In this section, I will give a brief explanation of marquetry, and compare it to some other techniques that are commonly confused for one another.
What is Marquetry?
The simplest explanation is that marquetry is the art of painting with wood.
What’s that, you ask? How on earth do you paint something with a piece of wood?
Essentially, marquetry involves cutting out and piecing together small and intricate pieces of wood veneer (usually an exotic or highly-figured species) or other rare materials such as bone, turtle shell, or even metal to form a picture, geometric pattern, or other decorative effect. Marquetry can be applied to furniture, decorative boxes, or stand-alone pictures.
The idea of creating a picture or pattern by piecing together small bits of precious or semi-precious materials has been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians. However, much of that early work was created using inlay techniques. The current practices and procedures that I predominantly use were developed much later, beginning in the 16th century with new tool advancements that allowed for cutting much thinner veneer.
What is Inlay?
One of the most common comments I overhear at my shows is “Wow, come here and look at this inlay” or “See, that’s all inlaid wood right there”…or something else to the effect that all my work is inlaid.
Now, I would like to take credit for having the extreme patience required to excavate each and every tiny detail of a design in solid wood, and then replace the excavation with a different, exactly matched piece of wood, but unfortunately, I cannot accept that praise for most of my projects to date.
While the visual results of some marquetry and inlay projects can appear to be virtually identical, the process used to create them is not.
Inlay is the procedure where a piece of contrasting material is placed in an excavation or recess that has been made in a solid background material, such that the final product of both contrasting material and background appear even and smooth. The materials used are generally thicker than the veneers used to produce marquetry pictures, somewhere between 1/16” and 1/4".
On the other hand, the marquetry I create is generally produced using 1/28” – 1/42” veneers. Various veneers are selected for grain pattern and color, and then are cut on a scroll saw using a variety of techniques, which I will discuss below. The main difference between this and inlay is that the cut pieces are assembled into one flat sheet BEFORE it is even placed on a smooth backing surface. Essentially, the different cut pieces of wood are put together like a jigsaw puzzle, temporarily fastened together using a gummed veneer tape, and then the entire sheet is glued on top of a smooth backing surface. No excavation or routing is required in this instance.
One thing to note: A piece of marquetry work CAN be inlaid into another solid surface. A common case where this happens is a banding strip or a small marquetry motif that has been made ahead of time, and then inlaid into a solid surface on a table or decorative box.
What is Intarsia?
While the end result is again somewhat similar to that of a marquetry or inlaid piece – that is to say, an entire composition which is made up of small pieces of wood selected for their grain and color – the techniques used to produce an intarsia piece, while similar to inlay, still vary to a degree. Also, while marquetry and inlay pieces create an image that is completely flat to the touch, intarsia generally uses thicker pieces of wood, rounded or carved slightly to create a 3D effect in the piece. In some cases, various elements of an image will be elevated several levels to give the proper emphasis to that part of the picture.