Examples of wood veneer inlay, or marquetry, can be traced to early Egypt, but the art of marquetry didn't reach its zenith until the 17th and 18th centuries. A marquetry artisan must make measurements, hollow out a space on a mounting board and cut a design from wood veneer, bone or shell. All these processes require precision, and the tools used for them must be accurate, sharp and easy to control.
Whether you draw a pattern freehand or trace it from a picture or other drawing, the lines must be as thin and precise as possible. A sharpened H2 pencil is adequate for drawing the design on paper, and it can be transferred to the veneer by placing carbon paper on the wood and tracing the design on the back with the pencil. You'll get the best accuracy, however, by going over the carbon lines with a sharp knife. You can then erase the carbon lines, which will be considerably thicker and less accurate than those made with the knife.
After making lines, either by tracing or using a metal ruler and protractor to draw freehand designs, many marquetry experts cut the wood with a sharp knife. This is usually only practical for thin veneers and won't work with harder materials, like shell. When a power tool is needed, the best choices are a scroll saw or fret saw. They function like a band saw, but have a thin blade that won't bind when cutting tight curves. A coping saw is a hand-held version of a scroll saw, akin to a hacksaw, and also cuts accurate curves.
Laying Out and Mounting
Before you can mount the finished marquetry design, you have to lay it out on a flat surface and assemble it. While any flat surface is suitable, the best is one with few irregularities, such as hardwood-faced plywood. Use regular cellophane tape to hold the pieces together. The mounting substrate should be similarly flat and hard and should also be warp-resistant. Contact gel is preferable to regular wood glue for adhering the pieces to the mounting board, and you will need a roller to press the pieces into place before the glue dries.
Prior to finishing any wood surface, you have to sand it, but for marquetry you should avoid using grades coarser than 150-grit. Rubbing the surface with very fine steel wool after sanding, and then wiping it down with a moistened lint-free rag, will polish the wood and give you an idea how it will look after you have applied the finish. While any light finish material is suitable, you will get good results by applying successive light coats of water-based urethane, rubbing down each successive coat with steel wool after it dries and before applying the next.
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