Before I start, I need to issue a full-on apology to the folks at Milescraft. If you don’t know who they are, they make some really nifty router accessories that can add versatility to your setup. Trammel guides, wide bases, rapid-change bushings. Really sweet stuff. You owe it to yourself to check them out.
I was working on a project at the shop when I ran into a situation – I had a project that was beautiful, but lacked something special. Maybe an inlay. The only problem is that I have never made one before.
Within a few minutes of tweeting my dilemma, one of the reps from Milescraft offered to send me a copy of their inlay kit for use on the project.
Now, if you have ever made an inlay in a piece using a router and a pattern, it’s a pretty straightforward process. Using a 1/8” router bit and a plunge router, you will cut the recess in your workpiece and then use the same equipment to create the inlay piece from some scrap. The key is to use two different sized bushings on the router – a larger one that pushes the bit further inside the pattern when cutting the recess, and a smaller one that allows the bit further outside. The difference between the two distances is very precise, and it allows the inlay piece to lay inside the recess tightly.
The old expression is that if you practice on scrap, you are practicing on your project. To prevent this, I dutifully found a piece of milled poplar and cut a recess in it. I changed the bushing from large to small, then, I took a piece of scrap and cut the matching inlay into it… they fit very well. So far, so good.
So, I moved to make the cut on my work piece. I set up the pattern jig – an indexible insert that allows for precision placement and rotation for making repetitive cuts. I centered the jig, used the piece I wanted to fill the insert to gauge how deeply to cut, and set to work.
The cutting with a small bit is very smooth, and before long, I had the first cavity routed out. This was going to be a piece of cake.
As I set the router down, a sudden feeling of dread overcame me. Did I remember to change to the large bushing after I cut the sample?
A quick look at the router baseplate told me all I needed to know. Nope.
So, now I was stuck with an oversized recess that couldn’t be matched. TOTAL bummer. Thoughts of throwing the entire piece away entered my mind. I had to come up with a solution – and fast!
That’s when I remembered a trick someone had told me years ago – colored epoxy. I grabbed my car keys and headed to the nearest home improvement center.
Epoxy, for those who don’t know, is a two part resin and hardener that glues like nobody’s business. It’s waterproof and has the ability to fill cracks, cavities and other imperfections in wood. In fact, many woodworkers who enjoy working with mesquite swear by it. At the local home improvement center, I found the largest containers of resin and hardener I could find and opted for the 60-minute set version to allow enough time to do what I had to.
But, how would I color it? Fortunately, my smart phone was able to get reception in the store, and I was able to search for coloring epoxy. Apparently, artist acrylic colors do a decent job. I paid for the epoxy and dashed over to the local Michael’s craft store. There, in the painting section, was a small bottle of pearlescent white paint. Sold.
Back at home, I mixed the epoxy per the instructions and added about 10% of the paint to the mix. It immediately took on a richly colored hue. I poured the mix into the recess and smoothed it out with a scrap of wood. Sure, it looked like a hot mess of cake frosting, but my plan was to address this with the next step.
I let it sit overnight so it would harden, then started sanding with 100 grit paper on my random orbit sander. It took a little bit of time, but I could see it was removing the hardened epoxy. Once I began to see the clear outline of the inlay, it was nothing but good. Some more sanding, and soon, I had the piece ground down flush and it started to burnish up nicely. I changed sanding grits to 150 and then 220. The epoxy in the inlay was actually starting to glow with the finer scratch pattern.
When it came time to finish, I laid on a coat of 1# dewaxed shellac, then sanded it to 320 grit by hand to get the surface smooth. Two coats of Watco Danish oil later, and the project was done.
When you look at the inlay, you can see the color variations showing how the epoxy was poured. It’s not a monolithic looking surface by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, several people have asked if it is some kind of ivory or mother-of-pearl inlay.
You have got to love a trick like this – proving that – at least in my case – creative problem solving is a skill that helps improve woodworking.