Like veneer, many woodworkers have never tried inlays. While many commercial inlays are available, I always make my own to capture the less than perfect nature of the originals. Inlay is a catch all term, for any kind of decoration cut into the surface, but inlays fall into 3 major categories stringing, bandings and paterae. Stringing is one or more layers of lineal strips of wood let into the surface. On this tea caddy, the decoration on the drawer, the side and back panels, are stringing. Bandings are an inlay of geometric shapes in a lineal pattern. These can range from simple patterns (like those on this project) to very complex patterns made from many contrasting species. On the chest, the rope like decoration around the oval, and the band above the skirt are bandings. Finally there is the paterae, these are usually pictorial but also take the form of fans, ovals, and pinwheels. The eagle and fan on the caddy are examples of paterae. With the possible exception of the eagle, all the inlays on this caddy are quite simple to make and inlay, but they require great care and precision and therefore are somewhat time consuming.
The grooves for the straight sections are cut with an end mill. The radiuses corners are done with a combination hand and power tools. First layout the arcs with a circle template and carefully scribe it with a sharp knife. Then using an adjustable double bladed knife I had made, I scribe the other side of the inlay groove, keeping one blade in the already scribed line.
This knife has a tendency to wander so I use it with a light touch and rescribe it with a regular knife; I then remove the bulk of the waste with a 1/32” end mill guiding the router free hand. Go back with the knife and remove the waste with an eyeglass screwdriver (crude but effective). A tight radius like these requires pre-bending the stringing. I do this by misting the stringing and bending it over a hot mandrel with a radius the same or tighter than the desired bend. A piece of stainless steel .002” shim stock acting as a pressure band, will keep breakage to a minimum, but plan on loosing a few. Also cutting the stringing for the radius portions wider than it is thick (i.e. 1/16” by 3/32”) makes the bending easier. Brush some hide glue in the groove; press the stringing it place, square cutting it where it intersects the straight sections with a razor blade, and heat with an iron to liquefy the glue.
The ends will want to spring back so I hold them in place push pins. When the glue on the curved sections has cured, miter their ends with a 1/16” chisel. The straight sections are mitered with a chisel, by eye, using the reflection on the back side of the chisel to gauge the proper angle. The stringing on the lid is placed over the joint between the sides and the lid to keep that joint from telegraphing through the veneer.
Adhere the other sandwich veneer, as before.. When this has cured, plane the edge straight and rip off strips about 3/64” thick on the bandsaw.
Gluing in the rope banding is somewhat challenging task. The banding being wider than it is thick, has a tendency to twist as it is bent to follow the oval. Begin by brushing some hide glue in the groove. Place the inlay in the groove starting at a point on one of the less curved sides of the oval and heat the glue forcing the banding in place. As you come to the sharp portion of the curve, use the iron to both heat the glue and the banding, slowly relaxing it, so it can be bent around the oval.
Keep a few clamps and blocks handy to hold the banding, overcoming its tendency to twist. Let the banding over lap at the starting point and use a razor blade to cut a scarf joint. The pattern in all likelihood won’t match at the joint, but the scarf joint will be inconspicuous. On the front oval, the keyhole shield will hide the joint so no care has to be taken here.
The eagle paterae is the focal point of the box and considerable effort should be expended to insure its proper appearance. I began the process by scanning a photo of an original eagle into my c.1805 HP laptop computer and using a program to blow it up to the proper size. This was printed out and glued to a stack that contained a background veneer and a veneer that will become the eagle, sandwiched between two pieces of 1/8” plywood.
The edges are nailed together, and the nails cut off and peened over, making sure the heads are flush, so the stack will move freely over the scroll saw table. Using a veneer nail as a drill, drill a starting hole in the shield area and thread the blade through the hole. I use 2/0 blades, these have proven durable and small enough to produce a fine inlay. I removed the hold down foot on my saw, as it was just in the way, and I fitted an auxiliary table with a replaceable zero clearance throat. I also use a foot switch leaving my hands free to hold the work when starting up the saw. Before starting, sweep the floor around your work area, so that when you inevitably drop a piece of the eagle, you have at least a chance of finding it. Also have a cup to place the pieces in as they are sawn free, some are quite small and easily lost.
With a relaxed stance, saw out the eagle, carefully planning your cuts so that the kerfs used to form feather details are made while the pieces are still attached to the stack. On the body of the eagle if you get off the line the whole world won’t come to an end, but on the head it is very easy to have your eagle end up looking like Foghorn Leghorn ( I, I said Foghorn Leghorn). The stars are where the cutting must be particularly well executed. Drill the starting hole, at the apex of one of the stars. The goal is to have the stars come out as one piece, but with the narrowest “bridge” between the individual stars as possible.
Next comes the sand shading which will bring the eagle to life.
To achieve the evenly graduated shading you’ll need fine grained sand. I use the sand sold as a paint additive. The process is simplicity itself, you just stick the piece in the sand and check frequently until the desired degree of shading is achieved. The only pitfall is letting the edges char, which will ruin them, but this is avoided by always checking the pieces as they “cook”.
With the sawing and shading finished, its time to glue the pieces back together. The eagle is glued to a backing veneer. Pick a backing veneer that is stable such as ribbon strip mahogany orienting its grain at right angles to the eagles veneer and spread a layer of hide glue on it, and quickly place the background into the glue. Use a very sharp pointed knife to spear the pieces and stick them in place. You may have to spray the eagle as it is assembled to control curling, as the veneer absorbs moisture from the glue. You may also have to hit it with an iron when the glue gels. Warm a couple of blocks in the oven and with a sheet of aluminum foil over the eagle clamp the eagle between the blocks. Allow the blocks to cool and remove the eagle to check on the alignment. Because of the kerf, there will be a small gap between the pieces, so check these gaps to see if they are even and adjust as necessary, heating with an iron to allow for their repositioning. When you are satisfied with the looks, fasten the eagle to a board with push pins and let it dry overnight, If the eagle weren‘t fastened to a board it would warp as it dried.
Use a plastic putty knife to force a mixture of mahogany dust and hide glue into the gaps left by the scroll saw kerf. Saw the eagle to an oval and with a fine cut file carefully refine the edges for smooth even shape. Wrap the eagle with a strip of veneer using white glue to hold it in place. The veneer should be able to follow the oval without heating, but if not proceed as was done with the stringing. Hold the wrapping in place with push pins, driven in a board covered with tape, so the inlay won’t stick to it. Have the joint in the wrap, fall on one of the less curved sides of the oval. Use a scrap piece of the wrapping veneer, as a caul, and use a push pin to force the joint closed. When the glue has cured, use a fine cut file to clean up the edge and to put a slight back bevel to the edge of the oval. This will help to insure a tight fit when it is inlaid. Also, be sure to sand off any glue on the back to for a good glue bond when it is inlaid.
Great care must be used when setting the depth of the inlay mortise, as the thickness of the veneer leaves little room for error. A warmed block and aluminum foil is used to clamp the eagle in place; here the block must be quite hot, as it must heat through the two layers of veneer that form the eagle.
The shield is made from a stack of 1/16” contrasting woods, in this case holly and cardinal, but more typically holly and black dyed veneer. A 1/16” thick strip is sawn off this stack and cut to a slight angle to get the rake to the shield. The stripes are added to a piece of black dyed veneer, that forms the "field" of the shield and are glued to a piece of backing veneer. The shield is sawn to shape and inlaid. The last step on the eagle is to form the eye; this is done with a punch for the eye and a knife for the brow. The same mahogany dust/ glue mixture as used before, is forced into the eye to highlight it.
Start by sand shading pieces of holly. Plane the shaded edge to where the shading is as uniform as possible on each ray. With a compass draw a template of the fan a piece of scrap wood. Place shaded strip on the template and with a chisel or plane blade cut it to size. Repeat this for each ray, holding them together with veneer tape. The concaved black sections are cut with an appropriate sized gouge and they too are held in place with veneer tape.
The rough fan is glued to a backing piece of veneer, and like the eagle it held to a board while the glue dries with push pins. Saw the fan to shape and file the edges to get a true circle. The wrap is a piece of 1/16” holly veneer, bent as was done with the other stringing. The fan is inlaid later after the apron and its banding are in place. The keyhole shield is simply sawn and filed to shape and inlaid.
The rope line inlays around the edges of the top, around the lids, and the vertical edges of the chest are sawn from the same blank as the rope banding to a thickness of .105” and then ripped to this same width, resulting in a square cross section. These are then glued into a 3/32” square rabbet, cut with the router in a climb cut fashion to prevent tearout. This particular inlay tried my patience like no other I’ve done before. They are quite fragile until glued in place, and working with such small pieces and hide glue, leaves your hands a sticky mess. Brush glue on the rabbet, put a piece of the rope in place, heat with an iron, and quickly secure it in place with a piece of blue masking tape. You can only work on one or two pieces at a time, before having to reheat. The miters were cut with a razor saw/miter box combination. As noted the sections are fragile so the sawing must be done gently. On the front and back of the lid the rope works out from the center in a mirror image pattern. The bottom edge of the top has the same pattern, but here the pieces are ripped wider, to allow them to overhang the case and are formed to a bull nose. This was the straw that broke the camels back. I installed this inlay after the top had been dyed and given one coat of shellac, so the glue would be easy to clean up where the rope projects past the face. Because of the opposing slopes of the rope, it was impossible to plane straight across, so I had to file them flush at the miters and the transition point in the center, and then plane the rest. The slope also prevented the using a scratch stock to form the bull nose, so it had to be shaped with a combination of a file, chisel and sandpaper. Protect the already partially finished sides of the top with making tape as you shape the bull nose. I kept the sanding to a minimum to avoid a mushy look. Despite my whining, the finished rope inlays were worth the effort.