Last weekend I worked through most of the design for an Arts & Crafts bookcase, to the point where I’m pretty comfortable with the scale, style and proportions. I think the joinery is going to be rock solid. I have some concerns about getting the sliding dovetail to work properly, and about getting clean through mortises, but otherwise the construction is relatively straightforward.
What’s missing? Aside from some spectacular and unusually wide Quartersawn White Oak planks, I need to sort out the accents that will make this piece “pop”. I want to have inlay on the back splashes (at least) and a subtle but coordinated stained glass design for the doors.
Most craftsman furniture had relatively simple, abstract geometric inlay designs. My understanding is that these are generally attributed to Harvey Ellis. There is even a place (Mission Furnishings) that reproduces these designs in veneer sheets to glue down to a substrate.
Many of these designs were vertically oriented, fitting onto door stiles, table legs or chair slats. That’s a small conundrum, as the area I want to decorate is horizontal. There are a couple of “textbook” Ellis designs for horizontal areas, like this one:
And others that could certainly be adapted. The veneered panel seems like a simple approach, especially if I could click on a web page and have a canned design delivered that I just need to glue down — but it’s not as satisfying. I also want a design that will coordinate with whatever I do in the stained glass for the doors. I also know that I’ll be dying this piece, and the idea of masking the inlay to keep it from getting colored isn’t a satisfying feeling. I can just see the dye leaching under the masking stencil and ruining the inlay. Ick.
There is another factor, which is that a lot of Greene & Greene furniture had delicate inlay designs using wood, shell and metal, and I want to learn how to do that myself. I’ve been greedily gathering videos, images and articles for a while, and I’m eager to try this out. William Ng has taught a class on G&G Inlay in the past, but I don’t see it on his 2015 schedule (rats!).
Some of the G&G inlay was silver wire and shell and relatively simple design, like on this table and chair from the blacker house. The weaving vine and petals on the leg are obvious (if not completely clear), but you will need to look closer to see the matching detail on the table top. In fact, I want to make this exact table as a practice project to learn inlay. (I wonder if my wife will let me get away with that before the bookcase?)
Other Greene & Greene inlay was significantly more complex, like this example from a desk done for the Pratt house in Ojai, Ca. The tree was inlaid in different species of wood, left proud of the surface and carved. I love the organic feel and the Japanese influence of the design.
My understanding of the process is the the individual pieces are cut out and then either singly or as a unit scribed onto the surface which is then excavated with a tiny router bit and chisels. The inlay is then glue into place, and either sanded flush or textured. Obviously any dying would have to be done before wood was inlaid, although metal and shell could be done before dying.
I found a video that demonstrated the process of doing a flush inlay nicely. I’m definitely going to buy a tiny router base for my Foredom tool and give this a try soon.
I still don’t have a handle on the inlay design to use on the bookcase, but I’m staring at lots of stained glass and inlay designs (and pottery, tile and textile patterns) looking for inspiration. Once I get a better bead on where I’m headed I’ll add some designs to my CAD model and see how it feels. For now I’m going to watch that video again…