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What Is Intarsia?

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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 13 February 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Considered a mosaic, intarsia is a type of woodworking process in which various pieces of wood are fitted together to create a pattern or picture. Reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle, intarsia relies on the natural colors of the wood to create pictures. Pictures are often related to nature or animals, but may be of anything. Originally popular in 15th century Italian decoration, intarsia is now mostly created as craft pieces.

Western red cedar is the most popular wood to use for intarsia projects. This wood has a wide variety of colors and textures, so it can be used for most desired color patterns. Western red cedar does not occur in white, however, so aspen is usually recommended for projects that require white wood.

The differing colors and textures are vital for a successful piece. For example, if the desired design is a bird sitting on a tree branch, the bird's back and wings may be a medium colored wood, while its breast could be a white wood. The branch might be dark, and the bird's beak and feet yellowish. These color changes give the piece a depth and clarity that would be lost if the pieces too closely resembled each other.

In addition to wood, cutting tools are necessary to begin an intarsia project. A band saw or a scroll saw is used to cut the desired shapes out of the wood pieces. The shapes are first drawn or traced from a pattern onto the wood before the saw is used to cut them out.

Once the pieces are cut, they should be fitted together to ensure a correct fit. If the pieces do not fit relatively smoothly, some trimming may be needed. Once the pieces are trimmed, they are sanded so the edges are smooth and all fit flush against each other. Any type of electric sander can be used for this process. Sandpaper may also be used, but sanding the pieces by hand will take considerably more time and effort.

Shaped pieces are put together and glued to backing using carpenter's glue. Backings can be of materials as simple as plywood, usually about 0.25 inch (0.63 cm) thick. Hangers or wires can be attached to the back for easy hanging of the finished piece.

Once the piece is firmly attached to the backing, finishing should be applied. Though stains are not usually used in intarsia, any type if finishing is acceptable. Wax, varnish, shellac, or even paint may be used to seal the finished piece.

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