What is an Onlay?

An ornamental design applied to the surface of objects.


An onlay is a decorative element used in interior design to embellish the surfaces of furniture, walls, doors, and other objects. Unlike inlays, which are set into the surface, onlays sit on top of the surface they decorate, creating a raised, textured effect. Crafted from a variety of materials such as wood, metal, plaster, or stone, onlays come in an array of designs, from intricate floral motifs to geometric patterns, and can be painted, stained, or left in their natural state depending on the desired effect.

Incorporating onlays into a design scheme adds a layer of sophistication and detail that can enhance both contemporary and classical interiors. They are particularly popular in architectural and furniture designs inspired by historical periods, where ornate detailing is a defining characteristic. As a versatile decorative technique, onlays can be adapted to suit a variety of design styles, from the old-world charm of a traditional home to the clean lines of a modern space.

Professional craftsmen often customize onlays to fit specific dimensions or design requirements, making them a highly flexible option for adding unique, personalized touches to interior spaces. While they are aesthetically appealing, onlays also have a practical aspect in that they can be used to conceal imperfections or damage on the surfaces they cover.


Onlays are commonly found adorning the crowns of bookcases, the panels of doors, the mantels of fireplaces, and the edges of tables and desks. They are also used to enhance the visual appeal of architectural features such as cornices, pilasters, and frames, providing an extra layer of decorative detail.


  • Can onlays be applied to any surface?

    Almost any surface can be adorned with onlays, provided it is flat and stable enough to secure the onlay. Their application is not limited to wood; onlays can also be used on metal, plaster, and even some types of plastic surfaces.

  • Is it difficult to install onlays?

    The installation complexity of onlays varies depending on the material and the surface to which they are being applied. While some may come with adhesive backing for easy application, others may require professional installation, especially if they are large or made from heavy materials.

  • Can onlays be painted or stained?

    Yes, onlays made from materials like wood can be painted or stained to match or complement the surface they are decorating. Metal and plaster onlays can also be painted to fit the color scheme of the room.

  • Are onlays durable?

    Onlays are generally durable, especially those made from materials like wood, metal, or stone. However, their longevity also depends on the type of environment they are in and how well they are maintained.

  • Can onlays be used in outdoor spaces?

    Yes, onlays can be used in outdoor spaces, but it is crucial to select materials that are suitable for outdoor use and can withstand weather conditions.

Practical Application

When incorporating onlays into your interior design, consider the overall theme and color scheme of the room to ensure they complement rather than clash with the existing elements. For a cohesive look, match the material or finish of the onlay with other decorative features in the space. Onlays can also be used creatively to draw attention to specific areas of a room or to add visual interest to plain furniture pieces. Always measure the area where you plan to place an onlay to ensure a proper fit, and consult with a professional if you're planning to install heavy or complex pieces.