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  • Writer's pictureIntarsia Wood Art

The Light that Guides the Blade – What You Need to Know About Intarsia Patterns

Intarsia wood representation of Albert Einstein

Have you ever tried building something without a plan? Whether it’s a Lego set or anything from IKEA, it can be done, but why would you go through the hassle? We follow plans daily, and it’s no different when it comes to Intarsia woodworking, where plans are called patterns.


These patterns are line drawings (much like those in a colouring book) that guide building the pieces that form a design. A picture of the finished product often accompanies them to help with the shaping, and for making wood colour selections. Patterns may also contain indications for wood grain direction, shade, shaping, and shims if applicable.


So, where can you find patterns and what should you look for in a pattern? And what if you want to design your patterns? Read on to discover some helpful insights on Intarsia patterns and see if you want to become a designer!


Where Can You Find Intarsia Patterns?  


While we are all proficient at cutting and shaping wood using our individual techniques and tools, few of us have the ability or artistic talent to create Intarsia patterns. I would put myself in that category and that’s OK. Great patterns are available across the web from such renowned designers as Judy Gale Roberts, Janette Square, Kathy Wise, and the late Bruce Worthington. If you look even further, you’ll find several other talented designers selling their patterns on their websites or platforms such as Etsy. Most patterns are inexpensive and available in digital format, which allows you to pick the size that fits your needs.


You may come across patterns where pieces don’t align with your preferred Intarsia building techniques. In such instances, you might find yourself adapting patterns to better suit the specific fit of a piece. This is perfectly normal, and you should embrace it as a natural part of engaging in an art form that values creativity. I frequently employ the practice of framing a piece that might otherwise be too delicate. Of course, the choice to do so is entirely subjective and dependent on individual taste.


We’re all in this together, folks, so please make sure to encourage designers by purchasing their patterns from their websites and avoid copyright infringements at all costs. As per my previous blog post on the cost of intarsia, nobody is getting rich selling their pieces, however some designers can make good money selling their patterns. When you buy a pattern, you are acquiring the right to build works of art using that pattern. However, you have no right to sell and distribute the pattern itself. That is illegal and unfair to the designers. The same applies to images that you find on the web unless they are public domain. There is a lot of material available about artistic copyrights that clearly explains the rules. Learn more by reading this overview of Canadian copyright guidelines.


What Should You Look for in a Pattern?


Choosing the right pattern will depend on a few things, such as your skill level and personal preferences. Here is my personal list of must-haves when selecting a pattern:


- Compelling and realistic subject matter


The subject matter needs to be something you’re familiar and comfortable with. Most artists excel in one artistic style over others and tend to follow that style throughout their artistic endeavours. However, you’re allowed to make some exceptions. For instance, while I’m not a big fan of cartoons in Intarsia, I will make exceptions when looking for fantasy patterns (such as Star Wars or Lord of The Rings). In general, though, I like the pattern to reflect a realistic view of the subject, such as nature scenes and animals.


- Appropriate number of details (i.e. pieces)


Generally, simplicity often proves effective; however, when it comes to patterns, providing ample details is crucial for achieving a well-defined 3D effect during shaping and assembly. This is particularly evident in the context of facial structures. If a pattern consists of only one or two pieces for the face, the sculpting process can be challenging. Rendering intricate facial features, such as the nose, mouth, eye cavities, and eyebrows, becomes exceedingly difficult without incorporating separate pieces for each element.


- The pattern was shop-tested


Building the artwork will give the designer insights into how easy it is to render the pattern. Some do it themselves, while others pair up with expert craftsman to test the feasibility of their patterns. I especially appreciate when a picture of a completed piece is included with the pattern as it confirms that it is a viable design.


- A clear indication of where shims are recommended (including sanding shims)


What makes Intarsia so unique is the 3D effect obtained by shaping wood pieces. A shim is used to raise a single piece of wood or a group to provide better definition and a more realistic effect such as in my previous example with the nose.


Sanding shims, on the other hand, are used for shaping multiple pieces adjacent to each other. Sanding shims are usually built from thin plywood and held together with the pieces using double-sided tape. This allows all the pieces to be sanded together.  We will discuss sanding shims in more detail when we discuss shaping in an upcoming blog.


- Suggestions on wood shades and grain direction


A crucial step in Intarsia is selecting the right wood species to fit a selected pattern/design. Designers can also provide guidance on the shade of the wood (light or dark) and the wood grain direction for optimal realistic effects.  These are suggestions and the final choice is always up to you.


Becoming Your Own Designer


Depending on your preferences and as you gain more experience, you may eventually go beyond mainstream patterns and look for more eclectic subjects, such as cars, mystical beasts, fantasy scenes, or science fiction. In that case, you might want to consider creating your own patterns.


Of course, designing your own patterns will involve some artistic talents that you may or may not possess. My drawing skills being limited, I’ve started to rely on computer programs to construct line drawings from images of some of my favourite characters. The line drawing is then customized to work as an Intarsia pattern. This has allowed me to delve into subject matters that otherwise would be impossible to find patterns for. Just remember that you must ensure that the images that are used are free of copyrights, or you must obtain permission from the author to create a pattern from them.


Organizing your patterns


Some 24 years ago when I first started doing intarsia, you could purchase patterns on the web, and they would be printed on high-quality tracing paper and rolled up in cardboard tubes.  Other sources included books and magazines.  I have the entire collection of Scroll Saw Woodworking and Craft and the now defunct Scroll Saw Workshop in my workshop which amounts to well over 100 issues. While the magazine inserts are nice as they contain full-size patterns, finding specific patterns among all those magazines can be a challenge. There is also the issue of space to store all the magazines and books.


These days, most designers give you the choice of paper or digital or strictly support digital downloads.  The clear advantage of digital is that it’s easy to store patterns on your computer, along with instant access, and the ability to print the pattern in any size. If you are adventurous, you can also digitize all your older paper patterns and store them on your computer as well. Needless to say, organizing my multitude of patterns is on my to-do list.


Final word


Intarsia patterns provide a diverse canvas for woodworking creativity, whether you’re following someone else’s pattern or creating your own. Remember to support fellow woodworkers by buying their patterns straight from their websites. Until next time, happy woodworking!

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