To Paint or Not to Paint? - Intarsia Woodworking

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Blog entry by Chris Mobley posted 03-01-2013 02:41 PM 4214 reads 0 times favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch

To paint or not to paint? This is the question. I have recently come across several debates on the topic of painting or staining intarsia work to achieve the different colors in a piece. I have even asked a group of my peers how they felt about the topic and I have gained some great knowledge.

There is absolutely something to be said about using natural wood and natural wood grains to create a piece. In fact, in most cases this is my favorite way of doing my woodworking projects.

In the elephant piece that is currently in our inventory , the use of cedar, pine, and walnut working together to create the different dimensions is perfect. I would never paint a piece such as this. I feel that painting it would ruin the feeling of the design and throw off the beauty in the image.

Again in this western cross design, the use of ash, blood wood, and mesquite make the piece what it is. The three woods working together give the piece a feeling that could not be duplicated with paints or stains.

Sometimes you just cannot achieve the look that you desire from natural wood colors and grains without some help. Staining is often used to gain a certain look or to alter the appearance of the natural wood. I have used stain in the past as shadowing by taking a Q-Tip and lightly brushing areas of a project to get a shadow effect. In Kathy Wise’s Q and A section of her website, she gives good examples of the reasons why she will sometimes use paints or stains for assistance in creating a piece.

I have also done a whole piece in natural wood and then painted just one aspect of the piece to make it pop or give it a specific look. In this Marine Corps emblem , I painted the earth, but left everything else natural wood. This makes the earth pop against the natural wood background.

There is also the technique of taking paint and watering it down so that you can see natural wood grain through the paint. I actually used this technique on the bulldog project. The natural wood could not give me the white I was looking for, so I took a small amount of white paint and watered it down and gave the wood a “wash” to achieve the white color I was looking for.

Finally, the painting technique where the entire piece is cut from one piece of wood and is painted to accomplish a preferred look, this is also a technique that I use. This is actually not called intarsia when the whole piece is painted. This technique is actually called segmentation. I think a lot of people call this intarsia including myself at times because the term Intarsia is more widely known and it is easier to get the idea across of what you are talking about. Some intarsia enthusiast will often get offended if you call this style intarsia. I normally use this method on custom projects where the customer specifically wants a certain appearance or if painting is the only way to gain the impression that I want. The first time that I ever painted on of my pieces was because my wife enjoys painting, and it was a way of completing a project together. I liked how the piece turned out, and we continue creating pieces together.

On the Boss truck and on the Chevy truck projects that I have recently done. I used paint to achieve the colors I desired. Sure, I could have used canary wood for the yellow in the Boss truck project or blood wood in the Chevy truck project, but this is would not have given me the appearance that I was after.

Regardless of your feelings about the different techniques in these types of woodworking, it is all beautiful to me. My philosophy is to take one project at a time and just do what feels right for that specific project. Art should not be defined on what is right and what is wrong but more on how the piece makes you feel.

The bottom line is there really is not a “right” answer to the question. As a woodworker I take pride in my pieces, I strive to be different, and to do what I love.

I am curious about your feedback on this topic. Your comments here and on my website is appreciated.

-- Chris Mobley -

8 comments so far

View luv2learn's profile


2767 posts in 2325 days

#1 posted 03-01-2013 03:49 PM

Chris, for those intarsia woodworkers that have access to a wide variety of exotic hardwoods and who have deep pockets perhaps going all natural is OK. I was in my local hardwood store yesterday and they wanted $135.00 a board foot for ebony. As it was, I spent $24 plus dollars on one board foot of yellow heart and two board feet of hickory.
Now, I am retired and on a rather fixed income. Wood like ebony is way out of my price range as is many other exotic woods they had on display. So, when I do an Intarsia piece I use the types of wood that is either free, salvaged, or of reasonable cost. I have used black paint as a substitute for ebony. And, on a project I just started I am planning to use a black walnut stain over walnut to get a shade darker finish. Also, there are some colors one may want to use that are just not available in nature.
The bottom line for me at least is producing a piece of work that I am satisfied with, using whatever cost effective method available to achieve that goal.
Because I am not in business I don’t have any customers to satisfy, just me :).

-- Lee - Northern idaho~"If the women don't find you handsome, at least they ought to find you handy"~ Red Green

View Chris Mobley's profile

Chris Mobley

121 posts in 1950 days

#2 posted 03-01-2013 04:08 PM

Thanks Lee! Well said and your comment is appreciated.

-- Chris Mobley -

View TerryDowning's profile


1077 posts in 2140 days

#3 posted 03-01-2013 04:16 PM

In general I’m opposed to painting wood. But that’s a general rule and not an absolute. The paining you are doing is modest, tasteful and suited to the project. Any finishing should enhance and perfect the final product not diminish it. You are finding that balance. Nice Job!!

-- - Terry

View ldl's profile


1135 posts in 2387 days

#4 posted 03-01-2013 06:47 PM

I would ask you this question. Who are you doing it far. That’s the way I look at it. I let my turning tell me where it wants to go. When I force it I’m usually not satisfied with it. I agree with Lee you should satisfy yourself. If you are doing it far a customer then you have to satisfy them but when you are doing it for you then you satisfy you.

I guess in everything there are diehards that say it must be done this way or that. I play bass guitar. I go to bluegrass festivals and there are those that say bluegrass must be played with acoustic instruments. Others say it’s ok to use elec instruments. Who is right? My opinion is both are right. I play an elec bass but I also have an acoustic bass so I can go any way. Those that say you must use acoustic don’t hesitate to play their music through microphones when performing in public though.

Personally I feel you should do what makes you feel good. JMHO

-- Dewayne in Bainbridge, Ga. - - No one can make you mad. Only you decide when you get mad - -

View Chris Mobley's profile

Chris Mobley

121 posts in 1950 days

#5 posted 03-01-2013 07:53 PM

Thank you all. I appreciate your feedback on this topic. I agree!

-- Chris Mobley -

View DocSavage45's profile


8588 posts in 2865 days

#6 posted 03-05-2013 06:01 PM

I’m pretty sure that by now you have noticed that there is a wide diversity of thoughts, oprinions, techniques, and projects posted here.

One man’s fish eggs are another man’s ( person’s..LOL) caviare (sp?) I like what you produce. A unique twisat on intarsa. It is different from other pieces that I like. What is true about it is the “WOW” factor ( I wish I could have made that!)

I wish you every success. something in your work tells me you will be successful.

As long as it’s not tacky? LOL!

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View Brent Golden's profile

Brent Golden

151 posts in 3844 days

#7 posted 03-21-2013 01:23 PM

I do mostly Intarsia. I try to do it without any paint or stain. Like luv2learn said about ebony. Its pricier than gold. For making black wood when needed, I usually ebonize walnut. It turns out jet-black. Once I needed a very white wood so I used aspen with a pickling white stain hand rubbed into it. It stays white, too. Everything else, I just use natural colored woods as there is an exotic wood dealer about 30 miles from me. Their supply building is so overwhelming, when I walk in, I just stand there like an idiot looking at woods from all over the world, some are giant slabs. If I don’t have a list, I forget everything I went for because there is so much to see. has some of my work…..........

-- Brent Golden

View irishbob's profile


9 posts in 2419 days

#8 posted 03-23-2013 04:34 PM

Not sure I should answer as I no longer have a shop to do that work. When I could I preferred intarsia but as Lee mentioned the cost was out of reach for me. I did take scrap wood and ebonise it. (vinegar and steel wool) on different woods and sometime I could get a suitable color.

-- Robert New Mexico

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