Innovations in Marquetry

Traditional woodworking techniques are matched with a Cubist style and vivid colors in William Tunberg’s art.

By Sam Gazdziak

William Tunberg

Venice, CA

Year Founded: 1982

Employees: 1 part-time, in addition to Tunberg

Shop Size: 1,800 square feet

FYI: Tunberg received an MFA in sculpture from the University of Southern California in 1966. His pieces have been shown in numerous art exhibitions across the country.


In William Tunberg’s artwork, storybook images exists peacefully right next to dragons and tikis. Nautical symbols, musical notes and botanical imagery can also be included for good measure. Those shapes and many more are used to create unique pieces of sculpture and furniture that combine traditional marquetry with abstract art.

“I find that as beautiful as traditional marquetry is, repetitive viewing of motionless scenes makes it static,” says Tunberg, who lives in Venice, CA, and works in his 1,800-square-foot studio. “I wanted to make my marquetry vibrant with movement, so that every time the piece is seen, the viewer discovers something new.

“I am attracted to marquetry because it is the most difficult of all woodworking techniques,” he continues. “I think it has the greatest possibility of bridging the gap between craft and fine arts. Marquetry has never been used in contemporary sculpture before, and developing techniques for the use of marquetry in this fashion has been challenging and personally fulfilling to me as a fine artist.”

Tunberg’s marquetry sculpture has been shown at galleries across the country, and he has also made commissioned pieces for companies like General Dynamics. In addition to art, about 25 percent of his work comes from commissioned residential furniture pieces.

Nebuchadnezzar Meets the Tikis

Tunberg’s sculptures always start with a three-dimensional form. The form’s shape may suggest a theme or an idea that Tunberg will embellish with his marquetry. When the form is done, he turns to the marquetry patterns.

These four pieces make up “Midnight Sun,” a 21-foot long mural that was commissioned by General Dynamics. It has a nautical theme and includes fish, anchors and ships’ wheels, as well as a totem.    

Tunberg uses about 50 different designs, adding new ones all the time. He uses many musical and floral patterns. He also works with mythological symbols and even the eagle’s wings which symbolized part of the Babylonian culture under King Nebuchadnezzar. He also utilizes Hawaiian imagery that was originated in the 1950s by Alfred Shaheen, his wife’s father.

“Whether I go with acanthus leaves, Little Red Riding Hood, an anchor or a sextant, it becomes my base pattern,” Tunberg says. All of the patterns are stored on a computer, so he can manipulate them in Adobe Illustrator, print them out and use them as cutting patterns. He says that the computer is a far cry from what marquetry artisans used hundreds of years ago, but it has been a useful addition to his work. “I just know from reading that the old masters would do anything to find a more efficient way of working,” he says.

When Tunberg cuts the patterns, he uses a mix of natural exotic veneers from Certainly Wood and dyed woods from Herzog Veneers. When the patterns are first made, they are easily recognizable and identifiable. What happens next makes Tunberg stand out in the marquetry field.

William Tunberg entitled this piece “Dragon” and used dragon and ship’s wheel patterns in it. He says the piece reminds him of childhood fears about dragons. The sculpture measures 38 inches by 38 inches by 7 inches.  

After creating a small stack of similar patterns, Tunberg will cut out a different pattern on top of them. For example, he will cut out an anchor over a stack of dragons. Then he takes all the pieces and reassembles them, creating a slightly abstract image that now has characteristics of two patterns. He will do this three or four times on a pattern, so it becomes a mix of colors and abstract shapes. At this point, he says, “all shapes cease to be literal.”

When he first started working with marquetry, Tunberg made some pieces that were very traditional-looking. “Then I started to see the possibilities of approaching it more like a Cubist.” he says. “I noticed that by overlaying imagery as I was cutting, the marquetry became much more vibrant, especially using dyed veneers with complementary colors, like red against green and violet against yellow.

“I am not interested in duplicating beautiful traditional marquetry,” he explains. “I love the techniques and I love what the masters did, but I don’t feel that marquetry is used to its fullest potential.”

On his commissioned sculptures and furniture pieces, Tunberg sometimes uses patterns that relate to his clients. He built one gun cabinet that was bubinga with cherry inset for a doctor who was passionate about hunting. The panels on the inside and sides feature marquetry with abstract animal forms. When he works on commissioned pieces, Tunberg says he tries to make the patterns more recognizable, so the piece will mean more to his client. An ark he built for a California synagogue features Tunberg’s abstracted marquetry style, while a representational menorah and some lines of Hebrew scripture are clearly visible.

One of his largest pieces was commissioned by General Dynamics. Entitled “Midnight Sun,” the 21-foot-long piece, created in four panels, is made of fiddleback sycamore and features a light blue ash veneer. It is in the main hall of a 900-foot-long orca-class ice cutter that sails between Seattle, WA, and Anchorage, AK.

“General Dynamics was terrific,” Tunberg says. “I asked if they wanted to include images that were representative of their company, and they said, ‘Do what you think is best.’ They didn’t want to interfere with my creative process.”

Tunberg ended up using several nautical-related images, including a ship’s wheel, anchors and fish. Tying in the company’s relation to Alaska, he also researched totems and included a totem in the piece. That piece was such a success, he is building another for the company.

Looking Past the Veneers

Behind the abstract images and bursts of color are well-built sculptural forms and furniture. Tunberg learned his furnituremaking techniques from working for the late assemblage artist Edward Kienholtz in the 1960s. When Tunberg moved to California in the early ‘80s, he began making furniture for clients.

“Functional things are difficult for me to make,” he explains. “I am sculpturally oriented, and combining function with my sense of aesthetic is difficult.”

The furniture pieces are made from a variety of wood species. Tunberg once built a chair from cocobolo after designer Sam Maloof told him it was the most difficult wood species to work with. All of the art pieces are made from birch plywood with an MDF overlay.

The forms are cut out using a Agazini bandsaw and SCMI table saw. The backs of the forms are strengthened with blocks, and Tunberg uses Titebond hot urethane glue to quickly glue them into place, rather than using a complicated clamping system.

About 25 percent of William Tunberg’s work is furniture, with the rest being sculpture. This gun cabinet was commissioned by a client who liked animals, so Tunberg included several animal forms in his marquetry.  

All of the pieces are placed in a VacuPress from Vacuum Pressing Systems. The forms are hollow, and to ensure that they will keep their shape in the press, Tunberg uses an 11-pound urethane foam to fill in the back; this process also keeps the forms light enough to pick up. He also uses a bladder with the vacuum press for some complicated forms. The bladder fills with air as the press works, so it takes the reverse shape of the object in the press. “Before I had the bladder, I constructed really sturdy forms to bend things. The bladder saved me a tremendous amount of time,” Tunberg says.

Most of the veneer cutting is done with scalpels or sharp chisels. All the pieces are taped together from the front, so Tunberg is able to fill in from the back if necessary. If there are any tears in the veneer pieces, he uses a combination of colored wood dust and white glue to form a paste that he can put in the hole.

After the marquetry has been glued onto the form, Tunberg uses a Bosch random-orbital sander and 3M Gold automotive discs to remove the tape. He uses precatalyzed lacquer from M.L. Campbell to finish the piece.

Thanks to his experience and some time-saving techniques he has developed, Tunberg is able to complete a piece in about a month. The 21-foot General Dynamics piece took two months to complete. Prices for his work can range from $500 for the smallest pieces up to $22,000 for the largest.

Tunberg has one part-time employee who helps with the sanding and filling. “I have arthritis and a mechanical shoulder, and having someone assist with the work that requires repetitive movements helps keep the pain at a minimum,” he says. Tunberg still does the cutting and assembling of the marquetry, which he says gives him the most pleasure.

For other artists who would like to get involved in marquetry, Tunberg recommends a book by Pierre Ramond entitled, Marquetry. But the most important thing to do is start drawing, he adds. “I believe the most important aspect of what I do is my love of drawing. The act of translating a three-dimensional form to paper is the ultimate discipline. In my student years, I devoted as much time as I could to the drawing studio.

“I’m self taught as a woodworker, and I feel my ability to translate concept to reality is a direct result of the skill I acquired from learning to draw the human form. You can figure anything out if you can draw it.”

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