Flies to the rescue

I was reading a great book recently on Tall Case clocks, “Painted Dial Clocks” by Brian Loomis. A great resource for understanding tall case clock styles from 1770 to 1870. One bit of trivia caught my attention, a decorated dial circa 1790 that included a painted housefly resting between the Roman numerals. In an age before modern plumbing, screen windows and bug zappers, why would they intentionally add a fly to the painted dial? Didn’t they have enough already? Loomis speculated that it may have been a clever way to cover up a small defect in and otherwise perfect Japanned surface. Makes sense. After all, Murphy’s Law says that the closer you are to completing a project, the more likely you are to flub it. I suppose if I was charged with painting a clock dial, I might need to lay in a snapping turtle to cover up an errant brush stroke. This idea of adding a fly somehow brings my mind back to the idea of using ornament in a design.

I’ve been reading about ornament a great deal in preparation for an upcoming article in Popular Woodworking Magazine. Ornament is an element that frequently is used to emphasize the underlying form. Traditionally ornament falls into several categories regardless whether it’s executed in carving, marquetry, or painting. It may be based on animal life such as carved seashells. The egg and dart carving used on an Ovolo is also an example of ornament based around animal life (Other than the one clock dial, I’ve not come across house flies used as ornament.) It also frequently finds expression in plant life such as the frequent use of carved leaves or inlaid vines. Another frequent expression of ornament is geometric.

Geometric border on drawer front by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Marquetry is often employed to create borders with simple geometric patterns. In most cases the ornament emphasizes the form either by creating a visual border or by highlighting an existing element that defines the form. Thus vines and carved leaves not only provide a delightful surprise when viewed close, but help highlight the form from across the room. Since they often are used as borders they punctuate a form and help define a clear beginning or ending. Thus from a proportional standpoint they may occupy an envelope that’s one fifth or sixth the overall height on a wide element like a drawer front, or a fifth of the width on a tall element like a door. That’s a decent rule of thumb when you are working through your initial rough sketches. Obviously, quite bit of discretion is called for to avoid the overuse of ornament. A good friend of mine lavished a small table with inlaid ornament, which he affectionately refers to as a wedding cake. Learning a new skill like marquetry or carving brings with it the temptation to pour it on. As always, take a closer view of masterful work and note those vines or inlaid ribbons that quietly emphasize a form. Size up how they proportioned them in relation to the element they highlight.

George R. Walker


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6 Responses to Flies to the rescue

  1. Jack Plane says:

    Good advice on showing restraint!

    Incidentally, marquetry specifically refers to floral and organic veneered patterns. Geometric veneered patterns are called parquetry (a derivative of parquet – as in parquet flooring).

  2. DonP says:

    To the extent its meaningful – Microsoft Word sees Marquetry as a misspelling and offers Parquetry as a correction. Is there a linguist in the house?

  3. I reference Dr. Pierre Ramond’s excellent book, “Marquetry” which was published by Taunton Press in 1989 and reprinted by Getty Press in 2000. It is important to use the proper terms for historic marquetry methods. “Parquetry” is only used in England, and is not an accurate term.

    There are 5 different methods used for creating marquetry decoration. The oldest is “tarsia certosina” and involves cutting a cavity into a solid wood background, using either a knife or chisel. The inlay element is placed into this cavity and then scraped level with the surface. Next is “tarsia geometrica” which uses linear elements placed together in an overall geometric pattern. This is what the British refer to as parquetry. However, if you use this term in France, you will only create confusion. A third method is “tarsia a toppo” which is a unique process that creates the decorative “inlay” banding strips with complex patterns. One British variation of this tarsia a toppo is the Victorian era Tunbridge ware. Both Tunbridge ware and tarsia a toppo require making a large block of material which contains the design pattern, and then cutting off slices of that block to produce the required decoration.
    By far the most common method used to make marquetry in history has been the “tarsia a incastro” which is a direct result of the invention of the fret saw blade in the Renaissance period in Italy and Germany. By cutting all the material in superposition at the same time, it is easy to fit the parts together, creating a “positive” or “premiere partie” and a negative or “contre partie” design. This is the method made famous by Boulle, in Paris and is often referred to as the Boulle method. Modern American workers who use bevel cutting are using the tarsia a incastro method.
    Later in the 18th century the Paris workers invented a unique method, which has remained rather specific to the French marquetry school. It is called “element par element” or “piece by piece”. It is the result of the invention of the picking machine, which allowed multiple copies of the design to be easily produced, and the simultaneous creation of the “chevalet de marqueterie” or cutting easel. The British refer to this tool as the donkey, but the French do not recognize this term as a compliment.

    Note that all these methods are properly called “marquetry”. To be specific, it is wise to use the historic term when discussing any work of marquetry, so that the method is understood.

    For more information, or to learn about the French techniques, visit the American School of French Marquetry, in San Diego.

    I hope this helps the discussion.

    Patrick Edwards

    • walkerg says:


      Thanks for this explanation. Many of these terms are new to me and I would asume many in the woodworking world. Do you have a favorite book that gives a good overview of the techniques and what can be accomplished with the various methods?


    • Jack Plane says:

      Marquetry and parquetry are constructed from pieces of veneer laid onto a ground. Tarsia is the practice of imbedding pieces into a solid ground like inlay work which is an entirely different art.

      Parquetry is not a British term, but French; parqueterie, derived from parquet, which in the wealthier houses were floors of geometric block patterns.

  4. The history of marquetry decoration as a trade involves many countries and methods across the globe. Each has its terminology for the process. I learned at ecole Boulle, in Paris, and I was presented the “French” point of view by Dr. Pierre Ramond.

    I am sure that using the term “parquetry” or, even for that matter, “ormolu” in discussing furniture in the trade shops of Faubourg St. Antoine will cause workers to question your understanding of the trade.

    Parqueterie is the trade of installing floor. That work is done by a menuisier, not an ebeniste or even a marqueteur. The trades are very specialized in France.

    All the terms I mentioned which include the word “tarsia” are methods for making marquetry. True, the tarsia certosina involves imbedding pieces into a solid ground like “inlay” work. However, the English term “inlay” is both a noun and a verb, so it can lead to confusion when discussing the work.

    That is why I prefer to use the term “marquetry” for all surface decoration, and, when more precise discussion is necessary, I use the Italian or French terms to be explicit.

    Happy cutting.


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