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What Is Intarsia Woodworking?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated May 16, 2024
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Intarsia woodworking is a method of cutting or otherwise altering pieces of wood to create a pattern or design. It is a type of inlaying process that involves setting wood of contrasting tones next to each other; the wood is often highly polished for an attractive finish. An intarsia woodworking craftsman will use a scrollsaw and/or jigsaw to cut the often intricate pieces, and doing so often takes a significant amount of skill and practice. The process of intarsia has been in use for centuries in various cultures throughout the world.

The practice is very often used to create pieces of decorative furniture such as tabletops or cabinet doors. The process of intarsia woodworking often starts with plotting a design that will be cut into the wood, and deciding what types of wood will be best for the design. A scrollsaw will be used for much of the intarsia woodworking cutting, though a jigsaw can be used for some as well. The scrollsaw is a specially designed saw useful for cutting intricate designs and tight curves, and it features a bed or platform on which the wood will rest during the cutting process. This helps ensure the user has accurate control over the piece during the cutting process.

A jigsaw is another type of cutting tool that may be used for intarsia woodworking, though this tool is not capable of making cuts as intricate as the scrollsaw. Sanders such as belt sanders, palm sanders, or sanding blocks must also be used during the intarsia woodworking process to create a smooth surface before the individual pieces of wood are fitted into place. The idea behind this method is to place contrasting colors of wood next to each other to create a piece that looks almost three dimensional. The process usually involves selecting at least two different types of wood, though in some cases, one type of wood can be used and simply stained or otherwise colored differently.

Many intarsia woodworkers, especially those new to the craft, will use patterns or templates that will help them guide the cuts properly. This template is usually made from a thin paper that can be glued to the piece of wood, though in some cases a woodworker may simply draw the template onto the wood and make the cuts against the pencil marks. Especially skilled intarsia woodworkers may be able to make the cuts without any template at all, though this is rare.

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Discussion Comments

By Izzy78 — On Jan 03, 2012

@Emilski and matthewc23 - I think my best words of advice would be to try to find someone near you who does the work, and they might be able to give you some more specific answers. Searching the internet is always a good place to find things, especially wood patterns. You can always subscribe to pattern magazines and get fairly inexpensive patterns from those.

As far as finding the wood goes, it pretty much depends on where you live. If you are in the eastern US, getting to know the people at the local sawmills will help you out a lot. If you live in the west or Canada or somewhere where the necessary species aren't as common, you might have to order pieces online or just stain the woods you can get.

My other suggestion would be to start with cheap wood at first until you get the hang of how to cut the pieces and finish them. I'll almost guarantee you'll ruin a few pieces of wood at the beginning, so use cheap oak or maple. There's no use wasting a $15 piece of black cherry wood.

By Emilski — On Jan 02, 2012

@matthewc23 - I am sort of in the same situation as you. I decided intarsia is something I would like to try my hand at, and I have a little bit of experience with other project, but I don't really even know where to start.

For anyone who has some experience with this type of woodworking, what are some good intarsia woodworking projects for beginners? Also, where do you go about finding all the different types of woods that you need? I don't know what all is usually called for, but I am guessing walnut makes up most of the dark colors. I don't know that I have ever seen walnut sold anywhere near where I live. Are there any good substitutes?

Finally, what is the best way to polish the finished pieces? Should you use oil and a buffing attachment on a sander, or is it just regular laquer or something on the wood?

By matthewc23 — On Jan 02, 2012

I started woodworking about a year ago, and until now I have mostly made little knickknacks and things in my spare time. I was at my uncle's house a few weeks ago, though, and he had just started doing some intarsia projects, and it looked really fun. I only have limited experience with a scroll saw, but I think it's something I could catch onto pretty quickly.

My uncle has a few patterns that he is going to copy for me, but I was wondering if anyone knew of anywhere that you could find free woodworking plans or just general intarsia patterns that are cheap.

The other thing I was wondering is what the best type of sander would be for doing the finishing on a project. Right now I have a belt sander and a disc sander, but I don't know how well those would work.

By TreeMan — On Jan 01, 2012

I absolutely love looking at finished intarisa projects. I was never talented enough to do anything like that. I don't think I have the steady hand, and I'm not really patient enough for it, either. I have tried my hand at making small woodworking projects, but they have mostly been little pieces of furniture like shelves or picture frames.

There is one guy who does intarsia work and sells it locally at craft shows and things. I have a few of his pieces. One is a beagle that looks a lot like my dog, and the other is a branch with a few birds sitting on it that my wife really liked, so I bought it for her as a surprise.

What I think I like most about the intarsia is the polished finish, though. I really admire anyone that can do that kind of work.

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