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What Is a Woodworking Inlay?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

A woodworking inlay is a type of woodworking technique in which pieces of wood, usually of contrasting tone or color, are placed within a relief cut into another piece of wood. The woodworking inlay can be fairly elaborate or quite simple, but in either instance, the inlay will create some sort of pattern, shape, or image. This technique is commonly used on pieces of furniture with at least one flat surface, though many other applications are possible. Woodworkers must be exceptionally skilled to create an attractive and well-made inlay, and specialty tools are usually necessary for this technique.

A simpler way to create a woodworking inlay is to carve a piece and then trace a pattern onto the base piece of wood. This allows for fewer base cuts and a simpler process of fitting the inlay into the base. More intricate woodworking inlay designs will require several cuts into the base piece of wood, and the smaller pieces of inlay wood will need to be carefully fitted into the base. A woodworking inlay can take a significant amount of time to complete in this manner, though if done correctly, the finished product will be quite attractive and eye-catching.

Woodworking inlay is a woodworking technique that requires tremendous skill to master.
Woodworking inlay is a woodworking technique that requires tremendous skill to master.

The process of creating a woodworking inlay is similar to a process known as marquetry, but the differences are quite distinct. Instead of inlaying the pieces into a base, the process of marquetry involves laying veneers, or thin pieces of wood, onto the base wood without cutting into it. The veneers are then sanded and finished, and usually coated with some sort of varnish, waxes, or polishes to create a smooth surface over the design. No cutting is done to the base piece, as is done during an inlay, but the finished product of both techniques often appears similar.

In order to make the inlay pieces, a woodworker is likely to use a scroll saw or a jig saw. These two tools are fairly similar, but a scroll saw is capable of creating more intricate cuts with tighter curves. Unlike a jig saw, a scroll saw is a stationary tool that features a platform known as a bench; this bench is where the woodworker will place the piece to be cut. The woodworker will move the wood rather than the tool, which is converse to the process of using a jig saw. Each tool features a thin, pliable blade that is ideal for small cuts.

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Discussion Comments


I love the look of guitars with inlayed designs on the fretboard. Some of them are relatively simple, but I have also seen guitars with extremely elaborate designs. With guitars, though, I think most of the inlays use ivory (synthetic of course) rather than wood.

Is anyone here familiar with intarsia? I'm curious how intarsia is different from marquetry and inlay designs. From what I have seen, I would say that intarsia is a woodworking inlay technique that creates a picture rather than a design. I could be wrong, though. It seems like intarsia is usually raised from the backing piece, as well, so maybe that is the difference. Does anyone know how the three techniques are different?


Has anyone here ever heard of wood inlay banding? I was watching a video online about wood inlays, and the person briefly mentioned that you could use banding instead of creating the inlay design yourself. I looked them up, and they basically look like design strips that you can put in the wood.

For anyone who is familiar with them, are these things still made out of wood, or are they usually plastic or another material? After seeing the pictures of the inlay bands and reading this article, it even sounds like they might be something like smaller pieces of marquetry that are inlayed in the wood. Would this be correct, or am I off base here?


@Emilski - It sounds like your grandfather was quite the woodworker.

I used to do some woodworking in my spare time, but I never had the steady hand to do any woodworking projects that involved using a scroll saw. I tried to stick to larger projects like shelves and furniture. I admire anyone that can do wood inlays.


I absolutely love the look of wood inlay pieces. My grandfather was a very good woodworker and made a lot of beautiful pieces with inlays.

When I was a child he made a hope chest for me, and he used the inlay technique to put my name on the side of the chest. He also put a very nice design on the top of the chest.

Once I moved into my first house after college, my grandfather made a jewelry box with a very detailed inlay design. I still use the box today, and I hope that I can pass it down to my daughter someday.

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    • Woodworking inlay is a woodworking technique that requires tremendous skill to master.
      By: Silvano Rebai
      Woodworking inlay is a woodworking technique that requires tremendous skill to master.