Tutorial: A Cat Intarsia

If you have been looking around this site, you probably know that I'm very much involved in a variety of art forms, including jewelry and my Tree Jewels™ Christmas tree ornaments. However, thanks to my Dad, who recently gave me a nearly complete woodworking shop, I have also been able to venture into the realm of sawdust and wood stains and polyurethane. Although I've worked with wood before - much of my life, in fact - my woodworking has generally been a "practical thing" - cabinets, bookshelves, etc. Now, I'm wanting to tackle some art projects that combine wood with other materials such as metals and maybe even gemstones.

One of our permanent guest artists, my sister Jody Miller creates marvelous art dolls. A few years ago, Jody learned that I have a particular fondness for dragons and created the "Roland" dragon (my name, not hers) for me as a Christmas gift. That launched a sort of family tradition where she and I trade handmade gifts. Since Jody has a particular fondness for Santa Claus tree ornaments, my first Santa Tree Jewels™ ornaments were born of that tradition.

Well, my sister is also a "cat person", so an idea popped into my head to create a gift for her with a cat theme. And, since I want to begin honing my woodworking skills, I decided on an intarsia, predominately in wood but with metal and gemstone adornments.

The Idea Takes Shape

Scanned-in kitty I began the project with a couple of sketches, trying to come up with a "cute" kitty. This is the one I chose and scanned into my computer.

Next, I imported the scanned-in image into CorelDraw, as a background layer. Then, I basically traced over each part of the sketch to produce shapes for the individual pieces that will make up the intarsia. Finally, I added textured fills to each element, hoping to more accurately visualize the final result. After some enthusiastic responses from my "focus group" (aka, my wife, Linda!), I decided to proceed with the rest of the project. The whole process, up to this point - from sketch to model, has taken about four hours.

As you can see, much of the piece will made of wood - twenty three individual pieces, including the frame and background. The eyes will include a silver disk with Tiger Eye gemstones mounted on them. The kitty's stripes will be brass, and the whiskers lengths of light guage German Silver (Nickel Silver) wire.

One of the main reasons I use a drawing program, such as Corel Draw, for creating the "model" (as opposed to a painting program, such as PhotoShop) is that each piece can be represented as an individual object. Consequently, I am easily able to scale the design to any size I choose.

I also have the ability to separate the individual pieces to create a pattern template, which is printed on an 8-1/2x11 inch full-sheet label (such as the Avery 8255).

A separate tutorial will address the general topic of using computer software to create pattern templates. However, we'll start this tutorial from the point at which the patterns have been printed on the sheet label

From the CorelDraw model, I am able to separate the individual pieces to provide sawing patterns. A single sheet, containing all of the patterns, is printed on an Avery 8-1/2" x 11" sheet label.

Notice that the smaller pieces, or pieces in which the orientation might be ambiguous, have been labeled.

The pattern pieces are cut from the label sheet, the backing is removed, and the patterns are then pressed onto 1/4" thick oak or poplar boards. Of course there are many different, and even exotic varieties of wood to choose from. Most are generally not available locally, and some are quite expensive. However, as my skills improve, I plan to incorporate other woods into my future designs, in order to acheive special texturing effects with woods of different colors or with different grain patterns.
Interior areas are those into which other pieces must fit- such as the eyes and ears. For these, a hole must be drilled so that the sawblade can start inside the area to be cut away.
I'm using a Craftsman 16-inch scrollsaw to cut each piece ... thanks Dad!.
Although this closeup view of the saw shows the body being cut, some of the pieces are quite small. You must be truly vigilant in order to not make your finger tips an integral part of the piece!
At this point all of the wood pieces have been rough cut. The next step will be to carefully file the edges so that they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. That's what an intarsia is!
A variety of wood files are used to carefully shape the edges of each piece so that they fit together precisely. It is also possible to use a rotary grinder, such as a Dremel® tool. However, I prefer the finer control afforded by hand tools. Furthermore, if care was taken when sawing the pieces, very little shapping will be required.
Here, the edges of all individual pieces have been shaped and assembled to test the fit.
A closeup of how the pieces from the tail fit together.
Here, I'm using a rotary grinder to round the edges of each piece.
At this point, all pieces have been shaped and their edges rounded.
The pieces have been stained and laid out to dry. I used a dark walnut stain, a "Vermont Maple" for the nose, and a mix of "White Oak" and walnut for the "smokey" color of the base. The light colored pieces - poplar - will keep their natural coloring.

Although both the poplar and oak stock were listed as being 1/4" thick, the poplar was actually just slightly thinner. Consequently, I had to cut out sections of cardboard to serve as spacers under the thinner poplar.

Once the stain has dried thoroughly, the pieces are sanded with a very fine (320 grit) sandpaper. The base was glued to a thin piece of plywood, using common wood glue. When that glue had dried, all of the individual wood pieces were then glued into their proper positions.

Finally, I applied a thin coat of semi-gloss polyurethane, allowing it to dry over night. After a light sanding, with very fine (320 grit) sandpaper, I applied the second and final coat of polyurethane.

The finished intarsia design has several metal "adornments" the stripes, the eye rings, the whiskers. These are prepared using standard "jewelry" techniques - sawing, filing, sanding and polishing. The stripes are brass; they eye rings and whiskers are nickel silver.

For the eyes, I decided to use 8mm diameter tigereye beads. To accomodate them, I used a round cutting tool, in my drill press to form a depression in each eye piece. The silver eye rings, which wre cut from 24 guage nickel silver sheet stock, have a slightly larger than 8mm hole in them.

Each set of whiskers was formed from three lengths of 24 guage nickel silver wire. The center "whisker" is slightly longer. The side whiskers have a small bent section that will allow soldering to the center piece and ultimately provide a "tab" for attaching the whiskers to the cat's face.
The finished (and framed) intarsia! For the frame I used a frame "kit", which I bought at Michael's Arts and Crafts. All of the "adornments", including the tigereye beads were carefully attached with small drops of epoxy.