Picking the Right Wood:
Generally when you shop for wood, you are really looking for three
things, colour/species, grain/figure and machineability. These issues
are interrelated. In other words you may want a beautiful exotic
red wood, only to find out that with the machinery that you have,
you can't cut it.
When selecting wood for intarsia, you must keep in mind the artistic
considerations and the technical problems in dealing with each species.
If you are a beginner, it is particularly important to chose woods
that are easy to work with. Many exotic woods have wonderful colour
and figure but can generate a great deal of frustration, when it
comes to cutting and sanding. They generally cut better on a bandsaw,
than a scrollsaw and are too hard to get a good cut, without burning,
on the lighter duty machines. Will this be an issue?
Light coloured woods are relatively easy to find, like basswood,
poplar and pine. All of these will machine easily, with basswood
the least likely to splinter. Some customers will use some of the
construction species, because they are relatively available and
cheap (like spruce, red pine), but most of them are very splintery,
ooze a fair amount of sap and difficult to find dry.
Of the dark woods, cedar would be on the top of the list for cost
and ease of use. It cuts nicely, but it does have a strong fibrous
grain, so it is not good for cross grain cutting. Walnut and cherry
are good substitutes. They are both significantly more expensive,
but their tighter grain will hold together better, when cutting
fancy pieces. Both woods are softer than oak or maple, and as such,
easier to cut.
For small projects, consider using wood that is thinner than 3/4".
It will be easier to cut and more in proportion with the overall
project, ... particularly if you are using it to decorate a large
wood project...ie a toy box.
Patterns for Sale by site owners
Colour & Species of Wood?
When you are choosing a particular wood, be aware of the variations
in colour between sap and heartwood. For example, sap maple is very
white but the heartstock can be gray black or reddy brown. Specify,
if possible, whether you need the heartwood or sapwood.
Some woods (often western red cedar) have interesting gradations
of colour from light to dark, in one board, that can be effectively
used to show depth in your work. Keep a selection around to chose
from as you work.
Many woods will actually change colour as they age. Cherry is the
best example. It is quite light in tone when it is fresh cut, but
ages to a medium to dark shade quite quickly when it is exposed
to sunlight. Eastern White Pine is pale straw coloured when freshly
sanded but ages to a more golden colour with time... consider this
in your project.
Finishes applied to your work, usually darken the natural colour
of the wood and often the finish itself ages with time. The caution
is not to fight with nature and try to prevent these changes from
happening, but rather predict their behavior and allow for it in
Grain & Figure of the Wood:
Pick grainy woods (like ash and oak), for parts of the project that
you want to show action or direction, but use non-grainy wood (like
maple or basswood) for surfaces that are metallic. Before you cut,
place small sample pieces in the middle of your project, to get
a feel for the appropriateness of each species.
Avoid using most figured woods. It is usually a waste of money,
because the pieces are too small to make good use of the beautiful
grain patterns of figured woods. The exception, although this is
not truly a figured wood, is when I chose wood with interesting
knots. Sometimes you can incorporate a knot or other "defects" into
a strategic position on your pattern (see the eye & breast of the
As with most things in life, you get better with practice. Be bold,
there will always be choices you don't like, but with time you will
develop a good eye.