Woodworkers Club of Houston

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From a Presentation by Steve Wavro (Woodworkers Club of Houston) at the March 2015 meeting.

Steve Wavro, a long-time member of WWCH, spoke to club members about his intarsia skills.  Steve started out by addressing sources of patterns which give suggestions for direction of grain as well as wood color. Study the pattern for changes you might want to make.  Steve suggests enlarging small drawings because small pieces are harder to manage and makes the cutting harder.  Typical patterns go for 8 to 10 dollars and can also be obtained from magazines.  You’ll probably need to make six to eight copies before getting started.  Artists have no problem with this as long as it is for personal use.

Steve talked about wood sources.  His favorite wood to start with is western red cedar.  It is inexpensive, easy to come by and cuts well.  You can also find a wide range of colors from light to very dark brown.  With four or five different boards you can get really striking contrast.  Purple heart, yellow heart and poplar are more expensive, but are also good woods to use because they add more colors to a project.

When applying the pattern he uses Elmer’s spray glue or 3M Super 7 but each tends to leave a sticky residue which is sometimes hard to get off.  It can be removed with mineral spirits but it is time consuming.  Steve recommends letting the glue get tacky first.  Some artists use blue painters tape or clear packing tape.  Steve says that using packing tape would be preferred for Intarsia since you can see where the grain is when deciding where to cut.  Put the clear tape on the wood and then glue the pattern to the clear tape.  Alternatively, you can use Elmer’s rubber cement, which leaves a little bit of residue, but it rubs right off.

Steve prefers to use number 5 ultra-reverse scroll saw blades but addressed the situations where he would use other blades.  When setting up the scroll saw good lighting is very important.  You need to see precisely where you are cutting, especially if you are cutting a fine line.  A round fluorescent light with magnifier works great.  Steve also explained why it is very important to have your blade at 90 degrees to the table.  Plus, the blade should be taut.  You should hear a high pitched ping after flicking the blade if it is tightened properly.

Steve talked about the cutting strategy. Look at your pattern to see if there are changes you might want to make to facilitate your cutting efforts.  Steve prefers ¾ inch wood pieces – Steve keeps lots of scrap wood.  Steve stressed the techniques of sanding and deburring.  Steve recommends numbering the pieces on the bottom – helps you keep track of what goes where.

For finishing, Steve is trending to poly-acrylic which is water borne.  The brush marks will disappear and doesn’t turn light wood yellow over time.  Poly-acrylic will raise grain a little so what Steve does, after sanding to 220, he will spray some water over the pieces, let dry overnight then redo the sanding with 220. 

To get a “preview” of what the pieces will look like when finished, Steve will spray mineral spirits over them.  Some pieces may need staining or re-sanding, or even replacing with another piece.  Steve prefers to stay with the natural color of the wood but sometimes will resort to dyes or stains to achieve the effect that he wants.

Before gluing Steve suggest doing a “dry” run and just letting it sit around for a while.  Sometimes extra sets of eyes can come up with some good artistic “tweaking” suggestions.

For the assembly process Steve uses ¼ inch hardboard for backing, the kind where both sides are tempered (smooth), is preferred, but is difficult to find.  Steve spoke on the sequence of applying the pieces and how to use glue judiciously. 

Steve collects sawdust and stores them in plastic bags.  There are times when he may need to fill gaps with a mixture of cyanoacrylate (CA) glue and matching sawdust.

As a final touch, Steve records the title, name of the pattern creator, and the number of pieces on the back of the completed project.

Steve stated that taking up intarsia is a wonderful way to learn patience and the more comfortable you make your work shop the more pleasing doing intarsia will be.  Intarsia projects make great gifts or items to donate to charity fund-raising auctions because they are unique and cannot be bought in a store.  They can easily sell for $200 - $400+ (depending on number of pieces, woods used, complexity, and overall quality), but they are very time consuming and therefore should not be considered a money-making endeavor.


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