Midnight Woodworking


Guitar headstock inlay

My friend Bill started this project, but immediately ran into problems. He bought some discs with abalone patterns on them, with the intent of inlaying them on guitar headstocks. Unfortunately he did not measure the discs before drilling the recess.

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He compared the disc to the bit, by eye and thought they were close enough, but it turns out the bit was a little over 1/16″ larger. That meant the abalone coin just slopped around in the hole instead of the pressed fit Bill hoped for.

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Since the hole was already drilled, I decided to try banding the edge of the coin with cherry, to take up the rest of the space. This will have the added advantage of putting a darker frame around the coin so that it will stand out more.

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I started by going through my pile of off-cuts from the last few projects, and found several different thickness of scrap cherry. I could have cut varying thicknesses from a block, on the table saw, but I had these lying around. Next, I filled a sports bottle with water and soaked the strips for about a half hour to make them good and flexible.

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I set up some blocks on my drill press to elevate the headstock and hold it level, then drilled Bill’s recess a little deeper. I made it about 1/16″ deeper that the coin’s thickness. You will see why later.

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I also drilled several pockets, with the same bit, in a scrap piece of wood.

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With the strips wet and flexible, I trimmed them down to about 3/16″ wide, then wrapped them around the inside of the pockets I just drilled. I allowed them to dry thoroughly for an hour or two.

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When dry, I wrapped each one around the coin and trimmed them to have about a 1/8″ overlap. I then sanded a taper onto each end, so the overlapping ends would wind up the same thickness as the rest of the band.

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After testing each one, I selected the strip that best filled in the gap between the coin and the wall of the recess. I applied CA glue to the edges of the pocket, then inserted the ring. Next, I applied glue to the inside of the ring and across the bottom.

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Being very careful to not touch the glue, I pressed the coin in place and held it till the glue set. You will notice the strip of cherry sticks up about 1/16″ above the surface. One reason was to keep my fingers away from the CA glue. It bonds to skin instantly and I didn’t want to leave any skin behind on this project.

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The next step was to mix up some two-part epoxy, thoroughly, then pour it into the pocket and around the edges.

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The epoxy will typically have air bubbles that form when mixing. To remove them, I used a heat gun. This thins the epoxy, allowing the bubbles to escape. you can also mist the surface with acetone, but I don’t like using that stuff if I don’t have to.

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I let the epoxy dry over night.

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Five minutes with my orbital sander and I had the epoxy sanded down flush to the headstock. The reason I set the pocket deeper than the coin was so I didn’t sand the coin by accident. There is still nearly 1/16″ of epoxy above it. This also gives a bit of depth to the inlay, which is a nice effect.

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The epoxy looks cloudy now, because it is basically a piece of scratched up plastic. I have done a few of these and I usually sand the epoxy down to 600 grit and the finish looks great. I happen to have recently picked up a set of sanding pads for acrylic that go all the way down to 12,000 grit so I thought I would give them a shot. I sanded the rest of the headstock down to 320, but polished the epoxy all the way down to 12,000.

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It turned out pretty good, I think.

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The next problem to address is the fact that I removed all the amber color from the headstock. I assumed that it was stained, then lacquered, but apparently they tinted the lacquer, placing all the color in the finish itself. I still had some water-based dye from the bass guitar build, so I went ahead and rubbed some in. I applied two coats to get it close to the amber color on the rest of the neck.

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Since lacquer would probably dissolve the water-based dye or cause it to blotch, I went ahead and applied several coats of Tung oil instead.

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In the end I wound up with an amber gloss finish coming really close to the original.

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When the finish had cured, I polished it up a bit with some paste wax, then re-installed the hardware.

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I went ahead and cleaned the fret board, then applied some lemon oil to rejuvenate the rosewood, then strung it up.

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Not too bad looking when complete.

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I talked to Bill about whether to buy the correct size drill bit for the rest of the coins he wants to inlay, but he decided he prefers the band of cherry. It frames and highlights the coin. Especially on unstained maple headstocks, where the white blends in with the wood. So I think we are going to stick with this method.


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