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Some materials in fretwork and marquetry


1. Introduce

The principal material used by the fretcutter is wood, and he should attain skill in cutting this before using others either more difficult to work or more costly. Among the other materials may be mentioned brass, and the softer metals, mother of pearl, vulcanite, xylonite, ivory, etc. Wood is the material for which most of the published designs are prepared. There is amplescope in this one material alone. He can choose wood nearly white, or, if he prefers it, black, for ebony is nearly so if not quite, or he can have wood dyed in a variety of colours. A few of the chief characteristics of the various kinds of timber most commonly used will be useful, as well as a few hints about buying wood, and the way in which it is specially prepared for the fretcutter.

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Wood may be bought at the ordinary timber yards, but many of the fancy varieties are not always to be met with in this manner and it is rarely to be got of suitable thickness. Generally the timber merchant does not care to cut a board, so that the purchaser is compelled to take more than he requires. Naturally the prices at the timber yard are less than those quoted by dealers who will cut any size required. To do this means waste, for which the dealer must be recouped. Those who buy in large quantities will find that a considerable saving is to be effected by going to a timber yard for what they want. On the other hand, they will seldom be able to get the wood planed smooth at a timber yard, as it will be rough from the saw. This, however, is not a very serious objection, as if the fretcutter does not care to do this work himself he can get it done for him by any cabinet-maker. When purchas­ing wood it is necessary to be careful to select well-seasoned dry stuff, and if it is got from an open timber yard it is very likely not to be dry, although it may be thoroughly seasoned. Timber should be kept in a warm dry room for a time before it is used, but on noaccount should any attempt be made to hasten the drying by placing it too near a fire. If this is done the wood is very apt toshrink, split, or twist. As it is not an easy matter to judgewhether wood is seasoned or not, although there are certain signs by which an expert can generally tell, the best plan for the amateur is to deal only with a reliable merchant to whom the selection may be left. Wood specially prepared and sold by dealers in fretwork materials may almost invariably be depended on for being dry and well seasoned.


Boards are not always so flat as they ought to be. When a board is really badly twisted it will seldom be of much use wasting time over it, as it rarely happens that any improvement can be effected except by planing it down, and in the case of thin boards there isnot enough stuff to allow of this being done. It often happens that a board has become rounded or convex on the one side and concave on the other. In this case it is often possible to flatten the wood without much trouble. Wood on being damped swells, consequently if wetted on one side that becomes convex and the other correspondingly concave, or to use the more usual workshop term, it is rounded on the one side and hollowed on the other. If the hollowed side be equally damped it will in its turn swell, so that the board again becomes flat, and if both sides are dried equally it will remain so in all probability. In practice it is not a good plan to damp wood more than can be helped, so the hollow side is rarely wetted, but the converse plan of drying the rounded side is adopted. This may be managed by placing it for a short time near the fire, but not too near or it may split or curl thereverse way. It is impossible to give precise directions, as so much depends on circumstances. Occasionally it may even be preferable to swell the hollow side by damping it, and very little moisture is required to effect what is necessary. Where there is plenty of sawdust about it is not an uncommon plan to moisten a few hand-fuls of this and to let it lie on the hollow side of the wood for a few hours. Boards may often be flattened by simply laying them down on a cold floor with the hollow side downwards, or by placing them against a wall. In every case the principle of swelling the hollow side or shrinking the rounded one is the basis on which boards are treated, unless it is necessary to plane them down.


Wood in such quantities as the amateur is likely to require is sold by the square foot, except a few varieties which are generally sold by weight. Wood being sold and quoted for per square foot may mislead the novice by inducing him to suppose that if he orders a foot or any number of feet he will get a piece one or several feet square. The superficial measurement is taken in calculating the number of feet the board contains, thus a board 2ft. long by 6in. wide is only 1ft., the same as one measuring,12in. by 12in. When ordering wood, more than the actualquantity apparently required must be got, as it is impossible to work it up without some waste. The amount of this depends on the job, and the cutter will soon learn to estimate it with a sufficient amount of accuracy. If more is got than is required for a special article, the odd pieces which are left over will very likely come in handy for making up some small thing, so unless very small they should not be thrown away.

The wood that is specially prepared for fretworkers is generally in certain definite thicknesses, and these are 1/8, 1/4, and 3/4 in. In addition to solid wood in these thicknesses, what is known as 3-ply wood is also prepared, each board being made up of three veneers with the grain of the middle one in the contrary direc­tion to that of the outsides. From this arrangement the 3-ply boards are less likely to twist or split than when in the natural state. They are also much stronger, and on that account are to be preferred to solid wood for fine, delicate work. The 3-ply is not obtainable in greater thickness than Jin. It is always sold planed and finished, ready for use.


While speaking of the thickness of wood, it is usual to speak of wood by its nominal thickness. This remark hardly applies to specially prepared fretwood, which is often sold at its actual thickness. When wood is got from the ordinary timber yard, the purchaser should be careful to explain whether the thickness he wants is the nominal one or the thickness ” down,” which means after the wood has been finished smooth by planing ” down.” The reason for boards not being of their nominal thickness may be explained in a few words. If an inch board, that is, one an inch thick, is divided into four, each piece is nominally Jin. thick. Actually these boards are less, as the saw cuts or kerfs have removed some of the wood in the form of sawdust. The wood being rough from the saw is further reduced in thickness by smoothing.

Wood is also sold in the form of veneers, which are very thin, so that they cannot be used by themselves, but have to be stuck on to a solid foundation or ground. Veneered fretwork is generally used in the form of inlays or overlays, both of which will be explained in due course. To the marquetry-cutter they are essential, as all marquetry is done with them. Veneers are prepared in two different ways, known as knife-cut and saw-cut. The former is very thin, though cheaper it is not so suitable for the kind of work under consideration. It is merely mentioned to put the purchaser in a position to know what kind of veneer to get. The ordinary saw-cut veneer is in every way better for working with. The value of most kinds of wood varies according to the choiceness and variety of its figure or markings. Some woods, however, such as holly, depend a great deal more on their purity of colour and absence of figure. These, however, are theexceptions. <To be continued>

<Source:  Fretwork and Marquetry, D. Denning, 1895 >

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