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About Marquetry

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Origins and History of Marquetry

Marquetry is the art of assembling veneers from hundreds of species of wood, sometimes interspersed with gems, ivory, mother of pearl, etc. to collectively form a picture or design. It was practiced by the Egyptians over 3000 years ago, and priceless boxes, panels and furniture enriched with designs in colourful woods were left in the pyramids.

Other examples of inlay appeared in Asia Minor around 350 B.C. These were marble inlays. By present definition, their work is called inlay because it involved recessed areas into which small cut pieces of colourful wood were inset or inlaid. The term marquetry refers to cut pieces of native and exotic woods, sliced into veneer thickness, assembled as a design into a single sheet and then glued to a solid surface, usually wood, hardboard or particle board.

After the fall of the Roman Empire a few workshops survived in Italy. In the 14th and 15th centuries dramatic changes took place in marquetry methods. Schools of marquetry were set up, the most famous being in Florence. The veneers of this period were very thick and were shaped with a chisel. From Italy marquetry spread all over Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries France further developed and refined the art.

Down through the ages as better methods were devised for cutting wood into thinner sheets of veneer, and better tools were developed for sawing veneers into delicate shapes and to compose intricate designs, the practice of marquetry has flourished. For marquetry, the highest art form in wood, the current period is one of vitalized revival.

The practice of marquetry as a hobby has been a vibrant one for over four decades in England where its popularity has led to the formation of a society. It is also practiced in Germany, Holland, Italy and the Carpathian region of the Soviet Union. More recently, this craft was introduced in Canada, Australia and the United States, where societies have also been formed. As a tabletop hobby, it is practiced as saw-cutting and knife-cutting techniques resulting in small intricately fitting pieces of wood veneer. It is a highly rewarding craft and is the goal of many who want woodworking as a hobby.

Marquetry - An exciting form of woodworking

A General Overview of Making a Picture, from Start to Finish. (Knife cutting method)

Marquetry is a craft which requires very little in the way of space and a few tools as well. As for materials, most marquetry kits come complete with all the necessary veneers, a back board for mounting the work, and two copies of a pattern. In addition to this, one must acquire on one's own, a few other items for completing the work.

To begin with, one should have a cutting board at least 12" x 12"; somewhat larger would be better if larger pictures are contemplated. The purpose of this board is to provide a work surface on which veneers may be cut without damaging the kitchen table, or wherever else one happens to be working. On the cutting board, it is suggested that a piece of cardboard be used, such as the back of a writing pad. This is optional, but its use will help to prolong the life of the cutting blade.

Next is the cutting knife. The X-Acto knifes are recommended, although any other having sharp pointed blades, and being easy to handle will do. With the X-Acto knife, the #11 or #24 blades are best. Exactly which of the two will depend on the type of knife which is selected. An ordinary pencil is required, along with a piece of carbon paper, preferably a pencil carbon. This is used for tracing the pattern to be cut onto the wood veneers. As the various pieces are cut from the veneers, they should be assembled and held in place with cellophane tape.

Once the pattern has been completely cut out and assembled in one piece, it is necessary for the assembly to be glued to the back board. Either white glue or contact cement may be used for this. The contact cement does have the advantage of not requiring clamping or pressing while the glue dries. On the other hand, one must exercise care with the contact cement in aligning the two pieces carefully before they are permitted to touch. Once the two glued surfaces make contact, they cannot be moved again.

To finish the picture, two grades of sandpaper are required: first a medium grit and then a fine grit. A small piece of wood, about 2" by 3" makes an excellent sanding block. Once the picture has been well sanded to a smooth finish, and dusted clear of loose particles, an application of Tung Oil or Boiled Linseed Oil may be rubbed on using lint-free cloth.

In summary, aside from the marquetry kit itself, one will need the following items:

This then is marquetry from start to finish, - but is it? Certainly there is everything needed to produce many fine pictures. However, some will want to go on from there, designing their own pictures, stocking their own varieties of wood veneers, and trying various methods of cutting. They will invent their own little jigs and gadgets, as well as try some fret saw cutting, sand shading or other finishes. These are some of the different aspects of marquetry to be explored by those wishing to do so.

Marquetry is no longer the intricate artistic skill of a very few. Improvements in cutting gluing and finishing materials have facilitated its growth. Simplified techniques and available supplies have accelerated its acceptance by people of nearly all ages, both men and women. As you progress it may bring out some hidden talents you never knew you possessed, for marquetry is a combination of craftsmanship and artistry.

Updated January 2019