Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Classic Method" Video

Oeben Table J. Paul Getty Collection
Several years ago the J. Paul Getty Museum had an exhibition which illustrated the various stages of making a table by Oeben which is in their collection.  It was a well produced effort, and involved many of the workshops and artisans who I know from my time in Paris.

In particular, Michel Jamet was involved in the ebenisterie, and Pierre Ramond directed his top students in the recreation of the marquetry surface.  They are not given credit in this video, but I would like to mention that they produced this work at ecole Boulle, in Paris.

The exhibition discussed the sawing of the veneers, the making of the carcase out of oak, the bronze dore mounts, the polishing and, of course the marquetry.  Note the veneers used were sawn veneers which are 1.5mm thick and supplied by Patrick George, in Bagnolet, France.

If you have visited the museum, you will recognize this table as one of the great masterpieces in their collection.  It was made by Jean-Francois Oeben, around 1754.  The top of this table slides back which opens the drawer for access.  That, in itself, is a neat trick, since you do not have to move any of the stuff sitting on the top and get full access to the drawer for the writing tools inside.

The inside of the drawer is finished as elaborately as the outside of the table.  I particularly love the grill and flower motif ("jeux de fond") which decorates the aprons and sides of the drawer.  In this method, each of the individual flowers were cut into their respective backgrounds with conical cutting.  Then the grill was laid down and, one by one, the flowers were positioned into their appropriate cavities.

The Getty video is a very accurate representation of the Classic Method, invented by the French in the 18th century, also called "element par element" or "piece by piece."  The essential part of this process was making copies of the design using the picking machine, or even using a pin to poke the holes by hand.  This early "Xerox" method allowed the artist to make as many exact copies of the drawing as needed.  Each part of the design was then cut out and applied to a packet of veneers, held together by nails.

It is important to understand that this method relied on cutting the outside half of the line away for all the inside elements and the inside half of the line away for the background.  The accuracy required for the proper execution of this method depended on two things: using a chevalet, which is the most controlled and accurate tool for cutting veneers, and the simple trick that the inside elements were cut clockwise around their perimeter and the background packet was cut counter clockwise around the perimeter.  Once you understand this, you will see the advantage of this method.  Not only does it minimize waste and eliminate the saw kerf completely, it allows the worker to make many copies of the marquetry as he wants, all exactly identical.

I was fortunate to be involved in this exposition.  I was hired by the Getty Education Department to make twice weekly public presentations in the Gallery adjacent to the installation.  I had a picking machine, chevalet, and all the tools and materials used to make marquetry set up and demonstrated the techniques which were shown in the video.  These 2 hour talks allowed the visitors to ask questions and see exactly how marquetry is traditionally made in France.

Demonstrating Marquetry at the Getty Museum

Let me know if you have any questions.


Anonymous said...

There must be a deeper explanation of how the "trick" works since simply changing the rotational direction of the cutting on the inside and background pieces would not produce any effect. What is really going on?


W. Patrick Edwards said...

I admit that it's amazing simple but only if you cut on a chevalet. Since you are cutting right handed (most likely) the saw is in your right hand and your eyes are looking at the left side of the blade. On the right of the blade is the "waste" area outside the piece you are cutting.

The picking machine leaves a series of tiny dots to follow. You can see these dots as you cut, and control the accuracy of the cut by whether all the dots are cut away or half the dots are cut away, which is the goal.

Therefore, cutting away half the dots splits the line.

When you start cutting the interior spaces of the background, you cut counter clockwise, so that nothing else changes. You still cut right handed and watch the dots on the left of the blade. However, since you have reversed direction, you are now cutting away the inside half of the line.

When I explain this at the Getty, I am often speaking to younger visitors, so I use a simple analogy. Imagine you are in a back yard with a lawn and the pool in the center. Walking around the pool clockwise puts your right hand over the pool, while walking around the pool counter clockwise puts your left hand over the pool. Think of the pool as the part you want and the lawn as the waste.

Simply changing direction changes the cut from the inside of the line to the outside of the line.

Anonymous said...

I had the same question. The answer was so simple.