A beekeeper told me a story of a hive--how, when the little bee is in the first stage, it is put into a hexagonal cell, and enough honey is stored there for its use until it reaches maturity. The honey is sealed with a capsule of wax, and when the tiny bee has fed itself on the honey and exhausted the supply, the time has come for it to emerge into the open. But, oh, the wrestle, the tussle, the straining to get through that wax! It is the strait gate for the bee, so strait that in the agony of exit the bee rubs off the membrane that hid its wings, and on the other side is able to fly!
After the fret slots were cut, it was time to do the inlays before going any further on the neck. This was quite an experience that took a lot of time. I spent a great deal of time just trying to figure out what I wanted. It seems that there is a poetic license with banjos to really deck them out almost to the point of getting a bit gaudy. Since I didn’t have a lot of exposure to banjos, I spent a lot of time just searching for pictures of banjos on the internet to see what styles I like and what kind of inlays I would be capable of doing. I was amazed at the beauty of some of the inlay work I saw which made me feel a bit inferior. There was much that was beyond my skills but there were also many banjos with simple inlays. Since I didn’t want to make inlaying my life’s work, I tried to be reasonable in my design and make it decorative but with something that would be easy enough for me to do, and that wouldn’t take too much time. It was still time consuming as each inlay took about an evenings work or more.
One practical thing that can be done is to find inlays on the internet and print them to size which can then be cut out and used as tiny templates. I saw this possibility with web sites that supply ready made inlays that you can order. To buy ready made inlays is (by the way) a practical option to really save time. I still decided to make my own for originality sake and just to take up the challenge. I also wound up designing my own inlays by also getting some ideas from the things that I saw. Although I am not an artist, it was fun, and designing my own inlays created an originality to the banjo. This took some time as I wanted to make sure that my design was balanced looking in an artistic fashion, which took a lot of trial and error. I did a lot of experimenting by first making them out of white paper to see how my design would look.
It was a bit tedious for me as I don’t have the best setup or equipment to do the job. I did some experiments on making my own router bases for my Dremel tool. Doing inlay work is a whole subject in itself which I will not go into too deeply at this time partly because there are many who can do it much better them me with methods much better then the ones I attempted but I will share a couple of homemade doo dads that I came up with. A good place to get some great tips and some very good DIY ideas on building and maintaining banjos is “Richie Dawson’s’ web site. He also has some very good tips on doing inlays. The guy knows a lot more about banjos and their construction then I do.
Here is a very quick primitive router bass that I made for the Dremel tool. It consists of a 2 1/2 " piece of PVC pipe with a round piece of wood to plug one end. I drilled a hole in the center of the wood to fit the dremel tool. To make a firmer fit with the Dremel tool, I put some auto body putty in the hole and then placed it onto the Dremel tool. When hardened it created the threaded hole needed for a good fit onto the Dremel tool.
This base worked very well for doing the inlays but the only problem was that it needed good lighting to reach inside while working.
On this neck I used a lot of inlays that were mirror images like this inlay above.
To make sure that the 2 inlays that are supposed to be the same turned out the same, I worked on one and got it pretty close to perfect to the way I wanted it. I then roughly did another one. I then glued the 2 together with contact cement. I filed the 2 together until they were both identical then I carefully separated them with a sharp knife. I wound up with 2 identical inlays this way. Sorry that some of these photos are a bit blurred.
After the inlay is cut and shaped I then traced the inlay into the surface that I wanted to embed the inlay in. Because the surface was black that I was going to inlay on, I painted the black surface with white water based paint then after it was dry I traced the inlay on it by placing the inlay on it and then tracing the inlay using a sharp tool. This made the place that I need to cut out a lot easier to see while working. I then used a Dremel tool with a fine point to carve out the area that the inlay needed to be embedded in. The carving out of the wood was done with the Dremel tool using the router bass that I made.
Although I used the Dremel for removing most of the wood, I sometimes used a scalpel or a sharp knife to remove some of the details of the wood. If fact, I have at times used only a knife to cut out the wood for inlaying with success. It is just slower then using the Dremel tool.
I glued the inlay in by using white carpenters glue mixed with the same ebony sawdust of the fret board. I would do it using an excess of the glue and sawdust mixture and later sanded it off flush with the fret board when it was dry. I have found that even if your holes for the inlays are not perfect, the glue and sawdust trick really worked well for hiding your imperfections, especially with the jet black ebony fret board in which you see almost no grain in the wood.
After the inlays were all glued in and sanded flush, I did a double check to make sure that the fret board was still flat and if not I used the level with the sandpaper glued to it to flatten it more. If the fret board needed to be flat, this was the time to make sure, before putting the frets on.
Here are the finished fret board inlays. This was quite a bit of work but I am happy how it came out