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Featured Luthier: Jason Simpson

The Inlay Process


Guitar making is art at its best! Art is about creating something unique that speaks to the heart, broadens the mind and stirs the soul. It stimulates the senses and brings delight to the one who sees its beauty and ponders its meaning! What makes guitar building special is that the end product is not only something that is seen but something that is felt and heard as well.

Inevitably, in every work of art there shines a reflection of the heart of the artist, an expression of who he is! When I consider the astounding beauty of the world we live in, the complex design and order of the universe, I see the reflection of God, the master builder. How beautiful He must be! It is in Him that I find my greatest inspiration for all that I do and the possibilities for expression are as vast as that of the painter with a blank canvas.

For the luthier, there are several ways in which he can express his creativity. First there's the sound! What types of emotion does he want to provoke in the player, what style of music will it be suited for? Then there's function! How will the instrument feel and how will it perform? Then you have form. What will be its shape, contour or style?

Last but not least you have visual detail! What wood choices, textures, colors, and decorative appointments will be chosen and how will they compliment each other?

For this article, I want to focus specifically on the art of inlay and the process involved. To do this, I will share with you my most elaborate work to date. Here's how it came to be!

The Passion Guitar

About a year ago, I went to see the movie The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson. As I watched, I became captivated by Mel's directing abilities and artistic expression in the film. As a Christian, it seemed like a wonderful idea to express my own faith and love for Christ by building a guitar that told the same story. So, I put aside all other projects and began designing the "Passion Guitar." I wanted this guitar to be exceptional, something that would be breathtakingly beautiful and in some small way, reflect the beauty of God. I also wanted to capture the gravity and severity of the Crucifixion that it might impact the hearts of those who saw the instrument. The suffering of Christ was unspeakably brutal and ugly, yet at the same time- the most profound and beautiful act of love. So, my goal was to stir up many different emotions through the guitar's sound, design and appointments. From the start, I knew that part of that goal would be accomplished through the use of inlay.

The first step in getting the ball rolling was to decide on what image to actually inlay. I really wanted something that would be lifelike, multidimensional and dramatic! I purchased the photo book from the movie hoping to find something that I could use. I find it best to use photographs as a template when trying to render a realistic piece. After much consideration, I chose the image of Christ being nailed to the cross for the fretboard.

This image seemed to meet all the criteria I was looking for. The picture was long enough to stretch down most of the neck and it had the dimensional perspective as well as dramatic effect that I was looking for. Using tracing paper and a mechanical pencil, I traced all the detail that was visible through the paper in order to have a good template from which to work.

One thing that I had to consider at this point was copyright infringement. So before any cutting began, I wrote a letter to Icon Productions requesting permission to duplicate the image in pearl. I had originally wanted to do an exact copy of the photo but, at the time, they were not licensing the use of the photo, at least not for guitar builders. So, I decided to change the image by removing some elements and adding others in order not to step on any toes. For example, in the photo, it was Jesus' feet that were being nailed to the cross not His hand. I added the arm of the soldier and the piercing spike. Coincidentally, to create a template for the soldier's hand, I took a picture of my own hand holding a large marker and traced that picture.

I really wasn't trying to copy Mel, I just didn't have any thing else to go by. Anyway, another example would be the ropes around His wrists which I added for a more dramatic effect as well as extra color. Finally, because of the taper of the fretboard and the foreshortening of Jesus' body in the photo, I reversed the image so that it would taper along with the fretboard. Then, with the help of a copy machine, I reduced the size of the drawing for the best fit and made several copies.

Once I had the template exactly as I wanted it, it was time to start cutting the pearl and wood. As a general rule, I like to use as many different materials as possible to accentuate color, contrast and texture. For example, I used figured Brazilian rosewood for Jesus' hair and beard because of the way its reddish brown color, iridescence and wavy grain closely resemble hair.

For the ropes around His wrists, I used maple which made for a nice bold contrast against the koa cross. The spike and metal bands around the ends of the cross were made of black mother of pearl because it seemed most like metal in appearance. Altogether, I used five different woods for the inlay and three different types of pearl.

Before I actually started cutting, I had to figure out where to position the image on the fretboard and locate exactly where each fret would intersect the picture. Due to the large size of the project and the relatively small size of pearl blanks (approx. 1-2") the overall image had to be made up several pieces of pearl.

These pieces were cut to fit the width between each fret so that there would be no visible joints in the pearl once the neck was fretted. After the pieces had been cut to size, they were temporarily attached to a thin veneer of wood serving to keep the pieces together. The paper template was then cut out with an Exacto knife and glued to the pearl using spray adhesive. Then the cutting began! I do all cutting by hand using a jeweler's saw. The process is fairly simple and just a matter of following the lines on the paper. It does take a little finesse, however, because the blades are quite small and easy to break!

After the pearl had been successfully cut, I used a small file to smooth and shape the edges getting it just right in preparation for the inlay process. Then, I temporarily attached the pearl to the unradiused & unslotted fretboard and scribed a line around it using a sharp metal scribe. This would serve as my guide when routing the channel for the inlay. To make the lines more visible, I filled them with white paint and scraped away the excess leaving behind a fine white line. The fretboard was then ready to be routed! For routing, I used a DremelŽ tool and router base along with several carbide bits in different sizes.

The depth of the router cut must be slightly less than the thickness of the pearl. This leaves the pearl slightly higher than the fretboard once glued in. It is important for the inlay to be slightly raised because otherwise, if you cut the channel too deep, the pearl would be recessed below the fretboard surface and you would have to sand the wood down to be level with the pearl; that's not an option.

After the channel had been cut, it was time to inlay the pearl. I like to use black Super GlueŽ to affix the pearl because it bonds well to both wood and pearl. It also cures fairly quickly which keeps the project moving along with little down time. The black color fills in any gaps that may exist around the pearl and makes the work appear flawless! So, I very liberally filled the bottom of the channel with glue. Less is more doesn't apply here! The idea is to have the glue squeeze out into all the cracks and gaps as you press the pearl into position.

After the glue had thoroughly dried, it was necessary for the excess pearl and glue to be sanded down smooth so that the fretboard could be slotted, bound and radiused. After the fretboard was radiused, it was then sanded with successive finer grits of sandpaper, up to 600 grit.

The inlay at this point was almost finished but one important step remained. It was time to add details such as fingers, eyes, nose, mouth and the cuts on His body. This was done by engraving the pearl or wood with an engraving tool.

Due to the hardness of the pearl, it takes time, finesse and extreme care as it's very easy to slip and create a groove where it doesn't belong! Once all the engraving was completed, the grooves were then filled with enamel paint to make them stand out nicely. The colors were selected based on their purpose and the desired effect.

Once the paint had thoroughly dried, the fingerboard had to be sanded one last time with 800-grit paper to remove the excess paint. It's not necessary to use that fine of grit if the inlay will be covered under a clear coat finish as on the headstock, for example. Due to the fact that fingerboards do not have a finish, however, the finer the grit, the better the inlay looks! Now the fingerboard inlay was complete and ready for fretting!

As you can see, inlay is indeed a wonderful art form that is not extremely complicated. It just takes time, patience and a little practice. I hope you have enjoyed learning about the process as well as the "Passion Guitar!"

The crown of thorns is inlay work as well, made from abalone pearl. If you notice, the thorns actually pierce the sound hole binding. The crown is made of 20 individual pieces of pearl and took a total of three days to design, cut and inlay!

To learn more about Jason Simpson and his craft, please see his website at:

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