Arts & Crafts Inlay
Make intricate patterns of silver and ebony using a Dremel.
By Joe Johnston
Ebony and silver—black and white—are a stunning combination. The architects Charles and Henry Greene, masters of Arts & Crafts detail, used these materials to create intricate inlay for their furniture. They also used abalone, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli and other precious materials; but I’m particularly drawn to the simplicity of silver and ebony.
I’d like to show you how to make this kind of inlay using a design found on a set of three tables the Greenes created for the Freeman A. Ford house in Pasadena. In this pattern, flowing organic “vines" of silver wire are balanced by linear ebony strips and surrounded by silver dots. When I built one of these tables, I discovered that these designs—using just two materials—are a good entry-level introduction to the world of Arts & Crafts inlay. I’ll be showing you how to make the inlay on one of the table’s legs.
This inlay may look quite complicated at first glance, but the techniques used to make it are very simple. To create the recesses for the inlay, you’ll need a Dremel rotary tool with a plunge base and a few small bits. You don’t need much material—just a couple of pieces of jeweler’s silver wire and a little bit of ebony (see Sources, below).
I traced this design from a drawing by Charles Greene, but you shouldn’t be limited by his patterns. Once you’ve seen how the technique works, you can create your own ebony and silver inlay design and add a unique touch to any special project, like a jewelry box or picture frame.
Draw the pattern
Work with loose pieces of your project, before they’re glued together. Trace the inlay’s pattern (Fig. A) using dressmaker’s tracing paper (Photo 1). This paper comes in several colors; blue shows well on mahogany. You could also use black carbon paper, but the lines may be hard to see on dark woods. Trace the entire pattern all at once.
Rout the curves
I use dead-soft round Argentium silver wire for the vine inlay. It’s sold by the foot (see Sources). I ordered 4' of 14 ga. wire and 8' of 16 ga. wire for all of the inlay on this table.
The easiest way to cut grooves for the wire is to use a Dremel with a plunge base, routing freehand (Photo 2). You could also carve grooves by hand using narrow carving chisels, which is probably how the original inlay was made.
If you use a Dremel, you’ll need an appropriately sized end mill with a 1/8" shank (see Sources). The goal is to make the groove slightly narrower than the wire. I use 16 ga. wire for the vine sections of the inlay, which requires a 3/64" end mill. Rout or carve the curves to a depth of 1/16".
Rout the strips
Use the Dremel to rout the stopped grooves for the ebony strips (Photo 3). You’ll need 1/16", 3/32" and 1/8" dia. end mills with 1/8" shanks. If the groove you want to make is wider than one of your end mills, cut the groove in two passes.
Use a fence to ensure that the grooves are straight and parallel to the edge. Rout the grooves 1/8" deep. Square the ends of the grooves with a small chisel.
The center strip in this pattern steps down in width at both ends. You’ll create this shape by using all three bits. Start with the 1/16" bit first, to make the narrowest groove. Rout the full length of the entire strip. Remove this bit from your router and install the 3/32" bit. Without changing the fence setting, rout a shorter groove for the middle-width step on the bottom end of the pattern. Finally, rout the widest groove using a 1/8" bit. This process keeps all the grooves centered, so the steps between the strips will be equal on both sides.
Drill the dots
Use 14 and 16 ga. wire for the round dots that are sprinkled around the vines. Make holes for the dots using miniaturesized drill bits in the Dremel (Photo 4, see Sources). Some of the dots in the pattern are oblong; create these holes by angling the bit.
Install the vines
Glue in all the silver wire pieces before adding the ebony strips. You’ll file and sand the wire so that it will be slightly lower than the ebony, so it’s best not to have any ebony in the way.
To try out the process and avoid wasting silver, I highly recommend making a small sample inlay on a piece of scrap. Copy part of the actual pattern in order to practice making the bends used in the design.
Before cutting the wire into short lengths, fold a piece of 220 grit sandpaper in half and pull each piece of wire through the sandpaper. Roughing up the wire will help the glue stick to it.
Pre-bend the silver wire to fit each groove (Photo 5). The wire is too stiff to bend with your fingers; use needle-nose pliers instead. Cut the wire with diagonal pliers. If one end of a vine runs into one of the straight grooves, cut the wire a bit extra-long, so that it extends into the groove. You’ll trim off the extra length later on. Sand and polish the ends of the wires that don’t terminate in a groove.
Next, apply a coat of wax resist to the face of the workpiece. This prevents any glue from becoming embedded in the wood, which will spoil the finish. I use Waxilit (see Sources), but you could also use a silicone-free wax, such as Johnson’s Paste Wax. Avoid getting wax in the inlay grooves; glue won’t adhere to it.
You’re ready to install the wire. First, drip a small amount of thick cyanoacrylate (CA) glue into one of the grooves (see Sources). I’ve found that CA glue works better than 5-min. epoxy—it sets faster and seems to stick better— but you must work fast; CA glue sets up almost immediately. Place the wire in the groove, then lightly tap the wire with a block and hammer (Photo 6).
Shorten the ends of the wire that extend into the straight grooves using a rotary diamond-impregnated disk chucked into a cordless drill (Photo 7, see Sources). Run the drill at low speed to avoid generating too much heat. Silver wire is an excellent conductor and heats up very rapidly. Overheating the wire will burn the wood or cause the glue to let go.
Install the dots
To make the dots, apply a drop of CA glue to the end of a length of wire. Embed the wire into a hole (Photo 8). After the glue sets, snip off the wire about 1/8" above the surface. Repeat this process until all the holes are filled.
File, sand and polish
Next, file the ends of the dots so they’re about 1/64" or so proud of the wood’s surface (Photo 9). Protect adjacent pieces of wire and wood with a layer of blue painter’s tape. The vine pieces should be about 1/64" high, too. If any are too tall, file them as well.
Leaving the tape in place, start sanding all of the silver wire with 220 grit paper. Continue up to 600 grit. Sand across the vines, rather than along their length. The goal is to round over the wire, not flatten it. After the 600-grit sanding, remove the tape and use a nonwoven abrasive, such as Mirlon, to remove any scratches from the silver’s surface (see Sources). I buy Mirlon in a pack that contains three grits, and use all three.
After sanding and polishing, blow off the wood with compressed air to remove any silver dust. Lightly clean the wood with mineral spirits to remove the wax resist. When you’re done, look closely into the wood's pores to ensure there are no small filings of silver left behind (they’ll produce shiny spots under a finish).
Make ebony strips
Make the strips using your tablesaw (Photo 10). I use a thin-kerf blade (see Sources) and a zero-clearance insert. To prevent binding, I’ve added a splitter into the insert’s slot (see Sources). Start with 3/4" thick stock that’s at least 12" long and rip strips that are about .001" thicker than the grooves they’ll fit into. Rip extra pieces of each thickness—you may need them.
Next, rip the strips 1/4" wide. At this width, they’ll be much easier to handle and install and less prone to breakage. Use sandpaper to taper the sides of each strip. Tapering makes the strips easier to start in the grooves.
Cut the strips to length using a fine-tooth hand saw, such as a Japanese Dozuki, and glue them into the grooves (Photo 11). For the stepped grooves, start with the outer (narrowest) pieces first. Cut them to length and glue them in place. Work your way from the ends to the center, cutting and gluing pieces as you go. Bevel the ends of each step with sandpaper, so they appear rounded.
Once the glue is dry, place tape around the strips to protect the surrounding wood and silver. Level the strips with a block plane (Photo 12). Plane until the strips are within 1/32" of the surface— slightly higher than the silver.
Sand the strips by hand. Go perpendicular to their direction to create a humped shape, as you did with the vines. Start with 220 grit paper and continue up to 600 grit. Finish with Mirlon, again using all three grits. Like the silver, ebony will take a very high polish. They’re made for each other!
Fig. A: Greene and Greene Leg Inlay Pattern
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Trace the inlay’s pattern onto the wood using blue dressmaker’s tracing paper.
2. Rout or carve the curved lines of the pattern using a very small bit. These grooves will receive a silver wire inlay.
3. Rout the straight lines in the pattern using a fence. I use a Dremel rotary tool mounted in a plunge base.
4. Drill small holes to create the dots in the pattern. Some of the holes are angled to make an oblong shape.
5. Pre-bend and cut the silver wire with needle-nose pliers to fit the pattern. Put a small amount of thick CA glue into one of the grooves.
6. Tap the wire into its groove using a block and hammer.
7. Grind the ends of the wire flush with the grooves using a diamond cutoff wheel.
8. Glue the end of a short piece of wire in each hole, then snip the wire off about 1/8" above the surface.
9. File down the ends of the wire. Protect the wood with tape.
10. Saw ebony strips that are slightly thicker than the grooves. Taper their sides using sandpaper.
11. Glue the strips in the grooves. With a tapered fit, the strips must be tapped in place.
12. Plane the strips down to within 1/32" of the surface. Sand them with fine paper until the ebony glows like the silver wire.
Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.
American Carbide, American-Carbide.com, 781-582-8093, 1/16" end mill, #129600; 3/32" end mill, #129622; 1/8" end mill, #129644; 3/64" end mill, #129589.
Dremel, dremel.com, 800-437-3635, Plunge Router Attachment for Dremel rotary tool (edge guide included), #335-01; Drill bit set, #628-01; Diamond Wheel and mandrel, #545.
Freud, freudtools.com, 800-334-4107, Thin Kerf Combination Blade, LU83R.
Lee Valley, leevalley.com, 800-871-8158, Waxilit, #56Z99.61.
MicroJig, microjig.com, 407-696-6695, Thin Kerf M J Splitter, #SP-0100TK.
Rio Grande, riogrande.com, 800-545- 6566, Round Argentium dead soft silver wire, 14 ga., #103314; 16 ga., #103316.
Rockler, rockler.com, 800-279-4441, 3/4" Thick Gaboon Ebony, #84583.
Titebond, titebond.com, 800-669-4583, Instant Bond CA Adhesive—Thick.
Woodcraft, woodcraft.com, 800-225-1153, Mirlon Assorted Grit 3 Pack, #148880.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December/January 2011, issue #151.