French Marquetry Techniques
Marquetry is loosely defined as pictures cut from thin veneers of wood, bone, shell, and/or metal for subsequent application to furniture, boxes, etc. or simply to hang as wall art. French Marquetry refers to marquetry done in the style and with the tools and methods developed in France by the great masters of the 17th and 18th centuries.
These styles can be divided into three basic methods: Boulle, named for the great master Andre Charles Boulle; painting in wood, a style designed to imitate the painting styles of the day and to conserve the valuable and exotic veneers; and piece by piece, a revolutionary technique that was enabled by the development of the chevalet de marqueterie by the guild of ebenistes in Paris. The exact time of the emergence of the chevalet is unknown, as the guild kept it a closely held secret for many years.
I operate the Canadian School of French Marquetry (CSFM), on Vancouver Island. This article describes the most basic elements of cutting marquetry in the French style. At CSFM we use the chevalets and also follow the traditional ways in using hot animal protein glue, but you can certainly follow the instructions here and do your cutting with a hand fret saw and bird’s mouth or with a scroll saw. The chevalet is a precision instrument and is capable of making cuts that are, to me anyway, impossible on anything else. If you use another saw to cut your pieces you may decide to omit the tiniest parts in this lighthouse motif. It will still look fine.
Just as an example of what type of project can be done I’m going to describe the process of making a simple four-sided box that could store pens and pencils, but this same style of marquetry could be used to adorn just about any type of woodworking project.
All in Order
Once all the layers of veneer have been faced with a layer of paper, Miller assembled them in order into a packet so he could start cutting. In this packet there are four layers of veneer, grease paper below the veneer layers, sandwiched on either side by a 1/8"-thick plywood backer. The pattern gets adhered to the top.
Tape it Together
Here, the third layer is added to the first two layers. To join the first two layers, tape was used right beside the corners. To add the third layer, the pieces of tape were offset by about the width of the tape.
Drill Some Holes
A small drill bit will give your saw blade access into the contained areas in the center of the packet that need removing.
Ready for Cutting
The packet, complete with tiny holes, is now ready to be cut into pieces. It's easiest to ensure the holes are clear of debris at this point so inserting the blade into the holes will go smoothly. Notice the layer of tape around the edge to keep the pieces in place during the cutting stage.
The first step is to cut the smallest pieces from the packet, then start moving towards the outside.
With the small pieces cut, you can work your way to the outside while cutting the larger pieces.
Keep your parts organized as well as possible. This is even more important with more complex designs.
Cutting kerfs into the parts will add a strong visual element to your design.
Make a list of what species will go where, so patterns with multiple layers that are the same will look right. At the top of this photo you can see the backgrounds are all taped together. Have a layer of tape ready to secure the smaller parts in place.
Now the background and foreground are mostly done. All that's left are the smaller pieces that make up the lighthouse.
Fill the Voids
At this point Miller fills the kerf gaps with a mastic made of hot hide glue and very fine wood dust. He works it into any gaps or kerfs to help level the finished surface.
Ready to Press
With the four pieces of marquetry assembled, they can be pressed to the substrates. Miller uses a screw press, but a vacuum bag or clamps and cauls also work well.
Remove the Paper
You can remove the paper and veneer tape with a sharp knife blade or scraper, then proceed to use the panels as you would any other workpiece to complete your project.
Making the packet
To make a packet for cutting marquetry in Boulle style, start by assembling one piece of veneer of each colour you would like to use, two backers (1/8″ plywood), your pattern, and a piece of grease paper. We make our grease paper from bacon fat and newsprint, but you can also use wax paper, or even omit it entirely.
Make all pieces the same size, and reinforce each piece of veneer on one side. We do this with hot hide glue and newsprint, but you can use veneer tape. This step helps keep the wood fibers together.
Mark one of the backers to indicate the grain orientation. All layers should be assembled with the same orientation. Now start putting the packet together. With the marked side down, place the grease paper on the backer, followed by the first piece of veneer, paper side up. Tape with veneer tape at the left side of each edge. Remember to align the grain with the marking. Next, add the rest of the veneer layers, paper up, and tape as above, but move the tape slightly on each successive layer to avoid stacking the different layers of tape on top of each other. Finally, add the top backer and apply the pattern. Again, we use hot hide glue, but spray adhesive will do.
With the packet assembled, drill tiny access holes for the saw blade in every “island” or closed line. Turn the packet over, and open the holes a little with an awl on the back for easier threading of the blade.
Cutting the pieces
Now you can start to cut the pieces. At CSFM we use the Chevalet de Marqueterie for all cutting, but if you don’t happen to have one of those you can use a scroll saw or a hand fret saw. The very smallest parts will be a challenge, and you may choose to omit them.
Start by cutting all of the isolated pieces. If you miss one, it can’t be cut afterwards. Once they’re all done start cutting the larger pieces, working from the centre and toward the outside. As you remove the pieces, place them in a tray in an exploded view of the picture.
When you finish the centre pieces, cut away the mountain / sky line, and remove the sky piece. Then remove the mountains and the water, and finally cut the “engraving lines” in the rocks at the bottom. Slit the tape around the sky and rock parts, and remove the veneers.
Assemble the marquetry
Now you’re ready to assemble the pieces in a mix-and-match kind of way. The more complex the piece the more care must be taken to get this right. If you only have two colours, organization isn’t that important, but as we have four colours here I chart it to insure success. Below is a chart that will guide the distribution of elements during assembly along with a numbered copy of the pattern.
We will make up four motifs and will call them A, B, C, and D. Reading the chart you can see that in motif “A” all the pieces marked #1 will be sycamore, #2 padauk, #3 ebony, and #4 pieces will be koa. If you follow the chart for each motif, things will fall together easily.
Start by applying wide masking tape to the paper side of the all the sky pieces. Add enough to cover the motif area. Then turn it over and start assembling the background pieces, working until it’s complete. The smaller pieces are usually last.
At this point we fill the kerf gaps with a mastic made of hot hide glue and very fine wood dust. If you don’t have hot hide glue, ordinary wood glue will work. The side you are working on here will be the back of the veneer and will eventually get glued down to the substrate.
Press your panels
Now it’s time to press the marquetry to your substrate. I am using 1/2″ plywood here. Apply glue to both surfaces, tape securely in place and press. I use a screw press, but a vacuum bag or simple cauls will also get the job done.
When your glue has cured, remove the masking tape and scrape the paper or veneer tape off the surface with some water and a razor blade or craft knife. Your marquetry panels are now complete, and you may use them to adorn whatever catches your fancy.