Summer Internship #1: Marquetry with a Master

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(image above: Silas Kopf)

My first internship took me to western Massachusetts for a three week introduction to marquetry, and I can think of no one greater to provide me insight into the world of making pictures with wood than Silas Kopf. I met Silas at the Cincinnati airport a few years ago on my way home from attending Woodworking in America. We struck up a conversation and that helped open the door for this three week internship.

So what did I learn? What did I do? What angle does Silas use to cut his bevels? All good questions, but first let me say that my purpose for attempting to intern this summer was twofold.

Of course I wanted to learn and gain valuable insight into new and exciting woodworking techniques, but I also wanted to get a feel for the lifestyle and the work environment of professional artists/woodworkers. In that respect I must say I got three very different (but in some ways very similar) glimpses into the art of making a living doing what you love. During my three weeks with Silas he was accommodating, insightful, humorous, and a fantastic and patient teacher. While in town he introduced me to many of the other talented woodworkers in his community. (Hey William, and yes Dan the press is mine. Hello also to all the folks at Riverside!) In Silas’ shop I worked to learn the basics of marquetry, helped him prepare a large room panel, and cleaned and lubricated a massive old veneer press he uses. Here are the gems of knowledge I acquired:

Work with thicker veneer if you can. Most veneer that’s currently available commercially is 1/42”. You can use it for marquetry (many do), but it leaves very little room for error because it’s easier to sand through. Here’s an example of one of my practice pieces using 1/42” and you can see the brown halos where I sanded through the image and the background wood is starting to show through:

Silas resaws most of his own veneer to 1/20” and I used this for my last project with no sand through issues. Thinner veneer is also more likely to tear out during cutting, so it’s a good practice to stabilize 1/42” veneer with tape/glue prior to cutting. Generally, with 1/20” veneer, this extra time and effort isn’t necessary.

Peel off your veneer tape and replace it as you build the image. I sanded through two of my practice pieces while working with Silas and even though using thinner veneers (1/42”) was part of the problem, the other part was how I was using the veneer tape. As you build an image, you are taping your small wood pieces together with water activated hide glue tape. Eventually you can build up a lot of layers of this tape. If you try to glue your image to the substrate with all that tape on, the veneer press will push down more on the area you started in because it has more tape layers than the area where you ended. This means that heavily taped sections of your image will actually get “pressed” into the background substrate slightly, and may actually be lower than the rest of the final image. In the attempt to sand off the tape over those low areas, you might unintentionally sand through the “higher” parts and the background wood will start to show through. (You don’t have much room for height differences in 1/42”veneer…) You can see that here:

 

To help with this, throughout the day, remove the buildup of veneer tape. To do this, tape the glue side of your image with blue painter’s tape and peel off all the layers of veneer tape on the show side. Replace with a single layer of the veneer tape. Then peel off the painter’s tape and continue to build the image. Repeat this process often and ensure that when it goes into the veneer press, you only have one layer of tape on the show side. This also has the added benefit of making it much easier to sand/scrape off the veneer tape after the image has been pressed (i.e. less tape to remove).

Use the right blade and be prepared to break a few as you learn. Many different opinions exist on the right blade to use for marquetry. I brought a bunch of my own blades with me ranging in thickness from 1 (thicker) to 6/0 (very thin) and also with different tooth arrangements. I found that the thinner the blade the smoother it cuts, but… the quicker it heats up, and the buildup of heat leads to the blade breaking. That’s why most jewelry makers who cut metal with fretsaws do so slowly by hand or they have water cooled cutting systems. The thicker blades don’t break as often but they create a bigger kerf when cutting and tend to grab the veneer material, so controlling the cut and following the cut line is more challenging. You have to find the right balance. Silas uses a 2/0 double tooth blade by a company called Eberle that no longer exists (the Eberle Blitz). Silas’ current recommendation is an Olson Blade that is available from Tools for Working Wood. It’s a 3/0 double tooth and it’s the closest thing he has found to the old Eberle blades. I used and broke 10-15 of my blades during my internship. I also borrowed some of the Eberle’s and only broke 5-7 of those! They did cut much, much better but again, the blade only helps soften the learning curve, you will break blades often in the beginning. As a comparison, during the three weeks I was there Silas broke 1 blade.

The machine does not make the man. One of my questions entering into this internship was how much vibration is acceptable from the scroll saw when using it to cut marquetry. Historically, marquetry was either cut by hand or with a trebuchet and these methods are pretty much vibration free, but are also fairly slow. Many current woodworkers use the powered scroll saw, and the quality of the movement of the blade varies widely between manufacturers. In addition to the normal up and down movement of the blade, lower quality machines have a more exaggerated forward motion. I’ve owned two scroll saws: my current saw is a Type 1 Dewalt 788, and I previously owned a Delta with the same design as the Dewalt but with a type 2 motor. The type 2 motor had more vibration, and the movement of the blade had more forward motion. Silas uses an Excaliber, which is regarded as one of the best scroll saw makers. I used his machine and was impressed; it is much smoother than my Dewalt, but it’s still not vibration free. It seems you will not find a powered scroll saw with a completely smooth up and down motion, so you have to learn to deal with some amount of forward movement. The four most important things you can do to your scroll saw as a beginner to make it more marquetry friendly are: create a zero clearance insert, run your saw at the slowest speed possible, add a foot pedal, and wax the scroll saw’s table.

The angle is important, as is the direction of the cut. When cutting marquetry you are generally cutting at an angle, creating a bevel so that pieces fit together with no noticeable gap. Generally for 1/20” veneer that angle is between 6 and 8 degrees. For 1/42” veneers you can use an intermediate scrap layer and keep that same angle. The next concept is rotation and this depends on whether you have the table tilted right or left and whether you are trying to fit the top piece into the bottom or the bottom piece into the top. If the table is tilted left, then to have the top veneer fit into the bottom you would cut counterclockwise, if you want the bottom veneer to fit into the top you would cut clockwise. When you have the table tilted to the right this is reverse. Always do a test cut to make sure your angles and rotation are correct.

Stabilize unstable veneers before cutting. If you’re cutting brittle woods, across the grain, or any other action where it is likely small pieces will break off, tape the back of the veneer with veneer tape. With burls you can even stabilize the entire piece by spreading on a thin layer of diluted white glue.

During my three weeks I was able to finish 4 pictures (2 of which I ruined by sanding through, as mentioned above). This was my last picture. It was cut using 1/20” veneer and employing many of the techniques Silas demonstrated during my stay.

 

And here is the finished panel that Silas was working on while I was there. He finished this a few weeks after I left and shipped it off to be a part of the Monaco Yacht Show. Notice the details of light and shadow he is able achieve with different colors and tones of wood. He is truly a painter with wood.

 

 Thanks again Silas, it was a truly memorable experience.

 

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