Course Review: The American School of French Marquetry

working on a chevalet

This article originally appeared in the newsletter for the Washington Woodworker’s GuildThe Wooden Word.

The American School of French Marquetry is located in San Diego, California and offers classes focusing in the traditional French 18th century marquetry technique as well as in the newest methods for contemporary designs. All students at the American School of French Marquetry are taught on the “chevalet de marqueterie” (Marquetry Easel for Painting in Wood), or cutting horse. It was the tool used by the Parisian “ébéniste” and “marqueteur” and was unique to the French trade, which was very secretive. The chevalet allows the worker to cut out very delicate patterns in exotic woods and other materials with a high degree of accuracy.

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The school is run by Patrick Edwards and Patrice Lejeune, who are both outstanding masters in marquetry. Patrick left his career in High Energy Physics in 1973 to repair and restore furniture in
his native San Diego. With his avowedly pre-industrial perspective he became involved in museum quality restorations early on working with J. Paul Getty Museum and others. There he met a French conservator who gave him hints of the depth of knowledge still available in France. Patrick became aware of the chevalet, a tool developed in Paris before 1780 that allows very controlled cutting of veneer. After years of learning from books, a contact at the Getty arranged for him to meet Dr. Pierre Ramond who, in addition to writing the seminal text “Marquetry”, Pierre was the chief marquetry instructor at the Ecole Boulle, the Harvard of French technical colleges. He invited Patrick to attend the school in 1992, which he did for a three month term. He was then invited back for the three subsequent years. In 2000, with Pierre’s blessing, he founded the American School of French Marquetry. The school teaches technique using Etudes (studies), the same approach as the Ecole Boulle.

Patrick’s partner in the business is Patrice Lejeune. Patrice has two degrees from the Ecole Boulle. His technical training is broad and very deep. Both of these men are extremely talented craftsmen, passionate about their work, and first rate teachers. They constantly disagree about details while being completely aligned on big picture views.

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Stage One: Boulle Work

This is also known as packet cutting, and is the basic way of making a marquetry picture. A stack of veneers is trapped between two thin backer boards. The pattern is glued to the front board. A hole is drilled in the packet, and the fretsaw blade inserted. The packet is cut into the constituent pieces, which are carefully organized. Some combination of pieces is inserted into each background piece, and multiple copies of the picture are produced.

Any marquetry teacher would teach you those things. What is unique about ASFM is that both of the instructors have made 6000 piece panels this way. There are tools, approaches and organizing techniques to make this happen.

About the Chevalet

The heart of the system is the Chevalet. It is a sophisticated hand-powered scroll saw. The jaw system allows you to hold the packet so that very small and complex pieces can be cut accurately without the veneer shattering. The precision possible is far beyond any scroll saw I have experienced. I now have about 40 hours of experience using the chevalet at the school, but have spent $700 on parts and plans to make my own. This tool is unique and I believe worth the floor space, time, and money to construct. At its heart this is a hand tool and requires dexterity and practice to master. Decent vision is also handy, though an Optivisor helps a lot.

Week one consists of three studies. The objectives are to practice using the chevalet and learn to deal with different tricky issues. Some drawing skills are also taught by Kristen, Patrick’s wife and a former art teacher. Keeping parts organized, fixing mistakes, assembly boards, mastic, glueups, hide glue technology, and pad polishing are also covered.

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Skill Level Required

This course is an amazing introduction to marquetry. If you were to take it without any background, you would know how to do basic marquetry (using a chevalet) at the end of the week. However, it is a much better class if you already know basic techniques. If you were to attend a Cordon Bleu cooking school with no background, you would learn to make an omelet. If you were already a reasonably accomplished cook, you could learn to make fabulous food. Patrick and Patrice can do either, so it’s up to you which you’d like to learn from them.

This class is taught in a very specific way for very specific reasons. The key impediment to this method is actually the chevalet itself. It is large and expensive. A scroll saw or a deep-throated fret saw is sufficient for simple marquetry of up to 200 pieces. A chevalet is more precise and opens up other possibilities, which you can best appreciate when you’ve done marquetry some other way. For real precision hand work, the chevalet is quite the tool. (Yes, a laser could do even better, but I don’t consider that relevant. I make things with a chevalet, I’m just feeding a machine with a laser.)

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Final thoughts:

ASFM teaches classes four times a year in two week chunks. Patrick also teaches for two weeks each year at Marc Adams’ school in Indianapolis. That is much closer to the East Coast, but San Diego in February is pretty nice. If the topic appeals to you this is the best training available in the US.

I would suggest that you read up and practice ahead of time so that you can learn at a higher level. To be honest, these guys are wasted teaching at this level, but there aren’t many other teachers prepping for them. They also exhibit no frustration at teaching basic material – their enthusiasm for their subject is genuine and deep. They do offer higher level classes to graduates of the initial two classes- there was one student there working at a much higher level than the rest of us.

We’ll be back next week with more on Dave’s 57 Chevalet and what he’s done with the instruction since leaving the school. – Jenn

Heller & Heller

Custom Furniture

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Heller & Heller

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Serving Virginia & Beyond