Intarsia – Painting With Wood – Seven Rules to Follow When Doing Intarsia

Intarsia is a mosaic of small wood pieces all glued together in a specific order. Call it painting with wood. Think of wood intarsia pieces as ”Pictures In Wood” which are more life-like than paintings, because they have a three dimensional appearance.

Each piece of wood is specially cut using a scroll saw (some may use a band saw), The piece is then sanded, try to visualize the project as if it were real. Then carefully contour to give a three dimensional look, when fitted together it will form an architectural scene, flowers, or maybe an animal, etc. The colors in the intarsia pictures are almost always the natural colors of the various varieties of wood (true intarsists do not stain the wood) combined with numerous grain patterns, we literally paint pictures in wood.

Everyone that does woodwork of any kind has developed their own techniques based upon the tools they own. There are a few rules we normally follow when doing an intarsia.

– Included in your intarsia pattern are suggestions for types of wood and grain direction. You can change these to suit the woods available to you. Most intarsia patterns will benefit from certain special grain patterns and shapes. Knots are seldom acceptable in the Intarsia itself, but often the grain pattern around the knot is very desirable. I love to find boards with knots so don’t disregard a board just because it has a knot.

– There are several ways to layout your pattern on the wood, the most common is to use carbon paper under your pattern. The pattern is given as actual size, however; you may want to enlarge or reduce to suit your taste. When I have done this I cut the pattern out of lexan or some similar clear material with the scroll saw. This allows the intarsia pattern piece to be positioned perfectly on the wood grain. This can enhance the finished wood intarsia.

– The most important thing you need when cutting Intarsia can be summed up in three words; patience, patience and more patience! If you use lexan templates, cut, removing the line will give you the desired cut. If you are intimidated by the number of pieces of an intarsia project, separate it into several sections. Complete the sections, then assemble them together.

– Now make sure everything fits together using a dry fit. Whether you are going to use a backing board or not, any adjustments you need should be made now. Maybe your blade wandered a bit and you don’t have a perfect fit, you will have to do a little sanding to correct the error. Sometimes you just have to re-cut a piece to make it fit properly.

– The most important portion of your project, contouring. Now you change a two dimensional piece of wood into a three dimensional piece of wood art. Think three dimensional. Try to keep in mind how you want the picture in wood to look, especially how the piece you are working on belongs to the overall intarsia project.

– Assembling your project: If you don’t use a backing board assemble your Intarsia on a piece of waxed paper to prevent it from becoming part of your workbench. Simple yellow wood glue works well and it is easy to clean up and gives you some leeway if you make a mistake. If you a backing board assemble your intarsia directly on the board. Use glue on the backs of the wood pieces so they will adhere to the backing. Caution: Make sure you don’t have glue oozing out on the finish side of your project. If you do, clean it off immediately.

– When the piece has dried, coat with a good finishing oil and put a hanger on the back.