OAK HILL, W.Va. (AP – story was written by John McCoy, a reporter at the Charleston Gazette-Mail) — Sara Persinger never used a saw until she was 47 years old. Now she spends hours every week standing next to a scroll saw, making intricate cuts in pieces of hardwood.
Persinger is an intarsia artist. She makes pictures from wood.
“I didn’t even know what intarsia was until I saw a picture of it on my computer,” she said. “Once I saw it, I wanted to do it. I asked my husband to get me a scroll saw for Christmas. I bought a DVD to learn the basics, and I watched the DVD while I did my first intarsia piece.”
Intarsia is one of two disciplines used for making pictures from wood. The other, marquetry, uses thin pieces of veneer cut and pieced together to create a flat image. Intarsia uses much thicker wood, shaped and pieced together in a manner that creates a three–dimensional effect.
Intarsia artists work from patterns drawn or printed onto paper, then glued to the wood to act as cutting guides. When Persinger was a beginner at the pastime, she purchased her patterns. Now she designs and draws her own.
“Doing my own patterns gives me more leeway,” she said. “Anything I can visualize, I can do.”
Most of her creations focus on wildlife, from songbirds and wild turkeys to deer and elk. She also does Appalachian landscapes as well as whimsical scenes.
“I do the nonwildlife pieces because I have customers who want something to hang in their kitchens,” she said.
The process begins with a drawing. In her mind’s eye, Persinger visualizes how different wood tones and grains could be pieced together to create the effect she wants. From that, she creates a full–sized cutting pattern for the woods she plans to use.
“I have to make several copies of the pattern, one for each wood color or grain I plan to use,” she explained. “Once I have the patterns glued to the raw boards, I take the boards to the scroll saw and cut them out.”
She cuts the wood slowly, making sure to keep the saw’s thin blade centered in the pattern’s lines.
“I use a huge magnifier so I can cut right down the middle of the lines, because the cuts have to be perfect,” she said. “If they’re the least bit off, the pieces won’t fit together precisely and there will be gaps.”
The saw work sounds tedious, but Persinger considers it relaxing. “It’s my favorite part of the process,” she said.
After all the pieces are cut out, Persinger takes them over to her workshop’s drum sander and, after transferring the number on the pattern to the bottom of each piece, she sands off the paper.
“That part is really fun, because that’s when I discover what the grain and figure of the wood is going to look like,” she said. “I usually have a pretty good idea, but each piece of wood is different and there are always surprises. It’s like unwrapping a present to see what’s inside.”
While at the drum sander, she also rounds the pieces’edges to create a more three–dimensional effect.
“Let’s say I’m doing a landscape scene with a tree in it,”she said. “I can shape the tree so it stands out from the background.”
When Persinger finishes all her mechanical sanding, she still faces hours of hand sanding.
“After drum sanding, the edges of the pieces still look pretty sharp,” she explained. “Hand sanding eases the edges and gives the final piece a real finished look.”
Before she glues the pieces together, Persinger hand–rubs a coat of finish onto each one. After gluing, she applies two more coats of finish.
“That way, you don’t look down into the seams and see any unfinished work,” she said.
After two years spent learning the craft and refining her skills, Persinger began selling her works at shows. She calls her intarsia business Deepwater Mountain Designs, for the soaring ridge that rises next to the hollow where she lives.
“I’ve been selling my work for about 5 years,” she said. “I do 80 to 100 pieces a year. My husband and I go to about five shows a year, including Charleston’s FestivALL.”
Persinger doesn’t take commissions. Instead, she focuses her efforts on turning out pieces for shows.
It keeps her busy.
She gets up at 4:30 a.m. and heads off to her full–time job as an elementary–school cook.
“I get off from work at 1:30 p.m., and I’m usually home by 2,” she said. “I’m in the shop by 2:15. Later in the afternoon, I come in to cook supper, then go back out to the shop until about 8:00. On Saturdays, I still get up at 4:30, and I head straight to the shop.”
Persinger said that when she prices her works, she tries to make them affordable.
“I want them to be something I could go buy,” she said. “The owl I do takes about 14 hours. I charge $85 for it. The turkey takes close to 40 hours. It’s $240.”
Six dollars an hour isn’t a huge return for Persinger’s investment of time and effort, but she doesn’t mind.
“I want people to be able to afford these pieces,” she said, “and it’s something I really love to do.”