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  • Writer's pictureIntarsia Wood Art

Intarsia Woodworking Essential tools: Shaping

Shaping can make or break an Intarsia wood piece as it plays a crucial role in achieving the desired aesthetic and artistic expression of the final piece. Hence, it’s important to have the right shaping tools.

In this blog post, we’ll cover the basics when it comes to shaping, including why it’s so important, and which tools you’ll need to get started.

Why is Shaping Important in Intarsia Woodworking?

Shaping is a crucial part of Intarsia woodworking as it ensures precise fits and alignment of pieces. This in turn allows for smoother transitions, realistic detailing, and an enhanced visual impact of the final product. Here’s more on what shaping brings to the table:

Detail and Realism

Shaping allows the wood pieces to closely mimic the shapes and contours of the subject being depicted. Whether it's the curve of a petal, the bend of a leaf, or the subtle contours of an animal's fur, shaping helps add realism and detail to the artwork.

Seamless Integration

Intarsia involves fitting together multiple pieces of wood like a puzzle. Proper shaping ensures that these pieces fit together seamlessly without any visible gaps or irregularities, creating a smooth and cohesive image.

Depth and Dimension

Shaping enables the creation of depth and dimension within the intarsia design. By beveling or contouring the edges of the wood pieces, artists can create the illusion of layers and perspective, adding visual interest and complexity to the artwork.

Structural Integrity

Shaping isn't just about aesthetics; it also contributes to the structural integrity of the final piece. By carefully shaping each component, woodworkers can ensure that the joints are strong and stable, preventing pieces from coming loose or breaking over time.

Expression of Artistic Vision

Intarsia is as much an art form as it is a woodworking technique. Shaping allows artists to express their creative vision and style, whether it's through bold, exaggerated contours or delicate, intricate details.

Smooth Transitions

Intarsia often involves transitioning between different colours or types of wood. Shaping helps create smooth transitions between these elements, ensuring that the colours blend harmoniously and the overall design flows seamlessly from one section to the next.

So, where do you start when it comes to shaping, and what tools do you need?

Shaping Tools: Rough sanding

Following the cutting and shimming phases of the intarsia woodworking process, the rough sanding phase typically involves removing a fair amount of material. For this, you’ll need somewhat aggressive sanders. Here are the two types of sanders I prefer for this job:

Pneumatic Sanding Drums

These sanders are made to handle shapes nicely, so they're perfect for smoothing out curved surfaces. They're also better when it comes to complex curves compared to regular hard-rubber drums, which might flatten some areas.

Pneumatic Sander from Lee Valley

You can adjust their firmness to match the task – softer drums work well on rounded surfaces, while harder ones are better for flat areas and tight curves. You can also easily pump them up with a bicycle pump, usually to about 15 psi or less. With an 80-grit sleeve, this beast can remove a lot of material.

The drums I use come from Lee Valley and they mount on a regular chuck, either on a drill press or on a motor.

For those of you with professional ambitions, Sand-Rite sells a full line of pneumatic drum sanders and other types of sanding equipment.

For beginners, I recommend the Flex Drum Sander kit which is available for purchase here. This is a good substitute that I used myself for several years until switching to the pneumatic sanding drums.

48” Belt Sanders

Belt sander 48"

These sanders are useful when it comes to flattening the bottom of pieces before applying a backer. They’re also great for rounding over large pieces, such as leaves or any large surface that requires round edges.

Keep in mind that they are intimidating machines that require a fair amount of dexterity to handle pieces without sanding away your fingers! They also make a lot of dust so make sure you’re equipped with appropriate dust collection equipment.


Shaping Tools: Detailing

Once all your pieces are shaped within acceptable tolerance, it’s time for more precise and less aggressive detailing sanders. Here are a few of the tools I use when it comes to detailing Intarsia wood pieces:

Soft-Head Flap Wheel Sander

Flap sander

This sander has cloth-backed abrasive flaps separated by aluminum oxide rubbing pads. The combination works quickly but smoothly. I mount my flap wheels on a motor equipped with dual drill chucks for convenience so I can always have multiple grits of wheel available. My favorite brand is 3M but various companies sell this type of product.

Dremel Tools

Dremel Tool

Equipped with a sanding attachment, the Dremel tool can be very practical to reach inside curves or intricate shapes that just can’t be reached using flap wheels.


Sanding Blocks

While sanding mops and power sanders are commonly used, hand sanding with sandpaper is often necessary for reaching tight spaces and achieving a smooth finish on intricate details. I like to use sandpaper-free hand as it provides more control, but a sanding block can also be used.

Dentist Pics

Dentistry tools

As previously mentioned in my essential Intarsia tools article, it is my habit whenever I go to the dentist to ask them if they have any defective dentist pics that they are throwing away.  I have assembled quite a collection this way. You can also buy these at hardware stores. They prove invaluable to reach tiny spots, remove excess glue, or position a small piece. 


Chisels and Carving Knives

Chisels can be used for cutting and shaping wood pieces in Intarsia, although it is not a common practice and requires a skilled artisan to properly manipulate the tools. They come in various shapes and sizes. Similarly, carving knives can also be used for delicate carving work in Intarsia, allowing artisans to create fine lines and intricate textures in wood pieces.

Files and Rasps

Used for refining shapes and smoothing rough edges in Intarsia. They come in various grits and shapes to accommodate different shaping needs.

Shaping Tools: The Finishing Touches

After aggressively sanding down your piece, it’s time to gently apply the finishing touches. This process requires a different set of sanding tools, here are the ones I prefer for this job:

Sanding mops

Sanding mop

Sanding mops are my preferred shaping tools when it comes to finishing Intarsia pieces. This type of sander consists of abrasive strips or flaps attached to a central hub, which rotates when mounted onto a power tool such as a drill or grinder.

Sanding mops are designed to be flexible and conform to irregular surfaces, making them ideal for intricate or contoured workpieces. They are commonly used for smoothing, deburring, and finishing tasks, offering a faster and more efficient alternative to traditional sanding methods.

With the appropriate sandpaper sheets, achieving a finish akin to using 180-220 grit sandpaper is feasible. Recently, I've found the 4" model from Stockroom Supplies to be exceptionally effective in this regard.

Polishing Wheels

Polishing Wheel

Of course, when you want to achieve the supreme mirror finish, a polishing wheel is a must. However, it can be overkill for most Intarsia artwork.

I have only used my polishing wheel when building chess pieces so it is likely the one tool you can do without.

My Shaping Setup

Here is a picture of my shaping tools station. Note that the yellow motors are from Kirjes and have drill chucks on both sides.  They are very reliable, and I highly recommend them. 

Circled in red are my sanding mops with 2 different grits of sandpaper. Circled in yellow are flap wheels also with different grits. Circled in green is my pneumatic drum sander (this is the small size drum at 2.5” by 3.5”.  Lee Valley also sells a bigger model that is 3” by 5”. Since my workshop is in my garage, I use the fan to push the dust outside. It becomes more problematic in the winter when the garage door is closed. Time to wear a mask!

Words of Wisdom for Beginners

As a seasoned Intarsia woodworker, I’ve accumulated a wealth of wisdom, often acquired through personal mistakes and oversights! Here are some of my most valuable tips for beginners when it comes to shaping.

Flat spots

Many of us start our Intarsia journey using a simple shaping technique that involves rounding over the edge while keeping the body of the pieces flat. While it can be called Intarsia, the resulting pieces rarely reflect a realistic view of the subject. My recommendation is to avoid flat spots on Intarsia pieces as much as possible unless you are building a flat object.


Remember that 3D is your best friend. Raising and lowering various portions of the design is essential to achieve a realistic Intarsia artwork. I typically use ¾ to 1-inch-thick wood for all my work. I find it easier to cut and gentler on the saw (and my fingers!) Of course, this implies that I use a lot of shims to create the multiple dimensions of a design.  Don’t be afraid to experiment with varying elevations across your pieces.  The transition across pieces of varying heights is where careful shaping is required.

A good example of the use of shims is the lion head, a particularly challenging pattern from Kathy Wise. While it is difficult to see from the picture, there are at least 5 layers of shims in the design.  They are crucial to give depth to the mane and bring forth the nose and mouth.

Up to 5 layers of shims

Lion Head from Kathy Wise


Sanding Shims

One of the most useful techniques for shaping multiple pieces adjacent to each other is the use of sanding shims. They are usually built from thin plywood onto which multiple adjoining pieces are attached using double-sided tape. This allows all the pieces to be sanded together. This shaping technique results in the realistic rendering of curved shapes such as elephant ears or a flowing cape while using a minimal round over of the edge of the piece.  

Final Word

Shaping tools play a crucial role in the world of Intarsia woodworking. These tools allow us to carve, sand, and refine wood pieces with precision, bringing their designs to life. From traditional hand tools to modern power tools such as sanding mops and rotary tools, each tool serves a unique purpose in the shaping process.

Of course, along with the tools, each of us will develop our techniques to achieve the best results. By combining these techniques with the best shaping tools, Intarsia artists can achieve seamless transitions between different wood pieces, resulting in stunning works of art.

Until next time, happy woodworking!

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