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Some materials in fretwork and marquetry (part 2)


2. Woods

Although any kind of wood may be used by the fretcutter, certain of them are more likely to be met with than others, and a short description of the principal will be useful. Only those which can be easily obtained, either from an ordinary timber dealer or from fretwork specialists, are mentioned. Many of them, being used in the construction of ordinary articles of furniture, can be obtained at a cabinet-maker’s if there is no timber yard available.


Ash — Coarse in grain, with large figure, without much variety. Hard and tough. The colour varies from a light yellow to a light brown. The Hungarian variety is very different from the ordinary, being full of figure and of a different colour. It is generally used in the form of veneers and is not a pleasant wood to cut.

Beech — A fine, close-grained, hard wood, mostly of a lightreddish-brown colour, though some of it is nearly white. It is a nice clean-cutting wood, and polishes well either in its own natural colour or stained.

Birch — A similar wood, but with a much finer figure in the choicer varieties.

Cedar —  The ordinary variety is the material of which cigar boxes are generally made, and may often be confounded by the novice with mahogany, which it to a certain extent resembles. It is coarse in the grain, without much figure, and moderately soft. It must not be mistaken for the fragrant variety known as pencil cedar. This is a very soft silky wood without much figure, close grained, and pleasant to work, but is easily split.

Canary — This, as generally sold for fret purposes, is a soft American wood often simply called whitewood, but of a yellowish tinge. It is remarkably free from knots and there is practically no figure. It cuts well and easily.

Cherry — Close grained, hard, light reddish-brown in colour, and very suitable for fine work.

Chestnut — There are two distinct varieties, one of them being the timber of the Spanish or eating chestnut tree, and the other of the horse-chestnut tree. The former bears a great similarity to oak. It works well and freely. The wood of the horse-chestnut has very little figure, is close and soft, and is of a light colour, much of it being almost white. On this account it is often useful as a substitute for holly.

Ebony — Ebony wood dyed black is generally used instead of real ebony, which is not a pleasant wood to cut, being very hard and troublesome in other respects. Very little ebony is absolutely black.

Holly — This wood, as prepared for the fretcutter, is chiefly American, and is of a beautiful creamy white, closely resembling ivory. It is hard and close grained, with little figure. This latter feature along with its colour are the characteristics which render it of value to the fretcutter. White chestnut, or the finer kinds of sycamore, may be used as substitutes. It should not be polished or varnished, as treatment of this kind destroys the purity of its colour. This being so delicate is apt to become dirty when handled during working, but may be restored by rubbing on a little whiting with a soft rag or cloth.

Lime — Light coloured and in general features resembles holly, but is softer and not so white. American lime tree is often called bass or American whitewood, and under this name can be obtained at many timber yards. It is very clean and free from knots.


Maple — A light yellowish-brown wood, hard and close grained, without much figure in the plain kind. ” Bird’s Eye ” maple, on the contrary, is distinguished by the richness of its figuring. It owes its name to the peculiar configuration of the small knots which form the centres of the markings. It is generally used in the form of veneers ; it is not a pleasant or easy wood to cut with the fretsaw.

Oak — Though hard, this is by no means an unpleasant wood to work, and for many articles is to be preferred to any other. There are many varieties. Without detailing these, it may be sufficient to say that American oak as a rule is the plainest, while the better kinds are known as Dantzig, Riga, wainscot, etc. In colour oak in­clines from a, light yellow, almost white, to a dark brown, and is generally distinguished by dealers in fretwork woods simply as light or brown. The finely figured variety, known as pollard oak, is not suitable for using except as veneers. As oak is a wood that can easily be stained to a darker tint than the natural one, like coloured wood it is more useful than the brown. Light oak, being very easily darkened by ammoniacal vapours, should not be kept in a stable or where it is subject to such fumes. This tendency in oak is taken advantage of to darken it by what is called fumigation, a most useful process as the wood is not roughened as it is when a liquid stain is applied.

Mahogany — This wood is too well known to need much des­cription. It is an admirable material for the fretcutter or any worker in wood, as it cuts well and cleanly, is susceptible of a very high degree of finish, and in the choicer sorts is beautifully marked. These, on account of their value, are principally used in veneers. There is probably no wood in which so much variety is found as in this, and there is a corresponding range in the prices charged for it. The plainest and softest is Honduras mahogany, frequently called baywood. Some of it is fairly well figured, but as a rule it is plain and of only a moderate hardness. It is very suitable for general use, either for fretting in the solid, or as a foundation on which to lay the more choicely figured veneers. Spanish mahogany is harder and of better figure. The term ” Spanish ” is of very wide application, and if some other kind which may not be strictly Spanish is equally as good in figure the exact place of growth is not a matter of importance.

Olive — Of a light yellow-brown colour, finely variegated with darker markings, is hard, fine in grain, easily worked, and takes a good polish.

Pine — Though looked upon as a common wood, there is no reason why it should not be more largely employed than it is by the fretworker, for it is by no means without a beauty of its own, while it is both easy to work and inexpensive. As there are many

varieties of pine, it may be well to say that common spruce which is full of knots is not so suitable as the yellow or red pine, which can often be obtained in nice, straight-grained, clean pieces. If left ” in the white ” or unpolished it looks very well, and by be­coming darker improves in appearance with age.

Pitch Pine — Pitch pine is a distinct variety, much harder and more decidedly figured than the ordinary kinds. As it contains a large quantity of resin it is not a pleasant wood to cut.

Rosewood — Like the last and for the same reasons this is also somewhat difficult to saw, especially as it is hard and close in texture. In colour it varies from a dark red to brown with strongly marked darker figuring. Genuine rosewood is fragrant, but this characteristic is absent in many varieties, almost exactly the same in appearance, which have found their way into the market. If used for its smell the wood should preferably be left unpolished.

Sycamore — A very clean, nice-working wood, tolerably hard, and varying in colour from almost pure white to a dirty brown tinge. It is close in grain, and when white is an excellent substitute for holly.

Satinwood — This is a beautiful yellow wood, often finely figured with smooth lustrous markings after the style of choicemahogany, which it resembles except in colour. It has anagreeable odour, and though hard is pleasant to work.

Sequoia or Californian Red Pine — This is the softest wood known, but it is not altogether a satisfactory one, as it easily splits, so that it is quite unsuitable for fine delicate work. In appearance it is not unlike pencil cedar, but has none of its fragrance. As a substitute for pine itmay be used for drawer sides, etc., the backs of cupboards, and inside work generally. Its chief advantages are that it is verystraight in the grain and free from knots. Being soft and cheap, it is a good wood for the beginner to practise with.

Walnut — Black or American walnut is the most suitable for the fretcutter. It is hard but pleasant to work in, being generallyfree from knots and evenly grained. The beautifully figured variety known as burr or Italian walnut is used only as veneers.

This list by no means exhausts the kinds of wood that may be used or met with, and it might be almost indefinitely extended by naming those which are of comparative rarity or not so generally used by the fretcutter. 

Yew — Yew is a finely marked, close grained wood, in colour varying from a pale yellowish orange to a reddish tint with dark small markings or knots almost black in colour. It is tough and hard and cuts cleanly.


The appearance of polished or varnished wood is different to some extent from what it is when the wood is in the natural orunpolished state. As a rule the depth and richness of thecolour is increased. In the absence of a polished piece, the appearance can be judged very closely by wetting the surface of the wood with water. While the gloss caused by this remains it may be compared to polish.

All kinds change in appearance with time, most of them getting darker ” as the years roll on.” A few of the more brightly coloured ones, such as tulip wood, fade.

In addition to those woods which have been named as generally used in the form of thin veneers, there are many others which are used principally in this state, and a brief enumeration of some of the principal will be useful. As veneers they cannot be used except for inlays or overlays, as they are not thick enough to form anything of by themselves. Both these forms of fretcutting will be treated of in due course, but it may occasionally happen that the cutter wants to do something in a choicer wood than he can obtain in the solid. In this case, the only way is to mount the veneer beforehand on a solid piece of the necessary thickness, and then proceed to cut it as though it were an unveneered piece of board. If the board is veneered on both sides it will be almost impossible, except by the closest examination, to see that it is not cut out of a solid piece. By this means a considerable saving in the cost of material may often be effected, and, as already sug­gested, it is the only way in which some veneers can be vised for plain cut through frets. In order that the edges may not betray the fact of a board having been veneered, it is necessary that the foundation and the veneers should be of the same kind of wood. Thus, if a choice Spanish veneer is being used, let it be mounted on a piece of cheap plain Honduras. The endeavour must be to have the foundation of the same colour as the veneers. If this cannot be managed, the edges must be afterwards stained. As the process of laying veneers is a difficult one without a good deal of experience, the best way for the amateur to do in such cases is to enlist the services of a cabinet-maker who is con­versant with the work.

<To be continued>

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

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