Marquetry Made Simple

Achieve the look of expensive wood inlays with a clever combination of stains and paints.


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The appeal of wood is undeniable.

Wood furniture -- stained, inlaid, and carved -- has remained classic for centuries, and it can be beautiful displayed in any decor. With just a few simple techniques, you can create customized pieces that highlight the unique beauty of wood grain and the expensive look of wood inlays.

All of our easy projects employ color stains or paints to create the look of inlay, or marquetry. To apply the motifs, trace designs onto the furniture with transfer or tracing paper, then fill in with stain pens and paint.

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Decorative painter Molly Spain marvels at how easy it was to create these tables and chests. "Anyone can do this," she says confidently. "These pieces didn't take a lot of time, so it's great for a beginner."

Appealing to the craftsperson with an appreciation for natural wood, the small projects are a great way to hone staining and painting skills you can easily apply to larger projects. "Since these pieces are basically monochromatic and are limited to very neutral tones, I can see them working well on kitchen-cabinet doors, entertainment centers, or large chests of drawers," Spain says. "Once you get the hang of using the stains, stain pens, and paint, it's easy to move on to other things."

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When working with this technique, Spain urges you to "remember that you're darkening areas of the wood, and you can't go any lighter than the natural wood color." In addition, she says it's important to look at the piece and decide which areas should be darker -- obvious places are knobs, routed edges, feet, and legs -- and to tape off the areas that won't be stained.

Her final tips for success: Measure carefully to ensure the designs are symmetrical, and practice combining different color stains on a spare piece of wood.

Spain says she prefers using a rag to apply the stain. "You're really rubbing the color into the wood rather than painting it on. The rag allows you to work right up to the edge of the design and then quickly take off the extra stain," she says. "It was easier for me than using a brush." She has also found that stain pens or markers are ideal for coloring small areas or detailed designs such as the floral motif on one of the trunks.

Experiment on small pieces to get the hang of using stain, Spain suggests, then graduate to larger, more elaborate pieces. The technique creates a gorgeous effect that you can be certain will never go out of style.

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The easiest project is the bombe chest, which is stained a natural color, sanded, decorated with a painted urn and complementary motifs, and sealed with polyurethane.

The half-round table features artist's oils on the striped border and the medallion around the drawer pull, and a coat of pine stain over the entire surface.

The two trunks have more elaborate staining patterns but are easy: The designs are filled in with gel stain and stain pens.

Project Overview

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  1. Start with an unfinished wood piece.
  2. Remove hardware and store it in a safe place.
  3. Work on a drop cloth or plastic to protect your floor and catch dust and drips.
  4. Sand and wipe with a tack cloth.
  5. Mask off desired pattern with 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch plastic striping tape or other low-stick tape. (Use the smaller tape size for small patterns and the larger tape size for large patterns.)
  6. Apply desired stains with a brush, cloth, or stain pen; have a clean cloth available to immediately wipe up any excess. Let dry.
  7. Sand lightly and wipe with a tack cloth.
  8. Apply several coats of varnish or polyurethane to protect the finish. Allow to dry and then sand lightly between coats.
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The easiest project is the bombe chest, which is stained a natural color, sanded, decorated with a painted urn and complementary motifs, and sealed with polyurethane.

Only acrylic paint and polyurethane were used here. Transfer the motifs to the piece using transfer paper and paint them with black acrylic, applying multiple coats to ensure good coverage.

Once the paint is dry, seal the piece with polyurethane to showcase the wood grain's natural color. The classical urn on the bombe chest complements its curves as well as the finely wrought drawer pulls.

Gather Your Supplies

  • Transfer paper, pencil
  • Paint: Liquitex acrylic: Black (BL)
  • Brushes: #2 round

Start to Finish

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  1. Start with an unfinished wood piece.
  2. Remove hardware and store it in a safe place.
  3. Work on a drop cloth or plastic to protect your floor and catch dust and drips.
  4. Sand and wipe with a tack cloth.
  5. Transfer each pattern from the pattern packet by first positioning the pattern on the surface of the chest, and with transfer paper between the pattern and furniture surface, tracing the design with a pencil.
  6. Fill in the entire pattern with BL using the round brush; let dry. (You may need to apply more than one coat for the design to cover well.)
  7. Sand lightly and wipe with a tack cloth.
  8. Apply several coats of varnish or polyurethane to protect the finish. Allow to dry and then sand lightly between coats.
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The half-round table features artist's oils on the striped border and the medallion around the drawer pull, and a coat of pine stain over the entire surface.

On this table, decorative painter Molly Spain taped off a series of wedge-shape pieces -- inside a semicircle along the back of the tabletop and in a complete circle around the drawer pull -- and lightly brushed one edge of each with thinned artist's oils. She filled in the background of each medallion and painted the rope border she had taped along the table's front edge with the same oils. The effect is subtle but dramatic; the shading lends a carved look to the medallion motifs.

By carefully blending the oil paint in from the edge of each wedge shape to its center, Spain created a remarkable effect that looks more complicated than it is. "The key is applying the paint lightly and then blending it toward the center with a rag," she says. "You just use a little bit at a time."

Gather Your Supplies

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  • Compass, ruler, and pencil
  • Tape: 1/4-inch and 3/8-inch plastic striping or other low-stick tape
  • Crafts knife
  • Artist's oils: Burnt Umber (BU) and Black (BL)
  • Windsor & Newton Liquin
  • Brushes: #4 oil, 2-inch disposable chip
  • Lint-free cotton rag
  • Minwax Puritan Pine stain

Start to Finish

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  1. Start with an unfinished wood piece.
  2. Remove hardware and store it in a safe place.
  3. Work on a drop cloth or plastic to protect your floor and catch dust and drips.
  4. Sand and wipe with a tack cloth.
  5. Using a compass, arch half-circles with 3- and 1/2-inch radii in the center back of the tabletop. Then arch full circles with 1 1/2- and 1/2-inch radii around the drawer knob. Using the edge of a ruler and a pencil to make light marks, divide the circle and arch into even wedge shapes.
  6. Using 1/4-inch plastic tape, tape along the outer edges of the larger circle and arch, burnishing the tape to the surface with your fingernail. Tape off one edge of a wedge shape, and with a 3:1 mixture of BU and BL, load the oil brush lightly and dab gently along the edge of the tape in a stippling motion. With a small corner of a rag, blend the paint toward the center of the wedge. Continue taping and painting until all wedges are done. Use a drop of Liquin to thin the paint if needed. Brush paint onto the center of the arch and the outer edges of shelves and rub off excess with a rag.
  7. Tape an angled "rope" pattern along the edge of the tabletop using 3/8-inch tape. (Cut the tape with a crafts knife; it will not tear easily.) Burnish edges with your fingernail to ensure sharp lines when finished. Fill in the unprotected areas with the paint mixture, adding Liquin to slightly dilute paint and ease the spreading of the color onto the wood surface. Dry thoroughly.
  8. Stain the entire piece with Puritan Pine stain using a chip brush.
  9. Sand lightly and wipe with a tack cloth.
  10. Apply several coats of varnish or polyurethane to protect the finish. Allow to dry and then sand lightly between coats.
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This trunk, stained dark walnut, features a crosshatch pattern of warm reddish-brown outlined with a stain pen.

Gather Your Supplies

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  • Polyurethane
  • Brushes: 2-inch angled trim, two 2-inch chip
  • Fine-grit sandpaper, tack cloth
  • Minwax gel stains: Chestnut (CH), Honey Maple (HM), Mahogany (MA)
  • Ruler and pencil
  • Minwax Wood Finish stain marker: Dark Walnut
  • Straightedge (optional)
  • Lint-free cotton rag

Start to Finish

  1. Start with an unfinished wood piece.
  2. Remove hardware and store it in a safe place.
  3. Work on a drop cloth or plastic to protect your floor and catch dust and drips.
  4. Sand and wipe with a tack cloth.
  5. Apply polyurethane to entire trunk using an angled brush; let dry. (This finish allows the gel stains to coat the surface more evenly and is especially important on woods that don't take stain easily.) Sand lightly; wipe off excess dust with a tack cloth.
  6. Using the chip brushes, stain the front panel with HM and the body with CH; let dry.
  7. Measure 3-3/8-inch sections around the edge of the front panel and lightly draw diagonal lines with a pencil. (For larger or smaller diamond shapes, adjust your measurements.) Use the Dark Walnut stain marker and a ruler or straightedge to trace the lines and outer edge of the panel. Color in alternating diamonds with MA using the cotton rag to move and blend the color.
  8. Sand lightly and wipe with a tack cloth.
  9. Apply several coats of varnish or polyurethane to protect the finish. Allow to dry and then sand lightly between coats.
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This beautiful trunk features a crosshatch background design, simply drawn on and embellished with a detailed floral motif. Two shades of gel stain and a third shade, applied with a stain pen, create the simple but effective design on this trunk. The body of the trunk is stained chestnut, a beautiful complement to the red crosshatch pattern.

Spain centered the circle on the front of the medallion trunk, lightly outlined it with a pencil, and transferred the floral motif to the center. Next, the diamond-grid pattern was measured and marked, avoiding the center circle. The color was filled in using a stain pen.

Finally, the floral motif was colored using an artist's brush and two shades of stain, blending the colors with a stain pen. The routed edge of the center panel is stained red.

Gather Your Supplies

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  • Polyurethane
  • Brushes: 2-inch angled trim, two 2-inch chip, #4 round artist's
  • Fine-grit sandpaper, tack cloth
  • Minwax gel stains: Golden Oak (GO), Honey Maple (HM), Sedona Red (SR)
  • Ruler, compass, pencil
  • Transfer paper
  • Minwax Wood Finish stain markers: Dark Walnut and Early American
  • Minwax Wood Finish stain marker: Early American
  • Straightedge (optional)

Start to Finish

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  1. Start with an unfinished wood piece.
  2. Remove hardware and store it in a safe place.
  3. Work on a drop cloth or plastic to protect your floor and catch dust and drips.
  4. Sand and wipe with a tack cloth.
  5. Apply polyurethane to the entire trunk using the angled brush; let dry. Sand lightly; wipe off excess dust with a tack cloth.
  6. Stain entire trunk with HM using a chip brush; let dry.
  7. Measure to find the center of the front panel, and use a compass and pencil to lightly draw a circle that reaches the panel's top and bottom edges. Using transfer paper and the pattern from the pattern packet, trace the design in the center of the circle.
  8. Measure 3-3/8-inch sections around the edge of the panel and lightly draw diagonal lines with a pencil, avoiding the center circle. Using the Early American stain marker and a ruler or straightedge, trace the lines and outer edge of the panel and circles. Add small tick marks in the corners of the diamonds where the lines cross. Trace over the pattern lines and color in the background of the design with the Dark Walnut stain marker. Apply two or three coats to make it solid.
  9. With an artist's brush and GO, fill in the flower petals. Add shadowed edges to the stems and leaves with the Early American stain marker; let dry. Stain the lower edges of the petals with SR to accent the flowers. Also apply SR to the outer edge of the panel and around the center circle. Use a cotton rag to move and blend the color.
  10. Sand lightly and wipe with a tack cloth.
  11. Apply several coats of varnish or polyurethane to protect the finish. Allow to dry and then sand lightly between coats.

Designer and painter: Molly Spain  

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