Custom inlay by Juha Ruokangas

Custom inlay

I’ve always loved to draw, and ever since I started making guitars, I’ve felt this strong pull towards learning more about pearl inlay and other techniques that I could use in detailing, decorating or personalizing my guitars. I’m not the best expert in history of pearl inlay, but I’ll just say that this exciting form of art dates back all the way to the ancient Chinese dynasties and Mayan civilization among other cultures. In musical instruments, and particularly in guitars, pearl inlay has traditionally had several roles. Inlaid logos are common even in some factory made guitars – as well as the use of pearl  inlay for the fret markers on the fingerboard. The third purpose for this technique has of course been the decorative art form, which has evolved during the last centuries to countless directions and interpretations.

Pearl inlay means a technique, where you take a piece of seashell or other material suitable for this method, saw it by hand into a shape of some kind, then trace that shape on the wood (typically fretboard or headstock face), make a corresponding cavity to the wood, and then inlay the piece of shell into that cavity. Well, this was an extremely rough cut explanation of the procedure, but you got the picture. We make every custom inlay by hand, without CNC, laser or other automated technologies involved.

We use inlaid logos in some of the guitars, because it fits to the style of those models. All the fret markers (on top and side of the fretboard) in any of our guitars or basses are done with inlay technique – the most simple example of this would be the dots. Yes, the dots have been inlaid as well, even if it means to just drill a hole and glue a dot into it. The reason why even the dots are done this way is purely practical. The inlaid dots look good, and they don’t wear off in time (like paint might).

Inlay as an art form is a whole another dimension, that I have explored during the years I’ve been making guitars. My primary “language” in pearl inlay could be described rather more subtle than overflowing. I have drawn over the years countless one-off custom inlays ranging from monograms of the customer name to ornamentation and motifs of various kind – flowers, animals or something more abstract that has been meaningful for the customer. I love these understated, subtle details on a guitar, and this style will without a doubt remain as one of the important tools in our toolbox for the future as well. Every custom inlay I draw is a one-off. I don’t make the same design twice.

The little artist in me has craved for more complex challenges as well. My first more demanding inlay work was a 7-stringed Duke, built in 2003. The client wanted me to do an interpretation of a famous painting called ‘Defence of Sampo’ by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, based on the Finnish national epic ‘Kalevala’ – a collection of heroic poetry that has inspired many artists and writers, J.R.R. Tolkien  and Eino Leino among them. This was a challenging inlay work for me, not having previous experience in working with so many materials (mother-of-pearl, green & red abalone heart, gold mother-of-pearl, black mother-of-pearl, arctic birch, oak, padouk, beech, ebony, bubinga, brazilian rosewood, brass, bronze and elk bone), such complex composition or such a large scale. The carved top shape of the guitar added one more challenge to the inlay job. The composition is based quite strictly on the painting. Tomi (my long time team member) and I did all the cutting of pearl and other materials, and I did the engravings – a technique that was all new to me at the time. You can see more photos and information about this guitar here.

Since then I have encouraged my clients to throw new challenges at me, often brainstorming together with the customer on the endless approaches one can take in personalizing a custom guitar. You can see some of those works in the spotlight section of this website. I have also been fortunate to “increase our vocabulary” regarding the techniques we can use. For example – Jani, one of my team members, is a wood carving master, and so we’re able to do a whole new kind of approach to personalizing an instrument these days. This could be a combination of inlay and woodcarving, such as was introduced in the Captain Nemo project – or it could be something like the Dreaming Tree that Jani carved into a Steam bass body for one of our clients. This is a new “superpower” for my team, and I’m sure you’ll be seeing more wood carving details and artworks from us in the future.

By far the most exciting journey in the world of inlay art for me personally has been the wonderful privilege and honor to get to know William Grit Laskin, who has taken this art form to a whole different planet from anybody else. I have admired his work from afar since a long time ago, and our paths crossed in 2009 at Montreal Guitar Show, where Emma and I attended first time. A few years went by, and finally in year 2013 I exhibited at the last ever (hopefully they’ll return one day though!) Healdsburg Guitar Show, and sat down next to Grit at his table and started babbling about this plan that had been slowly brewing among us, a few European guitar makers and our spouses – to establish a high end guitar show in Europe. Grit seemed to like our idea a lot and we shook hands to his promise to exhibit at the first edition of the event – which was of course to be The Holy Grail Guitar Show, and those few of us conjuring it up were the EGB group of founding members. This pioneering event took place in Berlin the following year (2014), and Grit delivered on his promise, traveling to Berlin together with his adorable wife Judith. Grit and I had met before, as mentioned, but this week in Berlin was truly a beginning of a wonderful friendship between Grit, Judith, Emma and myself. Grit, Judith – love you guys (who knows, they might read this one day). The better I have gotten to know Grit, the better I have started to understand and appreciate not only his unique achievements as a guitar maker and inlay artist, but his whole big hearted, ever enthusiastic, whole planet embracing character – truly one-of-a-kind. Hats off.

Ok – back to inlay. I know, sometimes I tend to lose track momentarily when writing these articles – but there is a reason why I shared with you some of the background of this story. You see – Grit has opened my eyes to a whole new world regarding the art of inlay, and it would not have happened without the friendship we have. Long story short – first, he has taught me this unbelievable skill to engrave inlay in such intricate way that I never thought was possible. I had tried… a lot… but I never really got it before Grit showed me how. This means, that I could now go on to develop my skills and my own style of inlay without having the technical limitation I had before. It’s like having learned a new language – and for that I am forever grateful to Grit. The second thing he taught me is that inlay can be so much more than a form of decorative art. For Grit, it is anything but. In Grit’s world – the guitar is his canvas, the engraved inlay his paint, and the jeweler’s saw and engraving tool his paintbrushes. I can’t even dream of accomplishing the depth and dexterity of what Grit does with inlay – and on the other hand, that is not even my intent. I have no interest in trying to copy something – but rather, I’ve been shown a beginning of a new path, which is mine to explore and to build on.

Now, as I’m writing this article, I am working on a few different custom guitars with inlay projects – some smaller, others a bit more complex. With every new project, I’m stretching my “artistic muscles”, and learning more along the way. I am grateful that you, our customers, keep on giving me new challenges that open this uncharted territory wider for me along with every new project you assign me for. And the most wonderful part is, that with inlay art – just like with making guitars – I’m the one who get the most fun part: To do what I love to do for my living.