I create most of my designs in Adobe Photoshop. Some are drawn freehand, but most are based at least loosely on images like this cedar waxwing I photographed at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Each color represents a separate puzzle-piece of wood. The character of the wood heavily influences design, with the veneer’s grain and figure used to suggest details like scales, feather barbs, and rippling water.
Paper-thin sheets of wood veneer are sandwiched together, taking care to orient the wood grain correctly to the inlay pattern. Since I use plain rather than paper-backed veneers, I also reinforce highly figured or brittle veneers with low-tack painter’s tape to prevent splintering during cutting. The veneer sandwich, topped by the inlay pattern, is taped tightly together to prevent slipping, and the entire pattern is cut out on a scroll saw using size #1 or #2/0 spiral woodworking blades. Tiny pieces (less than ~1/4″) are cut by hand to preserve detail using a very sharp woodcarving knife.
To add depth to the design, the edges of most pieces are shaded with hot sand, which keeps air away from the hot wood, allowing it to darken without burning. About 3″ of fine play sand is heated until it will darken the wood in ~10-20 seconds (temperature varies with the wood species, since oily or low-density woods darken faster). The sand is dragged into valleys to control the shape of the shaded area, then the wood is pushed into the sand until it develops the desired color.
The pieces of the design are assembled onto low-tack painter’s tape. Any reinforcing tape added during cutting is removed at this time.
Inlays are glued to a solid wood backing (~1/2″ thick or greater panels) or to more dimensionally-stable plywood. The panel is coated with a very strong urea-formaldehyde water-activated epoxy (UltraCAT) if it will be exposed to heavy wear (drawer fronts, table tops, etc.) or more environmentally friendly yellow glue (Titebond III) for lower wear applications. The assembled, tape-backed design is aligned with the backing material and taped in place so that it doesn’t slip during clamping.
The glued panel is clamped under high pressure between 3/4″ plywood sheets for at least 12 hours. Insufficient time or pressure will cause the glue to fail, allowing the surface of the inlay lift and bubble, especially with porous species like pine or Philippine mahogany.
Once the clamps are removed, the tape is peeled away and any glue seepage is carefully removed with a chisel or woodcarving knife. The design is then sanded with progressively finer grades of sandpaper, from initial clean-up with 80 grit on an orbital sander to a final hand-sanding with 220 grit.
Most pieces are sealed with 2-3 coats of a hand-rubbed finish like Danish oil, which penetrates the wood for durability and a subtle sheen.
All photographs by Rebecca Sorenson.