[ inlays ]

The art of mixing different woods for decorative effect is not new. Artefacts found in the tomb of Tutankhamun show that the ancient Egyptians were highly skilled craftsmen who used many techniques that are often guessed to be more modern, like for example veneering and inlay work. Inlay work requires considerable accuracy, and quality tools. From surviving Egyptian models and decorative art we know that by around 2500 BC most woodworking tools already existed, the notable exception being the hand plane, which is first recorded in the writings of Homer (around 600 BC).

As more sophisticated materials were developed, cutting edges progressed from stone and flint to a rather impure form of copper, which was much harder than pure copper. This was the state of technology in the time of Tutankhamun. As time went on, copper was replaced with bronze - an alloy of copper and tin. Mankind has always concerned itself with creating better weapons, so the tin mines of Cornwall had taken on a strategic importance by Roman times.

Inlay and marquetry are quite different. Marquetry is usually cut on a saw, assembled into a whole sheet like a jigsaw puzzle, and finally pressed onto a substrate in one go. Inlay on the other hand, can be partly assembled, or set in piece by piece. There are very many different styles. In Northern Italy, for example, the style of Intarsia was developed during the twelfth century. It covers a whole range of decorative techniques, but by the fifteenth century inlays were assembled into complicated pictures by cutting into solid wood with a long-handled knife. The handle would rest on the shoulder, which gave a pivot point for better control while cutting. The most common form of inlay is worked as follows : the inlay is first cut to the shape that is required, then laid onto the surface. Mark round the outline very accurately, then cut an exact copy of the shape into the surface The height of the inlay is decided by the space cut for it, not by the inlay itself. It is usually fitted oversized, then reduced to match the surrounding level. Inlays fitted into edges, like the bindings of a guitar, can be left oversized all round and shaped down after gluing.

Modern inlays for instruments are made from a huge variety of materials, like wood, mother-of-pearl (the lining of a sea shell), abalone (also the lining of a shell) and various metals. Since makers wish to blend shapes and colours of their own design, it is common for luthiers to assemble their own inlays. It is often easiest to assemble decorative inlays into blocks, then cut them down into strips etc. Today, the channel for the inlays is often cut using a router - a high speed cutting tool that can generate a huge variety of profiles. Even though part of the process can be mechanised, it is still a very skilful operation.

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