Friday, July 16, 2010

What is Marquetry?

The history of furniture surface decoration is full of examples where complex designs were created using exotic materials. For thousands of years artisan woodworkers used their creativity to add value and style with simple methods and simple tools. The language of the trade varies from period to period and country to country. That is why, when Americans ask me, "What is marquetry?", I often use the short answer: "inlay". However, that is the short answer.

I was invited to study the craft of marquetry at ecole Boulle, in Paris, by Dr. Pierre Ramond. You may find a copy of his thesis, "Marquetry", by using any book search. I recommend it as the authoritative dissertation on the subject. His book defines the various methods used in history and creates terms which I use to define each process that has been used to date.

The problem with using the English term, "inlay", is that it is both a verb and a noun, and, depending on how it is used, can be confusing. The term "marquetry" can be further subdivided into 5 historic processes, which can be used to clearly define what you are looking at.

TARSIA CERTOSINA: The first method used since ancient times, involves carving a cavity into a solid wood background and inserting a contrasting material. A knife or chisel is usually used and the inlaid elements are glued into place and smoothed down after.

TARSIA GEOMETRICA: This method uses patterns often found in tile work or quilts, and creates repetitive geometric patterns (like the cube) which are combined in an overall surface covering. The tools are usually a knife or veneer saw, with a straight edge or jig. In France, there are subsets of this method, with names like "frisage" and "jeux de fond".

TARSIA A TOPPO: This method produces the decorative inlay banding strips. The worker creates the pattern by gluing together a large block of different elements of wood, which create the desired pattern. Then he simply cuts off strips of this block to create the banding strips. In England, during the 19th century, a specific type of this method was popular, "Tunbridge Ware".

TARSIA A INCASTRO: This is the most popular method used to create marquetry. It was developed during the Renaissance, in Italy, and made possible by the creation of the fret saw blade. In this method, two or more materials are cut at the same time, using a fret saw blade. The result is a positive (premiere partie) and a negative (contre partie). The great cabinetmaker, Boulle, made this method famous, and he is honored by calling this method "Boulle". Another variation of this method is called "Painting in Wood", which is my favorite process. The American bevel cutting method is another variation of this process.

PIECE BY PIECE: During the 18th century the French evolved a new process, which they called "element par element". This new process was made possible by the invention and use of two new tools, the picking machine and the chevalet. The picking machine made it possible to create multiple copies of the design exactly. The chevalet allowed the worker to cut with great precision and make multiple copies of the marquetry with ease. This method was not exported and remained a speciality of the Parsian workshops.

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