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Glossary Inlay, Inlaying

Inlays are decorative designs inserted into a piece -- usually furniture -- constructed of wood, designed -- primarily through the contrast of grains, colors and textures of substances such as other types of wood, metal, ivory, tortoiseshell, etc. -- to bestow adornment. The inlay is inserted into the wood, flush with a piece's surface.

As a process associated with woodworking, inlaying is one of the oldest, with the Egyptians surpassing many later peoples in their skill.

Famous "bird" design for inlay designed by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941).

cross-section for four-sided post

Source: Alfred Lucas and John Richard Harris, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, originally published in 1926, this is from the 3rd edition, revised, New York: Dover, 1999, page 454.

First Oxford English Dictionary meaning

1. The process or art of inlaying.

1656 Thomas Blount Glossographia anglicana nova: or, A Dictionary, interpreting such hard words of whatever language, as are at present used in the English tongue, with their etymologies, definition, &c. Also the terms of divinity, law, physick, mathematicks, history, agriculture, logick, metaphysicks, grammar, poetry, musick, heraldry, architecture, painting, war, and all other arts and sciences are herein explain'd ... London, Printed for D. Brown, 1707. [date discrepancy in OED]

Inlay, a term among Joyners, and signifies a laying of coloured wood in Wainscoat-works, Cupboards, etc.

1886 Pall Mall Gazette. 26 June 3/1

The inlay of furniture with ivory, and other forms of marquetry.

Second OED meaning

2.a. Material inlaid or prepared for inlaying; inlaid work.

1697 William Dampier, Dampier's voyages; consisting of a New voyage round the world, a Supplement to the Voyage round the world, Two voyages to Campeachy, a Discourse of winds, a Voyage to New Holland, and a Vindication, in answer to the Chimerical relation of William Funnell Volume 1, page 105

The Green Turtle are so called, because their shell is greener than any other. It is very thin and clear, and better clouded than the Hawks-bill; but 'tis used only for inlays, being extraordinary thin.

1725 Alexander Pope Homer's Odyssey. Book 13, page 267

With rich inlay the various floor was graced.

1876 Thomas HARDY The Hand of Ethelberta London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1896, page 241.

The heavy cupboard doors at the bottom were enriched with inlays of paler wood.

Overview:-- Wood Inlay in Time and Art

Wood is one of the first mediums humans employed in both functional and aesthetic forms. Since ca. 30,000 B.C., evidence exists that man has created tools from stone designed to shape and form pieces of wood for a variety of uses: containers for food and clothing, furniture for sitting and sleeping, and for ritualistic/ceremonial purposes.

Wood, then, is one of our basic materials, as useful to the ancient caveman as the modern craftsman.

Since wood -- like humans themselves -- is organic, it becomes one of the closest contacts we as humans have with the natural world: for, like us, trees are living forms with -- seemingly -- an infinite variety.

Inlay Crafts Flourished in Ancient World

With the first civilizations -- in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt -- wood with inlay was a significant medium for man to express himself in the arts and crafts. Major museums throughout the world proudly showcase examples of inlaid wood patterns in functional boxes, religious ornaments and figures, and furniture.

Our earliest examples, especially miniature figures and boxes, cut and inlaid wood pieces often include gemstones and precious metals.

Inlay Crafts Restored in Renaissance

In the Medieval Era neither veneering nor inlay flourished. Only with the Italian Renaissance did this artform return.

By the 15th century, wood-inlay patterns -- ranging from heraldic designs, squares in chessboard, massive doors in palaces and other residences of royalty -- with many hues, shapes, and grains abounded.

Probably the most famous wood-inlaid doors are those within the Ducal Palace at Urbino, Italy, whose life-size allegorical figures were designed by the Florentine genius, Botticelli.

It was in Italy that the door, in common with the other features of private dwellings, first received a distinctly architectural treatment. In Italian palaces of the fifteenth century, the doorways were usually framed by architraves of marble, enriched with arabesques. medallions and processional friezes in low relief, combined with disks of colored marble. The intarsla doors of the palace at Urbino are among the most famous examples of this form of decoration. It should be noted that many of the woods used in Italian marquetry were of a light shade, so that the blending of colors [in the different woods] in Renaissance doors produces a sunny golden-brown tint ....

Source: Edith Wharton, et al., The Decoration of Houses New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897, page 52

Renaissance Inlaying in Northern Europe

In the 17th and 18th centuries, in the hands of skilled furniture designers, especially the French, wood inlay achieved a new height. From these craftsmen comes marquetry, or that elegant wood-inlaid furniture commissioned by royalty and other families of the nobility. Desks, cabinets, tables, chairs -- even floors -- were decorated with designs.

Characteristically, during this period of opulent excess, wood inlay was sometimes enhanced with gold, shells, and ivory inlays.

Inlaying continues into the 19th century and later. For example, inlay was widely practiced by the British designers of furniture in the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements (see Voysey's "bird" at the beginning of this page.)

The Inlaid Floor

Another wood-inlay technique still of concern to the contemporary craftsman is the geometric wooden Floor. In France as known as parquet, inlaid floors were sometimes large, often serving as decoration for whole rooms.

The Method of Inlaying

As a decorative technique, inlay conĀ­sists of inserting smaller pieces of shaped, contrasting wood and other materials into a larger, solid piece, usually a piece of furniture. Usually, the shaped parts are inserted into a chiseled-out, recessed area on the furniture's surface, i.e., the "background wood". The woodworker's skill is to place the shaped inlay material on its location on the surface of the piece, score the outline of the shaped piece accurately using a Marking Knife and then chisel out the shallow recess, the depth of which is determined by the thickness of the inlay. At this point, the inlay may be glued into place in the background wood.

If wood is used as inlay, the surface of the piece is usually finished Flush. Other materials -- metal, porcelain, horn, and so forth -- are frequently left Proud , that is, raised above the larger piece's surface, which thus renders a three-dimensional mode to the inlay.

Ancient records indicate that this is perhaps the most prized of the woodworker's arts. Elaborate inlay was practised at an early date in China, Japan and other parts of the Far East. For example, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an inlaid cabinet from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1628).

During the Renaissance (from 14th century in Italy, in rest of Europe, from 15th century to mid-17th century), the earliest practice appears to inlay only into the background wood. Later, craftsman returned to the the ancient Egyptian method of assembling the small pieces comprising the whole design in veneers, and then laying and gluing this compound piece into the background wood.

Inlay was used extensively in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the panels of the framed oak furniture were often enriched with simple conventional floral and geometrical designs.

eliabethan inlaid chest

Holly (white) was commonly combined with black fossil oak, or other colored woods such as cherry, pear and yew.

Inlay requires a background wood, into which it can be set. With Veneer, to an extent, the practice of inlay was replaced large extent by Marquetry.

Instances exist that show inlay used with veneer, especially as narrow strips of contrasting woods, which can set off or trace linear designs over the background wood, even to the extent of producing "panel" effects, and/or to emphasize Carcase edges and the corners of legs or posts.

In Europe, and (later) America, inlay is employed in the later styles of Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture styles -- read more about these styles here .

Even later, during the 19th century, joined with veneer, inlay was practiced by numerous craftsmen. Mother of pearl, for example, was used on both sides of the Atlantic to provide an iridescent contrast to darker background woods.

The Arts and Crafts movement -- stressing furniture made of solid wood, with proinence for such ornamentation as exposed tenons, etc. -- was an opportunity for many craftsmen to exploiting inlay techniques. Among figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement, inlay was practiced by W. R. Lethaby, by C. R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft and by K. P. C. de Brazil, the Dutch architect. During the first two decades of the 20th century, Ernest Gimson often used inlay widely to give a rich, jewel-like quality to special pieces, such as branched candelabra, caskets and church furniture. He based his intricate designs on natural forms and were inlaid in ivory, bone, silver and mother of pearl on macassar, ebony, or rosewood, even in less contrasting hardwoods, such as oak.

Gustav Stickley/ Harvey Ellis Inlaying

The settee pictured below on lft is a copy by Harvey Ellis of a settee designed by Baillie Scott and exhibited at the seventh Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society's show in London in 1903. Admired at the exhibition by Gustav Stickley, Stickley returned to America and asked Harvey Ellis, his new designer, to create an adapted design for production in the Stickley Craftsman shop.

harvey ellis copy of baillie scott inlaid settee 1904harvey ellis copy of baillie scott inlaid settee 1904See image of Baillie Scott's original here

Inlays by Stan Klonowski, professional woodworker and friend

stan klonowski inlaid table 1 stan klonowski inlaid table 2

stan klonowski inlaed table 1

"Our modern sofas and chairs aspire to elegance, not with gaily embossed silk or delicate inlay of wood, but simply because there is not a straight line in their composition... . The tendency of the present age of upholstery is to run into curves. Chairs are invariably curved in such a manner as to insure the greatest amount of ugliness with the least possible comfort. The backs of sideboards are curved in the most senseless and extravagant manner; the legs of cabinets are curved, and become in consequence constructively weak; drawing room tables are curved in every direction perpendicularly and horizontally and are therefore inconvenient to sit at, and always rickety. This detestable ornamentation is called shaping."

Source: Charles Locke Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste, 1868.

Sources: Joseph Aronson, Encyclopedia of Furniture New York: Crown, 1938, page 107;