Thursday, 21 June 2012

Elephant No. 263: Wood Marquetry

Years ago, I bought a sampler pack of veneers which were being sold off at a local woodworking store. My idea at the time was to try marquetry someday. Today is finally that day.

Marquetry involves glueing shaped pieces of wood veneer to an existing panel, box, piece of furniture or other object to create a decorative pattern. Parquetry, by contrast, is primarily geometric in design, and is more often used for wide expanses such as floors. Both marquetry and parquetry fall into the general category of inlay, which involves cutting out a section of one material in order to insert another. Inlay can be produced with stone, metals and organic materials such as shell and bone—in addition, of course, to wood.

The frame on this miniature is boulle-work, featuring brass
inlaid in tortoiseshell, 17th century.

Wood marquetry appears to have originated in sixteenth-century Antwerp and other parts of the Low Countries, where luxury cabinetmaking flourished. Inspired by the stone and marble inlay perfected in Florence and Naples, cabinetmakers inlaid various shades of wood to create geometric patterns, which were in turn inspired by motifs common in the Middle East. As the technique developed, highly skilled artisans added other materials such as mother of pearl, tortoiseshell and metal to create highly intricate designs. 

Although marquetry was introduced to England with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, marquetry remained more popular in France and other Western European countries until well into the eighteenth century. By 1760, however, English popular taste had begun to embrace Neoclassical styles and "French style" in furniture. During the eighteenth century, marquetry became ever more elaborate throughout Europe—particularly once scientific expeditions began bringing back exotic woods from distant lands.

Marquetry box, English, ca. 1670.
Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England

Over the ensuing centuries, elaborate marquetry fell out of favour, becoming limited to small, decorative items such as boxes and picture frames. In the early twentieth century, marquetry enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity, only to decline again as people turned to factory-produced furniture.

Today, marquetry is reserved for high-end furniture and special pieces created by artisans. During the past few decades, some unusual techniques have also been developed to enhance traditional marquetry. These include layering veneers then sanding through the top layer, laser-cutting, and the addition of texture and vibrant colour.

Dancing Couple No. 4 (2008) by modern marquetry
artist Allashka.

Oddly enough, there is also an extensive market for fake eighteenth-century marquetry, particularly on furniture. Most of this furniture is produced in Asia and the Middle East, and can be distinguished from the real thing by the thickness of the veneers, the insides of drawers, and the quality of the metal mounts.

There are many ways of producing marquetry, some of which are easier than others. The simplest appears to involve two sheets of veneer, glued together and cut with a scrollsaw or fretsaw. This produces two identical designs, in contrasting colours. The knife-cutting technique that I used today is apparently a bit more difficult and fussy.

In addition to various cutting techniques, there are several ways of adding shading. These include staining, pyrography, engraving, inking, and plunging veneers into hot sand. It's probably hot enough here to burn veneer with sand, but I'm not doing any of these things today.

Despite the fact that my father used to make all kinds of beautiful things in wood, I've always been vaguely intimidated by anything related to woodworking. I like my jigsaw and radial arm saw, and I can hang a door that actually hangs properly, but I've never used the scrollsaw, table saw or router my father bought me. They're even all set up and ready to go. Shameful of me, really.

I've particularly avoided marquetry, because I assumed I'd need to use all kinds of complicated materials and tools. If nothing else, however, this yearlong project is forcing—er, encouraging—me to try things I would otherwise probably avoid forever. In the process, I discovered that marquetry requires nothing more than veneers, a sharp knife, some special tape, and white glue. I didn't have the tape, but I did have everything else, so there was really no excuse.

These were the veneers I pulled out to play with. Left to right, they are: white oak, red oak, maple, mahogany, cherry, and walnut. Ultimately I chose cherry for the background and maple for the elephant.

I went to the same woodworking shop where I got the veneers, and bought a roll of special veneer tape, which cost about seven dollars.

I also went to the dollar store and bought a small wooden box with a conveniently framed inset in the top. It's also a small inset, which I thought might make it easier. Now, however, it occurs to me that larger might have been better. Oh well.

For anyone who wants to try this, I highly recommend an Irish marquetry website, which covers materials and techniques in a way that's easy to follow for a rank beginner like me. It even includes a simple project from start to finish.

The first thing to do is draw a "cartoon" in the size and shape you want to veneer. The size of the inset in the top of my box was 6.3 x 11.4 cm (2.5 x 4.5 inches), so I made a template for the shape, then drew an elephant design in the middle of it. The website above suggests avoiding small pieces and pointy bits for your first piece. Since I have a small space to fill, and elephant have a few pointy bits, this could get interesting.

Next, you're supposed to indicate general wood colours and grain lines. Since I was only using two pieces, I skipped this part in the interests of speeding up the process.

The design is now ready to be transferred to the veneers. This is usually done by tracing the design to the background veneer with carbon paper. I didn't have carbon paper, so I ran black crayon over a scrap of paper and used that instead.

Before cutting, the back also needs to be reinforced with veneer tape wherever there is a sharp angle or point, and wherever there are narrow areas that don't run parallel to the grain. Veneer tape is dampened with water and doesn't harm the grain as masking tape might do. It also comes off with water. Mine is too wet, which caused the veneer to curl a bit. It wasn't an issue in the end, but the curling was a bit of a pain during the process.

From the background, the veneer is cut out, one piece at a time. Using the "window method", the first segment is removed from the background piece. The resulting hole is then used to score the piece that will ultimately fit into that hole. This ensures that the final pieces fit together properly. For an excellent step-by-step description of how to do this, click here and watch the video.

I cut the elephant silhouette out of the background. It's a good idea to bevel the edges by angling the knife towards the outside. This will help the pieces lock together when they're glued.

After cutting the background, I laid the background over the veneer I wanted to use for the elephant. I liked the little "eye" in the maple, so I positioned the cherry to make the eye in the maple serve as the eye of the elephant.

Going around the edge with the knife held perpendicularly, I scored the outline into the central piece. Using one piece to score the other helps them fit together properly. After scoring the central piece, I reinforced it with veneer tape on the back, then cut it by angling the knife towards the outside again.

Once all the pieces are cut, they need to be fit together. I had to wiggle the pieces a bit to make them lock together, but they fit surprisingly well. Once they fit, I taped the front together.

Now the whole thing was ready for glueing. Before glueing, any remaining tape on the back of the marquetry—the bits that were stuck down in order to keep things from splintering while cutting—should be removed. It's also a good idea to "key" the base to ensure that the glue bonds well. This meant simply scoring the surface of the inset area with a knife.

To glue the piece, white glue is run in thin lines along the base, then spread with a brush or other spreader. The idea is to ensure that the glue is not too wet, nor so thick that it will ooze out along the seams between the veneers. Glue is never added to the veneer, to avoid the veneer soaking up too much moisture from the glue.

Once the marquetry was placed on my box, I needed to clamp it to ensure a good bond. I cut a piece of foamcore to fit into the inset, and used a scrap piece of wood for the bottom of the box. I then used a pair of large C-clamps to apply pressure. After this, I left it for about two hours to cure.

After letting it dry for two hours, I removed the clamps. The clamping wasn't entirely uniform—I should have found a piece of wood for the inset rather than foamcore—so I reclamped in different spots.

Once it was secure, I dampened the veneer tape removed it. After a light sanding, the piece can be sealed with varnish or urethane or Danish wood oil, or whatever other finish you like. I thought I might stain or otherwise decorate the rest of the box, so I decided to leave it unsealed for now.

This was much easier than I expected. As long as you're careful in your cutting and take your time, the pieces should fit perfectly. This kind of cutting is not normally my forte, so I was pleasantly surprised.

It's pretty rudimentary, and not finished with sealant and the like, but I'm very happy with my first foray into marquetry. And I think my father would be proud.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 2007, visitors to the Wuhan Zoo in central China got more than they bargained for.

Clearly ignoring the axiom that elephants never forget, several visitors amused themselves by pelting the Zoo's two elephants with mud, plastic water bottles and stones. At one point, however, the 13-year-old elephant Ahai had had enough. When a man threw a large stone at Ahai and hit him in the side, Ahai decided to return the favour.

Curling his trunk around a rock, Ahai flung it at the man. Unfortunately, elephants are not known for their pitching skills, and the rock hit a young girl instead. This shocked the crowd so much that they all ran away, leaving the girl screaming on the ground. Staff arrived quickly, however, and took the girl to hospital, where she was treated for minor injuries.

Although Ahai was not known for aggression, the fence around the elephant enclosure was raised to three metres (ten feet) as a precaution. This prevents most people from throwing things at the elephants—and the elephants from throwing back.

Ahai at the Wuhan Zoo, China, 2007.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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