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Some concepts about Fretwork

Fretwork is an interlaced decorative design that is either carved in low relief on a solid background, or cut out with a fretsaw, coping saw, jigsaw or scroll saw. Most patterns in this field are geometric in design. The materials most commonly used are wood and metal. Fretwork is used to adorn furniture and musical instruments. The term is also used for tracery on glazed windows and doors. It is also used to adorn/decorate architecture, where specific elements of decor are named according to their use such as eave bracket, gable fretwork or baluster fretwork, which may be of of metal, especially cast iron or aluminum.

To make it simple, fretwork is the “inside cuts” in the design, mostly in wood, but can be done on anything that can be cut



1, Fretwork through in 3000 years

The art of fretwork began more than 3000 years ago with fretted inlays on furniture in Egypt.  It has been popular in North America and Europe from the mid 1800’s until today.  Fretwork of the 1800’s and early 1900’s was done with hand fretsaws or foot-powered scroll saws.  In the 1920’s several scroll saws were designed for use with electric motors. 

The evolution of the scrollsaw is linked to the rise in popularity of fretwork (the sawing of intricate shapes from wood). Although there are examples of fretwork-like decorations on early Egyptian, Greek, and Roman furniture, these were probably carved or cut with a knife. It wasn’t possible to saw delicate wooden shapes until the late 1500’s, when a German craftsman (possibly a clock maker) devised a method for making fine, narrow blades.

In 1974 Helmut Abel of Germany started building the Hegner line of scroll saws which started a new popularization of fretwork as a hobby.

Fretwork was introduced to America in the mid-1800’s as Sorrento wood carving , so named because of the area in Italy that it was most popular. By the 1860’s, the first mechanical fret saws – called scroll saws – began to appear in the U.S. And so a great art form and hobby were born. Today there are over fifty models of scrollsaws available with many options.


2, Pattern of fretwork- The essential part:

Fretwork was a very popular hobby at the turn of the XX century, in fact those were the golden days of the hobby, patterns were produced and sold in great numbers and quality, not only in Italy, but in many western countries. “We always have the whole collection of patterns available, because the patterns are constantly reprinted. Many of these designs have reached 65 editions in a short time (65,000 copies). The number of patterns sold  until December 1905 is 5,932,400” said Pietro Barelli, an Italian businessman. Besides him, there are many other fans of this hobby who had a great deal of pattern. For instance, in October 1895, Hobbies issued its first number of weekly Hobbies magazine which contained an impressive collection of fretwork patterns, clocks, coffers, shelves and many other decorative items. At the beginning of the XX century, it sold many copies of the magazine, hundreds of thousand for sure, maybe millions. In addition, some people like Bowman, Russell, Wild were well-known scroll saw designer in the USA. In Italy, there were Amati, Ettore; in France there was Joubert-Tiersot,.etc.

Here is some samples of pattern


3, Process:

Firstly you obviously need wood, solid wood is ussually preferred but it’s a bit hard but it’s long lasting. Or you can use plywood (of which the edges are obviously less desirable thhan those of solid one, fine hardwood plywood such as teak, cherry, walnut, mahogany, maple…) or other modern materials.



The entire process of fretwork revolves around the technique of making inside cutouts of various designs. This is known as piercing work. First, you drill holes into the waste, or area that will be cut away; then you thread the blade through, reclamp and retension the blade in the saw, before proceeding to complete the cutout. Repeat this process as many times as necessary to finish the project.


Fretwork patterns originally were ornamental designs used to decorate objects with a grid or a lattice. Designs have developed from the rectangular wave Greek fret to intricate intertwined patterns. A common misconception is that fretwork must be done with a fretsaw. However, a fretwork pattern is considered a fretwork whether or not it was cut out with a fretsaw.


4, Fretwork by machine:


Computer numerical control (CNC) has brought about change in the method of timber fretwork manufacture. Lasers or router/milling cutting implements can now fashion timber and various other materials into flat and even 3D decorative items.

Some-concepts-about-Fretwork-19 Some-concepts-about-Fretwork-18

Draw ceiling lamp for wood cutting

Draw ceiling lamp for wood cutting

Draw ceiling lamp for wood cutting

For more tutorials, videos or patterns, please follow and check out website at
Our website supply information about the cutting art, wood or paper cutting, free patterns or tutorials for DIY wood/paper cutting. Besides, you can find some articals for design with graphic software (as Coreldraw, photoshop, sketchup, blender….)

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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 >