Interview: Inlay Artist Harvey Leach - "On a Canvas of Wood & Strings"

Harvey Leach's talents as a luthier & inlay artist are legendary. I had the pleasure of making Harvey's acquaintance many years ago at an informal luthiers gathering to review a few guitars. Somehow, it seemed entirely fitting that this humble man enjoyed a special relationship with the tools of his trade - exotic woods & fine inlay materials. Harvey is regularly called on by the biggest guitar manufacturers to give their guitars the one thing that they can not give them: a sense of uniqueness & individuality. Harvey has also cemented his reputation as an innovator in the field of lutherie with his unique design for an uncompromising travel-guitar, the "Voyage-Air". Stay tuned to for a review of the "Voyage-Air"! was fortunate to have been able to chat with Harvey about his passion that drove him to specialize in creating inlays & his vision for the future.

(Q) How long have you been doing this?

(A) I started my first banjo in 1972, when I was in the 7th grade. My first attempts were closer to moving backward than forward. I tried carving a banjo neck out of a piece of birch that I had cut down the same day. It, of course, cracked and split so badly that it ended up on the woodpile. My first "Inlay" came soon after. I routed out a cavity the shape of a weird little bird and filled it with Plasticwood, not all that attractive but for some odd reason I still have it. It was supposed to be a banjo fretboard, but instead I ended up using it as a cutting board for the Inlays--what is referred to in Inlay jargon as a "birds beak."

(Q) How did you get started?

(A) My dad was a building contractor so I was pretty much raised as a woodworker. My family was also very musical. My mom and dad had a country band, and for a while we even owned a dance hall. My dad played guitar and fiddle, and my mom accordion, piano, guitar and really she can play anything. She actually taught me my first song on the banjo and she had never played one before. My dad had me tinkering on old fiddles to start. In '72 my sister bought a 5-string banjo, a Harmony. It was a piece of crap, but I played the heck out of it. I bought a book on banjo by Earle Scruggs. It had all the great songs in it, but more importantly, in the back was a chapter on building your own banjo. A guy named Bert Brent, MD wrote the article. It was pretty basic, but in just six or seven pages it had enough to start me on what is now my life's work. I think if it had been more complicated I would have lost interest. There was also a section on Mother of Pearl Inlay. That's where I started to do real Inlays.

(Q) Do you prefer building guitars or Inlay work?

(A) Well, that's a tough one. I enjoy certain things about each. Building guitars is more difficult I think. The current level of craftsmanship in the hand-made guitar industry is staggering. Customers expect perfection. I often liken it to building a set of kitchen cabinets and at some point you are attaching the finished cabinets to the wall and you strip out a screw and you have to start over again. I've built close to 300 guitars, so I guess I don't find it as rewarding or as artistically stimulating as the inlays. I now get some pretty wild Inlays to work on. Sometimes I have to come up with new ways to make the designs work. I did some work for Kevin Ryan a while back that I had to build a special router jig for so I could control the location of the Inlays. Because the Inlays were going into oak, the cavities had to be perfect, and then fit the Inlays to them. Usually it's the other way around.

(Q) What influenced your style?

(A) Early on, I followed the same path as most inlay artists, cutting vine patterns and geometric shapes. Later, I got to know Chuck Erikson, the Duke of Pearl, and he exposed me to some of the more cutting edge work of artists like Larry Robinson, Grit Laskin and Rene Karnes. I actually reached a point where I didn't even want to cut my own Inlays anymore. I contacted several CNC cutters and even spoke with Larry about doing work for me. The big change for me came when Chuck showed me the first prototypes of Abalam. I think I might have even talked him out of a sheet. Abalam changed everything for me. I could cut it faster (I was a little impatient at the time) and because of the size of the sheets, I started using the deep-throated jewelers saw. It was really awkward at first, but once I got the hang of it I found I had better control that with the smaller saw. An unexpected benefit was that the longer frame acts like a shock absorber so I could use smaller and smaller blades. I cut with 6/0 and 8/0 size blades now. The 8/0 are the smallest you can buy. My style requires the smallest blades I can find.

(Q) Who do you admire?

(A) There are so many great Inlay artists these days and each seems to have a special quality that sets their work apart and makes it easily recognizable. Larry's use of unique materials, Grit's design ability, Rene's engraving, etc. I also get a great deal of inspiration from some of the CNC cutters who are really pushing the limits of that art form as well. Larry Sifel and the folks at Pearlworks, in particular, have been working with Chuck Erikson to create some astounding work. I find it a great challenge to try and out-cut the computer!

(Q) What makes you unique?

(A) I do what is known as Photo-realistic inlay. I am constantly trying to find ways to get finer and finer details. I try to avoid any engraving; most of the dark lines you see in my work are kerf lines that are filled with black or other colored filler. I prefer this method because most of my work gets shipped to another builder who might have to do final sanding and any surface engraved lines would be gone. I also have better control of the jewelers saw than I do with a graver. The other advantage to me is that I construct most of my Inlays much like jigsaw puzzles. I glue the patterns onto the material with CA glue and often leave the paper on until several or all the pieces have been assembled. By using the kerf method I can track how the inlay is forming from the backside.

(Q) What inspires you?

(A) I find the greatest inspiration from some of the great master artists from the past. I am a huge fan of 3 artists in particular--Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt. Michelangelo was so gifted in so many different mediums, Da Vinci was not only a great artist but also a visionary and inventor, Rembrandt could create such realism.

(Q) What materials do you use?

(A) One of the great epiphanies for me was Larry Robinson explaining to me that where you get your pallet of materials isn't important. He once told me he would go to yard sales and buy old toys to get the great colored plastics. For the longest time I felt if I was going to go to the work of cutting an Inlay it should be from a material that had a perceived value before it was cut. After thinking about that for a while I understood. The great artists whom I admire most did most of their work using material that by itself had little or no value; canvas, marble and oil paint. Now I use anything if I need a certain color. The 911 Inlay I did recently has the blue part of the flag cut from a floppy disc cover. I also created my own Inlay material to get the desired effect of the sky transitioning to the mountains. I mixed a series of light and dark blue oven-baked clay for that. There are, of course, limitations to these types of materials; the clay is much too soft for a fretboard but works under finished areas. I love Corian as well as recon stones and some of the polyesters.

(Q) Do you use any special techniques?

(A) One special technique I have been developing over the years is using thin shell to create special effects. I first got the idea by accident on a polar bear Inlay I was doing. On the pickguard 2 polar bears stand on an ice floe. I wanted to simulate ice so I used a material called Donkey Shell. It kind of looked like ice so I glued it directly to the black pickguard. The unexpected surprise was that the thin material allowed the black to show through in places. But it didn't show as black because the colors of the shell created a sort of nice ice-blue. That got me thinking about other ways to get similar effects. I didn't use it again until the 911 guitar. On the headstock Inlay the sky and the fog in front of the statue are using a similar method. The latest use was on the Western Inlay I did for Martin guitars. The headstock has smoke that partially obscures the Martin logo (not everyone covers up gold) and I really feel I took the technique to new heights on the pickguard. There I used it for glass on the mirror, window and the picture of CF Martin 1 and created a hologram effect. As the piece is moved, the shell will reflect light to the point where you can't see through it, yet at another angle the "glass," "clouds" and "fog" disappear completely. What I think is really special is that it's not very often an artist gets to create a technique that has probably never been done before.

(Q) How are you able to get so much detail?

(A) Magnification! Dr. Dean and I have become quite close. But also what I think of as vision, meaning an awareness of the materials I have at hand to get certain effects and a desire to put them to use. I like to use subtle changes in material color to get realistic results. For instance, most Inlayers will pick a blue material for a shirt and then engrave in detail lines and shading. I like to get several materials that have slightly different tones and use darker blue for shading, etc.

(Q) What is the biggest job you have ever done?

(A) To date the 2 biggest projects were the Sept. 11 guitar and the Western Martin.

(Q) What do you think your best work to date is?

(A) I like the Statue of Liberty on the 911 guitar. First, it has so much meaning and emotion captured in it; and secondly, it was a huge growth for me personally as an artist. Everything I had done up to that point was art, but the 911 guitar was art that told about a significant event in history. I also like the Western pickguard because it breaks new ground with the mirror effects. To be able to come up with a new technique that will be copied by the people I have looked up to and in an art form that is centuries old is kind of humbling.

(Q) What's your greatest challenge?

(A) I find it harder and harder to top what I have just done :^) I have ideas, though, that are beyond my current abilities. I would like to recreate some of the great masters in Inlay-- Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt I think they would make a nice "set" of guitars. When I can do the Mona Lisa, I'll know I'm ready.

(Q) What do you want to achieve?

(A) I think everyone hopes that long after they are gone they will have left something behind that will cause people to stop and think and maybe inspire them to their own greatness.

(Q) Where do you see this all headed?

(A) I think in the guitar world there is a new market that is developing where some of the work of the great modern day Inlayers will be looked at as collectable art that just happens to have a guitar for canvas. I see where some of the crazy prices that paintings and sculptures command will be paid for guitars. I think people will see Inlaid musical instruments in the same light and use them as accent pieces in decorating. Musical instrument Inlay is still pure right now; there is good money in it but not crazy money. The people who are really setting the standard are doing it because they love it. If we ever get crazy money I'm not sure that will always be true.


Harvey may be reached at H.G Leach Guitars, PO Box 1315, Cedar Ridge, CA 95924. Tel (530) 477-2938. E-mail: