The Art of Intarsia

By Chris Rentmeister (goldfinch4) on May 13, 2010

Intarsia is the process of cutting, shaping, fitting and gluing various species of wood onto a wooden background for decorative purposes.

Both of my grandfathers were carpenters and my father and brother are both exceptional hobby woodworkers, so it was only natural that I would develop a love for woodworking.  When I was younger, girls just didn't take shop class in school, so it wasn't until later in life that I got my first scroll saw.  And as they say, the rest is history...

It took some practice to understand the concept of intarsia.  In fact, my first attempt was so bad that I threw it away.  I was too embarrassed to show anyone except my husband.  Luckily he didn't make me feel bad or I might have given up!

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The close up picture on the right shows how various shades of wood help create the 3D effect.

 

 

True intarsia requires a variety of assorted woods of different colors.  The use of these colors, grain structure and direction is what makes a beautiful project.  No paint or stain is used to change any wood color - just various species of wood give the different colors and patterns.  Because of this, intasia pieces are usually one of a kind.  By using different wood but the same pattern, the results will look totally different.

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Examples of how grain patterns enhance a project.

 

 

 

I use a scroll saw to cut out the pieces, which takes a lot of time and patience.  If the cuts aren't accurate they won't fit together as a project again.  I have a large magnifying glass mounted on my scroll saw that really helps.

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After the pieces are cut out you lay them out like a jigsaw puzzle making sure everything fits.  To give your project a 3D look you need to sand and contour each piece.  The cardinal picture below is a good example of contours and shaping.  Sometimes additional pieces of wood are used to raise areas of the pattern to create more depth.  (See example on the dragon at the right.)  This is the part of the process that makes the difference between it looking like a puzzle or a beautiful piece of art.  All the pieces are then glued to a wood surface and the finish is applied.

 

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Intarsia is actually a very old art form, but by the late 17th Century it had all but disappeared.  Intarsia as we know it today can be attributed almost entirely to one person, Judy Gale Roberts, who rejuvenated the art in the late 1970s.  Jerry Booher joined her in the eighties and together they created beautiful pieces to sell and also began making patterns and books which increased interest in intarsia once again.  There are lots of patterns available for all different skill levels.  And as with everything, the internet allows people from all over the world to share ideas in discussion forums.

 

This is a wonderful hobby, but don't plan on making a living doing it.  It takes many, many hours to complete a project.  But the satisfaction of creating a one of a kind work of art from small pieces of wood is very satisfying.

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Related articles:
art, arts, intarsia, sanding, saw, scroll, scroll saw, wood, wood art, wood craft, wood working, woodworking

About Chris Rentmeister
I grew up in Wisconsin and have lived here most of my life. My hobbies are woodworking (specifically intarsia), working with hypertufa and cement, polymer clay, cooking and gardening. Whatever hobbies I'm interested in I tend to do to the extreme.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Great article Val Nov 15, 2010 1:39 PM 15

Timber Treasures

Beautiful hand made intarsia and fretwork art for sale. Some of the categories include birds, wildlife, angels, snowmen and much more. Large price range of items available. Come and discover more about these unique woodworking techniques.

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