Aaron VanWhy on Guitar Building and Custom Inlay

Aaron VanWhy working on an inlay for a guitar.

What if you could create an heirloom that people treasure their whole lives and pass on to their children and grandchildren?

Think about the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing that.

That’s what guitar building and custom inlay are all about.

Custom inlay involves “taking someone’s idea or design and transferring it to the guitar or instrument using different materials such as pearl, wood, opal, or composite materials.”

Aaron VanWhy loves being part of that process and seeing people’s excitement over their guitars. He manages the sawmill, wood drying and storage, and guitar parts manufacturing at Martin Guitars. He’s also the owner of VanWhy Inlay & Design, which is where his expertise and creativity really stand out.

Doing custom inlay is a meticulous job, especially when working with a finished guitar. But Aaron is up for the challenge.

Keep reading for a glimpse into his journey and the inlay process. We’ll cover:

How Aaron VanWhy Got into Woodworking and Custom Inlay

Aaron’s career in custom inlay started with helping his woodworker dad with little things, like using the screw gun. His dad did cabinetry, construction framing, custom joinery, and furniture—to name a few—and Aaron participated more and more as he grew older.

He shares, “My dad was always learning and then sharing that with me, so I was part of his learning experience in a lot of cases.”

“There was a lot of learning the hard way, but we were better off for it.”

Aaron’s interest in woodworking continued into his adult life. In his late 20s, he was hired to work in the custom shop at Martin Guitars, where he carved guitar necks for the Authentic series of guitars.

And there at the custom shop, he met someone who altered the direction of his career.

That person was the custom inlay artist. He did inlay the traditional way, cutting the pocketing and inlay material by hand. When he offered to teach Aaron in the evenings after work, Aaron took him up on it.

When that individual left Martin to work elsewhere, Aaron took the role of in-house custom inlay artist.

Though he had learned inlay the traditional way, this position gave him the chance to use custom CNC (computer numerical control) machines to automate the process, allowing him to create more ornate and precise designs.

Aaron found his time in the custom shop incredibly satisfying. He loved connecting with people in the industry and customers from all over the world—including Australia, Taiwan, and China.

And that’s what prompted him to start his own shop, VanWhy Inlay & Design.

The Process of Creating a Custom Inlay

Custom inlay is all about taking what’s in the customer’s mind and making it a reality on a guitar part.

Nearly every part of a guitar can take an inlay if the guitar hasn’t yet been finished. But for post-production guitars, inlays work best on the fretboard, pickguard, or bridge.

Aaron can also do inlays on:

  • Gun stocks
  • Jewelry boxes
  • Boxes for wedding gifts
  • Boats
  • Chess boards

Here’s what the process looks like:

Creating the design

Inlay begins with capturing the vision of the customer. Aaron explains that customers typically reach out with a design idea or an image they want to have inlaid.

Creating the inlay design involves back-and-forth between him and the customer, as they figure out the image and sizing. Aaron sketches the design to give the customer an idea of what it will look like, and not until the customer is satisfied do they move to the next stage.

Choosing the material

Once the design is decided, Aaron discusses with the customer “what kind of material they want to use to pull off the look and feel of their design.”

The options include pearl, reconstituted stone, exotic woods, opal, acrylic, metal, brass, and aluminum. Reconstituted stone, which is stone that has been crushed, pigmented, and cast into a loaf for slicing, is one of the most popular choices. As is pearl.

Aaron personally enjoys working with recon stone because of how easy it is to cut. Pearl, though a little harder to cut, is another one of his favorites because of its characteristic hues of pink, green, and blue.

Cutting the inlay materials and pocket

The next step in the inlay process is cutting the materials and staging them. If it’s a larger design, Aaron has to cut all the pieces and assemble them together as one piece.

Then, he cuts the pocket into the part of the guitar where the inlay will go.

Here’s where inlay artists differ in their methods.

Traditional inlay work is done by hand using a jeweler’s saw and a magnifying glass to painstakingly cut the inlay material and a router to cut the pocket.

In contrast, a CNC machine can be used to cut materials and inlay pockets to within .001”. The only limitation of a CNC is that it can’t be used on a finished guitar. That means the CNC can cut the inlay piece but the pocket still has to be cut by hand.

For an unfinished piece, Aaron can machine the pocket into the part of the guitar, such as the pickguard, and then send the part back to the builder for installation.

But if it’s a finished guitar, “that’s when the ‘surgery’ happens.” He has to carefully protect every part of the guitar from dings and dents before cutting the pocket by hand. In his own words…

“The guitar needs to play and feel the exact same way after you’re done with it. When you’re changing the fingerboard or you’re adding inlay, and everything isn’t sanded or absolutely perfect, it can affect intonation. So there’s a lot of painstaking time that goes into inlaying finished instruments because you really only have one shot to get it right.”

For that reason, many custom inlay artists won’t even work on finished instruments. And that’s where VanWhy Inlay & Design stands out. Aaron and his team work on both finished and unfinished instruments:

“You can send your 1930 Martin to our shop, and we can put your name on the fingerboard. Or we can inlay a fingerboard and send it off to your company, and they can build the guitar with this inlaid part.”

Finishing the inlay

Once the pocket is established, Aaron glues the inlay pieces into the pocket and sands everything flush. If he’s working with a pickguard, he will polish it to full gloss.

Then, he either installs the pickguard on the guitar or sends it back to the customer for installation.

To ensure a successful inlay, moisture testing is a key part of the process. Here’s why.

The Role of Moisture Testing in Custom Inlay and Guitar Building

Wood inlays involve incredible detail—one reason why it’s crucial to check the moisture content of the wood before working on it.

Aaron explains that wood for guitars must have a moisture content between 6 and 8%. That includes inlay:

“You’re cutting this pocket into the wood for the inlay to fit into. If your wood is wet or outside of that 6–8%, your pocket can shrink and your pieces won’t fit in there.”

Moisture also plays in when building various parts of the guitar—for example, the fretboard. Aaron can cut the fret slots to the right size and profile, but if they’re not at the right moisture content, they may move or shrink.

The result? Wasted time and the need to start over again.

When you’re working with expensive materials and intricate details, getting moisture content wrong is a big deal.

That’s why Aaron always takes readings of the parts—necks, fingerboards, bridges, headplates—with a wood moisture meter before working on them. “I’m my own front-line defense when it comes to purchasing parts and ensuring that the parts are dry before they get any work done on them.”

The same goes for his role at Martin. When wood comes in, his initial inspection involves checking the moisture content with an Orion 930 pinless moisture meter. The readings help him know how to plan his next move—how long to dry the wood in the kiln.

Martin Guitars, in its nearly 200 years of guitar building, has found 6–8% moisture content to be ideal for its guitars. So, during the drying process, Aaron checks the wood until it has reached that range. This is a must for manufacturing guitar parts:

“[It’s] absolutely critical that the parts we’re using are dried down to that 6–8% range before they go into assembly. If not, you’ll encounter a whole host of problems before it even leaves here in the manufacturing process.”

Not to mention the problems the customer might face:

“Even if you don’t see any significant movement after you machine the wood, there could be implications once it ships to wherever it’s going. The customer might get it and there might be a big crack in it.”

With instruments costing in the thousands and tens of thousands, Martin Guitars can’t afford to be off in its moisture measurements. And neither can Aaron when he’s doing a custom inlay on an heirloom guitar.

Aaron’s Advice for Pursuing Custom Inlay as a Career

When we asked Aaron about his advice for people interested in learning custom inlay, he was quick to say: “Anybody can do it with patience and practice.”

He encourages novices to find resources to learn from. YouTube videos can help, but even better is finding someone who knows the craft and is willing to share their knowledge.

Sometimes, community colleges offer classes in custom inlay that can help you get started, too.

And, then, practice. “Sometimes watching a YouTube video isn’t going to be the answer. You just have to pick it up and start doing it,” Aaron points out. Much of his learning as a woodworker happened through trial and error.

The tools for doing inlay by hand aren’t expensive. All you need are a jeweler saw, a cutting board, and a router. Start by practicing with materials that don’t cost as much (for example, wood rather than pearl.) Go slowly with the tools and machinery so that you can get comfortable using them.

Aaron encourages: “It’s going to take a steady hand and the muscle memory that comes with it. Just don’t give up.”

A Great Option for Your Custom Inlay Needs

You may not be looking to do custom inlay yourself. But if you’re wanting a design for your guitar or some other item, VanWhy Inlay & Design will make it happen with the greatest precision—and that includes moisture testing.

Aaron VanWhy is dedicated to making your idea come to life on your prized instrument or item. He also takes on other custom woodworking projects, such as cabinetry, guitar neck carving, and fretboards.

To learn more, visit VanWhyInlay.com.

Last updated on October 17th, 2023

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