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Bits and Pieces

So today we look at “bits and pieces” or what is referred to as Marquetry. This is the online dictionary description for those that aren’t familiar with it….

Marquetry (also spelled as marqueterie; from the French marqueter, to variegate) is the art and craft of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs. The technique may be applied to case furniture or even seat furniture, to decorative small objects with smooth, veneerable surfaces or to freestanding pictorial panels appreciated in their own right.

Marquetry has been around for a long time. Items in King Tutankhamen’s tomb showed us early examples of both inlaying and marquetry. So we fast forward in modern manufactured furniture and we see “fancy” fine woods coming back after so much turn of the century (that would be 1900) oak had become the norm.

So take a look at these beautiful examples of marquetry patterns in this customer’s set. The set overall was in good shape however it had been both moisture damaged and also dried out probably from storage over the years. The general progression with fine furniture always seems to be moving it to a spare bedroom, then down to the basement, maybe an attic, and finally to an unheated garage or barn. Every time furniture is stored in a new “environment” the wood tries to reach an equilibrium of moisture content. If in a basement the wood absorbs moisture and swells. When moved to an attic it will dry down and start shrinking. When moved to an uncontrolled environment like a garage or exterior building the wood will cycle back and forth with the seasons. It doesn’t really matter…. As the net effect is a loosening of a lot of edges and weakened areas which may not even be that obvious. Well, it’s not obvious until you start removing the old coatings. So we did not have much of a choice here. If we thought, we could have saved these coatings we would have but they were just too far gone. Removing and starting all over was the best way to get down to the veneers so we could stabilize the humidity of the wood and reattach the loose areas.

After stripping, pH adjustment, sizing, and drying we began the tedious job of making sure any edge veneer lifting was put down. Drawers were put in and out several times for adjustment and spray lubed for proper function. So what are we seeing in the stripped pictures. For the first time we can now see the “book matched” veneer patterns which can form double and quadruple patterns of walnut. These “burls” were steamed as large chunks of wood then sliced against a stationery blade to form consistent patterns. Most of this sets face woods were different rift and straight cuts of walnut including all of this burl. The marquetry itself consisted of 7 to 8 different woods such as rosewood, satinwood, sycamore, maple, ebony, brazilwood, mahogany, and zebrano.

With the repair work complete the next step is a light machine and hand sanding of all the wood surface. We prefer treated sandpaper from Finland for this work. Usually, a stepwise progression of several grits will provide the best surface. While smooth to the touch the wood pore structure is still open to receive our stains and finishes.

To look more historically accurate, we still prefer to use oil stains for this process. Most times we modify stock stain colors to recreate what we think was close to original looks. We do not try to duplicate the old colors as the woods we are working with here have aged/developed some of their own color enhancement. On this set a medium brown color was chosen, then the color strength was reduced so as not to overpower the natural looks of the marquetry woods.

After staining it is very important to get the woods sealed up. Notice I said "woods." The marquetry areas on the furniture are made of several type of different woods which means they all may have slightly different EMC values. So what is EMC? EMC stands for Equillibrium of Moisture Content. When most modern woods are made for furniture manufacturing they are kiln dried to a value under 12% moisture content. In fact, 6% is a more common percentage. Even after factory building/coating and final use in the home the EMC values will change and settle somewhere between those 6 to 12% ranges. In a home or office environment that is somewhat dry the woods will settle into equillibrium somewhere in the lower numbers and a more moist environment will push the numbers higher. Getting the wood sealed up with dedicated clear sealers are best. After that we prefer to use catalyzed clear coatings which mimic the looks of old high end clear lacquers but are more transparent and durable for the modern home or office. Several coats of these clears assure the stability of the marquetry and the surrounding woods will protect these herilooms.

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