Marquetry: More Art than Craft
By Alan Mansfield of the Redbridge Marquetry Group, U.K.

Lesson 2: The Basic Tool Kit



In last month's article we covered the topic of veneer selection. This month I'll take you through the basic tool kit that you will need. Again, as with the veneer selection, you don't have to stick rigorously to the suggested list. You can vary it to suit your needs, but do bear in mind that our recommendations are accrued from many years of doing marquetry and have been found by trial and error to be the most suitable for the task. (When I say "our", I include my colleagues at the Redbridge Marquetry Group.)

So, lets start with our most important tool - the cutting blade. There are many cutting blades and knives of all sorts available, but only a few are of any real value to the marquetarian. Our priorities here are a little different to those of the normal woodworker and carver. Although we all agree on optimum sharpness, we marquetarians also require very thin blades for the delicacy of our cutting. In fact, our needs are such that we often use medical quality scalpels and micro-surgery scalpel blades, along with the more general "double ground" 11E scalpel blades.

A good adjunct to the scalpel blade is a block of solid wax, in which you can dab the tip of your blade before making a cut. The wax acts as a lubricant and helps prevent the blade from sticking to some of the more recalcitrant veneers.
Some of the professional veneer-preparing fraternity actually manufacture their own blades from worn-out hacksaw blades, which they shape and grind down to their own needs and requirements. I am told that the quality of the steel used for hacksaw blades is exemplary for the task, but I have to say that I fear that this expertise only comes from many years of skill in that particular black art. Most of these hacksaw derived cutting blades are mounted in Exacto (TM) handles, but I have seen some mounted in some very strange-looking homemade wooden handles, with oddly unique and inventive clamping arrangements. However, you will most probably be like myself and will use a standard scalpel blade. When I'm cutting a marquetry picture, I like to have several cutting blades ready to hand already mounted in their handles. Then, if a blade breaks or blunts, I don't have to stop.
If you take a look at the illustrations accompanying this article, you will see that I've included 4 types of commonly-used scalpel blades. The most useful one I've found for doing delicate work is the 11E blade because this is "double ground" and is consequently thinner at the cutting tip. The standard 11 and 10 blades are more rugged and therefore more useful for heavier cutting work. The micro surgery blade, although small, is nearly twice as thick as the other blades and, although it is immensely strong, it is a tricky blade to work with when doing marquetry work, precisely because of its thickness.

The next piece of equipment we should seriously consider has little to do with marquetry in a practical sense, but a lot to do with domestic harmony (you will see why in a moment). This most valuable item is a "cutting board". A good board has several advantages for us, the most important one being protecting the surface we are working on. For many people, this will be the family table - and you can guess at the reaction from our better halves if we score designs on a prized table. For this reason alone, obtaining a good cutting board is essential.
There are many types of cutting board you can use. My preferences are for the self healing varieties. These are widely available in various sizes. Personally I favour an A3 plus an A5 size of board (A5 is about the size of a U.S. letter). This pairing of board sizes works well for me, although you may prefer to use just the one board (which in most instances will be perfectly suitable).
The cutting mats you see in the illustrations at left and above are self healing mats. The A5 (letter-sized) mat is one of my favourites, because it is comfortable to work with when doing small and delicate marquetry work. For nearly completed marquetry pictures, I switch to an A3 mat because this larger size will give me uniform support across the nearly completed work, and will therefore avoid any stresses across the glue joints of the picture when handling it.

Glue is the last consideration for your kit. These days a PVA type of glue is the most favoured. For added preference I would suggest the exterior variety, because it has the advantage that it will not react with your varnish or other finish. Generally, you will find that an adverse reaction does not take place, but I have had one instance where it did happen when I used non-exterior glue. This caused the finish to bloom.

So, just to be on the safe side, I always use the exterior variety of PVA glue these days to preclude the remote possibility of an unforeseen reaction happening. The only drawback to using the exterior quality PVA glue is that it is marginally more expensive than the standard type.

In the next issue, we'll look at some of the other items you will require for your tool kit, such as a specialised press, various marquetry tapes, harewood dyes, finishing papers, scrapers, sealers and varnishes. Until then, stay safe.


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