How to Create Stunning Turquoise Stone Inlays in Wood
Crushed turquoise can make for some truly beautiful wood inlays. You can add it to natural cracks and checks, into tunnels created by woodworm, or just create the grooves yourself to be filled. As such it can turn what would be flaws in the wood into incredible features. The best techniques for adding the turquoise are to use either cyanoacrylate (superglue) or epoxy resin. We will look at sourcing the turquoise, how to set it into place and finish it, artificial alternatives and even how to make it glow in the dark!
Oddly, sourcing can sometimes be more difficult than it sounds. If you are like me, you will have read a bunch of old forum posts talking about contacting mines or jewellers who use turquoise and asking for their scrap. If only it were so easy - I tried! I wanted to try selling in quantity online, so not just a few oz. And while most the people I e-mailed didn't even bother replying, one did. He basically told me that because the price of turquoise had gone up so much in recent years there is no longer such a thing as “cheap scrap turquoise”, and that if he were to sell what I wanted he would have to actually take good turquoise and crush it up. That said, you can occasionally find people on ebay selling old jewellery or mining scrap, sometimes labelled as “crushed turquoise”. I managed to get 2lb of such a stock, and I am glad I did - but it is still very hit and miss, with many of the scraps being mixed with inclusions of other less interesting rocks and some pieces having almost no turquoise in them at all. It takes quite a bit of smashing and sorting to get a mix that is suitable for inlay.
If you see someone selling bags full of turquoise pieces that appear to be perfect, tumbled and shiny but at a great price – beware! It is probably dyed ceramic. This rubbish is sometimes given silly names like "howlite" and it is extremely easy to tell fake from real after you get it, because once you smash a piece (difficult in itself) you'll notice the blue is only on the outside and the middle is pure white. Similarly, avoid the “turquoise” beads from cheap jewellery, or aquarium pebbles - if they are not ceramic then they are probably plastic. In general, unless I were buying from a crystal shop or a reputable source, I would avoid any shiny tumbled pieces.
Another sort of fake turquoise is labelled as “reconstituted turquoise”. This consists of some turquoise mixed with a dyed chalky material and a plastic binder. Although I have never bought any of this specifically, I have broken up some pieces from my scrap stash that dissolved into powder as soon as I tapped them with a hammer. This can be useful as it produces a coloured powder to go around the real turquoise for the inlay, but I wouldn't use it on its own.
One final trick people use is to sell a powder as "turquoise for inlay" but when you read the details, you'll see that it only contains a small percentage of real turquoise and the rest is an artificial additive. This might work OK for inlay - but I have no idea, I would never purchase it! If I wanted an artificial colouring agent to mix with real turquoise then I would just buy a pigment.
The best stuff is expensive, and often labelled with the mine it comes from like “Kingman" or "Sleeping Beauty" turquoise. The best mines are located in Arizona and have an excellent true turquoise blue colour, compared with Eastern sources that tend to have more green in them. You will always find some people selling good quality stocks as natural / rough / crushed turquoise - see linked for a good example. It is worth getting some of this even if you intend to get scrap quality as well. That way you can use larger pieces of high quality stone with the lower quality arrayed and powdered around it. Multiple sources create colour contrasts, as we'll get to later. Also, it is just so much easier to use this than sorting out the scrap! I would buy whole pieces rather than powder, you can create your own powder and having a range of sizes is absolutely necessary in my opinion to get the best results. Also remember that like wood, turquoise will have a wet look and a dry look. Setting them in place and polishing the stone will make the colour pop.
Most turquoise on the market today is lightly stabilised, which means that is has had a binding agent forces into the rock at high pressures. This is good for jewellery, as it hardens the rock and stabilises its colour - for our purposes, light stabilisation like this is not such an issue, though might make the rock more difficult to crush. Sometimes however producers also add dyes in with the binder, whether you want to buy lightly dyed turquoise is personal preference. The main thing to bear in mind with this is that stabilised turquoise will have slightly more of a wet look, even when it is not finished. As such, when purchasing it is best to compare actually wet stones, to give a better comparison.
As an aside, the Sleeping Beauty mine was widely regarded as producing some of the best turquoise in the world, but it shifted production in 2012 to focus on industrial mining of copper - turquoise has aluminium and copper in the chemical structure, and is often a by-product of copper mining. The Kingman mine is still going, however the reduced production from Sleeping Beauty and other mines is responsible for the large increase in the price of turquoise over recent years. Fortunately some stocks of stone from Sleeping Beauty are still available, although it is expensive - see below.
Chrysocolla can be a less expensive alternative to turquoise, although it doesn't always have the same level of vivid colour that pops out of the wood. I think some sellers will adjust the colour of the images to make it look more attractive than it is. I bought some but found it was tricky to use, being very hard and mixed with other grey rock. I have linked to a higher quality seller, I have not tried this source and you might have more luck with it. Malachite is another option if you want full green. I tried calcite but it is too translucent, creating more a tint than a strong colour. Deeper inlays might help. You might also want to look into using crushed shells which have the potential to be pretty. If you have used some other stone or substance that you think looks really nice – please let me know! You can get in touch through the contact page.
One other option you might want to play with would be mixing e.g. malachite and turquoise chips to get two different and distinct colours of stone, or using chrysocolla powder around turquoise stones. I have not tried it myself, but I think it could look pretty good. And it might keep the cost down.
The simplest alternative to real turquoise is to buy your own pigments (powders) or dyes (liquid colours). Obviously, nothing water based... There are specific epoxy dyes on the market, but I have not used them. I have used pigments however and they work just fine. Lots of colours available, and you could also combine it with turquoise to give powder sections an even more vivid colour while maintaining the texture and grain of the crushed stone.
A more upmarket alternative would be to use products made specifically for inlay work, such as those produced by companies like Inlace or Black Diamond. Black Diamond are a newer company to the market and sell pigments mixed with mica, which will give the finished product a degree of shine or pearlescence which will flow and set with the resin as it is poured - very attractive. They have a number of colours available, see link for their turquoise styled offering.
Inlace products come in a variety of colours and have various additions you can throw into the mix, allowing a high degree of customisation. These includes a couple of sizes of grain for texture, metallic dust or dyes for glitter or shimmer effects, pearlescent shimmer powders, etc etc. They do provide kits that you an modify, but you can also pick and choose ingredients and then add the clear resin. Mix the ingredients together and when you are ready add the hardener - again you can buy this from them, but I see no reason why you couldn't use your own epoxy if you prefer. That said, I am not sure what their resins are based on, probably epoxy - but do your own research. I've linked to their "teal" coloured granules if you want to check this option out, however you'll need to go to the Inlace website and look for a local distributor if you want to access their full range of options.
So if you need a specific colour or effect, the above are good options. Similarly when it comes to very thin lines or small inlays, or if you just don't want to spend too much, then artificial alternatives definitely make sense.
Glow in the Dark!
OK so I have only done so quick tests with this so far, but you can absolutely add glow in the dark powder in with the crushed turquoise. It would look great with powder and small chips - with large lumps of stone the glow would ring them, which could also look good. You would not want to add so much that it obscures the colour of the turquoise but enough to be noticed when the lights go out. Unfortunately I don't know what this would translate to in terms of actual quantities. But if done right, it would add another layer of value to any work you might produce. Please let me know if you try this - I'm in the process of testing this out for a new product and will update this page with my own results very soon. In the meanwhile, check out the product I have linked for what looks like some good sky blue coloured glow in the dark crystals from Amazon, but note that if you want to buy larger quantities at a lower price you will need to buy direct from China with Aliexpress.
Even if you buy relatively small pieces, you will still need to break them down into an array of smaller sizes and a quantity of fine powder. The ideal setup would be an anvil with walls around the edges to catch flying chips. Failing this any old lump of steel will do – I use the head of a small sledge hammer placed into a cardboard box. I don't recommend cast iron frying pans... they break and "people" become... unhappy... Place the turquoise on top of whatever you are using, cup one hand around it to catch those errant chips, and then hit with a smaller hammer. Grind some of the smaller lumps into powder. Best to do this in batches, so that you have a good supply of different sizes and a bag of powder. If you are using scrap, then remove any chips that have too much of the dull grey surrounding rock. For me “too much” means “any”, but your tastes may vary.
Cyanoacrylate (CA superglue)
Health and Safety Warning: Cyanoacrylate was developed for medical uses, but it definitely has its hazards...
Fumes: These are horrid at the best of times, and about 5% of people can become sensitive (allergic) to them over time. But if you soak up a little of the super thin cyanoacrylate with tissue paper it will set very rapidly, giving off heat and a thin line of brutal smoke. Cyanoacrylare turns to cyanide when burned so.... consider yourself warned. This heat can also be deeply unpleasant if the tissue paper / cyano sticks to your fingers while setting. I have given myself heat blisters from this more than once..
If you stick your fingers together, you can usually unstick them simply by pulling them apart if you are fast (and ignore the pain) but if not, soak your fingers in acetone and try again. Use a thin knife to cut if necessary.
Safety warnings aside, cyanoacrylate is amazing stuff, and the super thin variety linked right (or below for mobile users) is incredibly useful for all kinds of jobs. Cyano comes in a variety of viscosities, but for this technique you would be best off to avoid the thicker varieties. I always go with as thin as possible for its ability to rapidly and deeply penetrate the medium and set extremely rapidly. The product linked is the thinnest on the market, and like all cyanos it sets clear. However it will also penetrate less dense woods, so if you are using a softwood and want to add a natural finish like oil then this could be a problem. In that case you would be better off with epoxy or an artificial resin alternative. If you are using a wood comparable to oak or denser this should not be a problem, but test first if unsure.
Generally my preference is to use the cyano inlay technique if at all possible, although for larger pieces epoxy can be easier. Be aware using cyano like below can take time, sometimes lots and lots of time! I sold the 250mm (10”ish) diameter cracked oak burr and turquoise bowl at the start of this article (also pictured below) for £200 (about $250), and that was badly selling myself short on how long it took.
So – the technique. I like to place the largest possible piece of turquoise that I can fit into the inlay space (up to a reasonable point). If necessary apply a little cyano to tack it in place, if possible add more chips around that, and finally add the powdered turquoise. By adding slightly different colours of powder and chips to the main pieces of stone, you can get better definition and variety of colour. If you just want a continuous grainy turquoise colour, then you will obviously want to go with a layer of small chips or dust. I do this in some instances, see examples below. Note that even though the cyano is clear, the solid lumps of turquoise still offer the cleanest and strongest colours. Either way you do it, flood the area with the cyanoacrylate, being careful to make sure it doesn't flood into any nearby areas that you haven't inlaid yet. Use tissue paper to dab it up or form walls, but watch for those fumes.
Although super thin superglue generally sets in seconds, with crushed turquoise there can be little pockets of liquid that are not doing anything and will just sit there until they cure. So it can be a good idea to sprinkle more powder down on top after you have applied the cyano. Any free liquid near the surface will then wick in and set. You might even consider using an accelerator like the one linked above if you are doing a lot of this sort of work. This will make the cyano harden pretty much instantly. I have linked to an aerosol based accelerant, purely because this is my preference, however spray bottle style ones are common and a little cheaper. Also, although the one I have linked to is not specifically labelled as a cyanacrylate accelerator, it will work as one and is cheaper per fl oz than specifically labelled products.
Health and Safety Warning: If you don't use gloves you will eventually become sensitive to the epoxy, which is no fun – yup, I managed it. Especially easy to do with the very thin epoxies I like to use. So wear suitable gloves! Maybe even 2 pairs!
Although more difficult to control the position and spread of all the rocks, if you are not a rabid perfectionist like myself or simply have a much larger void to fill, then the epoxy method will work just fine. Also it is better if you are worried about cyanoacrylate penetrating surrounding wood. Just take your mix of turquoise, making sure to include a good amount of powder, mix it with an epoxy and apply to the void or gap to be filled. Obviously if you applying to a fine crack or groove then you will want to use pretty much all powder, whereas for larger voids you can use larger chunks.
Most clear epoxy resins will work for this job, but be aware that fine powders act as catalysts for the epoxy - so don't use 5 minute varieties unless you can apply the mix very quickly to the workpiece. Having the mix set before it is applied is very annoying!
Ideally you'll want to add the mix to a section of the workpiece that is flat horizontal, so it cannot slump out. In this case, you can easily use thin epoxies - generally my preferance if I can get away with it, as it will then flatten itself and I can add more powder without it getting to thick. Also thin epoxies are less likely to pull in air bubbles during mixing. If a flat workpiece is not a possibility then medium to thick epoxies may be a better idea, the viscocity will hold the mix in place while you tape over the top to stop it slumping. Or you could just add more powder to the mix until it gets really thick. For taping in place, you'll need clean wood without any epoxy smeared over it. Duct or even gorilla taps is good, but any old packaging tape will usually do. As with cyano, sand down to flat before finishing.
As a side note, some people use polyester resin for inlays. It is true that polyester is cheaper but it is also inferior to epoxy - so I don't use it!! And I would doubly never use it for combining with a high cost material like turquoise.
Naturally we want to sand down through finer grits to get a nice smooth finish. However for best results I use the below micro-mesh sanding pads. These go all the way to a crazy fine 12,000 grit and allow you to easily being the turquoise / resin mix to a good shine before applying final finish. For what are essentially little more than super high grit sanding pads, you might be surprised by how shiny they can bring your work. And of course, they'll shine up the cyanoacrylate/epoxy as well. Very popular with pen turners.
That's all I have for you! I hope you gave enjoyed this article and found it useful. If you have any tips or techniques you have figured out yourself, then please please contact me using the contact form, or leave a comment below.