Intarsia is a form of woodworking that uses wood mosaics to create an image or design. It is very similar to marquetry and has a long history as a decorative art. You’re likely to find examples of intarsia everywhere, ranging from world-class art museums to handcrafted projects in homes across America. This subtle and beautiful form of woodworking is also a popular hobby that many enjoy. With the right tools, information, and a little practice you too can create works of intarsia for your home.
The term “intarsia” is likely a derivation of the Latin word for insertion. This is because traditional intarsia technique called for the inlay of wood into the walls, floors or furniture in order to create intricate mosaics. Precious gems and other exotic materials like ivory or mother of pearl were sometimes used in place of wood. Designs typically utilized look of the raw materials selected- working with the natural grain and color of different woods. Stains and dyes were also used occasionally. The different colors and grains of material give the designs a feeling of depth.
The modern history of intarsia begins in North Africa around the seventh century likely with an Arabic influence. Examples of intarsia art could be found throughout Egypt during that period. From there, intarsia made its way to Europe through Italy. There, new intarsia techniques were created and the technique became popular throughout Europe. Wealthy patrons often commissioned intarsia for their private collections and home décor. During the Renaissance, highly technical perspective-based illusion intarsia pieces like bookcases and cabinet installations became quite popular for these commissions. Some of these intricate works are still on display in preserved homes and in museums around the world. Today, intarsia is usually inlaid into furniture or is pieces of art.
When working on intarsia, there are a few key tools any crafter needs. Intarsia simply requires a cutting tool, a sanding tool, and glue. As with all woodworking projects, there are many different tools a craftsman may prefer for each task. Intarsia is an art, so there is room for personal interpretation on how to craft and compose pieces. Generally, however, a scroll saw or band saw is recommended for cutting the pieces of the pattern. Blade choice will vary based on personal preference. Unlike cutting, there are no specific recommendations for sanding. While some woodworkers have extensive sanding equipment, others prefer to shape their pieces the traditional way using just handheld sanding tools like rasps.
As different woods are the key to beautiful intarsia, the artist must gather all the different woods and stains they want to use. Plywood or birch wood is a must for any project, as they are usually used for the backing. Woods for the pattern itself are completely up to the artist’s taste. Many craftsmen like to use Western Red Cedar for intarsia.
Traditional intarsia required a long and difficult process. It was also quite expensive as rare woods had to be imported and each piece was shaped by hand. A pattern was designed and matching hollows were made in the inlay base. Woods are then selected for each part of the pattern. Each piece was cut and shaped by hand, then carefully and tightly placed into the hollows like puzzle pieces.
The modern process is very similar, but much easier. Crafters now can either create their own designs or use a stencil. Different woods are selected to create visual appeal and depth, then cut and shaped to fit. Crafters working from a pattern will have suggestions on what woods should be used for each portion. Little has changed from the traditional method in choosing and shaping each piece for the mosaic. Modern tools like scroll saws, however, make this step less tedious and time consuming. While much of the shaping can be done with tools, detailing for depth and texture requires traditional hand crafting. Once the pieces are completed, they are tightly pieced together and glued to a backing. Some pieces may be raised with extra backing to create additional depth. The final step is cutting away the excess backing, leaving only the fully finished, beautiful piece of intarsia.
- The History of Intarsia: Read a brief synopsis of the history of intarsia here.
- Intarsia Tips and Tricks: Follow these tips to improve the quality of your intarsia projects.
- Intarsia 101: Find general tips and techniques for getting started with an intarsia project.
- Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia: Read an in-depth study of the origins of the uniquely beautiful art of intarsia on this page.
- NICA: National Intarsia Carvers Association: Learn more about the artistry of intarsia from this national group of intarsia carvers.
- Handbook for Designers and Craftsmen: This historical book presents a detailed history of intarsia along with photos of famous examples.
- FAQs About Intarsia Woodworking Projects: Learn about choosing wood to use and get some pro tips for producing your best work here.