The art and craft of marquetry is a form of decoration achieved by cutting patterns, or pictures, from thin wood veneer, then gluing it to a base of suitable material. A base may be a piece of furniture, box, or board, which, when decorated with marquetry, can become a picture.
Marquetry is essentially an overlay applied to a base, whereas inlay is a material inserted into a shallow hollowed out base. Parquetry is the usual term for straight line, geometric patterned marquetry.
The earliest evidence of marquetry is from some years BC. Ancient Egyptian and Assyrian tombs have been discovered, containing caskets and tables with an applied pattern of herringbone or basket weave. In those days, wood used for decoration was 5mm to 13mm thick, whereas today, with modern accurate machinery and better process technology, veneer is produced which is about 0.7mm thick.
Wood has not been the only material used for marquetry decoration. Metal, stone, marble, ivory, mother of pearl, bone etc, have all been used over the years with varying popularity.
Little more is known of marquetry until the 13th Century when many of the craftsmen of the time were monks, and their work was generally confined to the decoration of church furniture, choir stalls, cupboards and panelling. Marquetry activity centred, therefore, in Europe, particularly in Italy, France, Germany and Holland.
France appears to be the only country to produce a number of great names in marquetry. Andre Charles Boulle (1643 - 1732) helped to develop marquetry in France using Tortoise shell, and various metals, to produce elaborate arabesque patterns. Other French marqueteurs of note are Charles Cressant (1685 - 1768), Jean Francoise Obden (1720 - 1763), and Jean-Henri Riesener (1734 - 1806). Possibly the greatest marqueteur was David Roentgen (1743 - 1807) who established a factory at Neuwied near Koblenz, In Germany. He employed over a hundred craftsmen who produced spectacular marquetry cabinets and wall panels for the Courts of Berlin, and St Petersburg. Apprentices served a six year apprenticeship before they were admitted to a guild. Thereafter, they served a further six years as journeymen before they could submit a masterpiece for approval and, if accepted, become a craftsman of the guild.
In England, marquetry was introduced by continental craftsmen, and arabesque or seaweed marquetry was used to enrich clock cases, furniture, beds, chairs, tables and chests.
In the last few decades pictorial marquetry has been developed, where natural wood veneers are used to 'paint' pictures. Pictorial marquetry is now a growing interest, possibly as a reaction to the pace of present day life with its apparent preoccupation with synthetic materials
Pictorial marquetry can be worked for pleasure, and even a small profit, and can release creativity in its practitioners that they didn't know existed. It has the advantage of being an art and craft that only requires a relatively small outlay for tools and materials, and little specialist equipment. It is also an activity that can be practised by male and female alike, young or old, so long as sight and manual dexterity are not impaired.