Monday, July 26, 2010

Sawn Veneer Vrs. Sliced Veneer

I am often asked my opinion as to the age of furniture. Since I am considered an expert in early French furniture, and there is a considerable amount of examples extant, it is normal for me to address the issue of "period piece, reproduction piece or fake." When the piece is supposed to be from the 18th century or earlier, and has a veneer surface, my first question is "How was the veneer made?"

It is not obvious to most dealers, buyers or even experts in the field, but the simple difference between sawn or sliced veneer material provides absolute proof of the date of the furniture. There are few elements of furniture construction which are as conclusive as this difference in how the veneer was produced.

Prior to 1805 all veneer produced in Europe and America was sawn by hand. Expert sawyers who specialized in this trade were able to saw thin pieces of hardwood veneers using a hand saw designed for this purpose. The sawyers worked together, standing on opposite sides of the log, which was held securely in a vise. The veneer saw was held horizontal and the wide blade was positioned vertical and sharpened with a rip tooth. Each man followed his mark on his side of the log and worked the saw on the pull stroke. Sawn veneer using this method was often as thin as a few millimeters. After the veneer was sawn, the cabinetmaker used a toothing plane, with fine teeth, to scrape down the saw marks and level the glue surface. A similar toothing plane with larger teeth was used to surface the carcase, or ground work, and proved the "truth" of the work. The toothing plane left marks on both the ground under the veneer and on the back (glue side) of the veneer itself. These marks are usually visible upon close inspection.

In 1805 the French invented a mechanical saw (scie a bois montant) which was able to saw the veneer much more evenly than the two men working by hand. Instead of the saw cutting down through the log, the wood was attached to a carriage and moved upward against the saw, rising as it was sawn, thus the name "saw
of wood rising". This saw made veneer much more available and regular in thickness, and the cabinetmaker no longer needed to use the toothing plane on the veneer. However, he continued to use the toothing plane on the ground work, as that wood was still surfaced by hand tools.

In the 18th century, hand sawn veneer was uneven in thickness, much thicker and irregular saw marks can often be visible. The machine sawn veneer was still thick (1.5-2mm) but regular in thickness and often shows the regular saw marks on the glue side. When the surface is refinished many times and the veneer gets quite thin, the refinisher can see the saw marks through the veneer, and knows to stop sanding before he pierces the surface. The saw marks look like very even and parallel marks about 1mm wide, and are always perpendicular to the grain direction.

As the sawing of hardwood veneers was difficult and time consuming, it was expensive. In addition, about 50% of the wood was lost in sawdust. The mechanical saw was also expensive and required a technician to properly sharpen and control the cutting. It took as much as one hour to saw a single piece of hardwood, so the process was quite slow.

In America and some other countries large circular saws were redesigned to saw veneers. This produced a very uneven surface, as it was nearly impossible to control the accuracy of the large spinning saw blade. This method was replaced by slicing machines by 1850 in most cities.

The slicing of hardwood veneers was made possible by the introduction of steam power. Slicing veneers requires that the log be boiled for several days in a pressure cooker. This boiling changes the character of the wood, and minerals and chemicals are removed in the process. When the log is removed from the boiling water, it is quickly placed on a table and a large knife is forced through the wood, slicing off a layer of veneer. This veneer needs to be dried and often ends up warped or wrinkled. There is no waste, as the entire log is sliced into useable material, so that is a commercial advantage. From 1850 to around 1995 the industry standard thickness was 0.9mm (1/28"). Since 1995 most veneer produced is much thinner, from 0.6mm (1/42") to 0.3mm (1/60") and even thinner. These thin veneers are now sold as paper backed veneer, since they are impossible to work unless they are glued to a backing paper material. The veneer which is sliced has no tool marks at all on the glue surface.

Also, when the knife slices through the wood, it bends the veneer and breaks the fibers of the wood. This is one of the easiest features to use when examining the surface of furniture to determine if it is sliced or sawn. Sawn veneer will never show overall cracks, but will break in a single area where the ground wood shrinks and breaks. Sliced veneer will always start to break over the entire surface, as the wood moves due to shrinkage and environmental conditions. These breaks are very small and can easily be seen in a raking light.

It is impossible for any piece of furniture made before the Industrial Revolution to have an original surface made with sliced veneers. However, it is entirely possible for furniture made after the Industrial Revolution to have an original surface made with sawn veneers, such as high end recreations. I always use sawn veneers in making my furniture, as they are natural and stable, and represent the original material which I value highly for authenticity.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Philosophy of Work

Work is an interesting concept. I am sure that the concept of "earning a living" evolved so long ago that it has been accepted by all civilized countries as a way of life. There are those who are born so rich they never have to "work" and those who are so poor that "work" involves simply staying alive day to day. But the majority of us humans spend the majority of our life "working".

I am neither rich or poor, but I received my last paycheck in 1973, when I walked away from a promising career in physics earning a salary of $10,000. I immediately devoted all my energy to my passion of restoring antiques and noticed that my friends and clients were always remarking that "I was lucky to be able to do something that I loved for a living." I thought it strange that not everyone loved their "work".

When I left the world of high energy physics I was searching for something to do with my life that was completely different. I ended up as a pre industrial woodworker. It seems odd to some people, but to me it was a natural concept to abandon all aspects of the Industrial Revolution and adapt to a lifestyle where human effort is substituted for technology.

I studied the writings of Christopher Pye, an English wood turner, who wrote extensively on the relationship of Man and Work and Machines. I studied the concept of Form Follows Function, and all the progress made since 1800 in making our lives "easier." It can be argued that our lives are easier, but I began to ask the question, "Is it more rewarding?"

Eventually, after many decades working by hand at the bench, walking to work, living without machinery, I wrote the paper, "Form Follows Process." You may review it on my website. It was written for the journal of the Society of Period Furniture Makers. I think it explains why my activities at the bench are so satisfying, even after 40 years of effort.

Essentially, the "workmanship of risk" and the "workmanship of certainty" concepts proposed by Pye are essential points to consider in the evaluation of modern work and the satisfaction of the workers. Ask yourself, why is it that most workers hate going to work on Monday and look forward to the weekend, when they can do "what they really want to do?" Where is the pride of work and the satisfaction of a job well done? Why all the stress and emotional struggle for happiness?

In simplistic terms, look at the relationship between the worker and his work. Before the Industrial Revolution, where the workmanship of risk was normal, a worker learned to master his tools and take risks with the work. Learning from his failure, he was able to apply his skills over time to become a "Master" in his trade, simply by controlling the tools better. In this period, the worker held the tool in his hand, and it became a direct extension of his mind and body. He manipulated the tool against the work, and with increasing skill, overcame the risks of failure. The direct result is pride of work and accomplishment.

During the Industrial Revolution machinery was invented which allowed the workmanship of certainty. That means that the machine eliminated the risk, and guaranteed a reliable result with precision every time. To produce a better result meant purchasing a better (and more costly) machine. Thus the consumer market of the middle class was created, always chasing the new and improved tool for easier living. In this period the worker feeds the machine, literally. He pushes the work against the machine and the machine is the Master. There is no pride in the work; there is pride in owning the best machine.

As a result the workers leave work every day feeling unfulfilled and empty. This is how I felt when I left the physics lab at the end of the day, and why I love my profession so much today. I hate to quit "work" and I enjoy spending time in my workshop every day, 7 days a week. I feel out of sorts when I am away from the bench. For me the process of life is rewarding and challenging at the same time. The fact that it is challenging is the reason it is so rewarding.

May the Process be with you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

American Federal Tall Clock Project

Last year I was honored with a museum showing of my work here in San Diego, along with 4 other local woodworkers. I had several pieces on display for 6 months and it was a very good experience as well as public exposure which attracted new clients. At the same time I was selected as one of the "stars" of San Diego in the magazine San Diego Home and Garden, for my woodworking business.

A very sophisticated couple from Houston were in town to visit relatives and saw my article in the magazine and took the time to visit the museum show as well. After all that, they called me to visit the workshop. I often have visitors to my shop, and most people are surprised to find a functioning and well established pre industrial woodworking shop in Southern California.

When they arrived, I showed them around and went through
my portfolio of work. They were impressed but said to me that they were American furniture collectors and not too e
xcited about the European taste I seemed to prefer. This comment made me think of a project I had set aside many years earlier.

I had
purchased at auction in New England a set of tall case clock works with wood gears. The face was signed by Silas Hoadley, and the hands were original lead hands. It was in reasonably good condition, but I replaced all the ivory bushings and some of the mechanism needed to be adjusted to make it work. I always wanted to make a case for it, and found a wonderful Federal clock by Daniel Rose which I thought was a perfect fit. It didn't matter much to me that Rose was working in Pennsylvania and Hoadley was working in New England. I just liked the design.

When I showed them the works and photos of the project they were interested, but left without any firm commitment. I got a call the next day from them in Disneyland and they said they had decided to purchase the clock.

I had all the surface veneer in stock, but I needed a quality substrate for this clock to survive in Houston. I called all my woodworking friends asking for some old growth New England white pine. I was honored when Frank Klauz said he would give me two boards he had been keeping for over 20 years. They were exactly what I needed, and I can never express my thanks enough to Frank; what a mentor and good friend.

I produced the clock exactly like the photo, and the works fit nicely. I used 2mm thick Cuban mahogany veneer for the surface, with boxwood inlay and marquetry. Antique blown glass gave it a nice original look, and Patrice created a wonderful faded mahogany patina.

Last October my wife, Kristen, and I delivered the clock in person. The couple were very kind and generous and we enjoyed their company as well as a visit to Bayou Bend, which I haven't visited in over 30 years. The clock looked perfect in their front room, and it instantly became a family heirloom.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Victoria and Albert Table Job

When I was demonstrating at Williamsburg a few years ago for the SAPFM group, I met a member who asked me if I could make a marquetry top for a table. He told me that, many years before, he had taken his daughter to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, and they fell in love with a satinwood table on display. He had promised her that he would make a copy of that table, but the marquetry designs on the top were fairly complicated.

Now that he had seen my work, he wondered if I could make just the top and he would then be able to do the rest of the work. He asked me to quote a price on making two tops only to match the original table, and supplied me with photos of the original.

Since one of the big advantages of cutting marquetry using the chevalet is the ability to make multiple copies, I told him that it would be cheaper if I made 4 copies instead of 2. I proposed that I supply him with his order for 2 tops only, and at the same time produced 2 more complete tables which I believed I could sell at a profit.

The top design is interesting. The background is satinwood, and I have some wonderful figured satinwood in stock, which I purchased many years ago in Paris. The floral wreath is fairly complicated, but the same design is repeated on each half of the top. Therefore, all I had to do was make 8 semi-oval top backgrounds, with the rosewood stringing and satinwood crossbanding and put them into a single packet, with the design glued onto the face. All the other elements of the design were put on individual packets, each with 8 layers of the same wood veneers inside.

Using the Classic Method of French marquetry ("piece by piece") I cut out all the elements in the packets, which provided me with 8 identical parts for each element and 8 backgrounds cut out to receive the elements. All the parts were shaded in hot sand to create shadows for dramatic effect. Then I spent several hours putting each panel together. More than several hours to be honest...about 8 hours for each wreath.

There were also all the dots...I had a tool made to punch out the background and another tool to cut out the plug. I suppose if I were not making an exact copy I might not have put in all the dots, but I always try to think like the original worker and imagine what his goal was. In any event, after all the dots and the rosettes were installed the tops became very showy.

The rest of the table was made by my partner, Patrice LeJeune, who graduated from ecole Boulle and has worked with me now for many years. He also provided the French Polish, which is one of his specialities.

I am happy to report that I sold the two tables before they were finished.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Lot of Boulle

When I entered the fourth year of study under Dr. Ramond at ecole Boulle, I was given two assignments: Select a project and work with the administration to get my workshop accreditation.

The accreditation of my San Diego "atelier" by ecole Boulle was a major achievement. Not only did I have to learn enough legal French to negotiate the contract between the school and my business, but it meant that I would be able to receive the school's students for a "stage" and supervise their work. Between 1995 and 2000 I received 18 students and it was a wonderful learning experience for all of us.

The selection of a project was up to me. It had to be difficult and approved by Dr. Ramond. I found a wonderful table, which currently sits in the Royal Palace in Brussels. It is known as the "family table" and was probably made by Alexandre Bellange and exhibited at the Products of Industry Exhibition held in Paris in 1834. At the direction of King Louis-Philippe of France it was purchased and presented to his eldest daughter, Louise-Marie, the queen of Belgium.

The original table was over 2 meters in diameter, and I decided to execute the same design at half scale. Instead of a fixed top table, I adapted the base from a Thomas Hope drawing and made the top tilt, so you can enjoy the marquetry from across the room. I had the bronzes made in Paris, purchased the satinwood and rosewood from Patrick George, in Paris and started cutting. The rosewood (dalbergia nigra) is an endangered wood and listed on the CITIES list. However, the rosewood I purchased was legally harvested in 1952 and I was provided papers to allow importation. The satinwood is not yet endangered, but it comes from Ceylon, and I suspect it will soon be listed as protected.

The design of the top allowed it to be cut into six pie shaped sections. I built a pack of 6 layers of satinwood and 6 layers of rosewood and glued the design on the face. When all the pieces were cut out I proceeded to assemble the 12 identical pie shaped areas, 6 with rosewood background and 6 with satinwood background. The total count for all the pieces was 6,000.

I cut the Greek Key design for the border, and created the motif for the base. The pedestal was hand carved from a large block of tulip popular wood. The marquetry was glued to the pedestal using hot protein glue and heated sand bags, in the traditional manner. That was challenging.
It is surprising to most people that I spent much more time building the bases of these tables than the tops.

There is a trick to the tops which needs to be pointed out. Note the small ovals in the outside areas of the design contain swans, butterflies and lyres. These elements were added after the pie shape areas were assembled, since they do not repeat on all 6 sections. That was fun.

Finally, as Mr. Bellange did, I installed a 5 point star in the exact center of the top. It is an indication of the marqueteur's humor to use a 5 point star in a 6 sided design. I wonder if anyone notices?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Painting in Wood Jewel Cabinet

I choose the photo of my jewel cabinet for the first page of my blog because I believe it is one of my best works. I remember the first time I visited the Getty museum (the original site in Malibu) just after it opened to the public. It was a charming and exciting place, off the beaten path with all the wonderful objects in place, as if it were a home. You could stand within inches of these masterpieces, and as long as you were respectful, spend hours examining the surface.

One of my favorite pieces was the coffer, attributed to Andre-Charles Boulle, which is completely covered in marquetry on an ebony fond. During the late 17th century it was popular to use a dark background wood (ebony or ferrol) which created a dramatic effect. The exotic hardwood veneers were hand sawn to about 2mm thick, and individually placed in hot sand to produce shadows in the wood.

I believe that marquetry pictures, in particular Painting in Wood pictures should properly be considered Fine Art instead of Decorative Art. Just because they are glued to furniture doesn't make them any less artistic. Perhaps my prejudice is showing?

In any event, I have posted the pictures of all the surfaces of my jewel cabinet, which has been shown in two American museums and currently resides in a private collection. All of the elements of the design are derived from French and Dutch marquetry examples. I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you could examine them up close, like I was able to do at the Getty so many years ago.

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.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More images of my work

I am learning to use this blog and will try to add more images of my work. These are pieces that are not on my website,, since I have not kept up on that site for several years.

This is a tall case clock I made for a client with a wonderful garden. She had a lot of input on the design of the marquetry, and I changed the design several times. The works were made by David Lindow, in Gravity, Pennsylvania, and are authentic to the late 17th century. The face was engraved in London, and the mounts were gilt in Paris.

The marquetry is fairly involved, and was created with the Painting in Wood method popular at that time. The twisted columns are hand carved, and the fretwork is backed with silk, which allows the bell to be heard when it chimes.

I will post some more images of other clocks soon. Thanks for visiting.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Hello. I have devoted my life to the Decorative Arts. I love to travel and have been fortunate to have studied with many experts in their fields, as well as museum curators and furniture conservators both in America and Europe. My favorite period is late 17th century, and I love English, Dutch and French works from that era.

The method used at that time was called "painting in wood" and the artist worked at an easel, or "chevalet de marqueterie", which allowed him to precisely cut the materials into delicate shapes. Tortoise shell, mother of pearl, bone and ivory, horn, brass and copper, and exotic imported hardwoods sawn into veneers were the medium of choice and the results were spectacular.

The jewel chest at the top of this blog is a piece I made using Gaboon ebony, legal ivory and 32 different species of sawn veneers. I worked over 800 hours to make this cabinet, and it sold to the first person who saw it. It has been exhibited in two museums, the Telfair Museum in Savannah and the Mingei Museum in San Diego.

I will post more of my work in the next blog. You may visit my site as well at

Thank you for visiting and please leave a comment.