Installing Inlays into a Floor Without Jigs (Part Two)

Let’s pick up from my last blog and continue walking through the making of the inlay. If you look closely at the picture in the last blog post, you’ll notice three leaves are cut. It is best to test out first which look you are going for before cutting all the inlays. The top leaf in the picture is where I cut the leaf out of one piece of wood. To me this looks unrealistic, because the grain orientation is does not follow the petal direction. The other two leaves are made of individually cut petals. Then, they are sand shaded in two different styles. The leaf in the middle has a light decorative shade, while the one at the bottom looks almost burnt. Considering the fact that the leaves will be sanded after installation, more sand shading is probably better.

Now that you’ve cut all of your leaf and branch parts, it’s time for sand shading. PLEASE PRACTICE SAFETY AND CAUTION WHEN FOLLOWING THESE NEXT STEPS!

Sand shading is when you dip wood parts in hot sand to darken it. Plain play-sand works fine for our application. Some woodworkers buy very fine sand that gives a more consistent tone. I dedicated an old pan for my sand shading and any old cook top. You want the sand to be hot, but not so hot that it burns your wood on contact. Decide how and where you want to shade the wood. Use tongs to place the wood petals in the hot sand. Pay attention to the time it takes to shade each piece and to where the pieces are in the sand (it is very easy to lose one because they are so small). I manipulate the pile of sand in the pan with a spoon as necessary. Sand shade it a little darker than you need so the shading isn’t lost when you sand the floors.

When done, brush off any sand from the wood and let it cool. You will notice that your petals don’t fit nicely anymore. You just shrank all of your cut pieces. Don’t worry about it. The gaps should disappear by the time you install the inlay in the floor. If you want to rush the moisture gain, you can rub a little water on the inlay. Once the petals are at room temperature, start gluing them together. Apply a little yellow glue to the areas where the petals touch each other. Press them together and use clear packing tape to hold them tight (clear tape helps you see the face of the inlay at all times). Now you have a cut, sand shaded, assembled leaf that you are ready to put in the floor.

Make sure the floor is ready for the final detail – sanding before you do any inlay work. Why? You will inlay the leaves so that they are proud of the floor just about 1/32” (.793mm) in order to be able to just sand them flush with a palm sander before cleaning up the floor with a multi-head sander

Now is the tricky part – deciding where everything goes. Lay out the leaves and branches on the floor. Look at them from all different angles and traffic directions in the house. Let the owner see it and sign off on it. Take a picture of it, number the pieces, and place blue tape on the floor to mark where each leaf goes. Now you are left with a pile of leaves and branches that have numbers on them. On the floor you have a lot of small numbered pieces of blue tape.

The tools for the next step are a fine #2 pencil, marking or exacto-knives, two plunge-routers with inlay bits, a light, a pillow, dental tools, palm carving tools, knives, vacuum, yellow glue, glue syringe, and a lot of patience. The first pieces I inlaid were the branches. The main center branch went in last so I could get a clean joint. All of the smaller sections tie into the center thicker branch. First, I put in the small ones, sanded them flush, and let them dry. Then I marked my center piece overlapping the existing inlaid branches and cut through them with the router. That way you get a perfect fit.

When I marked the leaves and branches on the floor, I sometimes went over a groove, which made the cutting a little challenging. Try to plan it out so your inlay goes into a solid surface without tongue and groove underneath. When I cut the cavity for the inlay, I use the biggest router bit I can to remove the majority of the wood. Then I switch to a smaller size bit, usually 1/8” (3.17mm), to get really close to the line.

Finally, I use palm carving tools and dental tools to finish the job. You can use a hand held dental drill, a laminate trimmer, or a smaller router; whatever works for you. I like the hefty weight of my plunge router. I use two of them with different size bits.

Remember the pillow I mentioned earlier? I soon found that the easiest way to do that work is to lay down on my stomach. My ribs started hurting after a few hours, so that’s what the pillow is for.

The basic idea of inlay or any wood working is working TO the line. You want to sneak up on a perfect fit. Routers are great to come really close to the line. Your hand tools and your skills will do the rest.

Next time I will discuss in more detail the routing and carving out the cavity for the inlay, installing it, and finishing it. Thank you for reading.

avi hadad

Avi Hadad


Avi’s Hardwood Floors Inc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.