Catching Up With Judy Gale Roberts

The intarsia master talks tools, wood, and new books

by Mindy Kinsey

“I am always thinking about the person who buys my pattern; I want them to have the best intarsia experience possible.” -Judy Gale Roberts

Editor’s Note: Judy Gale Roberts is the mother of American intarsia. An artist since her childhood, Judy and her father created large, dimensional “wood murals” during the 1970s, and then she and Jerry Booher scaled down the idea and introduced varying wood colors and grain patterns during the ’80s to create the artwork we call intarsia. Judy’s first book on the subject, Easy to Make Inlay Wood Projects, published in 1994, was also one of Fox Chapel Publishing’s first woodworking books. Fox recently published revised editions of two of Judy’s later books, Wildlife Intarsia Woodworking and Intarsia Workbook. It was a great excuse to chat with Judy about intarsia and the changes in the scrolling world over the years.

What Is Intarsia?

Intarsia is an ancient art similar to mosaic. Flat pieced-wood pictures were made by cultures ranging from Egypt to Japan and all over Europe; the best historic examples date from 13th century Italy. Modern intarsia specifically requires several types of wood to be cut and pieced together to form an image and then shaped to be dimensional. Most intarsia is made from naturally colored wood, although some artists use dye or paint to achieve hard-to-find colors, like true blue.

Q: Let’s start with the books. So many artists keep their techniques secret. Why did you decide to write books and share your ideas?

A: Before the first publication about intarsia, I had a choice to make. Do I want to focus my career toward creating works of art using wood as my medium, which also meant keeping the techniques I had learned to myself, or do I want to share my knowledge and open the door so others could enjoy intarsia? I knew I would not have time to do both. Obviously I chose the latter. Since the publication of the first book, Easy to Make Inlay Wood Projects, the techniques have changed quite a bit, thanks to everyone for sharing their ideas and experiences. I am so grateful I chose to open the door, I’ve received so many letters, e-mails, and phone calls from around the world sharing their photos and experiences.

Q: How has the intarsia world changed since you published that first book with Fox in 1994?

A: You could say that the first how-to intarsia book cemented intarsia into the woodworking world. Intarsia gave the scroll saw a new and exciting purpose, and it has inspired people to try woodworking for the first time. This, in turn, opened the door for intarsia-related tools, like the Flex Drum Sander, and increased scroll saw sales. Years ago if you searched “intarsia wood” on the internet, it may have come up with some close matches but no real hits. Now wood suppliers have “intarsia wood” in their menus.

Q: In the first editions of your books, you said that Western red cedar was your favorite wood for intarsia. Is that still true? Why? What else do you use?

A: Western red cedar is still my go-to wood for most of my work. It’s hard to beat with all the colors and grain patterns. However, I have been using more varieties of wood lately; it’s fun to experiment with different grains and colors. I like spalted wood, like maple and hackberry, because the colors and irregular grain patterns add an extra element to intarsia pieces. (Find Judy’s “Crescent Moon” pattern, which features spalted wood, in the Summer 2018 issue of Scroll Saw Woodworking and Crafts, or on Judy’s website.) Colored wood is great, too; however almost all red-colored wood (red heart, padauk, bloodwood) changes to brown rather quickly. I use basswood for people, because it keeps a flesh tone color for a long time.

Q: What are your favorite tools these days? Have any new ones come out that you especially like or that have changed the way you work?

A: I have a variety of saws in the classroom. The newest is the Seyco saw, which is a very smooth-running saw. I like the large-sized table and how easy it is to change the blades. I still like my inflatable sanders, from the large 8” diameter to the 1” diameter on the Foredom variable-speed lathe. The small sander is great for all those little details. Flex Drum Sanders have their place, too; using the edge of the sander I can carve out areas and sand one side without touching the other. For example, the edge of the sander works great following a cut line between fingers.

Q: What about saw blades?

A: Ahh, scroll saw blades, we all gotta have them. We have a new OnLine brand blade, the Platinum Plus, that I like very much. It cuts the hardwoods with a nice smooth cut. Every third tooth is reversed, which helps it move through the piece of wood. I also like the Gold and the Platinum blades, and other people really like the Titanium blades (our most aggressive blade). All in all, you need to have a variety. One style of blade will not work for all wood, even within the same species. Trees grown in different regions or environments can change the density of the wood. Fortunately for me, I have a “store” in the next room. I try out the blade on some scrap wood before cutting the parts to make sure the blade is cutting square and I can control it.

Q: The new books contain about a dozen designs each, but you have created so many more. How many patterns do you have available now?

A: I have around 450 individual patterns. I could have more, but I make each project to ensure the best quality pattern. After making one, many times I eliminate parts or simplify the lines to make fitting the parts together easier. Believe it or not, I am always thinking about the person who buys my pattern; I want them to have the best intarsia experience possible. There are so many things that can go wrong, and I don’t want my pattern to be part of the problem.

Q: Tell me about the classes that you teach at your studio in Tennessee. What does a day in class look like?

A: One of the best feelings is the camaraderie everyone develops during a class. Intarsia is still relatively unknown, so it’s a real treat to have nine people in the same room all doing what we love. We start every class with introductions, and then we talk about what we’re going to do. The beginner class students have the option to take a half-day scroll sawing class on Tuesdays. On their first day, Wednesday, we get the project cut out. On Thursday, we get most of the contouring/shaping done, and on Friday we add all of the details and go through the finishing process with the project I’m working on. The intermediate and advanced students cut the project out at home, which gives us three solid days to concentrate on shaping/contouring the project. Those projects have more details, like texturing and working with multiple raising shims. Abe Lincoln and the Cowboy were advanced class projects.

[Note: Wondering what it’s like to take a class with Judy? Check out Misty Valestin’s report on her experience.]

Q: How else do you keep in touch with intarsia fans?

A: When we first started in 1988, we relied on the mail. The first “Intarsia Times” newsletter was four pages that we folded and mailed; it had 15 patterns available. I still publish the “Intarsia Times,” although it is more of a catalog now, with so many patterns available. I think people enjoy having the newsletter in their hands to look at rather than relying on the internet. However the internet has made it much easier to keep up with everyone—Facebook, e-mails, and my website, intarsia.com, make sharing ideas much easier. I send e-mails about once a month with our “pattern of the month sale” and any other late breaking news about upcoming shows, classes, and intarsia-related news.






Contact Judy Gale Roberts at www.intarsia.com or call 1-800-316-9010 (M-F 8:30am to 5pm EST).






Get Judy’s “Crescent Moon” pattern and so much more in the Summer 2018 issue of Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts magazine. Available April 17, 2018. To preorder, call 1-800-457-9112.