Make a perfect fit with a
By Tom Caspar
Don’t you just love it when something
that looks extremely difficult
turns out to be oh-so easy?
Making butterfly inlay with a plunge
router is a good example. The technique
is very easy to learn. All it takes
is a set of router accessories and some
1/4-in. plywood or hardboard to
make your own template.
Butterflies appear to bind two
pieces of wood together, but they’re
really just for show and are only
1/8-in. thick. Few pieces of authentic
Mission-style furniture were
dressed up with butterflies, but in
recent years they’ve become a common
decorative theme in reproduction
Mission furniture, adding a
light touch to heavy-looking pieces.
The easiest way to make inlay is with
a plunge router, but it’s possible to
use a fixed-base router instead. The
only problem with using a fixed-base
router is that you’ll have to tip it into
the cut by hand, which takes some
practice. This technique may also
put a good deal of stress on a fragile
Whatever kind of router you use,
its base must accept a Porter-Cablestyle
template guide. This is a stationary
ring that screws onto the router
base. If your router’s base doesn’t
have a hole sized for a Porter-Cablestyle
template guide, you can buy an
The inlay kit
Inlay kits are available from several
manufacturers, but they’re all very
similar. You get
a template guide, a 1/8-in.-thick collar
that snaps onto the guide and a 1/8-
in. solid-carbide bit. The bit is usually
a spiral downcut that cuts exceptionally
clean, chip-free edges.
The inlay set we used also includes
a centering pin for installing the template
guide in your router base. If the
guide isn’t centered, the inlay may not
fit well in the recess.
Click any image to view a larger version.
This kit has everything you
need to make both the inlay
and the recess it fits into:
Make the template
All you need is one template to make both the inlay pieces
and the recesses they fit into. Our shop-made template
produces perfectly symmetrical, straight-sided butterflies, but
you can modify the template for any shape or size butterfly
you want. You can also buy a template that has seven different
sizes of butterflies (see Source, below).
The material you make the template from should be 1/4-in.
thick. If it’s thinner, the router’s template guide will bottom
out on your workpiece. Most of the material you probably
have on hand, such as plywood or hardboard, is actually less
than 1/4-in. thick. You can use it, however, if you add a shim,
as shown in Step 4, below.
1. Make two rectangles of
1/4-in. material (A) and
cut them in half at a 15-degree
2. Flip one half of each
rectangle over and glue it
to the other half. You don’t
have to clamp them. Simply
apply a thin bead of glue to
one edge and rub the two
pieces together. Pull the
joint tight with a piece of
masking tape and set them
on a flat, non-stick surface,
such as a piece of melamine
or waxed paper.
3. Cut two larger rectangles (B) from the same material and
glue all four pieces together. Use the same rub-and-tape
technique. Make sure all the top surfaces are even.
4. If your material is less than 1/4-in. thick, shim the template
with cardboard, plastic laminate, mat board or whatever
you have on hand. The total thickness of the template and
shim should not exceed 5/16 in. Cut a hole in the shim that’s
about 1/8-in. larger than the hole in the template. Glue or tape
the shim to the template.
5. Draw centerlines on the template. (If you’re using dark
hardboard, first apply a dab of white correction fluid to
make these lines more visible.) Cutting the corners off the template
makes it easier to clamp the template to a workpiece.
Rout the butterflies
Prepare some straight-grained blanks 3/4 in. x
1-1/4 in. x 16 in. It’s a good thing to have a little
bit of contrast in color or grain pattern between
the butterflies and the surrounding panels. Butterflies
made of white oak go well with panels
made of red oak, for example.
Attach the template guide to your router base
and install the bit. Adjust the plunge depth of
your router so it cuts 1/8-in. deeper than the
template and shim.
Clamp the template to a blank. You can center
it by eye. To cut butterflies near the ends of the
blank, support one side of the template with
another piece of 3/4-in. wood. Set the router
on the template and butt the guide against one
of its inside edges. Plunge the bit and follow the
Cut the butterflies
Stand the butterfly blank on edge and glue it to
a backer board about 6-in. wide. Run a piece of
tape along the top of the butterfly blank. Then put
a zero-clearance insert in your tablesaw, which is
essential to make this cut safely. Rip a 1/8-in.-thick
strip from the blank, remove the tape, and you’ve
got six identical loose inlay pieces.
Rout the recess
Put the collar on the template guide. Adjust the
plunge depth of your router to cut a recess 1/32
in. to 1/64 in. shallower than the thickness of
the butterfly inlay.
Clamp the template to the workpiece. For
vertical alignment, match the template’s center
glue line with a centerline drawn on the
workpiece. For horizontal alignment, match the
centerlines on the template with layout lines
on the workpiece.
Rout the recess. Take it easy, because the
1/8-in. bit is fragile.
Glue the butterflies
Cut the corners of the recess with a chisel or
knife. They’ll be rounded after routing, but they
must be cut to acute angles so the inlay fits.
Spread a thin layer of glue in the recess, put in
the inlay, scrape off any glue squeeze-out, and
cover the inlay with a small piece of white
paper. Clamp a thick board over the inlay and
let the glue dry. The paper will absorb any
further glue squeeze-out. After the glue dries,
remove stuck pieces of paper by lightly wetting
them. Level the inlay with a block plane or by
scraping and sanding.
(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)
Router inlay set, #09I16;
Replacement 1" bit, #09I17;
Router adapter baseplate, #144931 (fits routers by Sears, Ryobi, Makita, Bosch, Porter-
Cable, Milwaukee, Hitachi, DeWalt, Fein, Elu and Freud);
Butterfly inlay template, #146903.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker March 2003, issue #99.
March 2003, issue #99
Purchase this back issue.