Want Flashier Dot Inlays? Here's How to Swap Them

One of the coolest and easiest mods to do on your guitar is replace the inlays. Most people may shudder to think about drilling out the existing inlays of the neck, but with some instruction and a bit of patience, this article can help you learn one way of doing it yourself.

In 2015, I built a guitar now known affectionately as the Mermaid Strat. I wanted to keep the build easy, so I decided to buy a pre-made neck from AllParts. (You can find a selection of guitar necks on Reverb too.) However, I really wanted abalone inlays, and I decided to replace them myself.

Here are a few things to consider before you begin this endeavor:

  • The correct tools will make this easier.

  • It's better to have a neck with no frets and (quite possibly, no finish) on it, but if you are replacing inlays on your existing neck, then go slow and be careful not to mess up your frets with the various tools you'll be using.

  • This is not the correct procedure for a fretboard that has been finished over (like a maple neck with a lacquer finish). This tutorial is mainly for rosewood and ebony fretboards.

  • Use a respirator, please.

  • Make sure to read all the steps first before ordering anything.

Step 1
Measure the Size of the Inlays and Order the Correct Replacements

What you'll need: Digital calipers.

What may surprise you when dealing with dot inlays is that they can come in varying sizes. For example, taking a brief look at StewMac's inlay section shows varying sizes of varying types of inlays. The first thing you need to do is measure your inlay diameter, most likely in millimeters. Use a set of digital calipers to do this. Then you'll need to order a set. Order enough inlays to cover all the dots on your neck, plus a few extra. If for some reason when you are putting an inlay in it breaks or shatters during filing, you will be thankful that you have extras.

I ordered the cool abalone inlays above from AllParts, which are 6.35 mm, but there are a few different options out there from gold mother of pearl to semi-precious stones.

Step 2
Drill Out the Existing Inlays

What you'll need: A drill press or a hand drill.

Be sure to secure the neck of your guitar in some way so that it doesn't wobble around while working. A proper neck rest will secure the neck near the nut and you may want to prop the neck joint up as well. For the second time, measure the existing size of the inlay dots and find the appropriate sized drill bit (slightly smaller than the inlay you want to drill out).

I prefer to work with a drill press because you can set up the press so that it only goes so far down, without worrying about drilling through the fretboard. However, you can easily do this part with a hand drill; just go slow, make sure you are lined up before you start drilling and I highly recommend testing this process on a piece of scrap wood first. In the words of many a great craftsman: measure twice, cut once.

You may need to clean out the inlay cavities by taking a drill bit that's the exact diameter of the cavity and chase out the inside of the cavity, if you find that cavity containers leftover detritus.

Step 3
Fit the Inlays Inside the Recessed Cavities

After drilling, you should now have a bunch of empty cavities on the neck where you can place new inlays. The new inlays should sit almost flush with the fretboard but not completely; if there is a bit of a lip, even better. This is OK because you are going to file down the excess. Now if the inlay is too deep in the cavity, you will need to fill the cavity to adjust it.

Step 3a
Fill the Cavity with Wood Dust Both Below the Inlay and Around It

What you'll need: Rosewood/ebony dust.

This step may not be necessary for all the inlays but necessary for those in which there are gaps between the inlay and fretboard or if the inlay sinks too far into the neck. In any case, it's useful to have wood dust around so you can place a little bit below the inlay when you glue it into place, so that the dust acts as a buffer between the fretboard wood and the inlay piece. You may also need to insert the dust around the inlay once it's been glued in, if there was any chipping when you started drilling.

Don't load up on the wood dust, but be sure that it packs in tightly (use some type of pokey object like a chopstick to help it sit properly) and then glue it with a thin layer of cyanoacrylate (CA). You may need to make multiple applications.

Step 4
Glue the Inlays In and Allow to Dry

What you'll need: Various types of CA (super glue) with whip tips and (potentially) an accelerator.

Now that you have inserted the dust and each inlay sits in a cavity with a bit of a lip over the cavity, it's time to glue the inlays in. Take your time and allow the glue to dry thoroughly, using accelerator or even leaving it overnight to make sure the inlays are secure. In this case, I would probably use a medium super glue applied with whip tips. A little goes a long way, so apply sparingly.

Step 5
File Down the Inlays Until They Are Flush with the Neck

What you'll need: various types of small flat files like these StewMac Needle Files.

Now the fun part begins. Get your respirator on and file the inlays down so that they lay flush with the fretboard. If you're unlucky and have frets in the neck already, you'll need to be careful not to nick the frets. Create a solid motion where you are going back and forth until the inlay is almost completely flush, focusing on filing the top of the inlay so that it's even with the board.

As the inlay approaches being flush with the neck, you may take off a little bit of the wood of the fretboard—be careful to do that minimally and uniformly, so the fretboard doesn't look uneven. When you're finished filing, the inlay should be very smooth and even. You should not feel it when you run your hand over it. This step can take the most amount of time, so once again, go slow and proceed carefully.

Step 6
Shine, Shine, Shine!

What you'll need: Very fine steel wool (rated 0000), fretboard oil like Music Nomad's F-ONE Oil.

Now your fretboard has new inlays installed but it probably looks like it needs some TLC. What you can do is take some very fine steel wool, tape off the neck from the nut to the rest of the headstock and (once-again) create a back and forward motion to even out any unevenness on the fretboard.

The fineness of the steel wool will not impact the frets too much so just go slow and be sure to pick up any stray steel wool particles with a strong magnet. (You'll need to keep all steel wool particles away from your pickups, which, being magnets themselves, will attract the particles.) Then apply fretboard oil to condition the fretboard.

Now you are finally done and might have something that looks like my Mermaid Strat. Play a few chords to make sure you like the feel of the inlays. Don't be disheartened if you must take it apart and adjust a bit more. It's all part of the learning process.

Monique Hernandez-Fuentes writes for GuitarTricks.com. In her free time, she loves researching gear and trying to build even more guitars.


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