Custom inlay - an ancient form of art reimagined by Juha Ruokangas

Custom inlay - an ancient form of art reimagined

From cutting logos to elaborate works of art

A very short history lesson on pearl inlay

I’m not the best expert in history of pearl inlay, but I do know that this exciting form of art dates back all the way to the ancient Chinese dynasties and Mayan civilization amongst other cultures.

In musical instruments pearl inlay has traditionally had several roles. Inlaid logos are common even in certain mass produced guitars. Pearl inlay is also very common way to make the fret markers on the fingerboard. It has also been a popular form of decorative art, that has evolved during the last centuries into countless directions and interpretations.

What exactly is pearl inlay?

Pearl inlay means a technique, where you take a piece of seashell or other materials suitable for this technique. You saw it by hand into a shape of some kind. Then you trace that shape on the wood (typically fretboard or headstock face, if done into a guitar), make a corresponding cavity to the wood – and then stick the piece of shell into that cavity.

Well, this was an extremely simplified explanation of the procedure, but it gives you a basic understanding.

We make every custom inlay by hand. We don’t use CNC, laser or other automated technologies.

Monograms, ornamentation and motifs

For the love of drawing

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.

Drill a hole and glue a dot in!

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).

Rather more subtle than overflowing

Inlay as an art form is a whole another dimension, that I have explored during all 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 most important tools for personalizing guitars for our customers.

The Defense of the Sampo

A new challenge

The little artist in me has craved for more complex challenges as well! My first more demanding inlay work was this 7-stringed Duke, built in 2003.

Kalevala – the Finnish national epic

One of my long time customers asked me to do a custom inlay inspired by a famous painting called ‘The Defence of the 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.

Inlay work on a carved top

This was a challenging inlay work for me, not having had previous experience in working with so many materials (mother-of-pearl, green and 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 this custom inlay work.

Team work

The composition is based quite strictly on the painting. Tomi Nivala (my long time team member) and I did all the cutting of pearl and other materials, and I did the engravings – a technique that I had just started learning the very first baby steps in, at that time.

You can see more photos and information about this guitar here.

New superpowers

A nudge onto a new path

Since the making of the ‘Defense of the Sampo’ guitar I have encouraged more and more my clients to throw new inlay 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. Our inlay work has ended also into many print publications, such as the beautiful coffee table book ‘Guitar – the World’s Most Seductive Instrument‘ by David Schiller.

Not only inlays…

I have also been fortunate to scale up our vocabulary regarding the techniques we can use. Jani Rinta-Keturi, one of my team members, is an experienced wood carving master. This opens a whole new approach for us to take.

Inlay combined with wood carving

We can combine inlay and woodcarving, such as was introduced in the Captain Nemo project. Or, it could be something like this Dreaming Tree that Jani carved into a Steam bass body for one of our clients.

This is a new “superpower” for my team! You’ll be seeing more wood carving details and artworks from us in the future.

The master and the apprentice

Meet Grit

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 onto a whole different planet from anybody else. Let me tell you how our paths came to cross.

The birth of the EGB

I have admired Grit’s work from afar since a long time ago, and I met him the first time in 2009 at the Montreal Guitar Show, where Emma and I attended first time that year. A few years went by. In 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. I started babbling about this plan that had been slowly brewing among us, a few European guitar makers and our spouses. We had founded an association called the European Guitar Builders (EGB), and were about to establish a high end guitar show in Europe…

Beginning of a friendship

Grit seemed to like our idea a lot and we shook hands to his promise to exhibit at the first edition of our event, later to be named as The Holy Grail Guitar Show. 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, but this week in Berlin was truly a beginning of a wonderful friendship between Grit, Judith, Emma and myself.

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.

Masterclass in Vienna

The EGB is not only about The Holy Grail Guitar Show, though. It is a tight-knit community of professional luthiers world wide, organizing symposia and masterclasses. One of those masterclasses took place in Vienna back in 2016. Grit had graciously promised to do a week long masterclass on engraved inlay! Ah – now we’re getting back to the actual subject..!

The beginning of a new path

An eye-opener

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.

Engraved inlay à la William Grit Laskin 

On his masterclass Grit 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 taught me. This meant, that I could now go on to develop my skills and my own style of engraved 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.

More than decorative art

The second thing Grit 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 anybody – but rather, I’ve been shown a beginning of a new path, which is mine to explore and to build on.

I get to do the most fun part

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.

The acoustic archtop guitar

One of the recent inlay works I did (see the photo above) was for the prototype of our new acoustic archtop guitar model ‘Emma Maria’. A great example of our team collaboration – engraved inlay and wood carving combined in quite a unique way. Watch the video below to learn story of the ‘Emma Maria’ guitar in more detail.

Uncharted territory

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.

The most wonderful part is, that with inlay art – just like with making guitars – I’m the one who gets the most fun part: To do what I love to do for my living!

Emma Maria

On this video Juha tells us a special story of his personal life.
A chain of events that changed his life for good.