How to Make Inlaid Bees - Popular Woodworking Magazine
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A few years ago I had a commission to design and build a large coffee table for a client in Chicago. I inlaid scatterings of bees on the panels at the sides and back to add some joyful sweetness to the otherwise-serious design.

A recent Instagram post showing the bees on one of the panels brought a lot of interest, so here’s the step-by-step technique I use for this type of inlay. It’s extremely simple (to the point of being embarrassingly crude) and wonderfully effective at evoking the lively buzzing of these hardworking creatures.

Materials needed:

  • Marking knife
  • Chisels and gouges, depending on the sizes and shapes you plan to use
  • Sandpaper
  • Laminate trimmer and 1/8″ cutter (optional)
  • Pencil
  • Oil-based enamel
  • Veneer (you can saw your own)
  • Thin brass sheet (available from many hardware stores; it should be thin enough to cut with scissors but not so thin that you can sand through it. I used .005″.)
  • 5-minute epoxy
  • Amber shellac
inlaid bees

Draw the wings in pencil, adding some type of mark that will indicate which side goes up.

inlaid bees

Cut the brass with scissors. (Just don’t expect them to stay sharp after such abuse.)

inlaid bees

Here’s my first wing, cut out.

inlaid bees

Cut out the second wing.

inlaid bees

Put the wings together on paper to make sure they look good and will fit.

inlaid bees

Place the wings (or at least one wing) on the veneer and draw the main part of the body with a fine pencil.

inlaid bees

Cut the body out with a knife. Start by tracing the outline ever so gently, barely putting any pressure on the knife, to prevent the top from catching in the grain. Repeat, going a little deeper each time until you have cut through and can pop the shape out.

inlaid bees

inlaid bees

Clean up any roughness on the edges by rubbing the body across a flat piece of fine sandpaper. This is 320 grit. (Bring on the jokes about rubbing the body across sandpaper. I’m ready.)

inlaid bees

Fasten your ground to the bench with clamps, or, as I did with this small piece, double sided tape. Start with the body; because it’s wood, you’ll be able to cut into it to inlay the main wing in a lifelike way.

inlaid bees

Trace with your knife just inside the pencil line, starting lightly and increasing the pressure once you’ve scored the fibers. That way you won’t get caught in the grain and ruin the outline.

inlaid bees

Set a laminate trimmer up with a 1/8″ straight cutter. These three test cuts allowed me to get the depth where I wanted it: just a tad deeper than the thickness of the veneer. Be extremely careful to control the laminate trimmer, as it’s easy to go beyond the outlines when routing such a small shape.

inlaid bees

Use a variety of gouges and chisels to finish the cuts up to the knife line. I used a #3 sweep 6mm straight gouge, a #5 6mm fishtail gouge, a #11 2mm gouge, and a 1/8″ chisel.  Because I have only outcannel gouges, I hold the gouge at an angle to keep the cut at the knife line sharp. The following image shows what I’m referring to.

inlaid bees

Work around the shape, changing tools as necessary.

inlaid bees

I use 5-minute epoxy because it works on wood and metal, in addition to allowing me to make progress more quickly.

inlaid bees

Lay the body in place and press firmly. (No, it’s not pretty.)

inlaid bees

I use 120-grit paper on a block to remove the excess adhesive and flatten the area. From this point on, you need to be careful to avoid cutting, scraping, or sanding too deeply .

inlaid bees

Lay the first wing in place on the pattern and trace carefully around the edges with your knife. I just hold the wing in place with a fingernail, taking great care to avoid moving it when I shift position to reach the other side. As before, go very lightly on the first pass. Once you have a couple of passes you can move the wing and continue deepening the line if necessary.

inlaid bees

Use carving tools as before to sneak up on the outline. You can use a laminate trimmer to remove the bulk of the waste, but I find it safer to do this by hand with a 1/8″ wide chisel. Note: It’s absolutely fine if the bottom of the ground is uneven. When you press the brass into place, the texture will have the effect of giving movement to the wings.

inlaid bees

Removing waste from the ground with a 1/8″ chisel

inlaid bees

Glue the wing in place as you did the body. Press firmly with a rounded tool tip (I used the plastic end of my Veritas marking knife, as shown in the next image) to ensure the wing is just below the surface of the surrounding material.

inlaid bees

Pressing the brass into place

inlaid bees

Repeat the process above with the second wing, then clean up with a block. Any texture in the wings resulting from the uneven ground will produce variation in the sheen, which will give the effect of movement.

inlaid bees

I apply the stripes instead of inlaying them. You can do this with an oil-based paint, as I did here, or go the easy route and use a black Sharpie permanent marker. (Although some of the Sharpie colors turn out not to be “permanent,” black appears to be the Energizer Bunny.)

inlaid bees

inlaid bees

After the paint has dried completely, scrape away any stray strokes using a sharp chisel.

inlaid bees

I applied a coat of amber shellac to give the pale veneer a golden buzz and seal the surrounding mahogany.

– Nancy Hiller


English Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects & Techniques for the Modern MakerEnglish Arts & Crafts Furniture explores the Arts & Crafts movement with a unique focus on English designers. Through examination of details, techniques, and historical context, as well as projects, you’ll discover what sets these designers and their work apart from those that came before and after, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the Arts & Crafts movement and its influence.

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Showing 7 comments
  • Sean Hathorn

    A number of years ago i taught a class of 11 year old children in how to make a small step stool with wedged thru tenons for the classroom. After the joinery was completed each child proudly signed the underside in black sharpie. When i padded the shellac over this my first and only stroke smeared their signatures…the alcohol in the shellac clearly was a solvent (at least in part) for the sharpie.

    • Nancy Hiller

      That’s a sad story. Fortunately I have not had the same experience with Sharpies and shellac. Apparently this is a mystery. I may look into it for elucidation.

      • ronnd

        Alcohol is, in fact, a solvent for Sharpies. It will remove Sharpie ink from surfaces, clothes, and gessoed painter’s canvas. About the only material it won’t work well for removing marks from is paper. The porosity of the wood substrate can impact its effectiveness. Generally speaking, the more porous the wood, the more successful the pigment particles are in lodging themselves in those pores.

        In fact, think of a Sharpie as a pen containing pigment-based stain and you’ll have a hard time going wrong.

        • Nancy Hiller

          In that case I’ve been lucky, and happily so. Thank you for the clarification.

        • Nancy Hiller

          OK, so I take my responsibility here seriously. This afternoon I took a minute to draw a black Sharpie squiggle on a piece of raw red oak, then let it dry for an hour while I worked. I applied a good coat of Zinsser Bull’s Eye amber shellac and watched to see what happened. (Note: I did this because I have done it many times over the past couple of decades without any problem, but I’m one of those people who are always willing to learn from the comments made by readers.) There was no smudging at all. So, yes, red oak is super porous. I use Sharpies most often, at least in circumstances involving inlaid bees, on white oak, which is somewhat less porous, at least on the end grain. Thank you, tyloses. I would post pictures from this afternoon’s experiment, but the comments feature here does not appear to accept them.

    • Nancy Hiller

      Sean, I did an experiment this afternoon that may be of interest to you. I described it in my reply to “ronnd.” Although I did not mention this in that description, I did two variations of the experiment: one involved allowing the black Sharpie to dry for an hour before brushing on a generous film of Zinsser amber shellac. The other involved a similar mark in black Sharpie that had about 30 seconds to “dry” before I brushed on the same shellac. Seeing no bleeding or smearing, I proceeded to brush back and forth with more shellac in an attempt to replicate your results. No such luck. I offer this by way of expressing my serious investment in the stuff I post on this blog for Popular Woodworking, and in the interest of the scientific method, at least as understood by a non-professional seeker of knowledge (the etymological origin of “scientist”).

  • earthartinc

    Well that was fun! Very nice how to work along.

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