Bryan England’s Custom Inlay makes peghead and fingerboard inlays for leading guitar manufacturers. When the company was starting out, England cut the inlays by hand on a pantograph machine. He provided a high-quality product but could not come close to keeping up with demand. England tried using a Bridgeport machine retrofitted for computer numerical control (CNC) but found that it just didn’t work for delicate pearl parts. Next, he tried a Techno CNC router and found that it produced an accurate product while requiring minimal operator attention.
“The CNC router produced more than our order volume at that time so we were able to take on additional work,” said Jason Clark, Machine Programmer, for Bryan England’s Custom Inlay. The company obtained orders from additional guitar manufacturers and bought additional Techno machines to help fill them. Today, Bryan England’s Custom Inlay has eight Techno machines and produces in a typical month 10 times the number of inlays that it produced using manual methods.
When England was working at General Electric with Bill Sullivan of First Quality Music, he learned how to play the banjo and decided he wanted to build one. Sullivan was so impressed with his work he asked England to make custom inlays for him. In 1987 England quit General Electric and went to work for Gibson, hand cutting and inlaying all of their banjos. After a year on their payroll he started his own business so he could work for other instrument manufacturers.
During a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, England ran into Bobby Osborne, a bluegrass musician known for his mandolin playing and high lead vocals. Osborne was looking for someone to create a mandolin. Today, Bryan's Custom Inlay now offers a full line of mandolins and guitars. England’s guitars are unique and are known for a patented string hook up that increases the volume and tone quality. Besides producing inlays for instruments, England’s company continues to work with Gibson, Fender Guild, Washburn, First Act, Jackson, Heritage and other instrument manufacturers and also makes inlays for pool tables, furniture, boxes, guns and other products.
Previous Production Methods
Bryan England’s Custom Inlay produces inlays made of mother of pearl and abalone and sometimes synthetic pearl. For some customers, the company also cuts pockets into the wooden fingerboard or peghead and mounts the inlays. Other customers install the inlays themselves. Customers typically require that the company meet tolerances of 0.004 inch so that the inlays fit into precisely into fingerboard and peghead pockets. In the early years of the company, England cut inlays by hand. The company was limited at this time to accepting relatively simple jobs because of the difficulty involved in cutting certain shapes, such as a straight line, out of pearl.
England soon improved cutting accuracy by producing inlays with a pantograph. A pantograph made it possible to produce inlays of virtually any shape to a higher level of accuracy. But it required a skilled artist to produce the template and a skilled operator to follow the template in cutting out the inlay. Another concern was that templates quickly became worn which reduced their accuracy.
These concerns led England to investigate computer-controlled cutting systems. The company first tried a milling machine that was retrofitted with a computer numerical control (CNC) controller but found that it was not capable of delivering the desired results. Next the company purchased a Techno CNC router from Techno-Isel, New Hyde Park, New York. Customers now send inlay patterns either as paper drawings or as computer aided design (CAD) files. The paper drawings are scanned into CAD files. Bryan England’s Custom Inlay staff then converts the CAD files into a CNC program that is used to control the motion of the router as it cuts the inlay.
The router cuts out perfect pieces every time without need for operator supervision. The process of getting the design into the computer and creating a CNC program takes only a fraction of time required in the past to produce a template. The CNC router produces inlays at about twice the speed that was possible in the past with the pantograph. Inlays can be produced to higher tolerances because the accuracy is no longer dependent on the ability of the operator to follow the template and template wear is no longer a factor.
The router was originally used to produce fingerboard inlays for Gibson electric guitars. “The new machine enabled us to substantially expand production and our customers loved the higher accuracy that the router is capable of producing,” Clark said. “We were able to meet our fingerboard orders on the new machine and still had time available so we began looking for other work to fill it. We obtained many new orders, primarily from other guitar manufacturers. After we filled all of the time on the first Techno machine, we bought a second machine and when that machine got busy we bought another.”
Bryan England’s Custom Inlay now has eight Techno CNC routers. One machine with a 44 inch by 30 inch table is dedicated to machining guitar fingerboard inlays. A router with a 34 inch by 29.5 inch table is used to make peghead overlays. Another machine with the same size table is used to produce peghead overlays and pool table rails. The company has four machines with 24 inch by 19.5 inch tables that are used to make smaller inlays such as logos. Finally the company has a Techno CNC router with a 48 inch by 48 inch table that is used to make mandolin tops and backs, mandolin necks, electric guitar bodies, acoustic guitar necks and banjo necks.
The CNC routers provide substantial improvements in productivity over the previous methods. Downloading an existing program takes only a few seconds compared to between 10 and 15 minutes to set up a template on a pantograph machine. One operator is required for each pantograph machine while only two people are able to keep all eight CNC routers running continuously. One person can produce about 25 fingerboard inlays or pegboard outlays or 50 logos per hour on a pantograph machine while a CNC router produces about 50 fingerboard inlays or pegboard outlays or 100 logos per hour. Some particularly delicate materials cannot be produced by pantograph but can be produced on the CNC router.
Besides increasing the speed at which inlays can be produced, the CNC router saves additional time because its higher accuracy reduces assembly time. For example, the Gibson flying eagle pattern requires 22 different pieces inlaid into a fingerboard. When these pieces were produced on a Pantograph, the assembler glued them onto the fingerboard, traced around them, removed the pieces, routed the pocket with a Dremel tool, and hoped they would fit. The entire process took between two and three hours.
With the CNC routers, the pieces are produced to same dimensions every time and the fingerboard itself is cut on the router to the same dimensions. It takes 10 minutes to run the inlays, 5 minutes to run the fingerboards and another 5 minutes to glue the pieces on the fingerboard for a total of about 20 minutes. The result is that Bryan England’s Custom Inlay has been able to increase the rate at which it produces complete fingerboards from 5 to 30 per day.
The CNC routers make it possible for a relatively small team to produce a remarkably large volume of precision inlays. Clark programs the machines while Jeff Mollyhorn and Dwight England set up the CNC routers which operate with limited human supervision. Dwight England also assembles fingerboard and peghead inlays. Larry Shepherd builds mandolins and guitars. Missy Shepherd does shipping and bookkeeping and in her spare time also assembles fingerboard inlays.
Clark said that the Techno machines provide the high level of accuracy required for this job as well as delivering reliable operation at an affordable price. “The machines are 5 to 20 years old and they have been run continuously one or two shifts a day over that time,” Clark said. “Despite having a lot of run time, they are still very reliable. Whenever I have a problem I can call my service representative Bob Cardone and he takes care of me every time, He is very familiar with the machines and always has my best interests at heart. If I am having a problem, he tells me what to check on the unit and how to fix it myself.”