroying the guitar), she would use a fine wood-burning tool and inscribe the surface. So far, it's looking quite nice, with a dragon/gargoyle and flames :)
Soundguy99 - your advice on the finishes was especially helpful, as that was going to be my next Ask!
posted by PlantGoddess at 9:30 AM on January 27, 2014

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