Create your own inlay banding and be on your way to adding unique and striking visual accents to your work.
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Photo of inlay banding

I often incorporate inlay banding in "serious" work, such as reproduction pieces, but I also use it to have some fun and give a project a fancy detail. Following these instructions, you can create your own inlay banding and be on your way to adding unique and striking visual accents to your work.

Start with a gluing jig

Creating banding involves cutting small strips and pieces, and gluing them into blanks called packets. You then cut thin strips from a packet and combine them with other thin solid woods or veneers to form patterned strips of inlay. A simple shop-made gluing jig and clamping caul help align the packet parts, assuring the symmetry of the pattern. I use 3⁄4" melamine-coated particleboard for my jig so glue squeeze-out won't adhere the packets to the jig. 

To make the jig and caul, cut one 3×24" piece and two 2-1⁄4" ×24" melamine pieces. Screw a narrow piece to the bottom of the wider one, creating an L, below. Screw a 24" length of scrap lumber to the back of the remaining piece to create a T-shape caul for clamping the packets in the jig.

Photo of gluing jig
The melamine faces of the jig and caul resist glue. Countersink the screwheads in the caul so they sit below the caul surface.
Photo of inlay

Earn your stripes

This classic design of parallel contrasting bands, above, typically uses holly and dyed black veneer. I substituted less-expensive 8/4 maple for holly. While not quite as light-colored as holly, the maple still contrasts nicely with the black veneer.

From the maple, rip a 3⁄16"-wide strip and two 1⁄32"-wide strips. Then cut four pieces of veneer, below

Photo of black veneers being cut using maple as a guide

Dry-assemble the packet, stacking layers in this order: 1⁄32" maple, two layers of black veneer, 3⁄16" maple, two additional layers of black veneer, and finally 1⁄32" maple, below

Photo of caliper measuring packet width.

Using a glue roller, apply to the inside face of an outer maple layer an even, edge-to-edge coat of glue, below. Stack a veneer piece on top, align the edges, and continue adding glue and stacking until you have all the layers in place. 

Photo of wax paper under strip while gluing
Waxed paper catches any glue drips when applying glue to the packet layers.
Photo of packet edge against jig surface
Press the edge of the packet against the jig surface to help align the pieces.

Place the packet in the gluing jig, above. Then, clamp the caul to the jig with the melamine surface against the packet, below. Start in the middle and work your way to the ends. Wipe off any squeeze-out, and leave clamped for several hours.

Photo of multiple clamps on packet.
Use enough clamps to get even pressure along the full length of the packet. This ensures uniform width and prevents voids in the completed banding.

After the glue dries, the packet should easily separate from the caul and jig. If not, help it along with a putty knife.

True up one edge of the packet with a hand plane or at the jointer. If using the jointer, take a very shallow pass of 1⁄32" or less. It may take several passes.

To cut the packet into banding strips, set your bandsaw fence 1⁄8" from the blade. Place the packet's jointed face against the fence and start ripping strips, below. The packet should yield about 13–15 inlay strips.

Photo of bandsaw cutting strips.
The bandsaw makes quick work of cutting the banding strips. Keep even pressure toward the fence to maintain consistent thickness.
Photo of inlay

It's hip to alternate squares

For this pattern, start with two pieces of black veneer, two pieces of 1⁄32"-thick maple, and one piece each of 1⁄4"-thick maple and cherry. All should be about 2" wide.

Start by ripping the 1⁄4" maple and cherry into strips the same as their thickness (1⁄4"). Edge-glue them, below, so you have maple on one edge of the glue-up, and cherry on the other. When applying glue to small assemblies such as this, I always think, "Thin to win." In other words, don't starve the joint, but also don't flood it with glue.

Photo of strips pressed to melamine during gluing
Press the strips to a piece of melamine particleboard or waxed paper while applying clamps. Spring clamps easily grip the thin workpieces.

After the glue dries, use a thickness planer to take off just enough from each face to get them flat and to finished thickness of about 3⁄16". A drum sander also works well. 

Photo of curling with auxiliary fence and stop block.
Cut the blocks using a miter gauge with an auxiliary fence and a stopblock clamped to the fence in front of the blade.

At the tablesaw, crosscut the cherry/maple blank into 2" lengths, above. Then, begin assembling the packet by gluing one piece of 1⁄16" maple to a piece of black veneer. Add the maple/cherry blanks edge to edge, below. Top this with another layer of black veneer and then the last layer of 1⁄16" maple. Clamp the packet in the gluing jig.

Photo showing gluing with alternating strips.
When gluing down the maple/cherry blanks, make sure to maintain the alternating pattern.

With the glue dry, joint the narrow face, as before. Take a shallow pass, as you will be sending end grain over the jointer. You also can use a hand plane—I recommend a low-angle block plane.

Photo of sawtooth inlay

Now, saw a sawtooth 

For this pattern, cut two blanks each of  1⁄32"-thick maple and walnut, and one each of 1⁄4"-thick maple and walnut, all 2" wide.

To cut the 45° angles, make a simple bandsaw sled, as seen below. Start with a 6×10" piece of MDF. Cut a hardwood runner that slides easily in the bandsaw miter slot without any wiggle. Glue the runner to the bottom of the sled square to the back edge of the sled. Then, attach a fence 1" from the back of the sled. 

Photo of sled guided by runner. in miter gauge slot.
A sled guided by a runner in the miter-gauge slot helps you cut pieces of consistent size and with identical angles.

Using an accurate triangle, tilt the bandsaw table 45° to the blade and lock it. Turn on the saw and move the sled forward until the sled fence just touches the blade. Turn off the saw. 

Using the sled, cut a 1"-long piece from either the 1⁄4"-thick maple or walnut blank, and glue it to the sled as a stopblock, below. Nest the angled end of one 1⁄4"-thick blank against the stop, make a cut, flip the piece over, and repeat until you have about 2" or so of the blank left. Repeat with the other blank.

Photo showing gluing with alternating strips.
Position the stopblock so the point on the top edge touches the near edge of the blade kerf.

To glue up the packet, screw one of the 2" cutoffs from a triangle blank to the gluing jig as a stop. Apply glue to one edge of a triangle piece and set the unglued edge against the stop. Continue gluing alternating species, working quickly, as the PVA glue sets up fast, below. After getting about 18‑20" of triangles glued up, set the caul in place and lightly clamp it. Tap the other offcut against the open end of the assembly to help drive the triangles together and tighten up the glue lines. Remove the caul, screw the second offcut in place, clamp the caul back in place, and set the assembly aside to dry.

Photo of brushing glue on outer edge of material.
Have your triangles sorted and nearby for quick assembly. Brush glue onto the outer edge of a triangle, and press it against the previous one, alternating maple and walnut.

 After the glue dries, flatten the faces of the triangle packet using a piece of 100-grit sandpaper glued to a scrap of MDF. Complete the packet by gluing on the walnut  face a layer of 1⁄16" maple, then 1⁄16" walnut, above. On the opposite (maple) face, glue on the walnut layer first, then the maple. After the glue sets, remove, joint, and cut banding as with the other packets.

Strike up the banding

Photo of piece of banding used to set depth.
Use a piece of the banding to set the router depth of cut. Set the depth-stop rod so the banding won't quite fit into the gap.

Inlaying banding into a project couldn't be easier, but the square and sawtooth patterns require careful layout (see Cutting corners, below). For any inlay pattern, set up your trim router with a 1⁄4" downcut spiral bit and an edge guide. Then, set the depth stop, above, to rout slightly shallower than the thickness of the banding. Set the edge guide to rout a groove the desired distance from the edge of the workpiece. Make a pass in your workpiece and a piece of scrap. Then, to widen the groove to fit the inlay, use the banding as a gauge on your scrap piece, below. Adjust the edge guide to rout to the line and test your setup on the scrap before you rout your finished piece. Chisel the corners square.

Photo of marking knife against edge of banding.
Press one edge of the banding against the outside wall of the routed channel. With a marking knife, mark along the other edge of the banding.

Glue the banding in place, clamping a caul over it. After the glue dries, trim the banding flush to the surface using a low-angle block plane or sander, below

Photo of low angle block plain making banding flush with surface.
A sharp low-angle block plane skewed to the banding quickly brings the inlay flush with the workpiece. Sand with 220-grit sandpaper, if needed.

This just barely scratches the surface of the designs you can create. To fire your imagination, use these same techniques with different wood species and see the sidebar, below, or search online for additional patterns. 

Cutting corners

Inlay with a linear pattern, such as the stripes inlay, can be mitered to any length, and the pattern continues around corners uninterrupted. Sequential patterns, such as the sawtooth and squares, require specific lengths to provide a full figure at the corners, below. Determine those lengths from the inlay itself. For example, if you have an 8×12" box lid, and you want the inlay 1⁄2" from each edge, the ideal inlay lengths would be 7" and 11". However, your banding may not provide a full square or triangle at those dimensions. So measure the inlay to find the nearest length that begins and ends with a full figure. Modify the layout on the lid to match these lengths.

Photo os examples of inlay corners.
Sketch of good and poor examples of inlay corners