What is Intarsia Woodworking?

Intarsia is an early Italian method of cutting or altering pieces of wood. This was done to create different patterns and designs. The term is applied to a type of inlaying thought to have been developed in Siena, Italy during the 13th century.

Many believe that it is derived from Middle Eastern inlays of ivory over the tops of wood.

Its inlaying process creates contrasting tones that lie next to each other on the wood. The wood is usually of the highest quality and polished for an attractive finish. 

Intarsia woodworking craftsmen use scroll saws and/or jigsaws to cut the intricate piece out of the wood.

This process will often take up a significant amount of time with skill and years of practice. Ever since its origin in the 13th century, Intarsia has been used in various cultures all over the globe.

The art of intarsia was very popular in Italy from the 1400s to the 1600s. It was also practiced in other parts of Western Europe but to a more restricted degree.

Many designs of the time portrayed pictorial scenes, geometric forms, arabesques, and different scrolls, usually religious. However, Intarsia and the demand for this art form declined during the 17th century but some works were still in production by highly skilled Intarsia woodworkers.

From around 1620 onwards, marquetry (flat inlay) became more popular and slowly replaced the sophisticated and intricate work of Intarsia. 

Modern Intarsia

Over the years, Intarsia has evolved. It has become more of a sculptural style of wood-crafting art. Today, Intarsia is made by selecting different types of wood. Woodworkers use the wood’s natural grain patterns and colors to produce distinct, different colors in the pattern. 

Each piece of wood is individually cut, shaped, and sanded. These are then fitted together like a jig-saw puzzle. They are usually then glued to a piece of ¼-inch plywood backing that has been cut to the shape of the final piece of art.

Occasionally, more pieces of plywood are used to raise certain areas of the pattern. This is simply to create more depth to the final product. Once the pieces of wood are together, a layer of finish is applied for the last time and this means the product is complete.

No two Intarsia artists have the same approach or technique. This means there is no right or wrong way to go about this ancient art form. Instead, there are just different styles. Try to find the rules of Intarsia and you will come back empty-handed.

This is why it is such an appealing art form for so many artists and woodworkers. It allows them to stretch their creative abilities and produce projects that are like no other seen before. 

Intarsia can be used on all kinds of materials. If you fancy a go, you can change the patterns or add exotic woods to projects. You can use other materials such as stone, plastic, or glass to get your artistic ideas across.

Don’t be afraid to experiment! It is possible to use paints, oils, stains, and oils to enhance different colors to achieve the finish you desire. One wonderful aspect of Intarsia is that you can add as much or as little depth to a product as you wish.

If you want something to jump out at people, add as much depth as you want. 

The possibilities are endless with Intarsia. Whether the art form uses glass, feathers, or color dyes, Intarsia artists can go on a spree of creativity. Many of these artists look at the patterns as a starting point.

They are simply a guide for your own unique brand of art. Masterpieces are made with Intarsia all the time and long may this continue. 

What wood is best for light, medium, and dark Intarsia projects? 

Some woods have both light and dark areas but it is generally down to the Intarsia artist to decide on the colors. Contrasting colors and values are desired for these projects. If you stick to one color or species of wood, your project will end up being monotone and pretty dull.

This is a big NO in Intarsia terms!

Highly grained and figured wood can add a lot of spark to an Intarsia project. Most Intarsia artists believe that a good piece should have a variety of contrasting shades of wood which range from white to black.

Your choices will usually depend on the variance of color in each piece of wood. 

We recommend using pieces of wood that sport several shades in them. For instance, you can use a piece of sycamore wood to achieve light and dark streaks when working on any light to medium-light areas. 

You can choose from many types of wood from exotic to the more regular domestic kinds. One proven method for determining which woods are best for certain projects is to group varnish different wood samples together.

This will allow you to see how the colors, such as light and darks, as well as the values, work together. Many artists paint one-half of their samples with varnish but leave the other half natural so they can inspect the finished color. 

Below is a list of different woods for varying colors:

White - Aspen, Holly, Basswood, and Poplar

Light - Aspen, Maples, Poplar, Ash, Pine, Elm, English Sycamore, and Sycamore

Medium-light - Ash, Beech, Maple, Birch, Oak, Cedar, Sycamore, and Butternut 

Medium - Beech, Cherry, Oak, Cedar, and Hickory

Medium-dark - Beech and Cherry

Reddish - Redwood, Bloodwood, Aromatic Red Cedar, Mahogany, and Rosewood

Yellow - Yellowheart, Satinwood, and Yellow Pine

Dark - Blak Walnut, Rosewood, and dark pieces of Western Red Cedar

Black - Wenge, and Ebony

In Summary

Intarsia is a wonderful woodworking art form. Often used to create pieces of decorative furniture such as cabinet doors, chair legs, or tabletops, you may have seen Intarsia art without realizing it.

You may even be sitting on Intarsia art right now! 

This highly skilled art form may not be as widely used as it once was but one thing remains, with the right amount of skill and practice, Intarsia woodworkers and artists can continue to create some of the most beautiful pieces of art known to humanity.