Color constraints

The French have a term for marquetry. They call it “painting in wood”, and to a degree that is exactly what it is. Different woods are chosen according to their color and figure depending on the needs of the image. The problem with this description, however, is that the color palette offered by nature is constrained. Predominately brown, woods range in hue from oranges to yellows. Greens are quite limited. Occasionally, exotic species provide materials outside of this range, reds and purple, for example, but I know of no blues. Faced with this situation, the marqueter must decide whether to adhere to these limitations, or try a different route.


Raw sycamore veneer

One answer has been to dye veneer to the shades needed. Wood, usually light colored, is cut, or sliced into thin sheets which are immersed in vats containing the appropriate dye liquid. This offers great flexibility as, conceivably, any color veneer should be possible. According to Arlen Heginbotham, Associate Conservator in the Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum, this was Oeben’s solution (pun intended). Though this appears obvious in hindsight, it was not always the case. One of the difficulties in assessing old marquetry is that the dyes are unstable. So, the colors of the woods deteriorate with time, making it difficult to conclusively identify species. During my initial studies of the marquetry top, I consulted three sources for wood identification. Each of them differed significantly! Wood that one source claimed was ebony, was actually holly whose green dye had morphed into black with age!

Thankfully, modern dyes are more colorfast. However, they are not without their issues. For starters, it can sometimes be difficult to obtain the appropriate veneer. Holly and boxwood, for instance, are currently vexing. Having different densities, and properties, each species behaves uniquely. Just because two woods are “white” doesn’t mean they’ll result in the same color when dyed. The next challenge comes in determining the proper color “recipe”. Experimenting with differing concentrations on samples is the only certain method of which I’m aware to address this. As you can imagine, it’s a slow, resource intensive process, which isn’t perfect. The goal is to get uniform color throughout the thickness of the veneer. That way the color doesn’t disappear when the completed surface is worked. Owning to the nature of wood, I have a harder time making this happen with light versus dark colors. Orange on sycamore, for example, still hasn’t completely permeated after more then 16 hours of boiling (with two plus weeks of sitting in a cold bath!) while dark green took about eight.

Sycamore veneer dyed dark green

Sycamore veneer dyed dark green

And so it goes, cooking small five inch squares in test batches until the “proper” color is achieved. Waiting a day or two for the wet sample to dry. The true color doesn’t show until the excess moisture has been removed. Then it’s on to production. At this point, I have a green I’m pleased with, and an orange that I think will work. That leaves a blue, light purple, and two more shades of orange. Looks like I’ll be cooking wood for a few more weeks…

Cooking veneer dye samples to perfect the color recipe

Cooking veneer dye samples to perfect the color recipe

13 thoughts on “Color constraints

  1. I was wondering if the method you are using to dye your veneer is the same as, or similar, to the process developed by Marc Adams that Marc teaches in his marquetry class.

    • Fernando,
      I’m uncertain as to whether it’s the “best”, but I use RIT dyes. They are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and seem to hold their color. Just don’t leave dyed veneers in the sun. They will fade. 🙁

        • The tannins are what make the wood and leaves brown. If you want to dye the veneer another color, it helps to remove as much of them as you possibly can.

  2. Pingback: Dyeing veneer: The drying processs | J. Leko Furniture Maker

  3. I want to dye relatively porous and white woods like basswood using RIT dyes. I don’t understand your process of getting the dye into the wood. Do you boil pieces of wood in dye solutions? I don’t need large pieces for the marquetry I do, so I could boil them on the stove in a, say, fry pan. How long should the wood stay in the solution? Mainly, I need green that looks like the greens in nature.

    • Yes. You want to boil the veneer twice in distilled water to leach the tannins. Change the water when it looks like tea. At this point, you have two choices. You can boil it in the dye solution, or you can soak it cold. The latter will take much longer. Your set-up sounds fine as long as you keep the veneer submerged. So, a pot might work better as the liquid evaporates.

      The question of “how long” is difficult to answer since it depends on your color requirements, materials, and technique. You’ll need to experiment with your dye concentrations, then determine the time required for the veneer to saturate. Best I can suggest is to keep a log. There’s a more recent post on drying you should check if you haven’t already.

      Let me know your results. Good luck!

      • Thanks for your your response to me about dyeing veneer. I have followed your advice about boiling some “test” veneer strips twice to get rid of the tannins. On a recent comment to me by Paul Schurch said that I would need to heat the veneer (plus RIT dye solution) at 150 degrees F and that full penetration of the dye would take “many hours.” Your method is to boil the veneer/dye. Either way, how long do you think it would take dye to penetrate a 1/16 strip of veneer? On your web (or blog?) site you have a photo of several strips of veneer dyed green. How long did it take you to get such a strong color?

      • Upon reading your first post to me, I see that you have already responded to my question about “how long.” So, you may not have any more wisdom about that. But I really, really appreciate your advice about everything else.

    • I’ve dyed veneer that was between 1/32 and 1/16 inch thick using the boil & soak method described. However, you could probably dye thicker veneer using a vacuum chamber.

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