Harvey Leach
Cutting Edge Inlay
Cedar Ridge, CA

Harvey Leach
Years Building: 29
Above: Geisha fretboard: Agoya shell, crushed pearl; blue and black Atlante; red Micarta; red, midnight, sand and lavender Corian; brass, mahogany, ebony and mammoth ivory.
Harvey Leach thought he was going to build banjos, because they have that big resonator on the back that’s like a blank canvas. His first inlay project was on his first banjo—with a ten-page instruction book on how to do inlay as his only guide. “Banjo players like all that flashy stuff,” he says with a chuckle, “I thought you couldn’t build a banjo without covering it with inlay.”

The transition to guitar came pretty quickly. He realized that there were a lot more guitar players in the world than banjo players, and being a guitarist himself, it felt right. His first guitar was a wedding present for his wife in 1980: “Well, I gave her the parts as a wedding present; I assembled it a little later than that!” Leach eventually parodied his struggles with time management on one of his own guitars: there’s an angel painting the brand on the headstock—so far there’s “Le.”

Despite his propensity to get things done at the last possible moment, he’s become one of the go-to guys for boundary-pushing inlay for a long list of premier builders, including Paul Reed Smith, D’Angelico, Kevin Ryan, James Olson, the late Lance McCollum and Martin. “Martin wanted stuff that looked like it should be hanging in a museum,” he says, “a whole different level. That led me into finding ways to do stuff nobody else was doing.”

His work is often almost holographic, a technique he says he discovered almost by accident: “Abalam is basically shell—like abalone and mother-of-pearl—that has been sliced very thin, approximately .007 inches thick (about the thickness of a human hair), and then laminated like plywood into thicker sheets. You can buy Abalam as thick as you want, but the more layers, the more expensive it gets. A single sheet might be ten dollars, where a piece 1/16" thick might be well over one hundred. I had a polar bear inlay project where I needed to create the look of ice, and there is a shell called Donkey Shell that has a look that reminded me of the way ice would form on the windows in the Vermont winters where I grew up. So, me being a Yankee and therefore thrifty, I figured I would just buy a single sheet and glue it to a black substrate to make it thick enough to work with. When I did, the black showed through in places; amazingly the effect was exactly like ice! That got me thinking about the possibilities of using the translucence and the chatoyancy [the effects of light and angle on reflective material] of the thin shell to create mirrored effects.”

This “smoke and mirrors” technique [so nicknamed by Dick Boak of Martin] was the inspiration behind his commemorative September 11 guitar. “The first time I used it intentionally,” says Leach, “was to create fog at the base of the Statue of Liberty.” Leach broke new ground by using materials with different shades of the same color to create dramatic shading effects and 3-dimensionality: “After I finished it I would take it to shows and people would walk up to it, stare at it for a while and then walk away crying without even saying a word to me.”

Leach doesn’t like to think anything is impossible, and relishes complicated challenges. “In really complex designs,” Leach continues, “the biggest challenge is deciding which things to do first. Sometimes the place to start is determined by how you are going to get in and out of the cut, and sometimes it’s how you are going to hang onto the piece while it’s being cut. I like to cut pieces that are very small. Most often, impossible means somebody wants an inlay in the top of the guitar itself. Inlaying complex shapes into spruce is nearly impossible because of the dramatic difference between the summer and the winter grain of the wood. Winter grain (the dark line) is like rock maple and the soft grain is like cork. Ironically, it’s the soft grain that creates the problems. Really, nothing is impossible, but I have to do the Mona Lisa someday, and I’m not quite ready yet for that.”

Leach’s Cherub: 14k gold lettering; mammoth ivory, red coral, Corian, brass, gold pearl and walnut cherub;  malachite, green rippled abalone vine; green heart abalone headstock trim; crushed pearl headstock binding.
Martin Cowboy Pickguard: black walnut, Bastogne walnut, mahogany, madrone, maple, African blackwood,ebony; malachite, malachite web, green lizard, obsidian, pipestone, spiney oyster and denim lapis recon stone; denim, midnight, red, granite and bone Corian; brass, silver, mammoth ivory, thin mother-ofpearl and crushed pearl.

Back of Samurai guitar: sycamore, madrone, black walnut, Bastogne walnut, maple, koa, mahogany, laminated veneers; various Corian “stone” colors (midnight, red, blue, bone, evergreen); Agoya shell, pale abalone, green rippled abalone, silver, malachite, mammoth ivory, thin mother-ofpearl; blue and green Atlante; obsidian recon stone.