Chapter 1 - Getting Started

 Every intarsia project begins with a pattern.

Fortunately patterns are abundant. Suppliers listed in our Sources Section offer them by the hundred. You can build eagles, lighthouses, praying hands, sailing ships, old cars, grizzly bears, fluffy kittens, ... etc. The list of project patterns is very long.

Beginners usually start with a commercial pattern. But many intarsians (intarsia builders) soon begin creating their own patterns. These may be based on photos, clip art and similar sources or you could use your own original drawings. To design and build a project from scratch is a highly satisfying creative experience. Selling these projects for good prices works wonders for one’s self esteem.

For the demonstrator project in this guide, we’re going to build a little bear named Teddy. He is one foot tall and made up of approximately 20 separate pieces of wood. Teddy is a typical beginner-level project. He’s also a good demonstrator, since we will be using the same building processes creating him that are used to create a 300 piece motorcycle.

For easy transfer to wood, Teddy’s pattern needs to be drawn on or transferred to translucent material such as tracing paper or drafting vellum. The semi-transparency of the material allows you to look through the pattern at the wood. Thus you can see what an intarsia part looks like before you cut it out. Some commercial patterns are supplied on suitable material while others are on plain paper. Patterns on plain paper should be transferred to tracing paper.

Although an intarsia project begins with a pattern, the subject soon switches to wood. Wood looms large among intarsians – and well it should, for it is our painter’s palette. We like wood. We like its endless variety of color, texture, grain pattern, weight, feel and smell. Sometimes, we discuss wood as if it were fine wine.

What do you need to know about wood to start? Not a thing. Nor is there any need to become an expert. Award-winning intarsian Judy Gayle Roberts has built hundreds of magnificent projects from a single species, western red cedar.

Like a painter selecting paints, an intarsian selects woods. Small projects, such as our Teddy, typically contain three or four species. However, larger projects may contain a dozen or more. Over time, most of us develop favorite species that we stock in quantity and use in one project after another. We are proud of our choices. If you see a piece on display in our Gallery section and wonder what it’s made of, e-mail and find out.

If you know very little about wood and care even less, you can still build a respectable version of Teddy from a single pine board. The pattern is glued to the board and sawed to pieces. The various parts are then shaped, sanded, stained and glued back together. Easy as it is, this so-called "Segmented Woodwork" sells very well in the craft market.

If you’d like to take a look at our painter’s palette of woods, a number of websites have photos. Unhappily, even the best photos fall short. A picture of an apple is one thing, a real apple quite another.

For a look at reality, visit hardwood lumber companies in your area. In a well-stocked outlet you’ll find several dozen species of domestic hardwoods, no two of them alike. There is variety within species, as well – poplar that is gray, poplar that is green, white pine that is blue, and so on. Then there are the exotics – lacewood, purpleheart, yellowheart, zebrawood, and bloodwood (to name only a few), all of which bear striking resemblance to their namesakes. The intarsian’s palette is large indeed.

Some of these woods are expensive, so perhaps this is the time to discuss how much Teddy will cost. The answer is that he costs as much, or as little, as you wish. Built from stained pine, he’d run about $1.75. Built from exotics, that same little bear could cost upwards of $100. As we are going to build him, using four popular intarsia woods, he should cost $3-$4.

One trick to reducing costs is to use the pricey stuff sparingly. For example, I like to use zebrawood for inlays on the wings of hummingbirds. Recently, I paid $24 for a knee-high board. Whew! On the other hand, it ought to be good for 500 birds.

We’re going to build Teddy from four popular woods: western red cedar, pine, walnut and aromatic cedar. Each needs brief description.

Western red cedar is soft, easy to work and inexpensive. It offers interesting grain patterns and an extraordinary range of colors. Occasionally a board is nearly white while others, particularly fence boards, are as dark as chocolate.

The second wood is pine – plain old pine. Like cedar, pine is soft, easy to work and inexpensive. Pine is light-colored, offering a welcome contrast to the darker cedar.

The third wood is black walnut, which is hard, although not too hard to work, and is moderately expensive. While less expensive cedar may be as dark, it lacks the distinctive grain patterns that have made walnut the so-called "Queen Of The Hardwoods". Walnut is worth the price for its grain pattern alone.

Wood for Teddy

The fourth wood is aromatic cedar, which is soft, easy to work, inexpensive and smells wonderful in the bargain. While colors vary, you can find aromatic that is intense red, often with yellow blotches or streaks. Aromatic cedar makes terrific flowers. On Teddy, we’ll use it for his scarf, just to add a splash of color.

Before we start building, here are a couple of tips on buying wood for intarsia.

First, buy the widest boards you can find – in softwoods, 1 X 12s. In the long run, wider boards are more economical.

Second, try to obtain all lumber in " thickness. Experienced intarsians work with wood of many different thicknesses, but that’s a bit much for a first project. If boards must be planed and you don’t have access to a planer, it pays to shop around. Buy your boards where they will be planed free or at minimal cost.

Finally, avoid buying lumber from home improvement warehouses. Their pine (that mysterious "white wood") is just plain awful. The few hardwoods they stock are shamelessly over-priced. Buy softwoods from a lumberyard that serves builders. Buy hardwoods from a hardwood lumber company.

 

 

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