Visual Voices: the Art of Inlay

The urge to decorate objects we love is both ancient and irrepressible, whether the objects carry spiritual or religious meaning, or are “simply” everyday items. Inlay is a form of decoration that involves carefully cutting out a design—or an element of a design—in one material, cutting a matching recess in another, and then pressing and gluing the cut piece in. It’s that simple. But the devil is in the details, and inlay work can be extremely detailed.

There is a long tradition of inlay on guitars, with numerous outrageous examples dating from the early 1800s. And, as American guitars and banjos developed into their modern steel-string versions, the art of inlay followed. Martin, Washburn, the Larsons, and especially the great banjo makers such as Vega, Paramount, and Gibson, all had unique styles of inlaid decoration. There was an austere period from WWII until the late 1960s, when inlay seemed to fade away—country artists’ names on fretboards notwithstanding. But along with the rise of modern, small-shop lutherie came a revival of interest in inlay, and, now, thanks in part to modern technology, the art is at it’s highest point in history.

The Museum of Making Music, in Carlsbad, California, recently presented Visual Voices: the Art of Inlay—an exhibit showcasing the work of Larry Robinson, Renee Karnes, Grit Laskin, and Harvey Leach, four of today’s premier inlay artists. Robinson literally wrote the book on the subject, and his Art of Inlay has been an inspiration and guide to thousands of upcoming artists. Karnes learned under master banjo maker and restorer Henry Lea, and works at the bench she inherited from him. Laskin is a Toronto-based builder of both steel- and nylon-string guitars, and is known for his artistic vision—as shown in designs that seem to live in the air outside the constraints of the lines of the instruments. Leach—who, like Robinson, often does major commissions for Martin Guitars—has developed the art of telling stories with his inlaid pictures.