Selecting Wood for Intarsia Projects

By Chris Rentmeister (goldfinch4) on November 19, 2011

After selecting your pattern, you need to decide what type(s) of wood you will be using for your project. This is not as simple of a process as one would think.

The wood you select will have a major impact on the finished project.  There is no right or wrong types of wood for this, but you need to decide what colors you’d like to use.  You will, no doubt, use some type of finish on your completed project.  When finish is applied to raw wood it nearly always changes the color of the wood, so keep this in mind during your selection process.  If you’re not sure what the wood will look like once the finish is applied, cut off a small piece and apply finish as a test before you start your project. One would think wood is wood, and all types and colors look good together.  This isn’t necessarily true and by making test pieces you can avoid disappointment once your project is finished.

In the picture below the top of each board is unfinished, the bottom of each is varnished. You can click on any pictures in this article to see more detail.

From left to right:  Western red cedar, red oak, mahogany


This is assuming you don’t plan to paint your project.  I think the most attractive thing about intarsia is letting the beautiful, natural colors of the wood do the “painting”.  For me, that’s the whole point of this type of art.  I have seen others just use pine and paint the piece, but there is no comparison between a painted piece and the beauty of the natural wood piece. 

Any type of wood will have variations in the color, sometimes even on a single board.  For example, walnut can be anywhere from light brown to almost black, or even have light cream colored sections mixed in.  Poplar comes in shades of white, pink and green.  Western red cedar ranges from cream colored, to various shades of rusty-red and browns.

These boards are both Western red cedar.  See the color variations in each board?

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Also consider the grain of the wood.  Some boards have a tight, straight grain and others can have “waves”, curves, slants or any combination of grain.  Even pieces of wood that have a knot in them can add interest to your work.  Having a good selection of different lumbers on hand makes the selection process for your projects lots of fun.

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Sourcing lumber can be challenging in certain areas of the country.  Most big box stores will carry pine, oak, sometimes walnut, but not much else. If you’re lucky you might have woodworking stores nearby that have a good assortment to choose from.   You’ll find many places on line that sell it, but be prepared to pay a lot for shipping – lumber is heavy.  Some companies specialize in rare and unusual wood such as zebra, bubinga, cocobolo, makore.  Note the prices of those boards!  The colors of these unusual types are exciting to use, but you’ll be paying a premium price for it.  I usually try to use these for smaller accent pieces in my project rather than the main subject.  Here is a beautiful piece of lacewood I've used for several projects. 


There are also a few on-line stores that sell wood specifically for intarsia, which generally means boards sanded on both sides and cut to a thickness of 3/4".

You’ll also find that there is a huge difference between soft and hard woods when cutting and shaping your work.  I prefer soft wood because of how easy it is to work with.  Types of wood I frequently use are Western red cedar (reds and browns), basswood (very light tan), aspen and ash (white), butternut (light brown), hickory (medium brown), yellowheart (yellow), redheart (red) and walnut (dark browns).  Redheart, yellowheart and walnut are hard woods, but the colors are beautiful.  One note about redheart - when you cut and sand it, it will be bright red.  Depending on the finish you use, it will either remain red or can actually turn dark brown over time.  I’ve found that using a finish with UV protectant or one that says “non-yellowing” will help maintain the red color.  Also keeping the finished piece out of direct sunlight will help.


My favorite wood to use is Western red cedar.  It cuts and sands like butter and comes in a large range of colors.  Generally any color of Western red cedar (WRC) will look good with any other color of WRC, which removes a lot of the guesswork when trying to match colors. (Note that Western red cedar is not the same as aromatic cedar.)  The only drawback I’ve found to using WRC is that since it is such a soft wood, it can break when cutting or sanding very narrow pieces.  It just takes a little extra care to insure this doesn’t happen.  WRC is hard to find in many areas of the country but I have a great source that I highly recommend who will ship anywhere in the United States.  He uses WRC to build fantastic wildlife feeders, but also sells just the lumber. Visit Hurley-Byrd to see his beautiful feeders made of WRC or contact Peter Hurley at [email protected] and let him know what you are looking for.  He will hand select each piece of lumber specifically for your needs, and his prices are extremely reasonable.



Example of project made

entirely of Western Red Cedar

showing the color and grain



By changing the types of wood you use, one pattern can be used many times and each piece will be unique.

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When you purchase a pattern for intarsia, most of them will have recommendations for color or even a specific type of wood.  But don’t be afraid to experiment and come up with your own combinations.  That’s what makes this form of artwork so much fun and your personal work distinctive!

Please stop by my Timber Treasures Cubit where you’ll find more articles on intarsia and my store.  Intarsia artwork makes unique and personal gifts that show your good taste, and will be treasured for years to come.

Related articles:
art, arts, intarsia, lumber, wood, wood art, wood craft, wood grain, 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
I love your "eye" for color & grain! critterologist Nov 24, 2011 10:52 AM 3
Beautiful work, Chris!! Sharon Nov 23, 2011 2:05 AM 7

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