Introduction: Marquetry Instrument Case
There is a long history between marquetry and music. So when you need a case for an instrument, marquetry could be a good way to dress it up. What’s great about marquetry is that it requires relatively few tools and can make a simple plywood box look like a work of art.
In this tutorial, I’ll show the steps I used to make a music-themed case for a small keyboard but you can use these same steps for virtually anything. Although I've built a custom box that fit my keyboard exactly, this process can work for pre-built boxes as well, as long as it has raw wood and the corners haven’t been rounded.
Materials for the box:
- ⅜” plywood or mdf (for the box)
Materials for the marquetry/veneers:
- Veneers.You’ll want the kind without glue applied. Occasionally, you can find them at hardware stores but if not, you can buy veneers at places like Rockler or online via shops that specialize in veneers.
- ⅛” plywood or mdf (for the marquetry substrate)
- Hardwood edge trim (⅛” thick)
- Wood glue
- Foam padding (½” thick works well)
- Sandpaper (60, 150, 220 and 330 grits)
- Painter’s tape
- Hardware: Hinges, Clasps, Handle, Rubber feet if desired
- Clamps (as many as you have but probably four at a minimum)
- Exacto knife with a few extra blades
- Box knife
- Metal ruler
- Sharp chisel
- Table saw (if you’re making your own box)
Step 1: Building the Box
The box we use doesn’t need any fancy joinery or even to look all that great since it will end up getting covered in veneers...simple butt cuts or rabbets will do the trick. The butt-joint box Adam Savage makes in this video is a design that’s fairly easy to build and will work well for marquetry. The only step you do NOT want to follow in his tutorial is the rounding of the edges at the end. We want nice crisp edges to our box since attaching veneers to rounded corners is much more difficult.
I prefer to build my boxes out of craft plywood that I get at the art store.They have a nice smooth finish, and the ⅜” thickness keeps the case from becoming too heavy. Plywood from a hardware store will work as well as long as you avoid the really low-grade roofing stuff.
When making your box there’s a few important things to keep in mind:
- Work out your dimensions carefully. You’ll want to base your box on the instrument's dimensions as closely as possible. Make sure that you take into account the thickness of any foam or padding you might use as well as the thickness of the plywood. Also include space for knobs/buttons that might sit proud of the keyboard as you’ll need to add a bit of extra room for those. You’ll want the internal dimensions of the box to have a decently high tolerance so that the instrument doesn’t rattle around inside the box.
- Avoid rounding the corners. Again, this makes things difficult, so don't knock back any sharp corners.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Since most of the box gets covered with veneers, you don’t need to worry about cosmetic things like blemishes, knots, edge grain showing, etc. There’s also a fair amount of leeway with the joints. Gaps or overlaps of 1/16” aren’t necessarily a problem...they could be filled with glue, filler or sanded back.
Step 2: Design and Planning
Once you have a box, you’ll know the exact physical dimensions you’re working with and can begin planning your design. Since the case is holding a musical instrument, I made a design based on a musical staff, but you can use whatever design you like. If you’re new to marquetry, I’d recommend a very simple design...a few larger shapes, straight edges, minimal amount of overlapping complex shapes.
I’ve found that one big determining factor in the design is the veneers I have on hand. I look at the types of wood I might want to use and make sure that I have enough to cover the entire surface and that the woods look good together. When selecting your wood, keep in mind that some hardwood veneers look beautiful but fray or break easily. Veneers like maple and walnut are easier to work with.
You should also decide if you will do designs on all of the sides. For this box, with the veneers I had on hand, I decided to do a marquetry panel on the top only and plain veneers on the sides and bottom.
Once you know the size your marquetry panel needs to be, draw it up at 1:1 scale on graph paper. If you don’t have paper large enough, tape two pieces together. After creating the drawing, cut it out to size and test it’s placement on the box.
We’re going to be doing all of our cutting on the backside of the panel, so putting it on tracing paper allows us to reverse the drawing (plus it doesn't ruin your original drawing in case you want to preserve it for posterity). Transfer the drawing in pen to a piece of tracing paper. Make sure to include marks that indicate where the edge of the marquetry panel is to be as well as the outer edge of the box.
Step 3: Veneering the Base
Before getting into doing the marquetry on the top of the lid, it’s a good idea to do all the other veneering first on the sides and bottom of the box. Before starting, make sure you have a clamping board that is just a piece of scrap plywood or board that is wide/long enough to cover the full surface of the box you are veneering. On one side of the clamping board, completely cover it with blue painter’s tape. This will prevent it from fusing to the work piece if glue leaks through.
To veneer each side:
- Cut the veneer for a side, making sure that it’s larger all the way around than the side you’re gluing it to. You should aim for at least ¼” overhang on all four sides.
- Apply glue liberally to the side of the box you are going to veneer. Spread it to cover every bit of the surface, especially in the corners.
- Carefully place the veneer on the glued surface. Double check the orientation of the grain and make sure it overhangs the box on all four sides.
- Carefully place the clamping board on top of the veneer and avoid shifting the veneer on the surface.
- Apply clamps and weights (a lot) to clamp the box to the clamping board. Place them in such a way as to apply pressure evenly over the entire surface, paying special attention to the corners and edges. Watch that you don't shift the veneer while clamping.
- Let dry at least a couple hours.
- Remove clamps and clamping board
- Use a sharp chisel along the overhanging veneer (perpendicular to the veneer) to remove the overhanging veneer. Be careful of tearouts at the corners.
- Repeat on next side until entire base is veneered.
It might be tempting to try and glue the veneers on opposite sides of the box at the same time, but this makes it more likely to slip. I usually glue on one veneer on one side, trim the edges, then go on to the next one.
Veneering the base of the box is a great warm up. It lets you work out your process before investing too much time and energy into a complex section like the marquetry panel.
Step 4: Cutting the Field
In marquetry, the “field” refers to the main background veneer that you will cut your design into. The first thing you’ll need to do is cut a large piece of veneer for the background field that is about ¼” larger than the final size of your panel drawing (we’ll trim it down later). For long straight cuts like this, I find it’s best to cut it with a metal ruler and a small utility knife. Use light strokes at first to avoid the blade coming off of the ruler. When cutting across the grain, be especially careful at the end of the cut to avoid tear-outs.
The most efficient way of working is to make your cuts on the side of the veneer that will ultimately get glued to the box and then hold the cut veneers in place with tape on the opposite side. In order to do this, we’ll need to reverse the drawing using our tracing paper.
To do this, take the copy of the drawing you made on the tracing paper and rub a pencil over the parts of the drawing on the front of the drawing. Then flip the drawing over and line it up with your field veneer and trace over your drawing with a ballpoint pen. (Make sure you’re paying attention to where the edges of your marquetry panel need to go relative to the edge of the box). Lift up the tracing paper and the drawing should now be transferred onto your field but in reverse. It’s handy to tape down the drawing while transferring it to help prevent slipping.
Step 5: Cutting the Lines
Often the field is just a solid piece of veneer, but in this case I thought it made sense to cut the lines of the musical staff into the field first, then do a second round where I cut the other musical symbols into that.
For this pattern, I used a method of cutting called the “window” method. The basic process goes like this:
- Cut out the pattern for a piece from the field.
- Line up the wood for the foreground piece behind the opening you just cut in the field and secure it with tape.
- Cut out the foreground piece through the “window” left from your previous cut, using the opening as a kind of stencil and guide for your blade.
- Remove the foreground waste and seat the foreground into the field.
- Secure the new piece on the back with painter’s tape.
For my design, I knew that the lines of the musical staff needed to be very precise and straight because any crookedness would be highlighted once it was mounted to the box. So, I took a lot of care, making sure that when I cut the lines I made them straight and parallel. To cut them out of the field, I used a metal ruler and a small utility knife. Since I was only cutting the lines and not the other musical symbols, I could use the place where the symbols would be to hide the seams in the lines as needed.
When doing the window cuts its helpful to keep in mind the following:
- Cut lightly. Since the veneers are so thin, it’s tempting to try and cut all the way through in one shot but it’s better to cut in several light strokes. This gives you more control of the cut.
- Keep in mind the grain direction while cutting. The grain angle can affect how your blade moves through the wood. When the grain runs more or less parallel with your cut, it can have a tendency to pull your blade away from the edge of the window which could leave you with gaps. Cutting across the grain can cause tearouts. So be extra careful in these situations too.
- Keep your knife vertical while cutting. This will help prevent gaps.
- Use a sharp blade / change blades often. The wood is pretty hard on exacto blades and they’ll go dull quickly. You’ll want to change them when you feel like you’re having to put a lot of pressure on the knife, you’re getting a lot of tearing, or if you’re getting ready to do an area of the pattern that is delicate or very fine-lined. For reference, I went through about four or five of them cutting this pattern.
Step 6: Cutting the Foreground Symbols
After cutting the lines out, we’re ready to cut out the other musical symbols from that. Since most of these symbols have a more rounded and complicated shape it’s best to switch to using an Exacto knife for those cuts.
Just as with the lines, I used the window method to cut out the symbols from the field with the lines. It’s best to cut and place each symbol one at a time. If you try to cut them all at once the field can get very weak and fall apart on you. As you place each piece hold it in place with a lot of tape on the back.
When you’ve cut all the symbols out, you should end up with the side that will be glued (the reversed side) completely free of tape, while the face that will face outward will have a lot of tape on it. This tape will hold it together until we can glue the panel on the box.
Step 7: Cutting the Trim
One important consideration for a marquetry panel is how you will treat the edges. One option is to simply run the marquetry panel all the way to the edge of the box. Another is to use some sort of thicker wood to use as trim for the edges. Because the trim is typically much thicker than the veneers, you need to either route out a rabbet around the four sides of the lid or else raise up the veneers with an additional substrate until it's about as thick as the trim. For my case, I chose the latter.
For the trim around the marquetry panel, it’s best to use some sort of hardwood. This will make it more durable and ding resistant. For my box I used an ⅛” thick wenge board that I bought at a yard sale. I ripped it down to ½” strips on the table saw. I then did miter cuts to cut them to size so that I had trim all the way around the top of the lid.
Step 8: Making the Substrate
(If you're not using trim you can skip this section).
Because we’re using ⅛” trim around the marquetry panel, we need to raise the panel so it sits flush with the top of the trim. To do this, we’ll cut a piece of ⅛” thick plywood that serves as a substrate under our marquetry panel. It’s important to do a test fit of the trim piece against the substrate/panel pieces. They should be exactly the same height when placed next to each other. If there is any difference in height, you’ll want the trim to be slightly higher. This is because you can sand down the trim to be flush with the top of the marquetry panel, but you can’t sand the marquetry panel more than a few thousands of an inch without sanding through it.
The substrate’s outer dimensions should be the size of the box minus the width of the trim pieces.
After cutting it, make sure the edges of the substrate are relatively smooth and straight. I did this by running them over some sandpaper glued to a board.
Then it’s worth doing a test fit onto the box lid with the edge trim to make sure everything fits well. While you have it on, trace around the inside edge of the trim to indicate where the inner edge of the trim will be...we’ll need to reference this later. Next, tape the edge trim to the box and then drop the substrate into it to test it, sand as needed, and retest until it fits tightly. If your substrate ends up being a bit small, it’s not the end of the world, you can probably get away with small gaps and fill them later.
Step 9: First Glue-up: Panel to Substrate
(If you're not using trim you can skip this section too).
Ok, now the stressful part begins where you hope you don’t mess up all your hard work. The first glue-up is to glue the marquetry panel to the substrate. At this point your marquetry panel should be about a ¼” larger than the substrate. The various parts of the marquetry panel should also have been taped on the side that will ultimately be facing outwards and the side we are gluing should be free of tape, splinters, and debris.
Be sure you have everything you need to do the glue-up at hand so you’re not having to go find something while the glue is rapidly drying. I always have:
- Wood glue
- Two large wood sheets to use a clamping sheet, large enough to cover the entire panel covered with blue painter’s tape on one side of each board. (We will be clamping the panel between them and the tape helps prevent fusing these boards with our work pieces.)
- Lots of clamps. Everything you’ve got.
- Weights. I use weights from a barbell set to add additional pressure over the length of my panels, but it could really be anything. (In my video you can even see I throw my tape dispenser on there because every little bit of weight helps).
- Painter’s tape. This can be handy to hold the pieces together in place while you clamp to keep them from drifting.
Take one of your plywood clamping sheets and set it on your table with the painter’s tape facing up. Then set the substrate on top of it.
Apply glue liberally to one side of the substrate panel, then spread it out with a spatula, squeegee, or roller. You want to make sure that you’re getting all the way to the edge and covering every part of the surface.
Next, place the marquetry panel onto the glued surface, with the non-taped side towards the substrate. Remember that your marquetry panel is about a ¼” bigger than the substrate so it should hang out equally over the edges. Then carefully hold the substrate and the marquetry panel and flip them over so the marquetry panel is on the bottom. This way you can more easily judge how your marquetry panel overhangs the substrate. Because of the large glue surface the panel can easily shift around on the substrate when you start clamping, so I like to add a few pieces of tape around the edges to help fix the marquetry panel’s position on the substrate at this point.
After you’re happy with how the marquetry panel and the substrate are aligned, carefully place the second clamping sheet on top of the panels with the taped side facing down.
Then start clamping together the two sheets. While adding the clamps, be very careful not to slide the clamping sheets or panel off alignment, especially while applying the first few clamps. Distribute the clamps evenly around the boards, making sure to have clamps that apply pressure to the edges and corners of the panel as well as the center. You can also place weights across the surface to help distribute pressure.
Let the glue dry for at least a couple of hours (although I usually let it sit overnight).
After the panel is dry, trim off any excess veneers around the edges so that it is flush with the edge of the substrate.
Step 10: Second Glue-up: Substrate to Box
After the glue has dried overnight from the first clue-up, you should be able to remove all the blue tape that was holding it together and get your first view of what the marquetry looks like all put together.
Next we need to glue the substrate/marquetry panel to the box lid. This is perhaps the trickier glue-up because it floats in the center of the lid inside where the edge trim will go and we don’t want it to shift around.
Before applying the glue, make sure you have your clamping boards, clamps, weights, and painter’s tape ready to go. Also in this case, since we are gluing onto the lid which is hollow underneath, I like to cut a few small pieces of scrap wood to fit on the inside of the lid while clamping in order to help provide pressure in the center from underneath.
Apply glue to the back of the substrate with a roller or spatula and lay it onto the lid with the marquetry panel (which is covered with tape) facing up. Center it using the lines you marked earlier for where the inner edge of the edge trim will lie. Use painter’s tape at various places around the outside to help hold it in place.
Place the lid on top of one clamping board, then add the other clamping board on top. Then apply your clamps and weights. During all of this you need to be VERY careful that you don’t shift the panel on the lid. There’s no easy way to fix that if it dries that way.
Let dry and then remove the clamps and tape and verify the panel is lined up properly.
Step 11: Glue on Trim
Gluing up the trim is pretty straightforward. Apply glue to the back of each piece of trim, spread it around with your finger and place the trim on the lid around the panel. I like to hold them in place with...you guessed it...more painter’s tape. Place the lid between two clamping boards, clamp, weight, and let sit overnight.
Step 12: Clean-up, Sanding, Finishing
No matter how precise you try to be, there will always be a few gaps or issues in the marquetry panel. For small gaps adding a bit of wood filler that matches the veneer color can help. If a piece has come loose or torn out, you can cut the bad piece out with an Exacto blade, scrape out any dried glue, and fit/glue a new piece in. This happened on mine with some of the thin lines of wood around the edge of my marquetry panel (you can see me fixing them in the video).
If the edge trim overhangs the sides at all, or is thicker than the marquetry/substrate portion, sand them so they sit flush with the veneers.
Next, everything needs to be sanded smooth. I start with 150 grit (I wouldn’t go any coarser than that for veneers) on an orbital sander. You probably only want to do one or two passes with the sander at most because it’s surprisingly easy to sand through the veneers, then switch to hand sanding with a block. Use a light touch. Visually check your progress all the time and also run your hand over the panel to make sure you don’t feel any bumps. If there is any glue that seeped through the joints and is being difficult to remove, try scraping it with an Exacto chisel-shaped blade rather than trying to remove it with a sander. In general avoid aggressive sanding with veneers.
After everything is smooth, switch to a 220 grit sandpaper on a hand-sanding block and go over everything again enough to smooth it out.
After sanding, clean the surface well with a rag. I also like to vacuum it, and then wipe it down with mineral spirits and let it dry for a few hours.
Since this was meant to be a case that might get some abuse, I opted for a water-based polyurethane finish. I put on four coats in total and did a very light sanding in between coats with 220-grit sandpaper. This allows the particles of polyurethane to fill in any small gaps in the marquetry that might still be there and brings the final finish up to a nice smooth surface.
Step 13: Hardware
Tape the box shut with painter’s tape and attach two hinges to the back edge of the lid. Make sure they’re equally spaced from either side and that the center pin is running perfectly parallel with the seam between the lid and the base.
For the latches, I used two loop clasps. For these, you can position them so that the loop and catch are together in their closed position and situate them where you want them on the box. Then mark and center punch the holes, pre-drill and attach them with screws.
Although not shown in the video, I also ended up adding a carrying handle and small rubber feet for the bottom to make it easier to stand on its edge.
Step 14: Interior
The last thing to do is to cut the foam to its final size. It might be tempting to add foam around the entire interior but that can make it difficult to remove the keyboard. For the bottom I put foam across the entire box of the box, but on the sides, I only added padding in the corners. On the top, I only added a bit of padding on the left and right where the buttons and knobs sit.
Once you’ve got all the pieces done, glue them into place with a hot glue gun.
After that you’re ready to take your instrument on the road.
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