Traditional French marquetry

I am back from another productive trip to Marc Adams School of Woodworking. Thank you to everyone for making my stay pleasant, and comfortable, as usual. On this trip, I had the opportunity to make some new friends, and become reacquainted with many old ones. My only regret is that we couldn’t spend more time together. These trips are always so hectic!

As I mentioned previously, I spent a week with Patrick Edwards learning French marquetry technique. We focused on the Boulle process, also known as tarsia a incastro. In it, the various colored veneers are bound together in a packet and cut according to the design. The packet is opened, and the picture assembled by placing the veneer pieces of one species into another. Any voids between pieces are filled with a wood dust and hide glue mastic, nearly imperceptible to the casual observer. This fundamental technique offers the marquetry craftsman the ability to generate multiple copies of a design rapidly.

A marquetry triptych

A marquetry triptych

Cutting takes place using the chevalet de marqueterie, or marquetry “easel”. This uniquely French tool allows the operator to hold the veneer packet vertically at eye-level while guiding a saw along a steel rod adjusted perfectly perpendicular to it. The accuracy is such that a piece taken from the front of the packet fits within the corresponding “hole” in the veneer on the back of the packet. The manually operated saw also offers a greater degree of control than a typical powered scroll saw. Small delicate pieces can be produced which might otherwise be lost in the machine’s vibration.

Once I’ve gotten back on schedule, one of the higher priorities on my to do list will be to tune up my mini-chevalet. My experience this week gives me a better idea of how it should work!

Studying up…

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Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve found that very few people know what marquetry is. Marquetry isn’t as prevalent an art form in North America, as say carving. Everybody knows what carving is, but most are unfamiliar with marquetry.

I am preparing for my class with Patrick Edwards in October. Although not a requirement, I am reading the works of Pierre Ramond: Marquetry, and the Masterpieces of Marquetry series. Dr. Ramond is considered to be the living authority on marquetry, and these are two of the most trusted resources on the subject. Unfortunately, one is out of print, and the latter isn’t…

How do I put this?

…economically priced.
Suffice it to say, it’s unlikely you’ll find them on the shelves at your local bookstore.

But if you do, please let me know where your bookstore is located. I’d like to visit it!

While it is possible for a beginner to learn the subject from these books, I’d recommend a few other resources:

• Paul Schürch has an excellent two DVD set with pamphlets that walk you through your first project, while
• Silas Kopf offers a DVD which demonstrates the various marquetry techniques. It’s a great accompaniment to his book which provides a historical basis for the craft.

Of course if you’d prefer, Silas, Paul, and Patrick all offer classes!

What’s this all about?

It started Summer 2011 with this video

Like most, I was impressed. Then I stopped to consider…
This table was made around 1750, that’s 260 years ago! There weren’t any power tools then!
Mayra and I watched it several more times. Each time, we were able to pick out more details about its construction and operation. The third or fourth time around, I started to think, “wouldn’t this make a great Fellowship project?”

I was one class away from completing the course work requirement for the Michael Fortune Fellowship at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, and it was time to start thinking about my jury project. The project needed to be challenging – more challenging than anything that I had encountered before. I also wanted it to be special, like no other project that had come before it. With this in mind, I forwarded the video link onto Marc, Michael, Paul Schürch, Donna Hill, and a few more friends. “Wouldn’t this make a great Fellowship project?”, I joked. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

The program guidelines contained no prohibition on re-creation of an historic piece. I studied the video again; stopping, rewinding, and starting repeatedly. Breaking it into its components there was a carcass covered in marquetry, mechanisms, and ormolu mounts. I had some experience with marquetry, and the casework joinery seemed straightforward, that left the metal bits. Off the top of my head, I know two metal workers, and the school had a milling machine, so at worst these aspects could be subcontracted out. Again, I recalled that this piece was made 260 years ago with nothing but hand tools. I became more confident. Maybe it was possible for me to re-create this piece! All that I had to do now, was to come up with drawings!