My and Patrice Lejeune's article on French polishing in Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine is out now! In part I we talk about materials and getting everything ready for pore filling and polishing. In part II we dig into the pore filing and polishing process. I am very happy with this article. Most of the work I have read on French polishing has either been uninformative or, when applied in practice, unsatisfactory. I think we've written something unique and helpful. I hope you enjoy it. It can be found online at the Furniture & Cabinetmaking website.
I just finished a three day portrait sculpture class with Philippe Faraut. As I dig deeper into c. 17th-19th French furniture I've realized it will be necessary to produce my own bronzes along with the marquetry and case pieces. This class was my first step towards achieving that goal.
Here we were learning about the adult male skull and face. This took the entire first day. It was my first time sculpting and working with clay so it was a very demanding day.
We started the third day with an age progression exercise. We started with a baby and took it through to an old man. After that Philippe taught me about hair and beards. Incredibly difficult to model well.
The second half of the second day we started our portraits of the models. The first half of the day we learned about different ethnic groups but the exercises went by so fast I didn't have time to take photos.
The second half of day three we worked with the models again trying to add details to the face. We also added musculature to the neck and a bit of the shoulders and chest.
I think this will be an excellent base to build from. In this class we worked with water based clay. Philippe recommended oil based clay or silicone wax for my work. Wax is an excellent material as you can use the lost wax method of casting. However I think I will get better results by building up the volumes instead of using a reductive process so I will most likely stick with oil based clay.
Oil based clay is more conducive to the long modeling process involved with French furniture. The clay must almost always be modeled directly on the case piece to ensure a good fit. The shrinkage of the bronze must also be taken into account. That can range from anywhere between 1.4% to 5%. You have to contact your local foundry to find out specifics. As the bronze cools it contracts and if this isn't taken into account your final bronze will not fit the case piece. It can still be mounted (a complex process that deserves its own post) but it won't look good.
Prototypes were sometimes modeled entirely in wax. The role of the sculptor in this style of furniture cannot be overstated. Often the drawings and plans for the entire piece were made by the sculptor.
I've got a lot of work to do.
Fleur éclaté, my second study piece. This was the focus of my second 50+ hour week at ASFM.
The goal is to cut the exterior lines in piece by piece and the interior lines in Boulle, but to leave no gaps in the final piece. If you are familiar with Boulle cutting you know that it leaves a saw kerf gap in the final design. Here we are using the éclaté technique to eliminate those gaps but also keep the advantages of the much faster process of Boulle cutting the interior lines.
This is achieved by compensating for the thickness of the saw kerfs by making a cut in the paper design and spacing them out so that the extra material internally will close the gaps and push the pieces tightly together. These cuts must be planned out carefully and I plan on doing a blog post in the future explaining it further.
To keep this organized I will number the explanations for the photos working from left to right for the entirety of the post. 1. refers to the top left, 2. top middle, 3. top right, 4. bottom left, etc.
1-3. Here are my test samples. Notice the big gaps. As mentioned before this technique allows you to cut out a piece more quickly than with the traditional piece by piece method but it also allows you to do something very interesting with the grain. Because the flower is cut all at once the grain flows through it seamlessly and with no gaps!
4&5. Here I've dialed in the method for cutting this particular flower through some creative problem solving and practice pieces. No gaps!
6. I used 1.5mm thick maple for the test pieces. Éclaté in the tray!
Here is the final design for the 2 flowers that make up the actual marquetry panel. I made a packet of nice curly maple and set to work.
I have indicators drawn in red to remind myself of places where I either need to a) remove the line plus a saw kerf of material, b) remove the line totally, c) split the line in half, d) leave the line, and e) leave the line plus a saw kerf of material. This applies to the exterior lines of the flower only. The interior lines should be split down the middle.
It is quite complicated and requires control and precision in cutting. It is even more difficult to cut the transitions smoothly. At this point in time I had around 100+ hours on the chevalet and was able to cut it perfectly. The difference in the smoothness of the lines between this piece and the first is drastic.
Here I am cutting out the leaves for the panel with straight piece by piece technique. Note the "holes" at the tips of the leaves. This is an excellent method for making turns that are tighter than 90 degrees. Because all of the veneer outside of the leaf doesn't matter I can cut into it, make a sharp turn, then come back to the line.
1. Laid out in exploded view to make sure I have everything.
2. Here I've made my shading guide. It's important to plan out your shading as it can determine the success or failure of a piece.
3&4. A reasonably good job of following the shading.
1. This is the background packet which is cut after the interior elements. This piece has two bridges. Bridges keep isolated or weak background elements in place so they don't move when the background is pressed onto the assembly board with hot hide glue. After this the bridges are cut with the tranchet so the interior elements can be placed inside the background.
2. The bridges in the actual background veneer. Notice the background element is suspended by them. Go back to Part I. Look at the first piece's backer board and see if you can find all of the isolated or weak background elements that were supported by bridges.
1. Here the piece is assembled face down.
2. Pressed onto a substrate.
3. A bit of alcohol to show the colors once it's French polished.
4. Ready for final sanding and French polishing. This is the first éclaté done in North America in over 10 years.
Now I'm ready for a few more complicated practice pieces, then on to the masterpieces!
My first 50+ hour week at ASFM (The American School of French Marquetry) focused on this piece by piece music motif. Piece by piece is the most technically difficult and complex method for cutting marquetry. The goal is to either leave half of the 0.1mm line or remove it completely without taking any extra material. This is what gives you a seamless fit in the finished panel.
To keep this organized I will number the explanations for the photos working from left to right for the entirety of the post. 1. refers to the top left, 2. top right, 3. bottom left, 4. bottom right, etc.
1. Good marquetry starts with a good drawing. I had about 20 copies. The first three copies are pulled from the stack and used for a color index, shading guide, and background template in that order. This is my color index for this piece.
2. The rest of the copies are used to cut out the interior elements. All of these should be cut out with about 1mm around the outline. It's a good idea to organize them in an exploded view to make sure you don't leave any pieces out.
3. Afterwards the pieces can be organized by color. This helps speed up and organize the packet assembly process.
4. All of the pieces are now glued to the veneer packets with hot hide glue. Each packet, from the bottom up, consists of a 3mm backer board, a layer of grease paper, three 0.9mm sliced veneer sheets, and the glued on design. Veneer nails are placed around the elements to firmly hold the packet together. It took about two 10 hour days to make up all the packets I needed and to get all of the prep work done. At this time I also prepared the background packet which is kept inside a press for the duration of the interior element cutting as to not introduce any kind of warping or movement inside the pack. In a previous blogpost I show the construction of a background packet.
1&2. Focusing on smooth lines and sharp corners. As you advance you don't have to worry so much about hitting the line (you'll start to feel the line and hit it naturally) but making a beautiful line. When I first learned piece by piece I used the slow cutting and easily controlled 2/0 Escargot blade. For this study period I switched to the fast and aggressive 2/0 Pebeco skip tooth blade for speed and efficiency. It took a while to get used to but after about 12 hours of cutting I started to feel good with it.
3&4. All of the pieces cut out and again organized by color. Working away in my corner of the shop.
5&6. Showing the thickness of materials. For these practice pieces it is perfectly fine to use 0.9mm sliced materials. On real pieces 1.5mm thick material is the standard. The bone is at 1.5mm. Compare this to the other materials around it. Very nice to work with. I cut this with a 2/0 Escargot blade instead of the 2/0 Pebeco blade I used for everything else. It's a bit too tough for the pebeco. The escargot cut beautifully.
1-3. Organized in exploded view to make sure nothing is missing and checking some of the colors after sand shading.
4. Backer board after cutting the background.
1. The piece assembled face down on French kraft paper with hot hide glue. This is an incredibly important part of the French process.
2&3. Panel cleaned up a bit and pressed onto a substrate. At this point it is ready for final sanding and the beginning of French polish.
The next blog post will focus on my second week at ASFM where I completed a fleur éclaté marquetry panel.