Simple Bellflower Inlays
Bellflowers are a common form of inlay decoration often seen in Hepplewhite and Seymour styles of furniture. As the name suggests, it is a small flower motif that resembles a bell. It consists of three leaves, one vertical and two set at angles to the first one. Historically, there were nearly as many designs and methods of making bellflowers as there were makers creating them. To this day, regions of origin or even specific makers can be identified by the style of the bellflower inlays used.
The most typical method for making bellflower inlays is to saw out the flower as a single piece and then incise the outline with a knife to create the pocket for the inlay. This requires patience and skill, but there is an easier method for making very nice bellflower inlays in minutes using just a few tools. The process is simplified by "stamping" both the pocket and the inlay using a gouge to outline the shape. It is an excellent introduction to inlay techniques. All of the bellflowers in this article were made using three gouges: a #6 by 20mm, a #5 by 14mm and a #6 by 8mm.
Using a simplified method to make the bellflowers, you need only a few tools and a bit of time.
Mark a single vertical line in the center of the space where the flower will go and mark two secondary lines, one on each side of the centerline, at equal angles to that line. I made my first couple at 45°, but when I needed to add some to a narrow leg I made the angle 30° to better fit the available space. Both look fine; it is a matter of spacing and personal preference.
Laying out the flower markings for the centerline and two angled lines
The most difficult part of any inlay is to cut the pocket exactly the right size and shape for the piece that’s being let in. By using a single gouge to make the pocket and the inlay, we can be sure of the exact size and shape of both.
To begin, lay the tips of the gouge on the vertical line and strike the gouge to cut an arc. Reverse the gouge and strike a matching arc on the other side of the line to make a pointed oval leaf shape. A quick twist of the gouge from each side typically causes the waste to pop out to create the inlay pocket.
Image left: Performing the first cut on the center leaf.
Image right: Removing the waste from the center leaf cuttings.
You do not want to cut too deep; the ideal depth is the thickness of the veneer being inlaid or just a whisker less. With very little practice, you can get it right every time. The pocket should be mostly flat on the bottom, so you may need to use a small knife to scrape it smooth. Be careful to not damage the edges of the pocket while doing so. You’ll be left with the pocket for the center leaf and you can cut the veneer inlay to match.
The first pocket is completed and it’s time to move on to cutting the pockets for the outer leaves.
Holly is the traditional choice for inlay because of its light color and fine grain, but any clear-grained contrasting wood veneer will look fine. Simply use the gouge to cut an arch along the grain of your veneer and then reverse the gouge, aligning the tips to the arc, to cut the leaf out just as when cutting the pocket. No mallet is needed, as a sharp gouge can be pressed right through the veneer.
Stamping the inlay for the center leaf into the holly veneer
Dry fit your leaf in the pocket. If it fits, it can be glued in place. If it is too small, make another one or your inlay will show a gap. If the leaf is too big for the pocket, use your gouge to carefully trim off a bit of one side. Be sure to use a sharp gouge so that you can remove very thin slices from the inlay.
Spread a small amount of glue in the pocket and set the inlay place. A hardwood block can be used to tap the inlay, seating it in the pocket. This tends to set the inlay flat to the surface of the surrounding wood, even if the pocket bottom is not perfectly flat. The center leaf is traditionally inlaid first so that the secondary leaves partially cover it. Flowers grow from the center outward, so this is the most natural pattern.
The center leaf inlaid into the pocket; be sure to create a nice tight fit.
Once the center leaf’s glue is dry, each of the side leaves can be inlaid in the same fashion. When cutting the secondary pockets, remember that one tip of all three leaves should align to the same point. These pockets should overlap the center leaf, meaning you will need to cut part of it away. This adds to the flower’s realism. The three petals can all be cut using the same gouge, or the center leaf can be slightly larger than the side leaves. Again, there are no hard rules. Decide what looks best for your project.
The inlays for the side leaves are cut in the same manner using the same gouge you cut the pocket with. Even though these leaves will be at an angle, you still want to cut the inlay along the grain of the veneer so that it will be less fragile and look better after it has been inlaid.
Image left: Removing a small portion of the center leaf while cutting the second leaf.
Image right: The second leaf cut and inlaid into the wood.
At this point, your simple bellflower is complete but not finished. The inlay pieces will not be level with the surface of the field and there will probably be some glue residue stuck to them. They must be cleaned up and smoothed out. A scraper is the best tool for doing so. It can quickly remove the excess while allowing you to see exactly when the inlay is flush. You can sand it flat in just a few seconds, but use a fine grit and do not over-sand or you risk removing the inlay completely.
Image left: A completed basic bellflower.
Image right: Scraping the inlay to create a smooth surface.
Simple to Complex
At its most basic, the inlay is just three simple ovals. After you practice the technique you will be able to cut and inlay a bellflower in about 30 minutes from start to finish. And after you have mastered fitting the leaves accurately, you can experiment with some variations to personalize your project.
Image left: Three variations of the same basic bellflower.
Image right: Alter the basic design by shading the center leaf.
A simple way to take your bellflower one step further is to cut each petal in half on the long axis before gluing, to create a central vein line. Another method is to shade the central leaf to add depth to the inlay. This is done prior to gluing it. With the leaf cut and dry fit but before placing and gluing, shade one end using the hot-sand technique. Furthermore, the secondary leaves can be cut out of different materials, or even dyed, to add another dimension to your flower. And you can use these same skills to go well beyond the basic bellflower.
Image left: Another variation in which the outer leaves are created from a different type of veneer.
Image right: A very nice-looking six-point bellflower.
The bellflower motif is typically presented as a row of three or more set along a vertical line from large to small like a hanging vine. The smaller flowers are made using the same technique but using a smaller gouge. Careful thought should be given to the layout of the flowers inline. I recommend cutting some paper flowers to test the layout before cutting your actual parts.
Three different sizes of the basic bellflower inlaid in a straight line
Adding bellflowers is a fast and simple way to enhance the look of your next project. You get great results with nothing more than a couple of gouges, a scrap of veneer and a bit of practice.
Text and photos: Ralph Bagnall