This is Router Inlay Basics for Beginners, your complete guide to using the router inlay kit, and making professional looking inlays the easy way. After reading this guide, you will know everything you need to know to avoid common mistakes and be successful with this technique. Enjoy.
Router Inlay Basics
Router inlay is awesome. Not only do you overcome all of the difficult parts of traditional inlay, but you get to do the same process without as much practice. If you have a router, and a very inexpensive inlay kit, you can get started right away.
The process of router inlay is essentially using the tool to create both the cavity and the inlay piece that will go inside of it. Since the kit uses a bushing to determine where the router will make the cut, The two pieces fit perfectly every time.
Well…after you get through the tips that are coming up and the section on setting up the router in particular, the pieces will fit perfectly. Most people make a few mistakes in the beginning because they don’t do this part of the set up process.
Sometimes it can be easy to skip the directions, especially when it all looks very simple to use. Don’t do that, and instead make sure to read these tips all the way through and to follow the instructions for setting up the exact kit that you buy.
You’ll be glad that you did, and you will be amazed at the type of easy and amazing inlay work that you can do with just your router. It’s almost like a magic trick, and it can make you look like a very accomplished inlay artist with almost zero practice.
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See Also: Router Inlay Kit For Easy Inlays
Buy a Good Inlay Kit
Step one in this entire process is to buy a router inlay kit. These are not expensive, and you can find them a number of different places. I recommend that you pick up a good one online, and get one that works for your router.
These kits require a router plate that accepts bushings or collets. Make sure that your router has that type of plate, and if not pick up another plate that does for your specific brand of router. The inlay kit just goes in the bushing hole, and that’s why you need it.
Resist the urge to buy the cheapest of the cheap kits. While you also don’t need the most expensive one that you can buy, the super cheap ones are sometimes not set up very well, and the cutting bits are too long.
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Center Your Router Plate and Bit
This is the very first step, and the one the most woodworkers end up either skipping because they don’t think they need to, or skipping because they didn’t know they had to. Don’t skip this step, it’s worth way more time savings in the future.
The way the system works is by making two cuts, one on the inside of the line and one on the outside. The one on the inside is made so that way you can create the cavity for the inlay. The one on the outside is made to cut out the inlay piece itself.
If your router plate and a bit are not perfectly centered, it can create minor variations in the path of the cutter. This ends up creating minor variations in the cavity and the in the peace, and they end up not fitting together.
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Make sure to center your router plate and at least this way you know that your tool is centered correctly, and that you can rotate the router a little bit without causing problems.
Do the Initial Setup for Your Set
For most kits, the initial set up consists of getting the router plate in the right position, and then installing the bushing from the kit. There may also be some additional steps to ensure that everything is set up properly.
These are typically very easy, and they don’t take more than a few minutes. It’s very important in the beginning that you get this set up process correct. In reality, it’s very important, and your inlays will look better for it.
Again, it’s only going to take a few minutes, and it will literally make this process a night and day difference as far as how easy it will be.
See Also: A Beginners Guide to Woodworking
Make a Good Template First
Once you’re set up, the next step is to make a good template. This entire system is predicated on using templates for different shapes of inlays. All you need to do is come up with the shapes. And then create the template.
In the beginning, start with some simple shapes. The template is really just a piece of quarter inch thick wood, with the shape cut out. The shape can be nearly any shape that the bushing on the inlay kit can pass through.
On most router inlay kits, the part that sticks out below the router plate is just less than a quarter inch. If your kit is bigger than a quarter inch, then you’ll need to use a piece of wood that is a little thicker so that the bushing doesn’t drag on your piece.
You will have to dissect whatever image you are inlaying into its basic parts, and every one of them will need its own template. This may seem like a lot of work, but you will be able to use the templates forever, so all you need to do is get it done correctly one time.
Take Your Time on the Templates
One last thing about templates. Since the template is going to be used to create your inlay pieces and cavities, they are only going to be as good as the template itself. This means you need to take your time and make a nice template.
Anything worth doing is worth doing correctly, and if you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, then you definitely don’t have time to do it over. Spend the time it takes to make a good template, with nice straight walls, and free of bumps and scratches.
The bushing on the kit is going to ride against the inside walls of the template, so they need to be smooth. Any bumps or rough areas will cause a change in the cutting pattern, and therefore a change in the shape of the inlay.
Get in there was some sandpaper, and make sure to smooth it out really well before you use the template on a real piece. You can even use a mini spindle sander if needed to get into the inlay area, especially if it’ll fit.
Make the template as perfect as you can, it will serve you for many years. In most cases, as long as you don’t lose the template or give it away, you can have it for the rest of your life. It’s a small price to trade a few extra minutes for a perfect template that will last that long.
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Don’t Make Tight Curves or Corners
As you were designing things to inlay, look at the bushing on the bottom of the router kit. As long as the bushing can hug the wall of the design the entire way around, and not get stuck or skip any areas, then you are doing fine.
Some designs can be too narrow or have too tight of corners. If the bushing does not make it all the way in to every part of the template, it’s not going to cut a piece out in the same shape that you were hoping.
In the beginning especially, don’t go for an elaborate design. Keep the curves to a point where the bushing can follow them, and you will have much better results.
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Secure the Pieces Really Well Before Routing
This is a pretty big mistake for beginners, and one that is easily fixed. The router is a very powerful tool, and before you know it can pull material into the spinning bit and destroy it without you being able to do anything before it happens.
It can also do the same for fingers are holding onto a piece of wood. Instead of taking chances, make sure to clamp the wood down very well before you start routing. This goes for both the inlay piece and the cavity.
The inlay pieces especially susceptible to problems, because as you cut the piece free, it has the ability to move around. Clamping down the rest of the piece makes it easier because you’ll only have to monitor one part that will become loose in the end.
Also, when you are clamping make sure that the clamps are far enough away that the router can still do it’s job. A router and base plate are a big item, and it can take up a lot of surface area to be able to make the entire pass in one motion.
The last thing you want to do is be concentrating on making a clean pass but all of a sudden you run into one of the clamps. At this point you’ll have to stop, move the clamp, and start again, which will most likely cause a defect in your inlay.
Set the Depth so the Inlay Piece isn’t too Deep
Depending on what thickness you are using for your inlay pieces, you want to make sure that you set the depth on the cavity portion to be just a pinch more shallow. This way, you don’t set the inlay piece too deep into the opening.
The easy way to do this is to cut all the way through your inlay piece, and then use it as a guide to adjust the router bit a little bit more shallow. You don’t have to go very far, and even a thickness of a few pieces of paper is enough room to sand down.
When you go too deep, the piece ends up being sunk into the surface. While this might be a cool look for you to try on purpose, and sink pieces a little deeper, when you’re intending to go flush it’s definitely not a good look.
Do a test pass with your router as well on a piece of scrap. Then, make sure that the inlay piece is not too short for the cavity. If it is, make some adjustments and do another test. Once you’re satisfied, you’re ready to route out the cavity.
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Start and Stop Carefully to Avoid Damage
The two most difficult parts of using this kit are starting and stopping. It’s not too difficult to maintain pressure against the template all the way around, but when you dive in and jump out, those are the times that you can create damage.
If you have a plunge router, this is a lot easier. However, a lot of people don’t so you just need to be really careful about how you enter and exit your cuts. Pay careful attention, and make sure that you are staying up against the template walls the entire time.
On the cavity it’s going to be a little easier, because you can enter in the middle. Just drop in someplace that’s going to be cut off anyway, then work your way back to the template walls, and route out the cavity.
With the inlay piece, you don’t have this same courtesy. You’re going to need to enter carefully while maintaining pressure against the template wall, and then slowly bring the router all the way around back to the starting point.
If you plan this in a flat section, you can actually stop just a hair before completing the final cut. This will give you just a little bit of room to stop the router without causing any damage. At that point, you can remove the inlay piece, and sand off the little connecting piece.
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Hold the Router the Same Way for Both Cuts
If you center your router plate, you won’t have to worry very much about how you hold the machine while you’re making the cuts. However, it doesn’t hurt to give the process as much help as you possibly can.
This means you hold the router in the same position as you work your way around the cavity and then the inlay piece itself. In case there is a tiny offset in the plate or the centering, this method can make up for it.
Taking the router in any direction or allowing the body to spin will change where the plate center is, and that can change the cut. Instead, just hold your router with the label facing you, and continue your cut with the labels facing you the entire time.
This way, you get to create the cut just the same, and even if there is a slight variance, it’ll be on both pieces, and you’ll never even notice. It’s worth the extra few seconds just to do it this way, I promise.
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Test Fit the Piece to the Cavity
Here is the moment of truth. The first time you do this it’s going to be a pinch on the stressful side, but don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine and it can all be fixed. This is where you pick up your inlay piece, and see if it fits inside the cavity.
Most of the time, the piece will fit fairly easily. This is good, and it’s an indication that you did your set up really well and you centered your plate really well. If it’s off by a mile, then go right back to the set up and make sure that everything is done correctly.
The other reason could be off quite a bit as if you did the bushing backwards. Pay attention to when you’re cutting because when you cut the cavity, the extra bushing needs to be in place. For the inlay, the bushing is removed.
Even the most experience woodworker in the world has accidentally done this in the opposite way before. It happens, so don’t beat yourself up too much over it, and know that at least you understand how to fix the problem going forward.
Sand and Adjust Where Needed
The most likely scenario is that you’ll actually have an inlay that kind of fits, but also needs a little bit a help to get all the way in. Even with the best set up on a router, this will creep up every once in a while, but it’s very easy to fix.
If you’re off just a pinch, break out the 100 grit sandpaper and scuff the areas that need a little bit of help getting into the cavity. Don’t go nuts, because taking off a little bit will make a big difference, and you don’t want to show gaps. Keep on working like this until the piece fits.
Again if you do the set up well, this should either be a nonexistent part of the process, or it should only take a few seconds to finish up. If it’s really bad, I recommend that you do the setup process one more time.
Use Wood Glue and a Caul to Secure the Piece
Once you have a good fit, it’s time to glue your inlay. This is a relatively simple procedure, but there are a few things you can do to make it easy. Let’s take a look at each one, and make sure you have a successful glue up.
First, make sure that you don’t overly soak the piece or the cavity with glue. It only needs enough to coat the area completely, as well as the walls of the cavity. Anything extra will just get pushed out, or can possibly prevent the inlay from seating properly.
Also, don’t let the glue set on the piece for too long. This can cause the wood to swell, which will make the piece difficult to fit in position. If this happens, you may have to wipe it all off and wait for everything to dry before you try again.
In most cases, if you just apply a normal amount of glue, and press the piece in right away, this will be plenty to seat the inlay. Next, you have to use a clamp and caul to hold the inlay piece down while the glue dries.
This can be anything flat, like a piece of scrap wood wrapped in packing tape or waxed paper. The tape or paper will help prevent the glue from sticking to the caul, and will make sure you don’t end up gluing it to your project.
Clamp the inlay down for at least a couple hours, or whatever the manufacture of your wood glue recommends. If you’re using Titebond, you don’t have to clamp very long at all before the clue makes its initial grab.
Sand the Inlay Flush Once Dry
Whel the inlay has dried completely, take off the clamps to see what the results look like. Check it from an angle and make sure that the piece isn’t sticking out too much, and that it was glued in properly.
As long as there is at least half of the inlay thickness inside the cavity, you should be fine and you can start sanding. This is best done with the palm sander, or a block with sand paper wrapped around it by hand.
Sand carefully, and go through the different grits in order to remove material effectively, and then polish out the scratches. Take care to get the inlay perfectly flush to the surface, which is important for the look.
Once the inlay is flush to the surface, and all the scratches of been removed by sanding, you are ready to apply a finish. This type of inlay work is a real pleasure, and after you sand your first router inlay flush, I’m sure that you will be pleased with the look.
See Also: The Ultimate Guide to Sandpaper Grits
Finish Like Normal
The beauty of these types of inlays is that since you’re using wood on wood, you don’t need to take any special consideration when finishing. Your project finishes like any other wood project, and you can use any finishing product that you like.
For hand applied finishes, I recommend using a nice oil or wiping varnish. These are very easy to apply, and the product is inexpensive. You can become an expert in just a couple practice sessions, and you’ll be very happy with the look.
For spray finishes, you can’t beat furniture grade lacquer for both the protection, and the beauty that it brings out of wood. You don’t even need fancy spray equipment to use rattle can lacquer, you just have to buy a good product.
If you buy furniture grade lacquer from a good company like Mohawk, Deft, or another name brand that you recognize, the lacquer will work really well. It’s much better than the bottom shelf clear coat you get the home-improvement stores.
You can even finish larger projects with a rattle can, which is surprising most people. They have different tips that you can buy that will flow more product and in a better pattern. Use one of these with furniture grade lacquer, and you can even finish a large table top.
See Also: 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing
Your Action Assignment
Now that you know how to do router inlays the easy way, and you have all of these great tips, it’s time to take action. This is one of the most rewarding techniques in woodworking, and until you try it you won’t fully appreciate how easy it is.
Buy yourself an inlay kit online, and when it gets to your house take a look at the type of wood you have, and find a scrap for practicing. Find another nice crap for making your inlay pieces, and then get to work on a simple design.
All you need to do is create one template made in a simple shape. It doesn’t matter if it’s a circle, and oval, or anything else, just make it simple. Inlay that one shape from beginning to end, and you will be hooked on this technique.
From there, branch out to more interesting shapes, and inlay patterns that are going to require you to make several different cavities, and do several different passes. Any design that has some complexity is going to call for several different pieces.
The beauty of this technique is that you can make several cavities, and even inlay over other inlay pieces. Just because a piece is in the way, don’t let that stop you.
If you have any questions about router inlay, please post a question and I’ll be glad to answer it. Happy building.
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