To me, the star is the penultimate symbol of the Christmas season. It’s a message of hope, of joy, and love peace. A couple of years ago I created this mosaic version of a wooden Christmas star.
Every year since I get a lot of requests to build the star for others. Unfortunately, I just don’t have capacity to do that, so I decided to create a version of the star that could be made without any saws or power tools.
This star is made using a woodworking technique called marquetry, which consists of inlaying cut pieces of veneer to form a pattern. I have included a template, which can easily be sized up or down to make whatever size star you would like.
Here is a list of everything you will need
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X-Acto knife, and/or utility knife
Veneer tape, sort of optional
Three-quarter inch thick piece of wood as backer, pre-cut to whatever size you would like
Veneer (this pack is great for the star points, and you’ll need wider stock like this for the field)
Glue, preferably veneer glue
Clamps or heavy box or some thing
Self healing cutting matt
Be sure to watch the video to get an overview of what this looks like. Additionally, here is a link to the video I found most helpful in introducing beginning marquetry work. I have not yet tried this method using a fret or coping saw, and didn’t want to do so for the purposes of this no saws tutorial.
You can pick up a pack of sample veneers from your local woodworking store, or from Amazon. If you are making a smallish sized star, as in the size of the template I have included here, you can use a smaller sized pack such as this. However, the field, or background, will need to be a little wider. I recommend 8 inch wide material such as this.
Step 1: Create the pattern
Begin by tracing the star shape onto a piece of tracing paper. Technically you can skip this step, but I like to have it on the tracing paper to easily line the pattern up on the veneer. Tape the tracing paper to the veneer background piece, called the “field,” and slide a piece of carbon paper under that. Transfer the design to the veneer by pressing either with a small stylus or with a pencil. Remove the tracing and carbon papers. Don’t worry about any smudges that might have gotten on the veneer. This top side that you’ll be working on will actually be the backside when you are done.
I like to quickly shade in the parts of the star that will use darker colored material – as in the template. That just helps me keep from getting mixed up as I’m working. Select two pieces of veneer for the two shades of the star, being sure that they complement each other in whatever way you like. Start with one of the colors and do all of those pieces first before moving to the other side of the star points.
Step 2: Cut the first half of the star points and inlay in place
Orient the veneer sheet behind the field piece. You are going to cut through that top piece and into the piece that you will be inlaying all at once. So what you’ll need to do is make sure that the veneer piece is oriented so that the grain runs lengthwise along the point. That will keep the piece from chipping out as easily because you’re not cutting against the grain. So if the star point is horizontal, you’ll need to turn the inlaid veneer piece horizontal as well to cut along the length of the grain. Hopefully that makes sense.
Attach the two pieces of veneer together with some blue tape to hold everything in place while you cut. Use a sharp knife to cut through both layers of the veneer slowly and carefully. I found that I like to use a utility knife to do the first series of cuts, then the X-Acto knife to get any little detail spots that are still holding on. The X-Acto knife is also good for peeling away that top piece of veneer that you’ll be tossing.
Once you have that second veneer completely cut out you should be able to inlay it right into that spot you cut. Ideally you’ll have a nice fit. If this is your first time you may have some little gaps. Take it slow, and as you get the feel for it you’ll find the process is more relaxing than tedious. Well, hopefully.
I use clear tape to help hold the newly inlayed piece in place. As with anything, there’s lots of ways to do this, but I find this works well.
Continue onto the next steer star point, again orienting the veneer so that the grain runs lengthwise along the star point. Repeat the process until all of one side of the star points have been inlaid. You’ll end up with a lot of pieces of tape, and that is fine, but avoid making it too bulky. You will cut back through some of that tape as you start work on the other side of the star in a bit.
Step 3: Cut the second half of the star points and inlay in place
Now switch to your other piece of veneer, which should be a material that contrasts somewhat with the first side of the star. This will give it a three-dimensional look. Follow the same process, being sure not to cut the pieces you have already inlaid.
Step 4: Secure the star with veneer tape
Once you are finished turn the piece over carefully. This part is optional. Apply veneer tape across the veneer on this side. Yes, it is the front side, but this is not permanent. Veneer tape needs to be moist in order to stick. That is important because as the tape dries it will pull the pieces of veneer together. Now, I did not do this on the first star that I tried, but I did on the second. The results were better on my second star, though that might just have been that I’ve already practiced once. But I do think it helped. To wet the tape I put a wet paper towel in a small piece of tupperware, then I pulled each piece of cut veneer tape across it before applying it to the design.
I let the star dry for an hour or two, and then I pressed it flat for another hour or so as the veneer did bubble a little bit. Though to be fair I was a little heavy-handed with the water.
Perhaps a lot of the change in the second star was that I practiced this technique once and did a better job of cutting out the second time. I hope some of it was that. But I do think the veneer tape helped pull the gaps together a little bit as well. You can find veneer tape at your local home-improvement store. In case you don’t have one near you I’ve also linked to a roll that I found on Amazon.
Step 5: Attach the design to a wood block/backer piece
Before removing the veneer tape glue the design down to a block of wood. You can have this pre-cut for you at your local home-improvement store. Don’t worry about the veneer field hanging over the edges of the wood block, as the star itself sits on the block of wood.
Be sure that the glue is evenly spread all over the block, as any missed spots will affect the veneer application. A silicone roller like this one works well. Or use your fingers if you do not want to buy anything else. Don’t go crazy on the glue here, as you don’t want a bunch of messy squeeze out. I do recommend using a veneer specific glue, again available at woodworking stores. It’s a specialized item, but this type of glue is formulated so that it won’t bleed through veneers.
Step 6: Firmly clamp or weight the design and let dry
Once you’ve glued the star piece to the backer you’ll need to sandwich the design with another board on top. Then clamp the two boards together with a bunch of clamps. Alternately, if you do not have clamps you can pile on books, furniture, or whatever heavy objects you can find. The board will help protect the piece and distribute the weight, but you’ll want to make sure all parts are good and clamped or weighted. Give it a few hours to dry.
Step 7: Finish the star
Remove the clamps or weights, then carefully remove the veneer tape. You can scrape it off, gently moisten it and peel it off, or go with what I consider the easiest route: Gentle sanding with a fine grit sandpaper. I also favor this final method because it cleans up any spots that are a little uneven.
Trim off any bits of the veneer backer that are hanging over the wood block by turning the piece over and cutting off the bits that are hanging over with a sharp utility nice.
Finish the wood with whatever you have on hand. Mineral oil works fine And is inexpensive. I love using walrus oil. You can also use a polyurethane or whatever you happen to have.
Step back and admire your work! Hopefully your first attempt at marquetry turned out great. I’ve only done this twice now, and there was a lot of improvement between my first and second attempt. This is a great project to do when it is cold in the shop, if you don’t have tools, or if you just want to create something truly beautiful and handmade as a gift for a loved one. The veneer comes in packs, so there is enough there to make lots of these.
I hope you enjoy your first attempt at marquetry, and that you have your curiosity piqued enough to put on your to-do list. And, of course, be sure to share a photo if you give this a try!