Imagine a beautiful marquetry design on a table top, a jewelry box, or even a cabinet/cupboard door. The possibilities are endless.
Marquetry involves using thin sheets of wood, called veneers, to create designs. You might like to incorporate some marquetry into one of your next projects.
Marquetry is in no way a new art form. Furniture placed in Egyptian tombs thousands of years ago contain inlays of wood, stone, metal and precious jewels.
Today, we often see marquetry on antique furniture, from simple inlaid strips to elaborate designs. Marquetry flourished during the Renaissance when rich European patrons hired artisans to create and apply designs to furniture, trunks, and carriages. With the Industrial Age came the idea that anything hand made was undesirable and marquetry fell into obscurity. Today, marquetry is experiencing a renaissance of its own. Marquetry artists use many styles, including abstract, multi-media and local genre designs.
The methods for producing marquetry are really very simple.
Attach pattern to veneer
Trace pattern onto veneer
Correct blade angle
Look through window to align grain
Half leaf shape and matching cut out
Rub in glue
Any line drawing, even from a child’s colouring book, can be used for a marquetry pattern. Generally, it’s a good idea to mark the grain orientation on the marquetry pattern. The grain generally runs the long way on each piece in the pattern. For this composition, we will use the grain of the veneer to represent the veins in the leaf. One of the keys to being successful with marquetry is letting the veneer grain provide the details for the picture.
Preparing the Veneers
• Cover one entire side of each piece of veneer with a single layer of masking tape. This will be the good side or the ‘face’. Tape keeps the face clean and prevents the veneer from breaking while being cut. For this piece I use a light veneer for the background (V1). The dark veneer (V2) will be the leaf. I work from the back (untaped) side, so I don’t have to worry about getting glue or pencil marks on the face.
• Attach the pattern to the back of the light veneer with a single piece of tape along the top edge.
• Use carbon paper to trace one half (either A or B) of the leaf shape onto the back (untaped side) of (V1).
• Hold the blade perpendicular to the veneer.
• While cutting, look straight down over the top edge of the blade to make sure the blade is straight and vertical. Your success in knife cutting depends on this simple skill – keep the knife straight over the line and don’t allow it to lean over. If your knife isn’t perpendicular, the edges of your cuts will be uneven and the pieces will not fit together well.
• Start at a position on the line that is close to you. You need to see the line ahead of the knife at all times. Make a light cut about ½” long, pulling the knife toward you. Making successive half-inch cuts allows you to always have the pattern line in sight.
• With (V1) on your work surface (tape side down), look through the hole you just cut out. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is called the ‘Window Method.’ Once a shape is cut out of the background, the hole in the background becomes the template for the piece of veneer that will fit inside.
• Slide the contrasting veneer piece (tape side down) underneath (V1). Looking through the window in (V1) you can position the contrasting veneer in a pleasing manner and align the grain properly.
• Hold the veneers together and secure them with tape in at least two places. You need (V2) to be held snugly in place as you cut into it.
• Use the window as your guide to cut out a matching shape from (V2). Keep your knife snugly up against the edge of the window. Don’t lean the blade over into a pencil grip, and only apply little pressure on the blade. Lightly cut the outline of the leaf shape into (V2). You may have to go over the cut-line more than once before the piece will come free.
• Set that half of the leaf aside and gently separate (V1) and (V2).
• You should have your background (V1) with one half of the leaf shape cut out of it, and a matching shape cut out of (V2). The leaf shape will slide into the background easier if you add it from the front or the taped side. The tape does not like to slide through the cutout veneer (V1), so install cutout shapes from the front or face.
• Hold the marquetry up to the light and check for gaps. The gaps must be small enough to swell together with the application of water-based PVA glue. If you see white lines of light coming through the gaps, they are probably too large. All you have to do is re-cut the shape.
• When you are happy that the piece fits snugly into the background, lay the whole thing face down. You will apply glue to the back only, so that it won’t interfere with the finish later. Take a small dot of white glue on the end of your finger, about the size of a popcorn kernel. Rub the glue right into the back of the seam between the two pieces. Continue to rub glue into the gaps all the way around the shape. If the veneer starts to warp or curl, you are using too much glue. If this happens, place the piece between two sheets of wax paper or plastic and put six to eight heavy books on it.
• Allow it to dry overnight.
• To complete the picture, simply repeat the process for the other half of the leaf shape and then the stem. When the glue is dry, carefully remove all the sticky tape from the face. Pulling tape off with the grain direction minimizes tear-out.
• You must apply marquetry to a substrate. For pictures, I use MDF (medium density fiberboard) or plywood. You can apply the marquetry with either solvent-based contact cement or PVA glue. If you use PVA, you need at least 11 PSI of pressure to form the bond. For a 5″x7″ piece you can use about six clamps and an extra piece of scrap wood between your clamps and workpiece to distribute the pressure evenly.
• Place plastic or wax paper between the scrap wood and the marquetry face. You don’t want to glue your veneer to both pieces of solid wood.
• Apply PVA glue to the substrate only, never the veneers. I use yellow carpenter’s glue and apply a layer the thickness of a coat of rolled-on paint. Contact cement does not require clamping, but if you use it, read all the warnings and directions carefully.
• Apply a plain veneer to the back of the substrate to counterbalance the marquetry veneers. Veneer glued to the surface of solid wood, plywood or MDF, exerts a lot of pressure and can twist and warp the substrate.
• Leave the clamps on for the time recommended by the glue manufacturer. Once the glue has bonded, remove the clamps and scrap wood, and allow at least 24 hours for the piece to dry.
• Because of the variations in veneer thickness, the surface will be uneven, so we need to sand it.
• Use a large sanding block. For a 5″x7″ piece, I use a block of MDF almost the same size.
• Start with 220 grit and sand until all the pieces feel even on the surface.
• Repeat with 360, 400 and then 600 grit papers. Three or four passes with each grit should be enough.
Complete the piece with your favourite wood finish. Some experts do use water-based finishes, but I advise students to stay with oils, waxes or solvent-based finishes.
I cut professional picture framing material for my work, but you can purchase commercial frames as long as you stick to standard picture sizes. You can also veneer the raw edges or simply paint them. Remember to sign and date your work.