Collecting Mania: American Marquetry
Marquetry is a centuries-old technique of ornamenting wood surfaces with an overlay of wood veneers that have been carefully cut and then glued onto the surface of the wood to form decorative patterns. Transcending the ages and spanning many civilizations, the craft has been used to enhance, dramatize, and stylize artifacts - beds, boxes, chairs, clocks, tables, even violin cases. Marquetry has never been a useful craft. Instead, its role has always been to embellish, beautify, and satisfy the human desire to transform the ordinary.
European woodworkers have made marquetry since the 17th century. American marquetry descends from this tradition, through the immigration of European (especially German) craftsmen in the 19th century. By this time, marquetry stood in opposition to the mechanical processes of the industrialized era; the labor-intensive process relied on painstaking handcraftsmanship and only the simplest tools - a saw and glue - to achieve stunning results.
In America, the popular taste for marquetry did not gain a strong foothold until after the close of the Civil War, and it extended for 90 years. Detailed inventories associated with particular marquetry projects indicate that American marquetry makers used local woods, such as cherry and maple, as well as imported mahogany and many kinds of exotic woods. Even more colors could be achieved by staining. The range of designs that could be created through the use of cut and shaped wood veneers was seemingly limitless, from uniform geometric borders to elaborate scenes that sometimes created the illusion of paintings.
To produce marquetry, woodworkers must depend upon an assortment of veneers (thin layers of wood), a versatile saw, good glue, and planes. As tools evolved, so did the level of intricacy possible. The earliest extant European marquetry, dating from the late Middle Ages in Italy, was assembled from wood chips gouged from planks with chisels and carved to size with knives. With its U-shaped metal frame and narrow-toothed blade of clock-spring steel, the fretsaw, invented in 1562, brought precision to the cutting and shaping of veneers. The foot-powered jigsaw, patented in 1799, operated with the motion of a sewing machine to cut intricate shapes.
Steam-powered sawmills, which were common in America by 1830, could cut veneers as thin as 15 to 20 layers to the inch of timber. Still, many makers preferred hand methods for their work, particularly in the sawing of veneers.
The hours of labor necessary to ornament an object with marquetry made the pieces far more costly than most Americans could afford. As a result, the gift of a piece or marquetry was considered priceless, expressing the maker's substantial investment of time and emotion. Large, ornate works were often meant to be shown at community events, country fairs, even international exhibitions.
Because the thin veneers used in marquetry are delicate and the glues are susceptible to extremes of wet and dry conditions, much marquetry has been lost to shrinking, warping, and rot. Repairs can sometimes be made to marquetry that's delaminating or warping, but it's a delicate procedure, and extensive repairs can decrease a piece's value.
Marquetry is the decorative embellishment of wooden objects with patterns and pictures composed of wood chips or veneers that are carefully cut and then glued onto the surface of the wood. Marquetry is an overlay, not an inlay. In addition, the term "marquetry" is often used as a common collective for three related techniques:
- Parquetry: Consisting entirely of geometric shapes cut with straight edges. Since 1816, "parquet" has been used in English to mean a wood floor pieced of straight-edged geometric shapes.
- Intarsia: The layering of wood pieces into an indentation in a solid-wood base. The word derives from the Latin intarsio, meaning to insert or to put between.
- Inlay: Embedding any number of materials, including wood, into a wood base. Bone, ivory, metal, stone, and plastic are common inlays.