Tom Ellis
Precision Pearl Inlay
Austin, TX

Tom Ellis
Years Building: 30
Above: Ellis torch and wire mother-of pearl peghead overlay for Ellis mandolin
The major innovation in the art of inlay came in the late eighties with CNC machines. Tom Ellis was one of the pioneers, along with the late Larry Sifel. “I had been building mandolins,” he recounts, “but at the time it was hard to make a living at it, and I had three kids, so I started looking for another profession.” While working as a graphic artist and photographer, he started doing some hand-inlay for some other builders, while continuing to build on the side: “I’ve had a long association with Bill Collings. I’ve always done all of his inlays, and as he grew, I was doing a lot more work for him. I got a pantograph and set up for cutting logos and pearl inlays. He kept growing, and that’s when I realized that CNC was getting affordable, so I took the plunge.” He bought his first machine, and once he got rolling it didn’t take long to pick up more customers. Currently he’s got about five-hundred customers, mostly luthiers that have been in business for over twenty years.

He consulted with Larry Sifel before setting out on his own: “I went with different, more versatile, less expensive machines. He went with big multi-head machines that were custom made for them. I thought I could do it for less. When I told him I was gonna go into business against him he said, ‘Wow, I have a bunch of onesie troublesome customers I can give you.’” Some of them have ended up doing extremely well and being great customers over the long haul. The ideal CNC job is very different from the hand-cutting ideal, he says: “Companies like Taylor are the ideal CNC clients. They order a certain number of sets of all their models every month, and have fairly high volume… or Gibson. Regular monthly orders are your bread and butter; that’s very consistent work.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no creativity involved: “We can take a design from a customer—they can email a CAD drawing that we can open in our CAD program, like the finished image of their logo. We create the tool path and nest it for the machine and send it over so we can cut it. Or sometimes a customer comes and says, ‘I want this or that but what can you come up with?’ We don’t do a lot of design anymore, but my daughter and I are designers, and we do custom designs for our customers. It’s not profitable or feasible to do a one-off or one-time custom job with CNC, but we can do limited editions or fancy pegheads for a deluxe model. We will want more than one, maybe a dozen or so.”

The Tree of Life inlay on the fretboard is one of the standards of the acoustic guitar world. “For Tree of Life inlays, we’ll do one or two at a time,” Ellis says. “Tree of Life ginger board is about 100 hours of drawing and programming. The CNC part is not fast in the beginning. Actually, the design process is very similar to how hand cutters design.” He does very little hand cutting these days, but says there are a few production jobs that require some hand cutting after the machine cutting is done: “That’s always very tricky stuff, so I try to keep my chops up.”

Ellis started building mandolins again about 4 years ago after a 15-year break, and his daughter has taken over a lot of what he used to do with the inlay. “Now,” he says, “for the inlay biz I mostly keep the machines running, and sometimes that’s a full-time job. We have nine CNC machines, just bought a new one and are getting another rebuilt. There are always new systems to learn.”

Routing the cavity for the inlay & cutting abalone.

Gluing up & Mother-of-pearl inlaid fingerboards and headstocks ready for installation.