How to Inlay a Guitar Fretboard

By Lee Johnson
Most guitars are inlayed with pearl dots.

Inlay a guitar fretboard if you want to put a professional touch on a guitar project. Guitar inlays are basically markers either stuck into or glued onto the fretboard, which mark the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th and 21st frets. Most inlays are “mother of pearl” style, ordinarily circular in shape, and made of a pearl material. These can be bought from many suppliers, or alternatively can be cut manually using a jeweler’s saw. Learn to apply sticker inlays and routed inlays if you want to inlay your guitar’s fretboard.

Pearl Inlays

Hold the guitar neck steadily in a vise. Stick the inlays in the desired positions using dissolvable glue. Generally, inlays should be placed in the center of the fret they are marking. Be precise about the locations of the inlays, because these will be their permanent positions. Apply a few spots of dissolvable glue and put the inlays in place. Remember, most guitars have two inlays on the 12th fret, one of them 1/4 of the way down and the other 3/4 of the way down the fret.

Mark the fretboard around the inlays with a scribe. Mark the fretboard around the inlays as if you were drawing around them with a blade. This is done to show how much of the fretboard you are going to have to cut out. Be careful not to touch the side of the inlay with the blade or your hand while cutting. Do this slowly and carefully, trying to get as close to the actual outline of the pearl dot as possible. After you’ve done this, remove the inlays by dissolving the glue. Wipe the fretboard down to ensure no damage is done to the wood by the glue or dissolving chemical.

Put on a pair of goggles. Attach a pointed bit to a high-speed rotary tool. Cut just inside the lines you made with the scribe very carefully, following them as closely as possible. Stop cutting if you can’t see the line at any point, because precision is important. Only cut 0.078 to 0.11 inch down into the wood. Cut right around to make a deeper groove that matches your scribed line.

Cut down inside the markings with a router. Only route out slightly less than the depth of the pearl inlays, to ensure you don’t cut too far. Route out the center of each circle and then attach a ball nose cutter. This is a cutting device with a small, circular end. Use this to neaten up the routing you’ve done, going around the circle and removing any excess wood. Make the holes slightly deeper if you wish.

Put a few spots of wood glue into the inlay holes. Press the inlays into the holes you’ve created so that the wood glue sticks them in place. Stick all of your inlays in place. If the top of the inlay comes up above the surface of the fretboard, sand it down so it sits flush. Fill in any gaps at the side of the inlay with wood glue. Sand the surface smooth using 600-grit sandpaper.

Stickers

Rub your fingernail over the surface of an entire sticker. This ensures that the design isn’t stuck on the backing paper. After thoroughly rubbing the sticker, remove the backing paper. This should leave you with a clear sheet with your inlay pattern on it.

Put the sticker in the desired position. Remember that guitar inlays are traditionally applied to the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th and 21st frets. Larger stickers may be required for the lower frets if you are using an intricate design. Put the sticker in place and then rub over it with a fingernail or a pick.

Peel the clear tape away from the inlay design. Do this carefully to ensure that the design stays in place. Repeat this procedure for the remaining frets.

About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005. His articles have appeared in "Sandman" magazine, the "Crewe Chronicle" and on the website Beyond Hollywood. He is primarily a music journalist but has written on many subjects. Johnson has a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University.