What is Marquetry and How is it Done?

Marquetry is generally defined as the art of using various domestic and exotic wood veneers to create designs and pictures, with desired effects being achieved through selection of veneer according to its natural coloring, tone, texture, grain or other considerations. Marquetry is sometimes referred to as "inlaid" work, which is precisely what it is.

Marquetry dates back to the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Like any other form and style of art, it has experienced ups and downs in popularity. It flourished in the Renaissance and reached its highest level of perfection during the 18th century, helped along by the invention of the fret saw. The marquetarians became very skilled artisans, much sought after by nobility and the very rich.

Today marquetry is done with a knife or saw. The majority of British marquetarians use a knife for cutting but in America, where it seems things must be done faster, the handsaw or power saw is generally preferred. Commercial production of marquetry involves use of expensive laser equipment, beyond the reach of the amateur marquetarian.

When a saw is used, the background (called the waster) and the piece to be inlaid are cut at the same time. The veneer from which the piece to be inserted is cut is placed beneath the waster. The pattern or tracing is placed on top of the waster, facing up. The cutting is done on an angle of approximately 12 degrees, compensating for the thickness of the blade, resulting in a perfect fit of the piece to be inlaid into the waster.

When a knife is used, an opening is made in the picture to accommodate the piece to be inlaid. The opening, termed a "window," enables the veneer from which the inlaid piece is to be cut to be positioned to maximize selection and placement of the image, grain, color, etc., as desired. A line or marking with the knife is then made around the perimeter of the opening and the piece is cut out and installed in the picture. The sawyer, too, can cut a window just inside the line on which the final cut will be made to accommodate precise alignment of the piece to be inserted.

The foregoing is intended only as an overview of how marquetry is done. For more detailed instruction, there are many good books available on the subject covering the actual cutting, framing, and finishing of a marquetry picture. To name a few, see:

The Art and Practice of Marquetry by William Alexander Lincoln (1971)

Modern Marquetry Handbook by Harry J. Hobbs and Allan E. Fitchett (1978)

The Art of Marquetry by Craig Vandall Stevens (1997)