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The inlay technique of marquetry

During the 1700s, French furniture makers perfected the art of "painting in wood," creating complex designs using natural and dyed veneers selected for color and grain. Watch marquetry being made. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Marquetry, or wood mosaics, are made by arranging hundreds of small separately cut pieces of wood into an intricate design. The process for making marquetry began when I craftsman drew, or more often traced, a design on paper. This drawing was then secured to a sheet of heavy brown paper. Following the lines of the drawing, the craftsman perforated the pattern. Although now made with a device similar to a sewing machine, during the 18th century, thousands of holes had to be laboriously punched by hand with a needle. This heavy sheet, called the pounce pattern, was laid on top of a sheet of white paper. The craftsman then rubbed graphite over the surface of the perforated pattern to transfer the design to the bottom sheet. The design could be reproduced several times using this method. The wood was then sliced into thin sheets called veneers. In the 1700s, skilled artisans using a cumbersome hand-held saw, could cut veneer as thin as one millimeter. Elaborate marquetry designs required dozens of types of wood, some chosen for their natural color, some for the interesting patterns in their grain. Others were dyed to produce vivid colors. Copies of the design were carefully carved into petals, leaves, and other elements. These small paper patterns were used as guides for cutting the veneer into hundreds of individual pieces. Multiple sheets of veneer were then nailed together into packets. Then, using animal glue, the patterns for the leaves and petals were affixed to the veneer packet. Having secured the packet in a special vice and cutting frame, the craftsman cut out the individual pieces using a jigsaw. This allowed him to make multiple copies of each piece. Hot sand was then poured over certain pieces to burn shadows, creating a sense of depth and movement in the composition. The numerous pieces were now ready to be assembled into the final design. Once the background had been cut out, it was glued onto another copy of the design. Each piece was laid face down. When all the pieces had been put together, the craftsman was ready to flip the assembled marquetry, and glue it to a piece of furniture. The supporting paper design was then removed, and the surface was cleaned. The marquetry was now complete and ready to decorate an object, like this writing and toilette table.