For artisan Craig Altobello of Peterborough, New Hampshire, marquetry, the art of assembling thin slices of wood to form an image, is an act of perfection and serendipity. His perfectionist tendencies propel him toward combing through numerous bins of hundreds of color-organized wood slices to find that piece. That’s where serendipity — finding the perfect slice — intersects with skill.
The art of marquetry is not new, but it is rare. In the 16th century, Italian craftsmen began using marquetry on furniture — a stunning touch of decorative art emphasizing the beauty of wood. Today, many centuries later, Altobello marries his love of nature and wood in a contemporary version of marquetry. A longtime resident of the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, Altobello is fond of long walks in the woods and hikes in the mountains to appreciate the trees, wildlife and nature along the way.
Beauty beneath the bark, he calls it. Altobello, a member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, marvels at the range of color and texture in wood, even within the same species. Sycamore can look like the feathers of a bird. The swirling patterns of the sweet gum can suggest clouds. He searches for just the right wood to capture the essence of the piece he’s working on. He uses a band saw which accommodates extremely precise one-sixteenth-inch-thick cuts. He uses woods from New Hampshire trees, responsibly cut woods from distant places, scraps from other woodworkers and lumber-milled wood from storm-damaged trees.
His sketchbook drawings are the impetus from which he transfers the design to the wood background panel. With a scroll saw set at an angle, the resulting inlay piece and the background panel have beveled edges that fit perfectly together. The pieces will ultimately be glued to a layer of plywood and a backing of hardwood and finished with shellac he mixes himself in small batches. A final coat of beeswax completes the work.
They are creations so exquisite it makes you want to cry. For example, “Great Blue Heron” has the bird artfully enter from the right side of the piece. It’s a partial representation of the bird — much more creative than a diminutive bird plunked in the middle of the scene. And then Altobello “paints.” Well, sans a paint brush, nevertheless, he lays in the colors and textures — with wood! The blue hue that the bird displays for feathers is that color naturally due to a fungus caused by pine-bark beetles. Additionally, holly, ebony, yellow heart, black walnut and big leaf maple fill in the wispy feathers, signature black head plumage and golden-toned beak. Magnificent.