Contemporary Design & Technique
for Musical Intruments, Fine Woodworking & Object d'Art
Larry Robinson
Photography by Richard Lloyd


If your read the chapter on History, you will see immediately that this book is not about Marquetry but Inlay. However, I include this book as part of my reference material firstly for its inspirational value. Read the forward by Rick Turner and you will see what I mean. Larry shows what it means to completely understand the nature of the different materials being used and how best to use their different attributes and properties in expressing his creative ideas. He demonstrates a level of creativity, that anyone wishing to express themselves with any kind of material (such as veneers) should strive to attain. Other reasons for including this book as a reference are the chapters on Drawing (which is very applicable to Marquetry), cutting, leveling and Engraving and inking. Larry writes about techniques that are equally applicable to Marquetry. Drawing is at the essence of both Marquetry and Inlay. A good understanding of all aspects of drawing (particularly perspective) is necessary in order to develop to an advanced stage.

The chapter on ‘cutting’ will be appreciated by those using the fret saw technique. I still personally continue to perceiver with the knife method of cutting. The other chapter on leveling is also appropriate because veneers today do come in different thickness.

At the end of his book, I notice that Larry also makes reference to some of the same books on Marquetry as I do. The final reference, that of Engraving and Inking, Larry gives a good description of how this technique works and with some modification has been used on Marquetry pictures. Several other books I mention make reference to using this technique as well.

Larry has lots of examples of his work. One of them I like in particular is the two zebras on Brazilian rosewood runout section (1987) - Red abalone and mother-of-pearl. He uses it to demonstrate what happens to abalone when light reflects from different angles. I also like the appearance that the zebras are also transparent, yet there is a full, 3D effect as well. It gives me an idea and I wonder if a similar effect could be created using ebony strips over a light burr veneer.

PhotographThe other piece I like (if you have read my reference to Fine WoodWorking - Veneering, Marquetry and Inlay), Pierre Raymond in his book made reference to the period of time when Art Deco was predominant. The piece of Larry’s below is an example of what that kind of work may have looked like. An art Deco resonator for the Tsumura collection (1991). All images reproduced from photographs by Richard Lloyd.

Finally, I also like Larry’s epilogue and would encourage everyone to follow his advise: "Learn these techniques but don’t let them become a fossilized repertoire. Let them be a point of departure towards exploring new techniques and styles."


This beautifully illustrated book is both a celebration of the art of inlay and a hands-on guide to its materials, tools, techniques, and endless creative potential.

Inlay in America today often adorns guitars, banjos, mandolins and other musical instruments, as well as furniture, fine woodwork, jewelry, wall hangings, and various objects d'art. Designs range from simple monograms, vignettes or patterns, to elaborate scenes of nature, history, or fantasy. This book is a spectacular showcase of some of the finest examples of this art, and an inside look at how to create it.

Seventy color photographs of exquisitely inlaid pieces illustrate the artistic and technical insights of one of today's foremost inlay artists. You'll discover the versatile palette of natural materials used in inlay: shells, woods, metals, stones, gems, bones, ivories, and even vegetable ivories, or "tagua nuts." In a personable, easy-to-read style, the author tells you about the tools and techniques used to transform these elements into inlay. He describes in detail every step of the process and every aspect of the art--from drawing the initial design to touching up the finished object. And you'll get plenty of tips and tricks along the way, like how to use the innate magic of shell's light-reflecting properties to make a guitar fingerboard "flash on" all the way up the neck.

With concise instructions, descriptive photos and drawings, and inspirational examples of recent inlay by top artists throughout North America, this book is an unsurpassed technical advisor for the beginning or experienced inlay artist and a unique artistic treasure for any art and crafts enthusiast.


LARRY ROBINSON is a self-taught inlay artist of world-class stature. He began using hand tools in his father's workshop at age six, and was making furniture with power tools by age 11. Years later, while studying classical guitar, he hired a luthier to build a custom acoustic. Seeing no progress, however, Robinson eventually "wormed my way into his shop and built the whole guitar myself" He was subsequently offered an apprenticeship by the luthier.

Robinson's introduction to inlay was in 1975 while working at Alembic Inc. Today he is a recognized expert whose decorative inlays grace instruments, boxes, wall hangings, lap desks, and various objets d'art. His musical clients include such names as Stanley Clarke, John Entwistle, David Grisman, Paul Kantner, Greg Lake, Fleetwood Mac, Hot Tuna, Led Zeppelin, and marry others. He has numerous inlaid pieces in the Tsumura Collection and other prized collections in the US and England, and his work has appeared in Guitar Player, Fine WoodWorking, and Folk Harp journal magazines, the Gibson Custom Shop Calendar, and the books Pearls, Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments, and Tsumura's 1001 Banjos.

The Art of inlay is Robinson's first book. He lives in Sonoma County, California, with Connie and Hana.

About the photographer: RICHARD Lloyd has been photographing artwork professionally since 1984. He lives in western Sonoma County, California, with his wife, two daughters, and Sherman the dog.


STARTED DOING FANCY INLAY WORK on electric instruments in 1968 or so, and one of my first commissions was a fingerboard on a custom Guild fretless bass for Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. This inlay job was my introduction to the Dead and led more or less directly to the formation of Alembic, Inc., in 1970. I think we were the first company to really make "art" electric instruments on any kind of regular basis, and to us the art included a nontraditional approach to inlay. Those were heady days, to be sure. We were building custom instruments for some of the top names in pop, rock, and jazz, and one of the things for which Alembic was known was fancy inlay work with a decidedly psychedelic twist.

Larry Robinson came to work for me at the infamous Alembic "Cotati chicken barn" guitar and bass factory in 1975, and he tells the story of his first inlay experience here in this book. Along with several other Alembic luthiers, Larry quickly became a remarkable inlay artist. Unlike the others, though, Larry has stuck with inlaying for nearly 20 years, specializing in the art and getting better and better with time.

Larry's work is remarkable on several accounts. First, his use of a wide palette of many different materials is outstanding. Traditional musical instrument inlays are general limited to just a few media-mother-of-pear1 in its various guises, silver, ivory, and wood--and the media are very seldom combined and used together. Larry was never one to so restrict his options; one fingerboard may have all of those traditional materials augmented by copper, brass, bone, metal dust in superglue, turquoise, as well as anything else he can find around the house. Yes, I do believe he'd use the porcelain off the kitchen sink, if it matched the artistic need of the moment!

Then there is Larry's technique; I have never seen cleaner inlay work with less filler than his. I've seen some as good, but none better, and the good stuff is mostly from inlay artists who don't tackle the artistic or media challenges that Larry does. The first thing that inlay artists look for in someone else's work is the quality of the cutting and fitting. Larry's "chops" are simply world class, and in this book he generously lets you in on how he does it. Pay particular attention to his advice on layout and cutting.

Finally, there is Larry's artistry. He truly transcends materials and technique to become a pure artist. Larry once did a fingerboard for me that is a forest glade scene with a frog on a lily pad. Looking al that fingerboard, your eye fills in the whole scene beyond the physical borders of the instrument. You are in n the forest, the frog is just about to jump, and you are ready to hear the splash! It's great inlay, but it's more than that; it's a great picture irrespective of the medium.

I am very proud to have had a hand in getting Larry started in this field. I feel like an old track coach whose athlete/protégé has just won a gold medal at the Olympics. Great book, Larry, and for all of you reading this, I hope you carry the art further on. Larry Robinson is just the guy to help you do it. - Rick Turner, Topanga, California.


FIRST, I WOULD LIKE TO MAKE CLEAR that there is a difference between inlay and Marquetry, the latter being more prevalent in Western society, especially in furniture and the former in the Far East.

Marquetry is the art of making patterns or pictures predominantly in wood veneers (but metal and shell have also been used) and gluing them directly onto the surface to be decorated. Inlay has traditionally been a composition of shell, metal, stone, and tusk (with wood to a lesser degree) that is glued into a cavity that has been hollowed out of the surface. The inlay is then sanded flush. Both techniques have their specialized tools and jargon, and, although some similarity between the two exists, this book will not deal with marquetry

The earliest known inlaid object is a Mesopotamian limestone bowl with some shell pieces embedded in it, dated around 3000 sc. Another early example is a shell-inlaid wooden coffin from the Yin Dynasty (1300 bc-220 bc).

In the West the first inlays we know of appeared around 350 bc, and were done into marble. Later, during the Roman Empire, a method called tarsia certosina was developed, in which pieces of cut veneer were inlaid into cavities hewn into wood panels. After the fall of the Roman Empire this method fell into disuse as more crafts workers began developing the marquetry method of decoration.

In Nara, Japan, a series of 8th century storehouses is known as the Shoso-in Repository. The Emperor of Japan was an avid collector of artwork, and many pieces of inlaid art from the Repository still in pristine condition 1200 years later are held by experts to be unexcelled in design and construction.

The Asians also developed two distinct styles of inlay, only one of which is in common use in the West. Thick-shell inlay, known as atsu-gai, is inlaid into the surface of the wood. Ustl-gai, or thin-shell inlay, is done with shell that is only around .005" thick and is cut into patterns with a knife or shaped punches and fixed directly onto a lacquer undercoat. The finish is then built up flush with the shell and buffed. Though many examples of finely wrought usu-gai pieces exist, and the materials are available from some shell suppliers, this book will deal mainly with the use of thicker stock (.03"-.06").

Contemporary American inlay most often appears on musical instruments. However, the market is evolving and examples can be found on signs, pool cue sticks, furniture, objets d'art, and along other more esoteric veins. Although the basic steps of construction involved have remained the same over centuries, the tools employed have kept up with high technology, at least in some cases. I know several people in the United States who use computer-controlled industrial-size vertical mills (CAD-CAM) equipped with multiple cutting heads specifically set up for inlaying. Programming the computer takes time and expertise, but cutting multiple images such as company logos or fingerboard positioning markers can be done in 30 seconds (on the average) instead of the half hour traditional methods would require. Luckily for those of us who only do one-of-a-kind pieces, it's not cost-effective for computers to do our work.

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