Metal Wire Inlay Part One
Overview and general principal
Simply put, wire or metal ribbon inlay is the art of embedding a metal wire into a piece of wood in a pleasing pattern or design. That metal can be of nearly any metal medium, silver, German silver, copper, and brass being the most common. The wood for our purposes is generally a long rifle gun stock, but inlay can be seen in knife handles, furniture, decorative artwork, or functional artwork. Nearly any wooden item that an artist wants to embellish can be inlaid with metal wire.
The general principle that makes wire inlay work is friction. The wire is forced into a mortice in your work (with a small hammer), dampened to encourage the wood to swell around the wire, and filed flush or very nearly flush with the surface of your work. Once the wood has swollen around the wire, the wire will not move and become more or less permanent (more on that later).
Executing an inlaid design is actually quite easy, requires only a few simple tools and limited workspace but does have several little nuances that need special attention to ensure success.
What follows is my process for inlaying metal wire, what I have learned, some tips, suggestions, and resources. The images you see at the top of the page are my first large inlay designs, I hope to point out and help you avoid the little errors within that design. Hopefully, at some point, I will add some images to the rest of the article to illustrate the process.
Lets’ start with wood. Nearly any type of wood can be used to inlay a design, some behave better than others. Hardwoods are an excellent choice (Maple, Walnut, Butternut, Cherry etc.) having tight grains and being relatively stable. Woods that are too hard, ebony, burl material, etc. will be difficult to cut into resulting in broken tools, probably not swell enough to hold your wire and will fracture and chip out. Woods that are too soft, swell and shrink a great deal are not a great choice either as the frequent swelling and shrinking will allow the wire to work loose and spring or fall out eventually, remember, it is only friction holding the wire in there.
Wood swelling and shrinking will encourage
inlays to become loose and spring or fall out eventually.
You can mitigate this somewhat with a good finish and a softer wood would be a good choice for your first few practice pieces, so you can use softer woods (Pine, Poplar, etc.) just be aware that you should pay extra attention to preserving the inlay.
Inlay material: As noted, nearly any metal can be used so long as it can be bent and tapped into a mortice without severe deformation. Silver, German silver, brass, and copper are generally the most common. Brass, copper, and silver will tarnish eventually unless steps to prevent that are taken. Silver and copper tend to be quite soft and you will need to be careful not to crush them when tapping into a design. German silver is probably the most forgiving being fairly hard, has more spring than the softer metals, and won’t tarnish. German silver will not tarnish because it is not silver at all, just steel wire with very high nickel content. (I suppose you could use pure nickel as well, though I have never tried myself)
I am calling the inlay material wire, however, it is actually a ribbon, rectangular in cross-section, taller/wider than it is thick generally from 0.030” - 0.050” or more in width and 0.005” to 0.030 thick, though I have never used anything thicker than 0.018” myself. Flat rectangular wire is not the only profile you can use, round, oval, triangular, square, etc. can all be used as well. (more on that later though)
Inlay wire can be bought in pre-cut lengths (usually 3’) or you can cut your own wire from sheet stock. Keep in mind that if you are cutting your own wire you will want to cut it wider for thicker sheets as your wood will have difficulty holding thick wires. (seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? More on that later…) If you are really a glutton for punishment then you can run some round wire through a mill and make your own wires…
I will list a couple of resources at the end of the article that carries inlay wire & sheet stock.