Marquetry Made Simple

Achieve the look of expensive wood inlays with a clever combination of stains and paints.
Close-up of painted half round table

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.

Wood Finish stain markers

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."

Close-up of stains from Wook Finish markers

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.

Painted medallion on trunk Medallion trunk detail

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

Wood painted trunks Top: Medallion Trunk
Bottom: Simple Trunk

  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.

Continued on page 2:  Bombe Chest