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Wood Veneer Parquetry and Color-Changing-Chatoyance

Before talking about chatoyance, it is important to understand what is wood veneer and how it is made. Veneer is a thin slice of wood, which can go from 0.6 mm to 3 mm depending on how it is cut. There are 3 main methods for making veneer: Rotary, Sawn and Sliced. Let’s start with the least interesting for parquetry and work ourselves up.

Rotary (au déroulé) cutting is like “peeling” a log of wood. Rotary-cut-veneer has a non-repeating pattern which can vary significantly. It produces large sections of wood veneer. It is mostly used for industrial made furniture and is not appropriate for parquetry work (because of the non-repeating pattern).

Sawn veneer (placage scié) is probably the best quality one, as it does not need the wood to be steamed prior to cutting. But probably not the most practical for intricate parquetry patterns that require a large number of consecutive sheets with a repeating pattern. This is particularly true for shop-sawn veneer, which can be appropriate for simple 2-sheet, Book or Slip matched, parquetry. But because there is a lot of waste between the consecutive sheets of veneer when making them on a shop band saw, the pattern will quickly change, making this method not really adequate for anything more intricate such as a chevron sunburst pattern. However, it is possible to buy sawn veneer, which causes less waste than the shop sawn one. And therefore, offers a better continuity in the pattern of the grain. If you happen to be in Paris, I highly recommend you visit “les fils de Georges” , one of France’s oldest-still-existing lumber yard. They are the sweetest and are very passionate about their work. But also, they have one of the very last veneer sawing machines (scie au bois montant) created at the end of the 18th century. Today they can saw veneer as thin as 1.2 mm! Most of their sawn veneer is sold to Antique Furniture Restorers and designers for paneling

Sliced veneer (placage tranché), like rotary cut veneer, requires that the wood be steamed and washed prior to slicing. This weakens the wood and causes it to lose some of its tannin thus changing its color. This is why sliced veneer is looked down upon by certain “purists,” who probably don’t do much parquetry work beyond book or slip matched. But having worked with high quality sliced veneer, I can say it still is beautiful. It just demands to be more careful when working with it. The key advantage of sliced veneer is that the pattern of the grain really follows well from one sheet to the next consecutive one. This is definitely a plus for anyone wanting to make parquetry with the wood grain meeting as perfectly as possible. It exists in different thickness: 0.6 mm and 0.9 mm. My preference goes to 0.9 mm, because while still allowing a continuity in the grain, there still is body to it. When working with solid wood my preference goes to quarter or rift sawn wood, but when making parquetry I prefer plain sliced. It makes much more interesting and surprising designs!

Look how the grain meets perfectly on this teak wood 4-sheet-Reverse-Diamond-Box parquetry (frisage en fougère) made by one of my students.

The other pro, or con depending on how you look at it, is that the blade while slicing will tend to tear out more wood on one side of the sheet of veneer than on the other. This is something that is not really noticeable before applying finish to the veneer but becomes quite obvious once the finish is applied. The “up” side and the “bottom” side of the sheet of veneer reflect light in different ways (this will be more or less true depending on the essence of the wood). See for yourself !

NB: There are other reasons for chatoyance. Curly and other figured woods will tend to demonstrate chatoyance. Also, woods which, like Ceylan Lemon Tree Wood, are rich in silica will shine bright like a diamond ;).

Fun fact: Is Chatoyance a French or an English word? English! Although the word does not exist as such in French it does come from the French word chatoiement (noun, chatoyant the adjective). The prefix chat means cat. The shimmer described by the word chatoiement or chatoyance in English, refers to the changing reflection in cat's eyes.

I hope you enjoyed the read. If you want to learn more about traditional wood veneer parquetry technics feel free to contact me or look into my 10-session class.

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Muriel Schiffmann
Muriel Schiffmann
16 Mar 2023

This is so interesting! Thank you for the explanations!

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