Monday, December 10, 2012


No other word in the marquetry lexicon causes more confusion than that of "intarsia" and in some parts of the world it is a misnomer. Although the two share common characteristics they are dissimilar. The root of the problem is attribution. Intarsia created during the Renaissance is not the same as that made today in so far as surface treatment is concerned. Today, intarsia has a sculptured surface where quattrocento intarsia is flat. And marquetry is synonymous in this respect. In fact, to further blur its meaning marquetry is still called intarsia from Italy and Poland to Denmark because there is no distinction between marquetry and inlay work (intarsia) while in France, for example, marqueterie describes both techniques.

To understand older intarsia is to know that from a technical point it is inlayed into a solid substrate while marquetry is layed upon the surface. It was not until the 17th-Century that true marquetry came into being with the advent of sawn veneers. The photo below illustrates how this was done in a self portrait by Antonio Barili in 1502. A shoulder-knife is used alongside a chisel. The original in Vienna was destroyed during World War II.

The intarsiatori was often a woodcarver who expanded his repertoire by doing intarsia as both required the same tools and skills. An added benefit was those who were learned in the architectural arts to take advantage of executing work in perspective.

In the modern era intarsia is made using solid wood whereas marquetry uses veneer. In most instances the intarsia is not inlayed anymore. It is merely glued to a wood backing as an appliqué after it has been sculptured thus creating a 3D effect.

Below is an example in my collection of objet d'arts which originated in Eastern Europe. It is an intarsia representation of a Greek icon entitled 'Mater de Perpetuo Succursu' or 'Our Lady of Perpetual Help' now residing in a church in Rome and has since the Renaissance.

In this case, the main figure is inlayed while the angels and name plate are glued to the surface. The Madonna and Child vary in thickness from 1/4" - 1/2". Overall it measures 15" × 21" inches - nearly identical to the original. The name plate says 'Ave Maria'. 

It is a curious matter that most people do not know the difference between intarsia and marquetry let alone what the two words mean. Once a year, where I live, there is a juried competition of crafts which draws thousands of spectators. They are exposed to this ignorance by grouping marquetry and intarsia into the same class. After hearing of this injustice, I approached the judges with the intent of educating them. As a result there are now 2 distinct classes. I do not believe this was an isolated case. I can only hope others will take a proactive lead wherever possible.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Banned Materials

In August, Gibson Guitar Company was fined for illegally importing exotic wood. These were ebony from Madagascar and India, as well as rosewood from India reported to be worth $262,000 and confiscated by the government along with several guitars. A $300,000 fine was imposed. This is the same company that offered me a commission to produce marquetry for a line of banjos they were producing a few years ago. As it turned out I turned the offer down because I abhor production work. In reality they most likely resorted to harsh laser marquetry. Sometimes fate leads you into the right direction.

To understand the underlining problem it is best to remember that export and import of exotic timber and veneer comes under a collective agreement between member countries of CITES or Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species. In some cases the finished product is illegal if taken across international borders. In the U.S. enforcement is extended through the Lacey Act. Banned veneer is not problematic, however, for the individual craftsman if they were harvested or acquired before 1973, but exporting requires documentation and an export license. Brazilian rosewood is a good example. Some craftsmen, including myself, have this veneer in a small flitch which was obtained before 1992 when it was banned. In marquetry a little bit goes a long way. As long as I don't export any of it in a raw or finished product I am free of illegal trading.

Other banned materials of interest to those involved in marquetry are Tortoiseshell, Ivory and Mother of Pearl with the last less restricted in the raw form. Tortoiseshell has been banned since 1973 and is only available, if you can find it, from antique sources. Ivory, on the other hand, is generally prohibited especially Elephant ivory from Africa. An adult Elephant can yield about 100 pounds of Ivory. Small amounts of ivory can be obtained from reclamation dealers, but of little use in marquetry except for the smallest detail. I have a few pieces of ivory obtained from a Victorian piano, one of which is pictured below. Although these were given to me some time ago, I have yet to find a use for them.  Maybe I'll make a set of pens out of them.

Having an embargo on endangered woods and animals is a good thing. The down side is that poachers can ask and get higher prices for their efforts. And this in spite of the fact that there are substitutes for the above named materials that are less expensive. I can't help but wonder where all that ebony and rosewood from Gibson will end up. Will it be reduced to tinder (unlikely) or will it be exported by the government to another country like China which has a huge demand for it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Enhancing Marquetry

Marquetry is often referred to "painting with wood" and to that end many craftsmen, since earliest times, have strived to emulate classical painting. This is done in such a way as to change the appearance of the veneer so it has the effect of adding form to shape.

At the most basic level is the application of oil to the unfinished marquetry to bring out the tone and highlights of the wood. The best oil for this is poppy oil. This is a clear oil used by artists. Rub a light coat briskly into the wood. Apply a wash coat of Shellac afterwards and then apply the top coat of your choice.

By far the most popular method for enhancing parquetry is "sandburning" or sand shading. In this the veneer is submerged into fine hot sand. It only takes a second to effect a change and a little practice goes a long way. In many instances, I believe, it is overused. A subtle effect is ideal as in the piece below of Mont Saint-Michel by Franck Debouverie.

Another ancient solution was the use of acid. This was usually nitric acid in its many forms and often diluted to useful levels that were less dangerous. Not used anymore except in antique restoration where new wood is treated to match the patina of old wood.

Pyrography and marquetry can be combined to produce spectacular results in the hands of a seasoned craftsman. The problem is that it can easily overshadow the marquetry to the point of obscuring it all together. As it is applied to the veneer after glue up, a heat resistant adhesive must be used. This method cannot be undone. It appears this method is underused.

Engraving has been around as long as sand shading and is little used except in restoration. It was heavily used to highlight tortoiseshell, brass and silver in centuries past. The knife is most often used today in this procedure after lines are drawn on the sealed marquetry. Black wax is rubbed into the cavity afterwards.

Finally there is penwork. This is the application of ink upon the marquetry to illuminate it with detail. A pen is used with a nib of the desired thickness. This is applied after the parquetry has been sealed and sanded. A level surface is required. Black India ink is best. Most ink contains alcohol to speed drying so a top coat of Shellac will result in bleeding. An oil based varnish is a better choice. Used mostly in Far East countries to enhance unanimated marquety as shown below.

Even among purists, there is an attitude that most of these techniques are unacceptable. In some juried competitions they are outright prohibited. The consensus is that the selection of veneer for its grain, tone and contrast should preeminently determine a persons ability as an artist. I agree, but it can be an asset to display a little form on an otherwise flat surface.