Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fingerboard Inlay

I think it's a commonly held view that for the majority of players, traditional fretboard markers provide little practical benefit (the markers on the fretboard edge are a different story), but I can't quite bring myself to leave the fingerboard totally devoid of decoration. Having said that, my ambitions where inlays are concerned are modest indeed, and while there's no denying the skill and sheer artistry displayed by the likes of Larry RobinsonGrit Laskin and Jimmi Wingert, I have no desire to emulate them - even if I thought I had the ability and temperament to do so.

The abalone and pearl inlay I've come to regard as my own was originally inspired by the decorative elements found on Bob Benedetto's arch-top guitars, but has evolved over time to the extent that my conscience is now clear - I no longer view it as imitation. I'm not adept at distilling design ideas down to abstract representations - I'd fail miserably at logo design, for instance - so whatever I dream up tends to be fairly representational. Where my fretboard inlay is concerned, I've stretched those personal limitations ever so slightly, but it's still blindingly obvious that the inlay represents a single flower flanked by two leaves.

I draw the shapes freehand, directly onto the pearl and abalone blanks, then cut the pieces out with a jeweler's saw. I don't feel the need to be terribly careful as I cut, knowing that the shapes of the individual pieces lend themselves to clean-up and refinement on my spindle sander. I'm quite happy for the exact shape to vary from guitar to guitar; given that I strive for accuracy and consistency where every other aspect of the guitar is concerned, it's nice to introduce some elements that have come into being by a more organic process.

My Dremel has its shortcomings and limitations, but it's an appropriate tool with which to route the inlay cavities. I need to keep the cavities free of wood dust as I proceed, and the solution is provided by an aquarium pump running alongside me on the bench. The outlet hoses from the pump are taped to one of the pillars on the Dremel base, and direct a constant stream of air onto the work. They disperse the ebony dust as soon as it's produced, which helps maintain a clear view of the lines I've previously scribed around the individual inlay pieces.

Using tiny spiral downcut router bits, I can cut accurately up to the lines, with a scalpel blade and my smallest chisel tidying up the corners that were too tight for the router bit to deal with. The inlay experts would have me believe that it's prudent to undercut the edges of the inlay cavities with a ball-end bit, but my inlay is so simple, and my results to date of a decent enough standard, that I haven't found it necessary to explore that option. If I've been careful enough, any gaps between the inlay and the walls of the routed cavity are insignificant. Those that are evident are easily hidden with matching wood dust and a drop or two of thin cyanoacrylate (CA) glue applied after the shell pieces have been glued in place. Of course, it helps that ebony is very forgiving in this regard!