A little history... 

The origin of marquetry dates back to 300 years BC. Its decorative principle manifested itself first in the form of inlay, then in the form of veneering, using techniques of cutting and juxtaposition. Marquetry was a new development in the 15th and 16th centuries thanks to the rare essences of the navigators of their distant voyages and the refinement of the tools. But it was in the 18th century that it reached its apogee, cabinetmakers and ornamentists working closely together to blends of ever more varied precious essences.

Let's talk technical

This presentation is done in two stages, the first allows you to familiarize yourself with some generalities of marquetry, the second presents you the different steps to make a table of marquetry "element by element"

It is called marquetry, a decoration made in juxtaposing of veneers previously carved.
The most diverse materials are used :
  • Wood in its multiple essences
  • Metals: copper, brass, tin, silver 
  • Materials of animal origin : tortoiseshell, horn, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, galuchat (fish skin)
  • Stone and marble straw 
The tools

In the handicraft, the cutting to the saw is the most widespread, we use as tools, either :
  • The Bocfil (small U-saw) 
  • The bridge of Marqueteur 
  • The mechanical saw with reciprocating movement 

In the industry, the laser cutting develops.
The techniques

The cutting to the saw is done according to different methods, according to the materials and the motif : 
  • the cut called "element by element", each piece is cut separately (puzzle way) 
  • the cutout in overlay or technique "Boule", the decor and the background are cut simultaneously with two contrasting veneers, we obtain two marquetry, one Negative and a positive
  • the inlay, cavities are dug into the solid bottom or plated to receive the carved elements of the decor the tapered sawing, 
  • cutting in overlay by tilting the blade
The veneer 

The veneer is made using two processes :
       - Sawn veneer : traditional technique a sheet of 10 to 15/10th of millimetres of thickness is obtained. This process is expensive but gives the most beautiful veneers especially in hardwoods.
       - Sliced veneer : Modern technique developed at the end of XIX century.
A chip is obtained from 4 to 10/10th of millimetres thick.
This veneer is easier to work with but has lost some of its coloration because of the steaming it has undergone before being sliced.
Moreover, the passage of the knife cracks the veneer in its thickness, which makes it lose its depth.

The veneer is used in its natural color, ranging from white to black and all variants of yellow and red. It can also be tinted, cold colors and saturated colors are obtained by soaking the veneer in the dye baths before cutting.

II-creation of an inlay panel in the technique "element by element ", the work is broken down into several steps : 
  1. The drawing 
  2. The choice of materials 
  3. The preparation of the packages 
  4. The cutting 
  5. The shading 
  6. The mounting 
  7. The plate 
  8. The finish

At first, the study of graphics and modelling is made in pencil, then a gouache is produced to specify the coloured composition. The pattern is refined and redesigned in ink to obtain the thinnest stroke possible. Several reproductions made by photocopies or by tappings (perforation of the path) will be necessary in order to collect each element of the drawing for the cutting.  

2-The choice of materials 

The choice of different wood and other materials is paramount. The quality of the marquetry is mainly based on the judicious use of the aesthetic richness of the wood in all their diversities. One will choose a wood based on its colour, its veining, its grain, its depth, its brightness. The materials are crude and you have to imagine the appearance they will take when varnished. The same wood will have an entirely different appearance if it is debited on the neighbourhood, on Dosse, in end wood or in sausage, in a magnifying glass or in a bramble. The use of other materials will give strong contrasts, either by material or by color. 

3-The preparation of the packages

The technique "element by element " allows to cut several thicknesses at the same time, from 2 to 6 with sawn veneer, up to 12 with sliced veneer. A package consists of veneers of the same superimposed species and is maintained by riveting, reinforced underneath by a counter plate. Then we just stick the drawing of each piece to be cut on the package.
4-The cutting
The cut in several layers is made, either at the easel or the mechanical saw. All veneer pieces once cut are placed in a shelf in the pattern position. 
If several pieces are similar, they will be numbered beforehand on the drawing. The precision in the cutting is indispensable, the thickness of the line, eliminated on each part, will constitute the mounting set, hence the importance of a fine line, if the parts are too "greasy", the marquetry will not be able to rise. If they are too "Skinny", there will be an unsightly joint between the pieces.
To give relief to the pattern, one can shade some parts. To do this, fine sand is heated in a container at 250-300 °c and the veneer pieces are dipped to obtain a degraded browning. It is necessary to dose according to the thickness and hardness of the veneer to claim a good result. Chisel engraving is also used to give pattern, in which case the burner works just before the varnishing. 

The assembly of the different pieces is similar to the mounting of a puzzle.   The pieces are not glued directly on a board, but on a kraft paper which is stretched on a wedge. The mounting is done upside down, i.e. the face of the marquetry on the kraft paper. 
Some parts may be retouched with the needle file or scalpel, but it is much better to have a good cut. When all the pieces are mounted, the marquetry is ready to be glued.
7-The plate
The plate consists of gluing the marquetry onto a plywood or batten panel. The paper that has been used to temporarily maintain the marquetry is surfaced and is removed after drying of the paste made in press. 

8-The Finish
The first step is to prepare the surface of the veneer to receive a finished product. First, the surface is equalized to the scraper if the veneers are of different thicknesses and then sanded to the paper wedge by finishing with a very fine grain until a beautiful polished.
The second step is to clog the pores of the wood in order to obtain a frosting of the surface. This is done either with a mouth-pore for the modern finishes, or by a filler with pumice for the wax or the varnish to the tampon. The filling with pumice powder has the double advantage of clogging the pores of the wood and polishing.
A finished product is then applied :
  • A wax 
  • A shellac varnish with a tampon 
  • A modern varnish 
The wax gives a slightly satin appearance while warming the tone of the wood, but this finish is fragile. The stamp varnish is a traditional, long and delicate process to be performed. The shellac gives a slightly warm transparency that reveals the brightness of the woods. It is a more or less colorful natural resin that is spread out in tiny layers using a cloth pad.
Cellulose, glycerophthalic or polyurethane varnishes give a plastic appearance, sometimes close to the bodywork varnish.

Wood is a hygroscopic material, it will react to the humidity of the air. It is therefore not advisable to hang an inlay near a source of heat. A constant relative humidity close to 50% is ideal. It is also necessary to ensure that the rays of the sun or the moon do not come directly hitting the panel under the penalty of seeing the veneers fading quickly. Each marqueteur, according to its formation and affinities, works in different ways, allowing this discipline to evolve and present a diversity often unknown in the realization of furniture or inlaid tables.
For more information, consult the books of Pierre Ramond, former professor of marquetry at the "École Boule" in Paris.
Philippe GUERIN
Meilleur OUvrier de France 1994