It’s definitely been a goal to at least try some simple inlay on my first build. Every moment of building this guitar has been a learning experience, with an endless series of firsts for me. So I might as well get my feet wet now, so any mistakes I make can be more easily be justified in the name of learning.
Cutting shell and other inlay materials deserves special treatment. Although it’s pretty much been a debunked urban legend that shell dust is poisonous, the dust is still something you want to avoid breathing at all cost. And even if that wasn’t a problem, you still want all the dust cleared from your work piece so you can see what you’re doing at all times. It is common to have a special cutting surface to do the job. There are premade solutions to buy, but I think this is one of those items that just make sense to do yourself. That way it’s tailored to exactly the way you want to work.
I planned to use a piece of 1/4″ maple that I had as scrap, but needed to come up with a way to attach a vacuum to remove the dust. I’ve seen other designs which mount a hose from a dust removal system or shop vac close to the work piece. I went to Lowe’s thinking I needed a way to hook my shop vac up like this somehow. After much wandering around the store, and seeing what fit into what, I came back with a 2 1/2″ PVC elbow, and a shop vac hose diameter adapter kit.
First thing I did was to cut down the length of the PVC elbow so that it would fit my piece of maple. I thought I might have to use caulking or something to fill the gaps at the edges, but the fit was near perfect, I didn’t have to do much other than a bit of filing to get it just the way I imagined it, with the opening split between the top and bottom of the board.
Then I cut the maple, shaped it a bit, and cut a slot and a “V – combining all the features I’ve seen in other designs. I also glued a second piece of maple on the back to make it more rigid – shaping it so that the elbow would fit.
One other refinement I wanted to make was to prevent the actual work piece from getting sucked in. First I stuck a screen into the hose adapter.
But then I thought that to retrieve anything sucked in accidentally, I’d have to dissemble the hoses. Not a big deal, but maybe I could do better. So I used some thick CA glue to attach a screen to the top half of the intake:
Here’s what the final product it looks like:
Nothing left to do but to give it a spin. I decided to cut out a possible headstock design out of the few shell blanks I had. I had watched the Basic Inlay Techniques DVD by Larry Robinson, so I had some idea how to proceed. It was really quite fun, but I found I needed to use noise-canceling headphones and nature sounds to block out the shop vac noise and get to that zen-like state you need in cutting shell – veeerrrry sloooooly. I used the CA glue technique that Larry explains in the DVD to attach my templates to the shell, and many of the situations he described came up – and I knew what to do to handle them. It was well worth watching that DVD, probably saved me years of trial and error.
As Larry said in the video, you’ll get better quickly. And I did – my first cuts were pretty sloppy compared to the later ones. It took a bit of filing to smooth the edges, and get the pieces to fit together, but I started to get better at that too as I went.
Just to test out the routing part of the equation, I quickly routed out one of my MDF sample headstocks using a Dremel and and the precision base from StewMac. I definitly rushed this, so I’m not happy with the accuracy of the edges, and also MDF makes a lot of dust, which makes it hard to see what you’re doing. That’s why you practice. It looks good to me anyway.
I really enjoyed doing this, and I’d like doing it even if this was unrelated to guitar building! I’m looking forward to getting more shell blanks so I can try out some more ideas!