Lily of the Valley Inlay
Inlay is the art of “letting in” pieces of veneer into solid wood. Used to enhance the decorative quality of an object, inlay most frequently takes the form of stringing, geometric borders, a small medallion (patera), or a figural component such as an eagle or shell. This segment reveals the process involved in making an inlay patera of a lily of the valley, a flower thought to convey strength and the advent of spring. The lily motif was favored in the southern states at the turn of the nineteenth century on furniture of the neoclassical style, and was used as a decorative element as far north as New York.1 The following photographs and narration demonstrate the steps involved in reproducing this decorative floral inlay as found on two recently discovered Charleston, South Carolina Federal Pembroke tables.
Step 1: The design is transferred onto a 1/16- inch-thick veneer of holly, a wood preferred for its exceptional dye absorbing property and its fine grain. Today, the image can be traced using carbon paper, but in the Federal period, one method of transferring the image was to draw a design on paper, soak the back with mineral spirits and dust it with a white pigment. This created a transfer paper that was placed pigment-side down on the veneer. Retracing the pattern transferred the design onto the veneer.
Step 2A: The perimeter of the patera is cut to shape with a fine-tooth saw, in this instance, a jeweler’s fret saw.
2B-C: The pattern traced on the veneer is precisely cut out, line by line. The narrow blade must remain perpendicular to the surface during this step. The pieces are then carefully set aside.
Step 3: Different woods and dyes are used to achieve a variety of colors. Iron acetate (iron fillings or steel wool dissolved in vinegar) is used to color the background pieces a muted olive green. In the Federal period, black walnut bark and nut husks achieved a similar color. Some of the other dyes historically used were onion skins (orange), logwood (purple), and madder (red). Today, as then, the wood has to soak for many hours or days in order for the color to penetrate thoroughly. After soaking in the dye bath, the holly should dry for several days to permit the swollen wood to contract.
Step 4: To achieve the shading, which can create a three-dimensional effect, the separate pieces of the lily are scorched for several minutes by partial insertion in hot sand. Care must be taken to keep the shading consistent on each of the pieces.
Step 5A: The pieces are assembled and held together with paper applied with water-soluble glue. At this point the outer edge is refined with a file. The patera is positioned on the leg face and the outline is cut into the surface with a sharp knife.
5B: With the patera set aside, the wood inside the border is removed to the depth of the thickness of the veneer, with chisels or a router plane. The bottom of the recess must be flat to achieve a satisfactory glue surface.
5C: Hide glue is used to adhere the patera in the recess. The paper should be facing out.
Step 6: After drying overnight, the paper is removed with water. The surface is brought level with the surrounding wood with a file or cabinet scraper.
Step 7: Two parallel knife cuts equal to the width of the single string inlay border that will circumscribe the patera are cut around the edge. The center portion of this border is removed using a narrow chisel or a “hags tooth.”
Step 8: A few passes with the cabinet scraper can produce a slight bevel on the bottom of the string inlay. This helps guide it into the groove and assures a tight fit. Holly bends easily around small radius curves when saturated with water for several minutes. Long tapered cuts on the ends of the string, where they meet, will conceal the joint. The string inlay is glued into the groove and allowed to dry overnight.
Step 9A: The surface is again leveled using a file or cabinet scraper.
9B: Knife cuts into the surface further define the petals of the flowers. The cuts are further enhanced when the entire table is coated with a finish such as varnish or shellac.