Fine craftsmanship learned in the Old World tradition

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"Rosie" table by Paul Schurch
The small table Paul calls "Rosie" stands 24 1/2" high with a top 24 1/2" in diameter. It has over 600 pieces of wood in its motif. It sold for $10,000.

Call out a country and Paul Schurch has probably been there, and maybe even learned a thing or three about woodworking. With years of world travel and study behind him, there's little wonder that conversations in the leading marquetry expert's Santa Barbara, California, workshop sometimes mimic those in a bustling European marketplace.

Thilo Roemer, a woodworker from Germany in a yearlong marquetry apprenticeship, listens as Paul excitedly describes one of his techniques—in German. If there's a purposeful anecdote from a trip to Italy, it's emphasized in Italian. Then there's French when the occasion arises, and Spanish, helpful for ordering quesadillas or chile rellenos at the Mexican eatery nearby. But despite the optional foreign vernaculars at Schurch Woodwork, the universal language is fine craftsmanship learned in the Old World tradition.

Dis[play cabinet with lazy-Susan-style revolving doors
This display cabinet has doors that revolve to open lazy-Susan style. Inside, lights show off its contents. Case and trim are cherry; marquetry is myrtle burl, tulipier, poplar, imbuya, purpleheart, maple, and tulipwood.

A real hands-on education

Paul grew to teenage in Santa Barbara, then he moved to Zurich, Switzerland, with his American mother and Swiss father, a scientist specializing in physics. "In California, I wasn't a very good student and didn't like school," he admits. "Instead, I'd rather work with my hands, building things. So my parents put me into a trade apprenticeship rather than a school."

In Switzerland as well as in many other European countries, apprenticeship programs sponsored by the trades are still a solid option to formal education. "Unfortunately, that's not true here in the U.S.," says Paul. "And we would greatly benefit by it, but there's not a lot of support for a trade system. Personally, I take on apprentices, but I have to pay them good wages, workmen's comp, and all that. Yet, I feel that I have a commitment to pass on what I've learned, not hang on to it. Besides, apprentices spur me on in developing new techniques, designs, and building pieces that are continually unusual. Right now, I'm at a very productive stage in my life."

In Bern, Switzerland, Paul apprenticed in a piano-building program. It lasted only two years. He grew discontent with its repair orientation and transferred his apprenticeship to one focused on constructing church organs.

"In organ building, the craftsmen dealt with leather, plastics, welding, cabinetmaking, gold-leafing, design—everything!" says Paul. "It was inspiring to work with all those different materials, and to combine them. That gave me the confidence to take on challenges in different areas later on."

Paul worked four years to earn his journeyman's degree. That was followed by two years of field experience before finally deciding to return to Southern California. "They gave me a wonderful base of know-how that I draw upon to this day. I learned not only how to visualize a project but to break it down into its components, pay attention to detail, and follow through. But I had to move on," he adds.

To school once again

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A full-size marquetry pattern, or "cartoon," begins at the drafting table. It may take months to develop and synchronize with complementary veneers.

Paul was footloose after returning to Santa Barbara. "I was 22 years old and wanted some freedom from the discipline and rigid social structure I'd lived under in Switzerland. So I bought a motorcycle, a Skilsaw, some hand tools, and traveled around for two years to job sites as a carpenter," he explains, smiling at the memory.

Eventually, though, Paul's acquired skills and a strong desire to create resulted in the opening of a shop. "I came back to the States to start working on furniture, and finally settled down and did it," he says. But he discovered that there was more learning to do.

"For the first three years, I was building fine cabinets and designing and making some furniture. Yet, there was a gap in my knowledge," Paul notes. "I was having difficulty incorporating the curves that I wanted into my furniture. As woodworkers, we think linearly—straight cuts, straight lines, 45°, boxes. I found that I had developed a box mentality and needed to break out of it. So where do you have woodwork that involves lots of shapes, undulating forms, and curves? Boat building!"

Accordingly, Paul spent a year in England attending the International Boat Building School. "I worked on all kinds of wooden boats, the largest being 100' long and the smallest an 8' dory. I got an amazing feel for how far you can push wood," he recalls. "Yet the most valuable skill that I learned is called 'fairing a curve.' What makes it fair? You can only see it—no bumps, no flats, just a graceful curve. It's like a ballet movement. On furniture, it's the very lightly faired curves that make a piece stand out."

The road to marquetry mastery

"My introduction to marquetry only began about 15 years ago," Paul relates. "One day an interior designer came into my shop. He wanted a large marquetry table inlaid with stone and asked if I could do it," the craftsman continues. "Even though I'd never done anything like that, I said, 'Of course,' and got the the job. Then I sweated bullets for a week. I knew nothing about veneer and was afraid of it because it's a thin and fragile thing. It tears, warps, cracks, and there wasn't very much written about it."

Every veneering technique Paul tried ended in failure. Desperate, he decided to inlay everything into solid wood. "This nightmare continued for six or seven months," he says about the table. "And somehow or another I finished it. The client was happy. But I almost went broke because I had only charged one tenth of what it should have been worth for all the time I put in."

Again disgusted with this gap in his skills, Paul took off for Europe to seek out craftsmen who knew what he didn't about marquetry and inlay. "I had to find them," he says. "They had to be there because they certainly weren't in America that I knew about!"

Finally, in northern Italy, Paul found a master who created marquetry for the European furniture market. "I was greeted with open arms," Paul remembers. "But even then the craft was dying out. The young people didn't want to take the time to learn something that didn't pay very well. That's why he was so eager to take me in."

On that first trip, Paul stayed three weeks, learning production marquetry. "In that time, I only made a simple floral design, but I had the technique to take home with me and use," he says excitedly. And that was only the beginning.

At home, Paul experimented with his new knowledge. However, he soon realized that there was much more to know. So it was off to Italy again and again—for up to a month—each time working on more intricate pieces.

"I would gather commissioned project—veneer panels for cabinet fronts and tabletops that could be hand-carried on a plane in a 2430" case—and take them back to my teacher," Paul remembers. "I had bench space there and help when I needed it. The last time I went, though, was about four years ago. At that time, I was actually teaching some of the new employees how to do marquetry. That's when I knew that I didn't need to return."

Old World cutting techniques

"Marquetry, as I learned it, is working veneer for the background and the design, called the motif, at the same time to create one 'skin' that will be glued to the solid wood. This could be a top, side, or other decorative element of a piece of furniture. This method allows you to do marquetry more quickly and easily," explains Paul. "Inlay is routing or cutting out a recess in wood to accept either a contrasting wood, bone, shell, or stone." (See "Pietra dure up close" at the end of this story.)

The Old World marquetry method Paul employs uses three distinct techniques—packet cutting, contour cutting, and knife cutting. Each comes into play in the process of creating a veneer skin.

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The background of a marquetry pattern can be "knife-cut" with a sharp chisel, as apprentice Thilo Roemer does here whilePaul looks on.

"Packet cutting is a process of scrollsawing several layers of stacked veneer. All the segments of the pattern drop out like a jigsaw puzzle to be reassembled," he says. "If I stack green, red, and yellow veneers together, then cut out the pattern, the resulting pieces give me the material for three treatments of the same design. The blade, of course, has to be thin for a tight kerf, which will get filled in during the finishing process. I use a #000 blade with about 60 teeth per inch.

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At his rigid-arm, foot-controlled scrollsaw, Paul cuts out the pieces for the floral marquetry pattern of a jewelry box. In packet cutting, Paul saws a stack of as many as 16 different veneer layers.

"Some parts of a pattern may not be numerous enough to warrant a whole sheet of veneer for packet cutting. Those pieces I'll contour-cut, also on the scrollsaw," Paul continues. "I'll paste a pattern from the main design, called the cartoon, onto a piece of veneer, then cut its outline for fitting into the veneer skin. This requires more precision than packet cutting."

The third technique, knifing, is simple enough. "Knifing is putting larger veneer pieces, as for a background, together with the use of a very sharp 112 " chisel," notes the woodworker. "To do it, you make a score line, then follow it to cut all the way through the veneer. Using the veneer itself as a fence, you can actually inset one piece of veneer into another. A chisel is better than a scalpel or craft knife because it has the weight and mass that you need to effortlessly make a cut. The cutting edge, though, has to have a roundness at its corners so that it goes where you want it to instead of it finding its own way through the grain."

Creating a veneer skin

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Paul's "Ribbon High Cabinet" has a walnut frame with a marquetry pattern in Swiss pear and satinwood, and features faired curves.

It may take Paul nearly a day to packet-cut a highly intricate floral motif at his scrollsaw, an old yet sturdy rigid-arm Delta Rockwell with a 24" throat. The craftsman prefers its straight up-and-down cut to the rocking one of the newer, constant-tension machines.

"I can cut a maximum of 16 layers at a time," Paul offers. "But usually it's 14. I might have four layers of background, four for leaves, and four for stems. Then I have a top layer and a bottom layer to keep things condensed. My initial cut goes around the entire motif and drops the flowers out as a unit. Later, I'll contour-cut the leaves. When I'm finished, I'll have enough for four skins."

As the packet-cutting progresses, Paul carefully lifts out each stack of pieces with veneer tongs, then carefully sorts and arranges them on a tray. He'll later reassemble them with their knife-cut background veneer in the layout and veneer-press room of the 2,600-square-foot shop.

To assemble the skin, Paul employs a thin, nearly transparent veneer tape, putting it down on what will become the face side of the pattern. Because its adhesive is water-soluble, he can easily remove the tape once the skin has been glued in place. (But to avoid raising the veneer's grain, Paul simply sands it off.)

With all the cutting and handling in the creation of a marquetry skin, there's always the chance of chipping or otherwise damaging the veneer. A simple visual check highlights any necessary repairs. To do this, Paul holds the thin skin up to a window. Backlit by the natural light, the saw kerfs in the skin show up like minute rivers. Pinpoints of light indicate areas for repair.

"I use veneers that range from 136 " to 140 " thick, and they're more malleable than you'd think," Paul confides. "I can even pound them to flatten and fill gaps. But tiny chips in the skin I have to fill with a paste made of dark wood dust and hide glue after it is glued in place. To shield surrounding areas from the paste, I use a sealer of thinned shellac."

The sun does some work

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Paul holds the completed, taped-together veneer "skin" to the window to check for chipped-out areas that will need filling.

Ever since learning his special brand of marquetry, Paul has incorporated it into all types of furniture. But how and where he uses it dictates the means to adhere it to the surface.

"For smaller tabletops and cabinet doors, I hot-press it," says Paul. "That means I place a large metal plate out in the sun to heat up. While that's happening, I apply hide glue to the surface receiving the veneer and then lay down the skin. When the plate gets hot, I place a sheet of Visqueen over the skin to protect it, then bring the plate inside and place it on top of the veneer. The low heat re-liquifies the hide glue and spreads it entirely between skin and surface when it goes under the veneer press." (If you're wondering why Paul uses hide glue, he says it's because it's easily repaired, aggressive like contact cement, and you can't peel the veneer back up unless you heat it.)

For curved or round projects, Paul has a vacuum press to attach the veneer. For large pieces, he turns to either a 4x8' or an 8x8' veneer press.

Finish and move on

Much of Paul's marquetry furniture receives two sprayed-on coats of conversion varnish. This type of finish provides a tough, durable, protective coating. Sometimes he uses tung oil, varnish, and wax. His favorite for marquetry tops and panels, however, is the deep richness of shellac applied in a French polish.

"In French polishing, I put thin layers of shellac down with a pad tampon made of old linen. When you pad it on, shellac gets harder than if it were laid down with a brush," Paul explains. "And I use 'super blonde' shellac flakes from Behlens that I mix and dewax myself. This is the most refined, clearest shellac available. For a solvent, I use anhydrous alcohol because it's 99% pure with no water—it evaporates faster. But I have to buy it from a science supply house. With anhydrous, I can build up 40 layers of shellac in one day by putting down two coats every 15 minutes. Complete, it's like looking into a pool."

One final touch included with every piece of furniture that comes out of Paul's shop is highly unique. In a packet, he supplies detailed information about how the piece was constructed and the materials used, should someone have to repair it in the future. "I've seen too many disasters in furniture repair," he says. "And I don't want mine to be treated that way, no matter what I may move on to do in the years ahead."

Want to see more marquetry?

To see more of Paul's marquetry furniture, visit his website. He is also a visiting instructor at Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Indiana (317/535-4013), and demonstrates in selected cities at The Woodworking Shows (800/826-8257).

Pietra dure close up

In Italian, pietra dure means "the art of stone inlay."

"And it takes so much concentration that in comparison, marquetry is a piece of cake," says Paul Schurch.

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With jeweler's files, Paul carefully works a stone butterfly for inlay.
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In place in the tabletop, the blue butterfly joins silver, mother of pearl, leather, marble, and several types of wood.

The well-traveled craftsman learned pietra dure in the same way that he'd learned the secrets of production marquetry—by spending time with an Italian master until the skills were acquired. "In a month, I was taught the real meaning of patience," Paul says seriously, "because in pietra dure there's no room for error."

Whether it be marble, slate, or a semiprecious stone, such as azure-blue lapis lazuli, the stone first must be cut to rough shape after affixing the paper pattern to it with beeswax. Depending on its size, Paul uses either a small diamond bandsaw or a wire saw. "A wire saw is nothing but a traditional woodworker's bow saw fitted with a string of steel wire," he explains. "But you must use a silicone carbide lubricant."

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Using tweezers, Paul insets the stone butterfly, far left, into its tabletop recess.

To further finish the stone, Paul then wedges it into a wooden bird's-mouth clamp and begins detailing with jeweler's files. The lapis lazuli butterfly he's working on in the photo above may take a week to complete. When finished, the butterfly will be inlaid carefully with epoxy into its recess in the tabletop, as shown above.