This type of woodworking is formally known as intarsia, which was popularized in Italy during the 15th century but has much older roots in traditional cultures where indigenous materials were used to make mosaic inlays and decorative patterns.
When making intarsia, great care is taken in selecting each piece of wood for its color and grain. (I have been known to spend hours looking for the "just right" piece of wood for a mural.)
The thickness of the wood is typically between 1/4" and 1" and can be varied within the mural to give the design an illusion of depth.
The curves and intricate shapes are cut using a scrollsaw or bandsaw. (I use both.)
Once cut, the pieces are adjusted so they fit tightly together then shaped one by one with inflatable sanding drums and carving tools to create a three-dimensional, sculpted appearance even though the back of the mural is flat.
"Ashaka and Kamok" mural before sanding and shaping.
"Ashaka and Kamok" mural after sanding and shaping. This photo shows the soft contours and varying thicknesses of the wood pieces.
After shaping, each piece is sanded several more times until smooth to the touch and then hand-finished with three coats of clear oil to produce a protective satin sheen that accentuates the natural beauty of the wood.
Finally, all of the pieces are assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle and carefully glued to a prepared backer board.
Because of the number of times every piece of wood is handled, creating even a simple intarsia is a labor-intensive process and more elaborate designs with hundreds of pieces can take over a hundred hours to complete.
The result of the high degree of care and craftsmanship which goes into making an intarsia is a stunning, one-of-a-kind work of art that will be appreciated for years and generations to come.
The wood in intarsia is usually not painted or stained. The colors come only from the natural tones found in the wide variety of wood species available from around the world.
You can see some of these naturally-occuring colors in this box of scraps given to me by a local luthier which includes maple, sapele, paduk, ebony, bloodwood, purpleheart, and yellowheart.