Hayzen Designs

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Marquetry: Painting in Wood

Marquetry is sometimes referred to as “painting in wood”. It is the technique used to create a scene or pattern by assembling different species of wood with varying colors and textures. Each piece of the “jigsaw puzzle” is expertly cutout using a sophisticated scroll saw, carefully shaded using heated sand, and then assembled onto a substrate.

Marquetry and inlay were inspired by the ancient craft of intarsia – the making of decorative and pictorial mosaics by the inlaying of precious and exotic material into or onto a groundwork of solid wood.

Three thousand or so years ago, the Egyptians decorated much of their woodwork with inlay. In fact, in the tomb of the Pharaoh King Tutankhamen, the throne, chest, coffers, and nearly all the furniture are literally covered with inlay, Precious stones, miniature glazed tiles, and little brickets of wood, gold and ivory wonderfully embellished items of special prestigious and ceremonial importance.

In the Orient–in Persia, India, China and Japan–inlay workers created all sorts of decorative delights, from complex wood parquetry designs set into floors to wood mosaics on walls and furniture, to small inlay picture designs on boxes, caskets, tombs, reliquaries and ceremonial regalia. All uniquely beautiful, and all fabulously expensive in terms of time, labor and cost of materials. Through the centuries, in ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, Persia, eighth-century Japan, and sixteenth-century Italy and Germany, rich patrons employed inlay craftsmen to create beautiful works of art. The process was both expensive and painstaking because, traditionally, the craft involved many long steps: importing rare and exotic hardwoods; slowly carving, lowering, and trenching a groundwork; sawing and slicing the small amount of difficult-to-cut, expensive hardwood into 1/4-1/2-inch-thick tiles; fitting and setting the mosaic tiles into a bed of glue or mastic, one piece at a time; and then finally scraping, rubbing down, waxing, and burnishing the inlay surface.

And so it might have continued, had not an anonymous German clockmaker invented the jigsaw blade near the end of the sixteenth century. The blade made possible new mass-production methods. No longer was the craft slow and prohibitively expensive, nor was it greedily gobbling up vast amounts of rare exotic woods. With the revolutionary fast-moving, frame-held saw blade, it was possible to double, triple and even quadruple production simply by repeatedly cutting the expensive slab woods into thinner and thinner sheets. Better still, it was also possible to sandwich stacks of veneers together and cut six or so designs all at once.

From the seventeenth century right through to the end of the nineteenth century, tools improved, and techniques became increasingly swifter and more refined. By the end of the nineteenth century, thin inlay veneer, or marquetry as it had now come to be called, was an extremely popular and accessible form of furniture decoration. The early twentieth century heralded a revival of interest in special high-quality, exotic wood inlays and marquetries, with designers, hobbyists and artists creating pieces considered works of art in their own right.

How is it Done?

The first step in the process is to take a printed copy of the design to be cut out and glue it onto a piece of cardboard. Pieces of veneer are then sandwiched between this piece of cardboard and another blank piece of cardboard. This sandwich of cardboard and veneer is then stabled together using 22 gauge pins (See figures 1 & 2). This holds them together and prevents any movement while they are being cut out using a scroll saw (See figures 3 & 4).

Once all the pieces have been cut out they are assembled together in much the same way as one assembles a “jig saw” puzzle, except that the pieces of veneer are taped together using blue painters tape (See figure 5). Once the complete pattern is assembled it is turned over and special water soluble gum tape is applied to the reverse side. Once this tape dries, the original blue tape is removed, and this side is glued onto a stable substrate, usually plywood or MDF. The glued up veneer pattern and substrate are then placed in a press, usually a vacuum press, and the glue allowed to set (See figure 6).

The advantage of a vacuum press is that one gets an even pressure over all surfaces and one can also easily press shapes that are not flat such as a the pedestal shown in figure 7.

Examples of the finished product are the Round Table illustrated above, the Wine Cabinet, Coffee Table, Lazy Susan and Partners Desk.

Our pieces of furniture are works of art: like paintings or sculptures, they increase in value from generation to generation.