Interested in unique art techniques? From sculpture to decorative arts, learn everything you need to know about the history of inlay in art and inlaying techniques.
What is inlay in art?Inlay is an artistic technique commonly represented in furniture, decorative arts, and even musical instruments. To achieve a collage-like image on a flat surface, the craftsman cuts into the surface of wood or stone and inserts stone, metal, resin, wood, or other precious materials into the cut-out space. These inserted pieces then become flush with the surface of the wood or stone, creating a unique two-dimensional image made of various materials.
Stone inlay techniques
Grand Duke Ferdinando I de Medici, one of the most important personages in the annals of art history, established the famed Grand Ducal workshops in Florence in 1588. By refining the ancient art of opus sectile, the workshop specialized in the art of pietre dure, giving rise to the most luxurious and detailed examples of hardstone inlay artistry ever produced. Its patrons were the nobility and clergy of Europe, and the quality of the objects produced in the workshop is without equal.
Typically, due to the high level of workmanship the art form requires, pietre dure plaques were crafted in small sizes. The technique was both expensive and time-consuming, requiring not only precious materials but also highly skilled craftsmen. As a result, true pietre dure works are very rare, highly collectible and stand as works of astonishing beauty.
Here is a quick guide into the pietre dure process, a craft still being executed in the Paci Workshop in Florence.
How Pietre Dure works:
1. Colorful stones are collected. In Florence, the famous pietre dure stones are hand-selected from the banks of the Arno River. To most craftsmen, this is the most difficult step. In order to make the image come alive, the hue, texture and line of the stone need to be perfectly precise.
2. A traditional bow saw is used to cut the stone into 3-4mm slices. This meticulous process, done completely by hand, is often arduous, as the skill of using the bow saw requires years of refined muscle memory.
3. The stone is glued to a piece of backing slate to strengthen it. This is the reason pietre dure tables crafted over three centuries ago are still in pristine condition— they were built to last.
4. The design is traced onto paper and the most difficult-to-craft flower motifs are made first. Each shape is then cut out of paper and glued to the stone.
5. The stone is cut using the bow saw at a 30-degree angle so that when the individual pieces are put together, only the edge of the finished surface needs to be filled.
6. The pieces are placed face down and the space at the back is filled first with a mixture of glue and chalk, and then with glue.
7. The background stone is made using the same tracing and sawing techniques as the colorful stone pieces. Using paper shapes, the outline of the design is marked out on the background stone. The edges are then filled and the mosaic pieces are glued into the background stone to create a beautiful inlay design.
8. The glue is removed from the back and substituted with gesso.
9. The back is polished to level it and it is glued to a sheet of slate.
10. The mosaic front is polished by hand first using agate, a hard stone, and then successively finer grades of emery.
11. Optimal shine is achieved through wax application and subsequent buffing.
Metal inlay techniques
Metalwork at Mosul
Wood inlay techniquesAndre Charles Boulle (1642-1732) was a French cabinetmaker who undeniably revolutionized the craft of wood inlay, though his monumental impact on the decorative art world cannot be understood as a purely innovative stroke of genius. Boulle famously studied the many different cultural adaptations of inlay, combining them into a unique furniture marquetry that would define western furniture decor for centuries beyond his time.
- Veneers are cut (typically brass or tortoiseshell) into strips that were slightly thinner than the thickness of the wood he used as a base.
- The design is cut with a marquetry knife into the veneer strips. Much like with the pietre dure technique, these pieces ultimately fit together with little to no gaps––like a flat puzzle.
- The veneers are secured with a thin but strong wood glue on the base wood.
- Veneer edges are trimmed on the base wood, creating a flush two-dimensional surface.
- The marquetry is made to shine by both sanding and sealing the wood.
Inlay vs. MarquetryAlthough this distinction may seem simple, it is often confusing. Marquetry is a form of inlay, but the main difference between inlay and marquetry is that inlay involves cutting into the surface of the wood and inserting individual pieces of precious materials into the cut-out spaces, while marquetry involves laying flat pieces of veneer onto the surface and cutting them into the desired shape to create a picture. Both processes have been refined throughout the centuries and elicit a similar product, but the technique themselves are the inverse of one another.
Types of Inlay:
Collector’s Quick Guide:Inlay artwork is a decorative technique that involves embedding one material within another to create a pattern or design.
- Do your research: Are you interested in stone, metal, resin or wood inlay? Reach out to an expert to help you understand the inlay material you want to both acquire and admire.
- Focus on quality over quantity: Some of the most magnificent inlay artworks are micromosaics and intricately created pieces of art. Don’t overlook the little guy.
- Consider provenance: The decorative technique of inlay has a deep and rich history, so be sure to pick an item that is both sentimental and specific to you.
- Look for signs of damage: Unlike paintings, an inlay piece of artwork is subject to specific chipping or mortar deterioration. Make sure you inspect your work for damage, it is easier to restore items when the issue is small.
- Consider your environment: As with any work of art, it is best to store your inlay piece in a dry, cool place away from direct sunlight or heat.