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How To Customize Your Own Acoustic Guitar

Updated on November 29, 2013

Customize Your Acoustic Guitar With Beautiful Abalone Inlays

Last summer I helped a friend learn how to customize a few acoustic guitars with new abalone inlays. He is a craftsman of leather and upholstery by trade but took this on, and since I had done this myself many years ago, and enjoyed it, I was happy to help him when he asked. It's really a fun and rewarding project, as it takes very little skill with the right tools, patience and know how. It's also very inexpensive.

Photo courtesy inkogutto@morguefile

If you have a guitar that could use some sprucing up, give this a try! When you see the results of your work, you will feel a little like Professor Henry Higgins showing off Eliza Doolittle!

Customize Your Own Guitar Inlay Tools
Customize Your Own Guitar Inlay Tools

What You Will Need To Replace The Guitar Neck Inlays

You can have a very good quality guitar that does not come with attractive inlays, kind of a "Plain Jane". Many come with plastic or plain white pearl inlays on the neck and the rosette around the body hole. You can really improve the look of your guitar by replacing them with abalone inlays that are beautiful and inexpensive to buy.

Image credit Easy Abalone Inlay Will Kelley

Most of the tools you will need you probably already have in your tool chest or household fixer upper drawer. I will list them all and provide some links for you to purchase those items you might not have including abalone inlay dots.

1. Digital Caliper. You will need this to accurately measure the size of the dot inlays you will be replacing.

2. Replacement abalone inlays. Always get one more than you need, in case you lose one or it just isn't the pattern you like.

3. Tweezers.

4. High quality, gloss finish super glue. You should not use the cheap, everyday super glue for this project.

5. Drill with a bit that is half the diameter of your dot inlays, to bore a hole into (but not through) the center of the old inlay so you can remove it easily.

6. Small flat edged screwdriver.

7. Masking tape to hold the inlays so they won't roll away and get lost!

8. High quality single edge razor blades for finishing.

9. Super fine sandpaper for finishing, grades 600, 1000 and 1500 to polish the inlays to gloss and remove any roughness.

10. Cellophane tape, standard type you use for gift wrapping will do. A little of this will be used to cover the razor blade.

11. Old English Scratch Cover for polishing the neck when you are done.

12. Polishing pad, 300 grit if you can get one.

13. Small flat needle file.

Customizing Guitar Inlay Tools

30pcs Green Abalone Inlay Material Dots 6mm Guitar Parts
30pcs Green Abalone Inlay Material Dots 6mm Guitar Parts

When you get your inlays, separate out those with the design you want, and then line them up on a strip of masking tape.

Neiko 01407A Electronic Digital Caliper Stainless Steel Body with Large LCD Screen | 0 - 6 Inches | Inch/Fractions/Millimeter Conversion
Neiko 01407A Electronic Digital Caliper Stainless Steel Body with Large LCD Screen | 0 - 6 Inches | Inch/Fractions/Millimeter Conversion

You must be accurate in sizing your dot inlays. This caliper displays both metric and standard.

TEKTON 6655 Needle File Set, 10-Piece
TEKTON 6655 Needle File Set, 10-Piece

Here is a nice, inexpensive needle file set. Good to have these around.

Black & Decker DR260B 5.2-Amp 3/8-Inch Drill/Driver
Black & Decker DR260B 5.2-Amp 3/8-Inch Drill/Driver

Here is a good drill if you need one. This is not cordless. I hate those because I always forget to charge them!


Replacing The Guitar Neck Inlay: Preparation

Of course, before you begin you should have removed the strings and if possible, the neck from the guitar body.

You can do this project with the neck still attached IF you secure it to prevent it from moving while you are working on it, and to prevent any pressure you exert from damaging it. (You will be drilling small holes in the existing neck inlays, so be mindful of that in your preparation work area.)

IMPORTANT: If you cannot completely support the guitar while you are drilling the small holes, do not attempt this or you could damage your guitar neck! If you have an acoustic guitar with bolts holding it on, I have provided instructions in another part of this article. If it is glued on, you should take it to a professional because the gluing process involves steaming and heating and is not something you should attempt unless you are completely trained in this type of work.

I did not remove the guitar neck when I changed the inlays, so I also covered the body of the guitar while working on it with a thick soft cloth, and made sure I avoided any leaning on it.

Work on a flat surface that will not be disturbed, is clean and has enough room for you to work, support the guitar, and your supplies.

Removing The Bolted Type Neck From An Acoustic Guitar

You will need a sharp new single edge razor blade and some lacquer for touch up when you put the neck back in.

1. Remove the strings.

2. Carefully, with your razor run a line through the lacquer finish to break the seal where the neck and body are joined.

3. Remove the neck bolts.

4. The neck will most likely need careful nudging to come out. Slowly move the neck back and forth, wiggling it a little at a time until you feel it beginning to come loose from being wedged in it's slot tightly. Be patient, and keep up the small movements until with a gentle pull it will come out of it's slot. Be sure and do all of this carefully, slowly, so that you do not chip any surface of the guitar while moving it.

After the neck is out, you can prepare it for replacing the inlays. Reverse this procedure when you are done, and after bolting it together, carefully touch up the lacquer you removed when you started.

Easy Guitar Inlay Instructional Videos 1 & 2

For best results, I would view these videos before you begin. The step by step written instructions are below, and you can print this out to have them handy for reference while you work.

Guitar Inlay Preparation
Guitar Inlay Preparation

Replacing Your Guitar Inlays Step By Step

First, view the complete instructional video's here by Will Kelly from You Tube. This is a set of 2 and they fully explain the procedure.

Screen shot credit Easy Abalone Inlay Will Kelley

I have the written step by step shortened instructions below for you to reference and print out if you like to have handy while you work.

Naturally, I have assumed you have correctly measured your existing dot inlays and have gotten your new ones, as well as any tools needed, and are ready to begin.

1. Using a sharp pointing pick or awl, press a point into the center of the dots to mark the middle of them, to help the drill bit grab into the inlay.

2. Measure the depth of an inlay dot with your caliper and then mark your drill bit with a narrow piece of colored tape to guide you so that when you drill, you do not exceed the depth of the dot, and accidentally pierce into the wood of the guitar neck. You just want to have a hole deep enough so that you can extract it after drilling.

3. After drilling, take the bit out of the drill, and with the reverse end, insert it into the hold you drilled in the inlay and gently work it until the inlay comes loose and is easily removed.

4. With a small flat dull bladed screwdriver, gently remove any old glue residue. DO NOT cut into any of the wood, or damage the holes original integrity. You just want to clean it out and have the original flat bottom in the hole before you proceed to the next step.

5. With a small piece of your ultra fine sandpaper, gently rub it across the top of the hole to smooth off any rough edges. Use your finger to feel it.

6. Take you masking tape, and run out a length that will allow you to place your new abalone dot inlays on it. Place the dots on the sticky side of the tape, hole side down, pretty side up, to secure them while you work.

7. Now you want to put a new "floor" at the bottom of the hole with your super glue. You just want to put enough in to create a level surface for the new dot inlay to sit on. If you spill any glue on the neck, remove it immediately with a cloth, and you can sand off any residue later. Leave about a 1/16 of an inch from the top of the hole for the new inlay. Let the glue dry for an hour.

8. Take your first inlay dot, turn it over so you are holding it bottom side up, and with your needle file, gently file a little the dots perimeter, to help it slide smoothly into the hole.

9. Put your first abalone dot inlay next to the first hole you will work on. Turn the new inlay until it is in a position that you like with it's design.

10. Add one drop of super glue to the hole, still leaving room. You don't need much at this point.

11. With your tweezers, put the new inlay in the hole. With a tapping tool that is a little bit wider than the inlay, push it in so it rests flush on the fret board neck surface. Be gentle, but you do want it flush, so you can lightly tap it in if you need to. If any glue comes up, brush it off with a cloth.

12. Repeat until all new inlays are in.

Finishing Guitar Inlay
Finishing Guitar Inlay

Finishing Your New Inlays

1. Place 2 pieces of plain wrapping tape over the edges of your single edge razor blade, leaving a space in the center that is the width of your new dot inlays.

Screen shot credit Easy Abalone Inlay Will Kelley

2. With a pulling motion, and the razor blade at a slight angle, scrape it over the inlay in one direction until it is smooth and flush with the surface. Use your finger to feel the top is smooth and flush, and the blade should slide smoothly over the inlay if done. Repeat this step for all the inlays.

3. Burnishing the wood and inlays: Holding a blade at an angle, without the tape covering it, roll it back and forth over the entire surface between frets (do not press down or cut into the wood!), including the inlay. This will make the entire surface smooth and even. (Review the video if you are unsure of this step.) Repeat this for all (even those without inlays) so the entire neck surface is even in gloss and wood color.

4. Put a drop of Old English Scratch Cover on the wood between the metal frets, and with a good polishing pad, rub the surface completely until it has a smooth, rich polish. Try to avoid the metal fret bars. Repeat for all.

You are done! Now show off that beautiful new guitar!

Some Really Nice Acoustic Guitars

Fender Acoustic Guitar Bundle with Hard Case, Tuner, Strings, Strap, Picks, Austin Bazaar Instructional DVD, and Polishing Cloth
Fender Acoustic Guitar Bundle with Hard Case, Tuner, Strings, Strap, Picks, Austin Bazaar Instructional DVD, and Polishing Cloth

The popular Starcaster is a great choice for someone starting out without a lot of dough. I like this package because it includes all the stuff you need for it.

Yamaha FG700S Folk Acoustic Guitar Bundle with Hard Case, Strap, Stand, Tuner, Strings, Picks, Capo, String Winder, and Instructional DVD - Natural
Yamaha FG700S Folk Acoustic Guitar Bundle with Hard Case, Strap, Stand, Tuner, Strings, Picks, Capo, String Winder, and Instructional DVD - Natural

Here is a nice package for a more serious player, with all the accessories. Yamaha makes a nice instrument.

Epiphone DR-100 Acoustic Guitar, Ebony
Epiphone DR-100 Acoustic Guitar, Ebony

For a beginner, you can't find anything better for this low price in sound quality than this beautiful Epiphone Ebony guitar. Solid.

Applause by Ovation AE128-5 Acoustic Electric Guitar
Applause by Ovation AE128-5 Acoustic Electric Guitar

Perhaps the best beginners electric acoustic guitar at this low price. This is perfect for someone in a band who wants that blend of sound that is unique. Not just for beginners either.


Guitar Accessories and Learning Tools

You can also add some fun Guitar Stickies to your guitar to liven things up. Or add a Guitar Straps to personalize it with your style. Get Free Acoustic Guitar Lessons Here and Shop Guitar Sheet Music

Here are a few more items you might want to have:

How to Build Electric Guitars: The Complete Guide to Building and Setting Up Your Own Custom Guitar
How to Build Electric Guitars: The Complete Guide to Building and Setting Up Your Own Custom Guitar

Here is the book by the creator of the step by step videos in case you are interested in building or doing more customizing of a guitar.

The Acoustic Guitar Method
The Acoustic Guitar Method

This is a DVD, that not only gives you the basics, but you can play along with the song instructions, to pick and play.

Dunlop 6500 System 65 Guitar Maintenance Kit
Dunlop 6500 System 65 Guitar Maintenance Kit

This kit has everything you need to keep your guitar looking and sounding brand new.


Which Do You Prefer, Acoustic or Electric?

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    Post Comment

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Good lens !. I like both , I can play well guitar . I can assemble the electronic circuit for electrical guitars .

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great lens full of good advice!

    • lgOlson profile imageAUTHOR

      L Olson 

      4 years ago from Northern Arizona

      @lesliesinclair: Thanks! I also found it fun and rewarding doing it myself!

    • lesliesinclair profile image


      4 years ago

      Acoustic is the sound for me. Tackling this task will be made easier for anyone who reads and follows your tutorial. Nice job.

    • craig57 lm profile image

      craig57 lm 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing the information!

    • lgOlson profile imageAUTHOR

      L Olson 

      5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      @amosvee: You got that right!

    • amosvee profile image


      5 years ago

      I have had exactly two guitar lessons, so I'm not qualified to say. But it must take guts to take the neck off a guitar without a guitar tech involved!

    • jknake lm profile image

      jknake lm 

      5 years ago

      I like the acoustic, I have an Ovation. But I also have an electric, I think it's a Gibson es335 which my husband had made for me when I was teaching. I haven't played for a while and I don't think I'd ever consider redoing my guitar. Amazing lens.

    • verymary profile image


      5 years ago from Chicago area

      My son plays both, as does hubby. But my son is the one I can see customizing his guitar in this manner, as he's into visual art too. Am sure he would rather be doing this than homework! :) Very cool page.

    • lgOlson profile imageAUTHOR

      L Olson 

      5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      @Diana Wenzel: Cool! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      What an interesting project. I had never thought to do this with any of my guitars. Now I would not hesitate to spruce things up with new inlays. Thanks for the instructions. I'm acoustic all the way. Congrats on your feature!

    • knights93 profile image


      5 years ago

      Great lens, I'll have to try this later on!

    • Arod17 profile image


      5 years ago

      So cool really liked this Lens.

    • Elis173 profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow, i love this lens

    • lgOlson profile imageAUTHOR

      L Olson 

      5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      @Mr Criminology: Thanks!

    • Mr Criminology profile image


      5 years ago from Philippines

      clearly illustrated procedure there, nice.


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