Ebony and silver—black and white—are
a stunning combination. The architects Charles
and Henry Greene, masters of Arts & Crafts detail,
used these materials to create intricate inlay for their
furniture. They also used abalone, mother of pearl,
lapis lazuli and other precious materials; but I’m
particularly drawn to the simplicity of silver and ebony.
I’d like to show you how to make this kind of
inlay using a design found on a set of three tables
the Greenes created for the Freeman A. Ford house
in Pasadena. In this pattern, flowing organic “vines"
of silver wire are balanced by linear ebony strips and
surrounded by silver dots. When I built one of these
tables, I discovered that these designs—using just
two materials—are a good entry-level introduction
to the world of Arts & Crafts inlay. I’ll be showing
you how to make the inlay on one of the table’s legs.
This inlay may look quite complicated at first
glance, but the techniques used to make it are very
simple. To create the recesses for the inlay, you’ll need
a Dremel rotary tool with a plunge base and a few
small bits. You don’t need much material—just a
couple of pieces of jeweler’s silver wire and a little bit
of ebony (see Sources, below).
I traced this design from a drawing by Charles
Greene, but you shouldn’t be limited by his patterns.
Once you’ve seen how the technique works, you can
create your own ebony and silver inlay design and
add a unique touch to any special project, like a
jewelry box or picture frame.
Draw the pattern
Work with loose pieces of your project,
before they’re glued together. Trace
the inlay’s pattern (Fig. A) using
dressmaker’s tracing paper (Photo 1).
This paper comes in several colors; blue
shows well on mahogany. You could also
use black carbon paper, but the lines
may be hard to see on dark woods. Trace
the entire pattern all at once.
Rout the curves
I use dead-soft round Argentium silver
wire for the vine inlay. It’s sold by the
foot (see Sources). I ordered 4' of 14 ga.
wire and 8' of 16 ga. wire for all of the
inlay on this table.
The easiest way to cut grooves for
the wire is to use a Dremel with a plunge
base, routing freehand (Photo 2). You
could also carve grooves by hand using
narrow carving chisels, which is probably
how the original inlay was made.
If you use a Dremel, you’ll need
an appropriately sized end mill with a
1/8" shank (see Sources). The goal is to
make the groove slightly narrower than
the wire. I use 16 ga. wire for the vine
sections of the inlay, which requires a
3/64" end mill. Rout or carve the curves
to a depth of 1/16".
Rout the strips
Use the Dremel to rout the stopped
grooves for the ebony strips (Photo 3).
You’ll need 1/16", 3/32" and 1/8" dia. end
mills with 1/8" shanks. If the groove you
want to make is wider than one of your
end mills, cut the groove in two passes.
Use a fence to ensure that the grooves
are straight and parallel to the edge. Rout
the grooves 1/8" deep. Square the ends of
the grooves with a small chisel.
The center strip in this pattern steps
down in width at both ends. You’ll
create this shape by using all three bits.
Start with the 1/16" bit first, to make the
narrowest groove. Rout the full length
of the entire strip. Remove this bit from
your router and install the 3/32" bit.
Without changing the fence setting, rout
a shorter groove for the middle-width
step on the bottom end of the pattern.
Finally, rout the widest groove using
a 1/8" bit. This process keeps all the
grooves centered, so the steps between
the strips will be equal on both sides.
Drill the dots
Use 14 and 16 ga. wire for the round
dots that are sprinkled around the vines.
Make holes for the dots using miniaturesized
drill bits in the Dremel (Photo 4,
see Sources). Some of the dots in the
pattern are oblong; create these holes by
angling the bit.
Install the vines
Glue in all the silver wire pieces before
adding the ebony strips. You’ll file and
sand the wire so that it will be slightly
lower than the ebony, so it’s best not to
have any ebony in the way.
To try out the process and avoid
wasting silver, I highly recommend
making a small sample inlay on a piece
of scrap. Copy part of the actual pattern
in order to practice making the bends
used in the design.
Before cutting the wire into
short lengths, fold a piece of 220 grit
sandpaper in half and pull each piece of
wire through the sandpaper. Roughing
up the wire will help the glue stick to it.
Pre-bend the silver wire to fit each
groove (Photo 5). The wire is too stiff to
bend with your fingers; use needle-nose
pliers instead. Cut the wire with diagonal
pliers. If one end of a vine runs into one
of the straight grooves, cut the wire a
bit extra-long, so that it extends into the
groove. You’ll trim off the extra length later
on. Sand and polish the ends of the wires
that don’t terminate in a groove.
Next, apply a coat of wax resist to the
face of the workpiece. This prevents any
glue from becoming embedded in the
wood, which will spoil the finish. I use
Waxilit (see Sources), but you could also
use a silicone-free wax, such as Johnson’s
Paste Wax. Avoid getting wax in the inlay
grooves; glue won’t adhere to it.
You’re ready to install the wire.
First, drip a small amount of thick
cyanoacrylate (CA) glue into one of the
grooves (see Sources). I’ve found that CA
glue works better than 5-min. epoxy—it
sets faster and seems to stick better—
but you must work fast; CA glue sets up
almost immediately. Place the wire in the
groove, then lightly tap the wire with a
block and hammer (Photo 6).
Shorten the ends of the wire that
extend into the straight grooves using
a rotary diamond-impregnated disk
chucked into a cordless drill (Photo 7,
see Sources). Run the drill at low speed to avoid generating too much heat. Silver wire is an excellent conductor and heats up very rapidly. Overheating the wire will burn the wood or cause the glue to let go.
Install the dots
To make the dots, apply a drop of CA glue to the end of a length of wire. Embed the wire into a hole (Photo 8). After the glue sets, snip off the wire about 1/8" above the surface. Repeat this process until all the holes are filled.
File, sand and polish
Next, file the ends of the dots so they’re about 1/64" or so proud of the wood’s surface (Photo 9). Protect adjacent pieces of wire and wood with a layer of blue painter’s tape. The vine pieces should be about 1/64" high, too. If any are too tall, file them as well.
Leaving the tape in place, start sanding all of the silver wire with 220 grit paper. Continue up to 600 grit. Sand across the vines, rather than along their length. The goal is to round over the wire, not flatten it. After the 600-grit sanding, remove the tape and use a nonwoven abrasive, such as Mirlon, to remove any scratches from the silver’s surface (see Sources). I buy Mirlon in a pack that contains three grits, and use all three.
After sanding and polishing, blow off the wood with compressed air to remove any silver dust. Lightly clean the wood with mineral spirits to remove the wax resist. When you’re done, look closely into the wood's pores to ensure there are no small filings of silver left behind (they’ll produce shiny spots under a finish).
Make ebony strips
Make the strips using your tablesaw (Photo 10). I use a thin-kerf blade (see Sources) and a zero-clearance insert. To prevent binding, I’ve added a splitter into the insert’s slot (see Sources). Start with 3/4" thick stock that’s at least 12" long and rip strips that are about .001" thicker than the grooves they’ll fit into. Rip extra pieces of each thickness—you may need them.
Next, rip the strips 1/4" wide. At this width, they’ll be much easier to handle and install and less prone to breakage. Use sandpaper to taper the sides of each strip. Tapering makes the strips easier to start in the grooves.
Cut the strips to length using a
fine-tooth hand saw, such as a Japanese
Dozuki, and glue them into the grooves
(Photo 11). For the stepped grooves,
start with the outer (narrowest) pieces
first. Cut them to length and glue them
in place. Work your way from the ends
to the center, cutting and gluing pieces as
you go. Bevel the ends of each step with
sandpaper, so they appear rounded.
Once the glue is dry, place tape around
the strips to protect the surrounding
wood and silver. Level the strips with a
block plane (Photo 12). Plane until the
strips are within 1/32" of the surface—
slightly higher than the silver.
Sand the strips by hand. Go
perpendicular to their direction to
create a humped shape, as you did with
the vines. Start with 220 grit paper and
continue up to 600 grit. Finish with
Mirlon, again using all three grits. Like
the silver, ebony will take a very high
polish. They’re made for each other!
Fig. A: Greene and Greene Leg Inlay Pattern
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Trace the inlay’s
the wood using
2. Rout or carve the
curved lines of
the pattern using
a very small bit.
These grooves will
receive a silver
3. Rout the straight
lines in the
a fence. I use a
tool mounted in
a plunge base.
4. Drill small holes
to create the dots
in the pattern.
Some of the holes
are angled to
make an oblong
5. Pre-bend and cut the silver wire with needle-nose pliers to fit the pattern. Put a small amount of thick CA glue into one of the grooves.
6. Tap the wire into its groove using a block and hammer.
7. Grind the ends of the wire flush with the grooves using a diamond cutoff wheel.
8. Glue the end of a short piece of wire in each hole, then snip the wire off about 1/8" above the surface.
9. File down the
ends of the wire.
Protect the wood
10. Saw ebony strips
that are slightly
thicker than the
their sides using
11. Glue the strips
in the grooves.
With a tapered fit,
the strips must be
tapped in place.
12. Plane the strips
down to within
1/32" of the
them with fine
paper until the
ebony glows like
the silver wire.