Giving Woodwork a Decorative Facelift


Giving Woodwork a Decorative Facelift:
Amber Bailey reflects on the benefits of adding decorative metalwork to wood.

Brass inlaid into a box. Note the vulnerable edge pieces have been pinned into position, possibly as a repair

Natural glue for metal
Historically, fish glue has been favoured over animal glue for its higher adhesive properties. Sturgeon glue works better than conventional fish glue as it is essentially nature’s superglue. The metal always needs to be ‘toothed’ with an abrasive to allow a stronger grip than the natural smooth surface.

Boulle marquetry
A craft particularly prominent during the 17th century involves veneers of metal (traditionally brass or pewter) and tortoiseshell or horn cut into a decorative pattern using a marquetry done (chevalet), then glued to a wooden base. I decided to try my hand at the Boulle marquetry technique made up purely of brass, pewter and copper. I didn’t anticipate quite how heavy the packet would be (the layers being sawn through are referred to as a ‘packet’).

The business end of the donkey showing the clamping jaws and the fretsaw frame with a blade fitted

Detail of some of the finely cut pieces which all have to be carefully saved reassembled in the correct order

One of the three alternate designs created by just one packet, ready to be glued up

Working with metal

All metals require to be treated as sturdier and heavier than wood, but pewter is alarmingly soft enough to roll up, while brass is far more solid. Cutting metal by hand is traditionally done using a jeweller’s saw or fretsaw. Any coarse burrs need to be removed with jeweller’s files

Metal cutting saw blades require finer teeth and produce a fine dust that is very dangerous if you get it anywhere near your eyes. It is a slower process than with wood

Polishing up metal involves sanding in a single direction with abrasive paper going from coarse until extremely fine, removing all scratches and leaving behind a smooth surface. Most metals require a protective finish to avoid oxidation

A fresh idea
A client approached me with the intention of having a brass and red veneer emblem inlaid onto a box, thankfully being your average furniture restorer, I seemed to have stockpiled a number of antique boxes waiting to find a use. The chosen box was made of rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) and dates to the 19th century; it came to my possession in a fairly poor condition with any identification of its prior use long gone. It is largely plain and is likely to have been for jewellery or used as a writing box.

The marquetry was glued in place with a mixture of fish glue, red pigment and Microlight. This filler will seep into any gaps in the design, leaving a tight finish and then water dye was applied with a brush

The brass keyhole was cut with a fretsaw and designed to be the exact size of the original pearl escutcheon. Several layers of garnet polish were built up to rejuvenate the surface finish before hard wax stopping was rubbed into any damage on the box

Boulle marquetry would often have detail engraved into the metal for a much more pictorial finish

A cheaper alternative that requires hand skills for its assembly is to foil or wrap the wooden substrate in metal, often being secured in place with pins. The metal used in this process is particularly thin and can be indented with patterns

Antique metalwork
This always builds up a layer of tarnish, which after a little bit of cleaning with ‘0000’ wirewool or metal polish should be dislodged to leave a sparkling surface underneath. If it has been French polished this may need stripping off to bring back the metal brightness, although it will affect the surrounding wood finish. 

Antique boxes can be easily picked up at your local antique shop.
For metal sheets and veneer:
Visit your local tool retailer and DIY store for all other equipment.


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