Guitar Purfling: Types, Techniques, Working Tips

Published Categorized as Care and Maintenance

Achieving clean, professional purfling lines is key for an artisanal guitar build. However, many luthiers struggle with making consistent, straight-edged purfling that enhances their instrument’s aesthetic. This guide details an overlooked guitar purfling technique using simple woodworking tools for flawlessly smooth results. 

With just a router, edge guide, and purfling cutter, luthiers can create expert-level purfling to make their guitar pop. 

purfling guitar

Table of Contents

What Is Purfling On An Acoustic Guitar?

Purfling refers to the decorative inlays along the edges of an acoustic guitar’s top, back, and sometimes sides. While visually striking, purfling serves an important structural purpose in guitar-making.

The origins of the purfling date back centuries in the craft of luthiery (guitar construction), with early luthiers recognizing that strips of wood or other materials could reinforce the thin wooden top and back pieces. As intricate inlay work evolved into an art form with makers like Martin, Taylor, and Gibson, purfling took on more ornate aesthetic roles alongside its functional use.

Specifically, purfling prevents cracks from spreading across the guitar’s top or back if splits occur in the wood. By creating a buffer zone about 1/8 inch wide, the inlaid bindings structurally contain any cracks that may form over time. Visually, purfling also appealingly defines the edges, with alternating black/white multi-ply bindings being common. More elaborate designs can involve wood marquetry, shell inlays, and laser-cut materials for custom decorative flair.

Materials Used for Purfling

From traditional woods to modern synthetics, luthiers leverage a spectrum of materials to craft distinctive decorative purfling. Careful selection balances aesthetics, ease of working, structural integrity, and sustainability.

Common Tonewoods

Tonewoods like ebony, maple, rosewood, and holly offer timeless purfling elegance with their rich grains and colors. Ebony’s jet-black density powerfully contrasts binding layers. Figured maple captivates with its wavy chatoyance, while rosewood contributes chocolate hues. Relatively sustainable choices like walnut and cherry also shine as eco-friendly options. Their stability and fine machining properties facilitate precision cutting and inlaying.

Exotic Materials

For more exotic flair, materials like abalone, mother of pearl, and colored acrylics shine with kaleidoscopic radiance. The brassy yellow abalone shell undulates with fiery iridescence sure to catch eyes. Contrasting purfling colors prevents visual competition with such loud materials. Synthetics like veneers and acrylics enable consistently vibrant patterns. However, fragile shells risk cracking if improperly worked.

Sustainable Choices

Emphasizing sustainability, some luthiers opt for paperwork-based materials, richly colored linoleum scraps, or thinned recycled plastic sheets to substitute for scarce resources. While structural stability suffers somewhat, these renewable options admirably reduce environmental impact. Their playful, retro-modern look also proves intriguing. Overall, choosing purfling materials involves balancing beauty, strength, playability, and environmental consciousness.

What Is The Difference Between Purfling and Binding?

Though they may look similar at first glance, purfling and binding serve unique purposes in acoustic guitar construction. Binding refers to the strips of plastic or wood situated along the edges of a guitar’s top, back, and sometimes sides. Acting as a protective buffer, binding helps shield the instrument’s fragile wooden components from bumps, scratches, and other sources of wear.

Purfling, on the other hand, resides just inside the binding, embedded into shallow channels routed along the top and back edges. Typically composed of a black/white/black or alternating light/dark multi-ply design, purfling is largely decorative and used to define the borders in an aesthetically striking way. However, it also offers structural reinforcement by preventing cracks from spreading across the vulnerable thin tops if splits ever occur. In this sense, purfling fulfills a supportive mechanical function as well.

Prominent acoustic guitar manufacturers like Martin, Taylor, and Gibson leverage both purfling and binding in their designs. For example, Martin’s Standard Series D-28 model incorporates a multi-ply herringbone purfling inlay along the top’s perimeter, complemented by layered white plastic binding on the outer edges. The visually distinctive yet protective combination highlights how purfling and binding work in tandem to serve both visual and structural needs in guitar craftsmanship.

Types of Purfling

When constructing a guitar, luthiers can choose from various purfling styles to decorate and reinforce the instrument’s top, back, and sometimes sides. From simple lines to ornate wooden inlays, different purfling patterns provide aesthetic flair while serving key structural purposes.

Traditional Multi-Ply Purfling

The most common type of purfling involves alternating black and white strips of wood or plastic, often referred to as multi-ply. With a timeless, classic look, multi-ply purfling offers an understated elegance perfect for traditional builds. The thin layers reinforce the delicate rim areas through compression strength despite their diminutive size.

While black and white pairings prevail, some luthiers opt for more colorful or exotic material combinations. For instance, alternating purpleheart and maple or dyed veneers can provide eye-catching results. When working with multiple species, ensuring proper glue adhesion and wood movement becomes paramount.

Wood Marquetry Purfling

For more ornate designs, various wood marquetry options exist. Skilled luthiers transform solid tonewoods into intricate geometric patterns or nature-inspired motifs through careful cutting and assembly. When bookmatched, mirrored purfling sets exhibit mesmerizing symmetry along the mirrored edges.

Just like multi-ply bindings, the dense woods aid structural reinforcement despite captivating primarily with their aesthetic allure. Precision fitting eliminates gaps or weak points that could undermine strength. Some marquetry incorporates multi-ply edges for added durability.

Laser-Cut Acrylic Purfling

Modern guitar building leverages laser-cutting technology for unprecedented purfling precision. By programming patterns into CAD software, CNC machines can slice thin acrylic sheets into limitless unique shapes. Flaunting crisp, flawless lines and consistency, laser-cut acrylics open new creative outlets for makers.

Vibrant colors and color blending further expand the aesthetic possibilities. And since acrylics lack wood grain, patterns remain uniform across the entire application area. Despite offering less structural support compared to wood, thin laser-cut acrylics still marginally improve edge stability when properly inlaid.

Fretboard and Rosette Tie-Ins

For perfectly cohesive designs, purfling patterns often visually align with other decorative appointments like fretboard inlays and rosette motifs. Repeating elements create unified aesthetics across the whole guitar, almost like an encompassing theme.

The intricacy need not match exactly between areas. But complementary shapes, lines, and colors add that extra refinement master builders pursue. Consistent woods also promote consistency both visually and tonally. So pairing ebony fretboard dots with ebony purfling works better than combining with maple, for example.

Purfling Techniques

When installing purfling by hand, luthiers follow a careful sequence:

  1. Cut shallow channels just wider than the binding strips using a small saw, following the contours of the guitar top. Ensure uniform depths to avoid penetrating through the soundboard.
  2. Spread hot hide glue within the channels then press the colorful purfling strips into place for quick tack.
  3. Use a soft mallet to gently tap the bindings down firmly.
  4. Scrape off any excess purfling strips for a perfectly flush fit.
  5. Finally, burnish the trim with an agate or bone burnisher to polish off glue residues for a seamless finished appearance.

For CNC machine-cut purfling:

  1. Program precision cutting patterns into CAD software based on digitized guitar templates.
  2. Secure guitar tops firmly on the machine bed using vacuum hold-downs to prevent any vibration/shifting.
  3. Carve out the purfling channels with tiny spiral bits or special V-cutters, following the programmed paths.
  4. Clean up any tool marks, glue the bindings in place, then press firmly to adhere them into the routed slots.

DIY Purfling Tips

  1. Start with multiple purfling strips or veneers. Their premade layered construction simplifies attachment compared to intricate marquetry or acrylic.
  2. Use a router and a small straight bit to carve out the shallow binding channels. Make several light passes rather than gouging out material. Stop just shy of penetrating through the top wood.
  3. Practice inlaying bindings on scrap wood before attempting to install them on your final guitar body. Experiment with depths, glue amounts, drying times, and flush trimming methods first.
  4. For the glue, stick with traditional hot hide options. They allow a bit of positioning time before setting completely. Modern super glues bond instantly, leaving no margin for adjustments.
  5. Go slowly when tapping the bindings into place. Use a rubber mallet or wood block wrapped in cloth to prevent denting or bruising the fragile soundboard wood underneath the bindings. Work systematically around the top one section at a time.

Wrap Up

Ultimately, purfling reinforces and decorates the edges of acoustic guitars. The thin inlaid wood or plastic strips help contain cracks but also provide aesthetic flair. Luthiers use various materials balancing appearance, strength, and sustainability. Types include multi-ply, marquetry, laser-cut acrylics, and often matching rosette and fretboard details. Installing involves carefully routing channels to embed the bindings flush with the surface. With practice, hobbyists can achieve good-quality purfling by following basic glue, press, and polish steps. While visual, purfling importantly improves guitar structural integrity through clever craftsmanship.

Guitar Purfling: FAQs

What is purfling on a guitar?

Purfling on a guitar is a thin, usually black or white, inset strip of binding that outlines the edges of the guitar body, top, back and sometimes the fretboard. It serves both decorative and structural purposes.

What is a purfling in music?

Purfling is a decorative inlaid border found on some stringed instruments like guitars, violins and cellos. It emphasizes the edges and outlines of the instrument’s body and top plates. Purfling also helps strengthen joints that might otherwise be vulnerable to cracks from stress.

How do you bend a guitar purfling?

To bend guitar purfling, first, soften the strip by heating it with a hot air gun or holding it over a candle flame. Then quickly but carefully wrap the strip around a curved form or pipe to achieve the desired bend shape. Cool the bent strip completely before gluing it to the guitar body. Work slowly to avoid overheating.

What glue I should use for purfling?

Hide glue is commonly used for gluing purfling strips on guitars and other stringed instruments. It allows for slow setting time to precisely position the purfling and forms strong, flexible joints. Cyanoacrylate glue or epoxy are sometimes used alternatives that set more quickly.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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