A marquetry primer

Marquetry Portrait Poster

Having reviewed my previous posts on the topic, it occurred to me that I should provide a (somewhat) proper definition for those unfamiliar with this discipline of woodworking. If you have followed along thus far, and were confused, my apologies!

Marquetry is a woodworking embellishment wherein pieces of veneer are cut and arranged to form a desired pattern. Typically, it is found on panels, or furniture.

There are several methods to create marquetry pieces:

  • Piece-by-piece, is perhaps the most challenging, requiring great skill. With this method, a packet of like colored veneers is created. Multiple copies of a single piece are then cut from this packet. A single design may require multiple packets, one for each of the different parts that compose it. Once all pieces are cut, they’re assembled into the final design.
  • The traditional Boulle packet stacks two different colored veneers together from which the design is cut. These pieces are then interchanged to create “positive” and “negative” final designs.
  • Conical cutting is similar to Boulle except that blade is angled slightly. This creates tapered pieces which fit together snugly leaving no saw kerf.
  • Perhaps the simplest marquetry technique is the window method. Requiring only a knife, a design is cut from the background veneer, which then becomes the template to cut the desired complementary veneer.

A previous posting provided references illustrating these methods. Of these, both Boulle, and piece-by-piece are well suited to production, making several copies per design cut. The window, and conical methods yield solitary products.

How to Draw & Shape Louis XV Style Legs

Hand holding a Louis XV leg in front of the Oeben prototype table

Five years ago, I wrote these two posts about how I made the legs for the prototype:

At the time I drafted these, I realized my understanding on the topic of Louis XV legs was lacking. Like most woodworkers brought up in English-speaking regions, French styles and techniques are not emphasized (at all?!). I’d have plenty of time to work through the details between the prototype, and creation of the final piece, I told myself. Almost as soon as these were published, however, the feedback came;

“J., the legs are wrong…”

Yes, they were (thanks Ronaldo!).

So, I began to research the proper construction of this not-so-common leg style. I searched the web, asked colleagues, and consulted with my instructors, but no one could point me to adequate resources. (Note: I’m certain this will change with this posting. To all of you about to contact me with references, thank you in advance! Please keep your responses coming, but where have you been for the past five years!) I will take this opportunity to reiterate that I don’t speak, or read French. While I’m certain there is documentation on this subject, it has not been readily accessible to me. French-speaking friends had difficulty finding resources too. Being the case, I approached the situation from a different perspective. What I needed was a craftsman skilled in French techniques, who could speak English. My best bet, I thought, was to search for someone in Québec, Canada.

I was fortunate to make contact with Eric Thériault at École Artebois in Québec City. When we met at his shop in May, Eric was able to help me connect the disparate parts of my understanding. Prior to this, I’d made cabriole legs, and spent three years deciphering Chanson’s chapters on drawing them in the Louis XV style (Traité d’ébénisterie). Based on what Eric and I discussed, I drafted a summary of this process which was published in issue 288 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking (fc_288_22_26_louis_xv_leg.pdf). Perhaps this will save those of you interested in making these pieces significant effort!

Escutcheon plates

I received an unexpected parcel in the mail last week from Keith Turner, a woodworker in British Columbia Canada. Keith was inspired to make his own table after seeing the video from the Getty Museum. He’s also been following my progress, and sent replicas of the escutcheon plates that he cast. He writes:

I do have a background in the mechanical trades and teach at a local Institute of Technology, that is why I am able to cast as we have very well equipped shops. (I used to teach sand casting). These pieces were cast using the lost wax method and I put a blog together at http://lumberjocks.com/Longcase/blog/84378  if interested.

These are one of the components that decorate the carcass side aprons.

I must admit that this is one aspect of the re-creation that I have contemplated the least. I hadn’t realized, for example, that the escutcheons are not identical! Hint: look at the bottoms of the plates.

It’ll still be a while before I have to face this aspect of the project, but Keith’s gift has given me momentary insight into it. Many thanks, Keith!

Cognacq-Jay Museum

In fall 2017, the Cognacq-Jay Museum was my first official appointment in Paris. I became aware of it through searches in woodworking discussion fora back in 2011. Their diminutive table is unlike the others in several regards…

The first thing one notices is the striking difference in marquetry motifs of this table versus other Oeben tables of similar function. Typically, the aprons are covered by parquetry, and the top in marquetry. This table, however, features an assortment of flowers connected by a circuitous vine on a background of yellow veneer throughout both the top and sides. Two curators have independently commented on its similarity to a known fabric pattern. Something else that is distinctive about this marquetry, I was told by Rose-Marie Mousseaux, the museum director, is the flowers appear to have been rendered life-sized. It is as if the marquetier laid the flowers directly on the veneer to cut them. The marquetry on the legs appears to be nearly symmetric. Viewed from either side as well as front, or back, the leaf and flower patterns are near-mirror images. Perhaps they were packet cut? Inside another visual anomaly is the veneer covering the interior of the compartment lids. This is typically tulipwood arranged in a reverse-diamond match (image below right of the Getty table). While the pattern is consistent, however, the choice of veneer species is not. It appears to be mahogany (below left image – Cognacq-Jay table).

Finally, this table has no keyholes! Without locks, or winding axles, this table can only be opened by manually pushing the top back.

First most obvious thought is that we are not seeing the table in its original state. Approximately 260 years have elapsed since it was built, and the differences could simply be due to changes and modifications from repairs. It could also be that this table is the work of someone other than Oeben. In his style…, so to speak. Although this is unlikely, the piece is not signed, and unfortunately, there is little existing provenance on it. Finally, perhaps this was a prototype constructed to test the concepts of a movable top and main box to refine the mechanisms [or a demonstration piece!]. This is a supposition. However, with a piece this complex a good maker would want to demonstrate the concept before showing it to prominent clients. It is reasonable that the racks and gears responsible for operation of the top and main box would be tried “small scale” first.

I appreciate the opportunity to view this piece first-hand, and want to thank Madam Mousseaux and her staff for hosting me on the museum’s off-day.

A note on my Oeben table examinations

Since before my first encounter with one of the two Oeben mechanical tables at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2012, I have been fascinated (obsessed some might say!) with this atypical furniture form. To learn more about them and their “works”, I arranged a series of examinations. In 2016, I got up close with the two other tables in North America: one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the other at the National Gallery of Art. In October 2017, I visited three publicly displayed tables in Europe: the Cognacq-Jay Museum (Paris), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). During these encounters, I made a series of notes which I will share in upcoming posts.

To this end, I want to reiterate that I am not a conservator, nor have I had any curatorial training. When I examine these pieces, I do it from the perspective of a woodworker trying (as best I can) to put himself in the shoes of the period craftsman. What I present are my interpretations. So, I am happy to discuss alternate viewpoints.

I’d like to thank the conservators, curators, and administrators who took time to arrange and accompany me on these visits.