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Boulle Marquetry
By Dr. Terry Gross, Urban Chateau

The beautiful Cassone pictured above is on display at the Wallace Collection in London along with a detailed display of how such a piece was constructed.

What is Marquetry?

Marquetry is the art of applying decorative surface veneers onto solid wood. Thin sheets of veneer can be made from various types of exotic woods, horn, metals, turtleshell, bone, ivory and mother-of-pearl.

The veneer is cut and pieces are joined together in a pattern to form a surface decoration which is glued onto the solid wood carcase of the piece of furniture.

Boulle Marquetry or Tarsia a Incastro

This technique was invented at the beginning of the 17th century. It was later called boulle marquetry because of the impressive and extensive use made of it by the French cabinet-maker, Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732). Boulle was the Master cabinetmaker to the King, Louis XIV. The name and the technique became so famous that his type of furniture remained fashionable with makers and collectors and examples are found in the worldıs finest furniture collections.

Today one of the materials, turtleshell, is very rare, because the species of turtle from which it comes is protected (see Glossary). This has made the production of this furniture almost impossible, consequently boulle marquetry is now more desirable than ever.

Materials Used in Boulle Marquetry

The original technique of tarsia a incastro allowed for the use of veneers in any material. However, boulle marquetry is associated mainly with the use of the following materials:

Removed from the back of the turtle, this material is already thin and can easily be prepared for use in marquetry. It is a form of natural plastic and varies according to the species, age and part of the turtle which has been used. The translucent shell has dark brown marks which the marqueteur or marquetry maker sometimes highlighted by painting the back of the shell red or black.

Boulle marquetry uses many different metals; the most common is brass ­ a mixture of copper (red metal) and zinc (grey metal) ­ which has a yellow color similar to gold. Sometimes copper, pewter or even silver were used.

As dark woods were more fashionable in the 17th-century fashion, the preferred/most sought after wood was ebony. This is mainly black with brown or purple markings, depending on the species of tree.

The log of wood is cut into thin sheets about two millimetres thick to form veneers.

Cowıs horn is made into thin transparent sheets. The back of the horn can be painted with either green or blue pigments. The latter is used to imitate the expensive lapis lazuli stone which is too hard and fragile to use in marquetry.

Although rarely used it can sometimes be found on boulle marquetry. Mother-of-pearl is a very hard material cut from certain species of shell.

Technique for Making Boulle Marquetry

The Packet
Most of the materials need preparation before they can be used in marquetry. The wood is cut into thin veneers. The turtleshell is flattened in hot water, polished and painted on the reverse or the glue side. A sheet of paper is glued on top of the pigment to strengthen this side. The horn is flattened, coloured and strengthened in the same manner as the tortoiseshell.

All of the materials are cut into sheets of the size of the entire marquetry pattern.

The selected materials such as the brass and turtleshell in the wallcase demonstration are mounted together like a sandwich between two sheets of cheap wood veneer. Glue is used on the sides of the sandwich to hold the components tightly together. The marqueteur calls this sandwich a "packet".

The marquetry pattern is glued onto one side of the packet to be used as a guide for cutting.

Cutting out the Pattern
The marqueteur clamps the packet in the vice of the marquetry donkey. The donkey is a tool used by the marqueteur to facilitate cutting (see the illustration for a marquetry donkey).

Using a fret-saw fitted with a very fine blade often made from a watch spring, the marqueteur sits on the donkey and, applying pressure to the vice in order to clamp the packet in place, cuts along the lines of the pattern.

Glueing the Cut Marquetry onto Brown Paper
When all the pattern has been cut out with the fret-saw, the packet or sandwich can be opened. The turtleshell and brass pieces are kept and the other materials discarded.

The marqueteur now assembles the pieces to make two sets of marquetry:

The brass elements are inlaid into a background of turtleshell, called premiere partie.

The turtleshell elements are inlaid into a brass background, called contre-partie).

As the pattern is assembled, the pieces are glued onto brown paper to keep the pattern together.

Once all the marquetry has been glued onto the brown paper, the gap created by the fret-saw can be filled with glue mixed with black sawdust.

Glueing the Marquetry onto the Piece of Furniture

The marquetry, mounted on the brown paper, is glued onto a solid piece of furniture with the brown paper uppermost. Traditionally, the glue used for this type of marquetry was made of sturgeon, a fish imported from Russia. The sturgeon stomach was boiled in water until a sticky gel was obtained which could be used as a glue. A few days later, when the glue has dried, the brown paper can be cleaned off with water.

Finishing the Marquetry

The marquetry is next scraped and sanded to polish the surface. Most boulle marquetry is engraved to add detail to the design. The engraving is filled with a resin filler to accentuate the lines.

A final polish over the entire surface will give the marquetry a high shine and reveals all of the colours.

Reference: Yannick Chastang, Furniture Conservator. 2000 The Trustees of the Wallace Collection.