BOULLE MARQUETRY WITH BRASS, PEWTER AND FAUX TORTOISE SHELL - a beginners approach #2: Materials used, making up the packets, sawing the packets, assembling the design

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Blog entry by madburg posted 04-05-2017 02:03 PM 2148 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Starting point - My Chevalet, and the boulle style design that I used Part 2 of BOULLE MARQUETRY WITH BRASS, PEWTER AND FAUX TORTOISE SHELL - a beginners approach series Part 3: Preparing the marquetry panels for gluing down, and sanding the panels ready for engraving. »

My first trial sawing, loosely assembled, showing the six combinations from one lot of sawing.


Typically boulle style marquetry used a combination of brass and/or pewter, tortoise shell, and ebony, and occasionally other wood veneers. The traditional method of interchanging the cut out pieces of these materials gave just two marquetry panels. Premier-partie or first part was brass set into a background of tortoiseshell, and Contra-partie, was tortoiseshell set into a background of brass. The Premiere-partie panels were the most prized and consequently the more expensive of the two. As the boulle style progressed, designs were used that incorporated both Premier-partie, and Contra-partie in the same panel. This tended to produce panels of equal value.

The design I decided to use didn’t have this combination of premier and contra partie. So to give myself more material options, less waste, and essentially the chance to produce two Premier-partie, and two Contra-partie panels from one lot of sawing, I used six different materials. These were brass, pewter, a plain Jarrah veneer, faux tortoise shell, a Black veneer, and a Jarrah burl veneer. So I had the potential to produce six different panels.

Sourcing the brass, pewter, and faux tortoise shell was a time consuming task. In the end they were mainly purchased off eBay. The brass and pewter sheets were 0.8mm thick, by 30cm x 30cm square. This enabled me to cut the sheets into pieces for the sides and tops with minimal wastage. My faux tortoiseshell was from a luthierwood-shop on eBay and was 1.5 mm thick. I couldn’t find faux tortoiseshell that was the same thickness as the metals unless it was laminated, which was no good. My wood veneers were 1mm to 1.2 mm thick, sourced locally or made by myself.


Before actually making up the ‘packets’ for sawing, the brass and pewter needed to be annealed. I used the old technique of rubbing a bar of soap on one side and then heating them with a gas torch. As the soap turns from white, to brown, and then bubbles or sizzles, you have the right temperature. You then leave them to cool down – no quenching in water.

The wood veneers were backed with newsprint on one side only, to help ensure small bits didn’t break off when sawing. I glued the newsprint on with wallpaper adhesive rather than hide glue.

Finally the back side of the metal sheets were scored/toothed to help provide a key for the glue. For this I used a piece of hack saw blade fitted into a groove in a piece of wood which served as a handle.

There is plenty on the internet, including videos, about assembling your packets of metals and veneers ready for sawing, so I won’t go into it here. However, a key element for me was to ensure that all materials were exactly the same size, so that I wouldn’t have to trim down the finished marquetry panels.

My packets starting from the back, were assembled as follows: 3mm plywood, pewter sheet, suet paper, brass sheet, suet paper, Jarrah burl veneer, plain Jarrah veneer, faux tortoise shell, Black veneer, 3mm MDF. So I had six different materials in my packets, plus sacrificial plywood and MDF on the outsides. I hoped this would give me 6 different marquetry panels. Three for my nieces and a few spares……

A set of materials ready for assembling into the front packet, with the finished packet for the back panels behind. Note the scored brass and pewter, suet paper, and the rolls of brown gummed tape and veneer tape.

It is worth having the metals at the back of your packet so that the saw dust from them is pushed straight out the back, rather than contaminating the other veneers which would happen if they were at the front. The suet/greased paper is to provide a bit of lubrication to the saw blade, but don’t put it against the wood veneers as it could grease and stain them. I occasional rubbed a bit of bees wax on the saw blade to help lubrication, and did think that this might also stain the wood veneer, but it wasn’t an issue!

An addition to the packet could have been gold leaf or coloured paper which was traditionally put on the back of tortoise shell to add more colour and/or reflect light. I didn’t go for this.


Needless to say the sawing was quite an epic job and took me around 3 months. It built up the muscles in my left arm considerably and improved my patience! Again there is plenty on the internet about this, in particular look at the Chevalet Clubhouse on

I used the normal 0/2 by 130mm piercing saw blades in my Chevalet, though I did start with 0/5. I gave up on these as they broke too often. Best to get good quality blades – I used Swiss ones. A tip is to remember to sweep the floor below your chevalet before you start sawing, and seal up any gaps where falling bits can roll under benches. The bits go everywhere, even though I had a large edged tray on the back side of my saw to catch any wayward bits. They can get lost in shoes, stuck to socks, hidden in the saw dust etc etc. I am sure you will inevitably spend some time on your hands and knees desperately search for those missing pieces!

A set of felt lined trays to lay out your stacks of cut pieces on, are well worth making before you start. The felt stops the pieces sliding all over the place and getting mixed up!

My first trail sawing with parts being assembled in a felt lined tray


With everything cut out, deciding which combination of materials to use was interesting. Traditionally there was Premier-partie, or 1st part, with brass on a background of tortoiseshell, and Contra-partie, or 2nd part, with the tortoiseshell on a background of brass. There was probably a waste set as well. In my case I had the potential for six combinations, hoping for a least five usable ones.

In the end, trial and error was how I decided on my particular colour combinations. I ended end up with two very good version, essentially Premier-partie with brass in tortoise shell, and pewter in black and jarrah, and two Contra-partie with tortoiseshell on brass, and jarrah on pewter. The fifth one is interesting but shall we just say it’s different. I then have one more which has too much black and jarrah, so I’m still undecided what to do with it.

The traditional way of assembling these marquetry jigsaws, is to stretch craft paper on a board, coat it liberally with hide glue and then stick the bits of the marquetry jigsaw down on to it. I found the glue dried too quickly and it also meant that the face side was flat, when I wanted the back side flat. It’s the back side that you glue to your substrate. The wood and faux tortoise shell were purposely thicker than the brass and pewter, which gave the uneven surface. But when you come to finish off the panels, you are then sanding the softer materials down to the harder metals.

One way to get the back side flat when using hide glue, would be to assemble the marquetry on craft paper attached to a heated board/platen. The heat would keep the glue molten for longer, but I decided you would still have to press it using something to counter the uneven face side.

Anyhow I tried a couple of different methods, as I didn’t think a heated board would stay warm long enough to allow me to glue all my bits down. I did think I could possibly have put the finished assembly on a heated board to re-melt the glue slightly before pressing, but I didn’t pursue that one. So my alternative methods were:

1. I assembled the marquetry ‘jigsaw’ with its back side down on a board, and then glued strips of gummed paper onto the uneven face side and put them in a glue press with linoleum/expanded polystyrene packing sheet to take up the unevenness of the materials on the face side.

2. The gummed paper didn’t always ‘give’ as much as I would have liked over the uneven face side surface, and it didn’t always stick too well to the metals. So in place of gummed paper I used masking tape, which stuck better to the metals and had more ‘give’ in it. The problem with this was cleaning the masking tape off, once the panels had been glued onto the substrate, more later……..

The four best combinations. Contra-partie above, Premier-partie below

Assembling the jigsaws and ‘sticking’ them together is a time consuming job. But there is more that needs to be done before they can be glued onto your substrate. I will talk about this in my next post together with filling the saw kerfs, gluing the panels down and the initial sanding.

Thanks for reading and getting this far!!

-- Madburg WA

5 comments so far

View WhattheChuck's profile


464 posts in 4723 days

#1 posted 04-05-2017 02:06 PM

Very cool!

-- Chuck, Pullman, WA

View shipwright's profile


8734 posts in 3961 days

#2 posted 04-05-2017 02:55 PM

It’s an interesting learning process but well worth the effort. I know you are enjoying the journey an I am sure you will have good reason to be proud of the results.
Nice work.

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View Julian's profile


1637 posts in 3853 days

#3 posted 04-05-2017 04:33 PM

That looks fantastic.

-- Julian

View robscastle's profile


8119 posts in 3367 days

#4 posted 04-14-2017 09:45 PM

Nothing like having a diamond tipped saw blade if Jarrah was not hard enough you go for metals although the metals were possibly softer !!

Interesting work it would drive me crazier than I am already looking for bits in my socks!!

-- Regards Rob

View Druid's profile


2205 posts in 3958 days

#5 posted 04-15-2017 07:38 PM

This sure is looking good. I have to agree with Paul’s comments. Keep on with the blog. Very interesting.

-- John, British Columbia, Canada

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