Ideas, Designs And Techniques Of Inlay On Wood

All you need to know about an artistic tradition particularly loved in Italy: the inlay on wood. Here is some history and tips on how to do it yourself.

The wood inlay , also known as wooden inlay or wooden inlay , is a particular type of decorative technique on wood that had its origin in Italy at the beginning of the 14th century; one of the first examples of inlay dates back to a period prior to 1357 and is a piece from the choir of the Cathedral of Orvieto, currently preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which reproduces the coronation of the Virgin.
The fragment in question was made by a team of Sienese inlayers, consequently it is hypothesized that the art of inlaid wood originated in Tuscany; throughout the course of the fourteenth century, in fact, Siena was the main pole of this activity and the Sienese inlayers, being particularly renowned throughout the Italian territory, were the ones who received the greatest commissions.

A bit of history

From its origins to the end of the 15th century, inlaying on wood remained an art practiced almost exclusively in Italy; it was only from the beginning of the sixteenth century that it began to spread to the rest of Europe.

During the two centuries in which this art remained within national borders, it was brought to the highest levels; the turning point took place above all during the fifteenth century, when the canons of perspective were applied to inlay, thus making it possible to create works of incredible beauty and complexity.

Towards the middle of the 16th century, however, the art of inlaying on wood began to experience a slow decline until it became a mere branch dependent on painting ; the latter in fact imposed rigid formal characters, characters with which the inlay had tried to align itself without success, given the considerable differences between the two types of art.

Instead of proceeding on a different path, which took more into account the specific characteristics of the wooden material used for his creations, the inlay ended up being considered only a display of artisan virtuosity and for the next four centuries it fell into oblivion.

The inlay today

It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the wooden inlay, thanks to the works of the master Andrea Gusmai, was brought back to the attention of the general public. The well-known artist originally from Trani, in fact, carried out numerous works on commission by great personalities, such as the Kennedy family and the King of Albania Ahmet Lekë Bej Zog, who commissioned master Gusmai to set up his royal villa in Durres.

The work that made the figure of Gusmai legendary, however, is an inlay depicting Pope John XXIII in life size, reproduced on the gestatory chair wearing the papal vestments and crown. The work is made up of 72,000 pieces of polychrome wood and Vatican experts have defined it as unique in the world.

Nowadays the art of inlay is practiced mainly at an amateur level, by enthusiasts of this genre, but it is also carried out in the industrial field; the main applications, however, remain those in the handicraft sector, where this art is mainly used to create decorated wooden panels to hang on the walls.

Modern techniques

Inlay is a complex art that requires considerable experience and above all great patience; nowadays, however, it is possible to make use of tools and instruments that greatly facilitate the work.

If you intend to create an inlay decorated panel with the design of a wrench , for example, instead of creating it entirely by hand from scratch, you can scan a photo of the tool and modify it later on the computer. Once transformed into a drawing, the image can be printed on a sheet of paper and glued onto the wooden panels , in order to be used as a guide for the cuts.

Apart from this technique, moreover, it is also possible to make use of the numerous designs for carving to be printed ready and available on the net, on the appropriate thematic sites and in the forums dedicated to inlay.

The most advanced inlay technique, however, makes use of the use of laser cutting, which makes the printing of the designs superfluous; the latter, in fact, can be prepared directly on the computer with the appropriate software and then sent to the laser machine which will perform the cuts quickly and extremely precisely.

As for the choice of wood for carving , however, it is preferable to move towards hard woods, such as rosewood, walnut, locust and ebony; the harder the wood, the better it will resist cuts, allowing you to create sinuous and complex shapes without running the risk of damaging the wood. To make an inlay, in fact, it is necessary to work on boards with a thickness of just two or three millimeters, to be glued together with the edges until the desired dimensions are reached.

Today’s applications of inlay

Nowadays the wooden inlay is no longer used as it once was, in the sense that originally its purpose was above all to decorate furniture and walls with large wooden panels reproducing religious scenes or natural elements, such as plants, flowers and animals, all subjects unsuitable for modern design which is oriented towards more conceptual themes.

In fact, it is the decorations with geometric motifs that are still used regularly, especially in the creation of parquet flooring; occasionally they are also used to decorate furniture and furnishing objects in solid wood.

Furthermore, as previously mentioned, a further aspect that helps to keep the inlay within the confines of a small circle of creators, both in the professional and amateur fields, is that to obtain good results, a great deal of experience is needed, the ability to know how to recognize the best varieties of solid wood to use and considerable patience with regard to the production process.

Even with the help of modern tools, in fact, the creation of an inlay takes a long time; from a strictly economic point of view, therefore, this decorative technique is disadvantageous because the final cost of the inlays is decidedly high.

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