Traditional Arts of Iran: Inlaid Work
A book by Amir Kabir Publications
1989, First Edition
By: Mohammad Sattari
Word Count: 3272
Summary: Inlaid work is one of the valuable eastern or oriental arts. The oldest specimen obtained so far belongs to the Safavids period. Iran of today is the most important center of the inlaid work in the world. This book makes us familiar with the art of inlaid work.
Historical Record of Inlaid Work
One of the valuable arts in the orient is inlaid work. Not much is known about the past history of inlaid work, because raw materials of inlaid work are mostly glue and wood which get destroyed with the passage of time. Nonetheless in those places which are regarded as sacred by people and which were maintained in good condition we come across specimens of inlaid work with antiquity of 200 to 300 years. The oldest specimen of inlaid work obtained so far belongs to Safavids period. This piece of craftsmanship is related to the tomb of Shah Nematollah Vali in Mahan, Kerman province.
If we wish to get accurate and reliable information about the history of inlaid work, we must study the history of travels made to Iran by various tribes of the world, because some specimens of our valuable artistic masterpieces may have been plundered. Therefore, a little search in their museums may help us to achieve our purpose.
The Dutch and the Portuguese were the first groups and nations who came to the southern coasts of Iran to get engaged in trade about 600 to 700 years ago. So it is possible that some examples of inlaid work belonging to about 600 years ago may be found in the museums of Amsterdam or other important European cities.
Inlaid work is done in other countries such as India, Syria, Iraq and Palestine as well, but its antiquity, quality and delicacy are lower than and inferior to the inlaid work in Iran. In fact inlaid work is the particular handicraft of Iran.
Iranian inlaid work is always ranked first and is given the status of distinction in international fairs. Both from the point of view of quality and beauty these artistic specimens are at their climax.
It would not be exaggeration to say that the most important center of inlaid work in the world today is Iran (1).
Various kinds of high quality Iranian inlaid work are found in different museums of the world; for example an inlaid work chess board is kept in Benaki museum in Athens; it is one of the best samples of inlaid work from the Safavids era.
It is thought that inlaid work was found in Shiraz for the first time. Perhaps the best example of this art at the present time is the inlaid work table which won the gold medal in the world exhibition of Brussels in 1958.
The artists of this craft have built up and created a room in Marmar (marble) Palace in Tehran with doors, ceiling, tables, chairs and other pieces of furniture entirely made of inlaid work. We come across interesting examples of inlaid work in Golestan palace and the former National Consultative Assembly too. Various kinds of wood, ivory, bone, brass and sometimes gold and silver are used in inlaid work. The general form of most inlaid work consists of geometrical designs. First, the wood, bone or metal pieces are cut into prisms with triangular bases and are put side by side of each other in such a way that their cross sections have regular geometric forms. Then the cut pieces are put side by side on a thin sheet of wood and glued together. Then the sheet is placed on various objects such as table, chair, box, frame etc. As a rule, the designs of inlaid work are geometric shapes. Recently line inlaid work pieces have been produced in which words such as God's names appear as designs.
In the more expensive examples of inlaid work, the metal parts are formed of gold and silver, and ivory is used instead of bone. The best quality inlaid work is a kind which is called "Parreh Varu" (inverted wing or nose or blade) and also another kind usually known as "stringed." In these pieces of inlaid work, the hexagons are separated from each other by means of thin wires.
It can generally be said that this art has remained unchanged for the past two hundreds years, and that the old and contemporary specimens are not much different from each other. Not many changes have taken place in the materials either. Working instruments are more advanced to a certain degree in some cases, for example electric saw is used instead of manual saw today.
Materials of Inlaid Work
(1) Wood - This is divided into three groups from the point of view of color (photo 1)
(a) Betel-nut or areca-nut, which is dark brown, obtained from India and is very durable.
Ebony wood which is a very dark brown or blackish color. It is prepared from India.
Jujube tree, which is in light brown. It is obtained in Mashhad, Shiraz, Isfahan, in the north and also in Fars province.
Shah wood, in light brown, is obtained in various regions of Iran.
Azad (free) wood, which is in light brown and occurs abundantly in Iran.
(b) Logwood, which is brownish red color, is very strong and durable and occurs in India.
Orange wood, which is in creamy or whitish yellow color, and occurs in Iran. Privet wood, in creamy yellow color, is obtained in Iran.
(2) - Metal
The metal which is used in inlaid work and which has golden color is brass. Formerly, silver and/or gold wires were used. At the present time, copper, brass, or aluminum are used. The cross section of the wire is usually round; when the wire is placed in a special roller with "V"-shaped groove, its cross section becomes triangular. Recently electrical instrument is used for this purpose.
The bone of the leg or arm of a camel or a horse is usually used. In the old times ivory of elephant was used for this purpose. This ivory lasts several hundred years, but its high price is a prohibitive factor. The working method for preparing the bone is as follows:
First the joints of the bone are cut in order to prepare a uniform and smooth piece of bone. Then the skin, veins and the fat of the bone are washed away by water as far as possible. The bone is socked in lime water. There is no special time-limit for this process, and it depends on the type of lime, heat of the sun, the type of the bone, as well as on the age and sex of the animal. After a while the bone turns white and its fat is removed. Sometimes the bone, after its joints have been cut off, are immersed in water to remove its extra meat. After a while it is placed in lime water. When the above stages are passed through, the bone is cut and turned into sheets. In inlaid work these sheets are called "la," which is of one to three mm dimension. When "la" is cut again and again, it is turned into "nakh" (thread). The thread is one to two mm thick.
Today artificial bone is sometimes used. The life time and durability of the artificial bone is not known.
(4) Green Color
This color is obtained by mixing copper filings, vinegar and ammonium chloride. The cut pieces of bone are put in a vessel containing the color solution, and is exposed to sun light for six months. After this period the bone is turned green.
In order to test whether or not the bone has taken up the color, it is cut in the middle to observe the green color in the marrow of the bone.
Today that it is difficult to obtain the bone of the camel, and also because the period of six months is a long time, orange wood is used instead of bone. The wood is cut into forms with triangular cross section and is put in an iron or copper receptacle. Then water is added to it and is put on an oven so that water reaches boiling point. Then one or two spoonfuls of the green which is used for dyeing wool is put in the vessel. The colored solution boils for two hours. When the wood has taken up the green color, it will be taken out of the solution. The color used must be of the special kind used for dyeing wool not thread because these two colors are different from each other.
Means and Instruments of Inlaid Work
One handed, two handed and back planes. The latter does fine work on the back of the inlaid work.
Girth (1) or Strap
Various girths such as girth for rubbing triangles, wires, blades, flowers and also for rubbing and scraping throats.
Saws for cutting inlaid work (triangles); head cutting saw which cuts off the head of wood or the flower of inlaid work; hand saw with small teeth for cutting strong kind of wood and finally hand saw with coarse teeth for cutting soft wood.
There are several kinds of files, such as three-sided variety with triangular cross section, double-edged file, saw sharpener, hard and soft files, etc. Files are used to rub the work surface and the back of inlaid work. Other instruments are:
Compasses, hammer, pincers, gauge, press and set square.
How to Make a Piece of Wood Triangular
First the wood is turned into "toureh." Toureh is a cube, with each side being 105 cm long. The toureh is sawed in such a way that it is converted into "la," which is sometimes done by means of an electric saw. The side of "la" is placed. Then we start cutting the "la" width-wise and obliquely by means of a triangular saw. In this way a wire with triangular cross section will be obtained.
Girth for Rubbing Triangular(2), and Its Working Method
The wires obtained may have uneven edges, so they are placed in triangle rubbing girth (strap), and made smooth or uniform by means of a file (photo 2).
Of course, the diameter and the orifice of grooves of straps are different. When girths work for a little while, they need to be mended. Whenever the depth of grooves on girth gets too short, they will be made deeper by means of a two-sided file. The edges of this file are used for sharpening saws.
How to Wrap Inlaid Work
The primary unit of inlaid work is a wire with triangular cross section. Some photos of this section are magnified greatly (photo 3).
1 - Three wooden wires are stuck and glued to the three sides of a metal wire. The whole is wrapped by a thread to get tight (photo 4). There is another process which is the reverse to the above, that is to say, the wooden wire is placed inside and in the middle and the three metal wires are put round it. The whole is called "Parreh" (blade). If we look at the cross section of Parreh, we see a triangle in the middle and three triangles round it (photo 5). When the glue gets dry, we shall open the thread and shall file the work surface.
2 - We glue six pieces of these blades side by side to get hexagonal inlaid work. We tie the whole by means of thread (photo 6).
When the glue is dried off, the thread will be opened and round of it will be rubbed.
3 - At this stage six blades are stuck and glued round the hexagon. At this point a "star" will appear (photo 7).
4 - In order to fill up the empty space round the star, use is made of two "baghal shish" (side six) and a colored triangle, to obtain an "inlaid flower." This is the simplest inlaid flower, and is composed of 66 triangles (1). (photo 8)
How "Baghal Shish" Is Made
Baghal shish (side six) is obtained after cutting "kardi" in a special way. "Kardi" is a special wire, made of bone, with an isosceles triangle cross section. It is one mm thick. If we rub off the corner of kardi a little or cut it in such a way that its cross section turns out to be an equilateral triangle, we shall obtain a new piece, which is called "baghal shish."
5 - Now we put four inlaid flowers side by side, and make use of eight "too galoui" to fill the empty angles and we shall obtain a "lowz."
How to Make "Too Galoui"
One blade is put in the middle and three other blades (paddles) are stuck to three sides of it. The form obtained is called "too galoui." In order to make other kinds of "lowz," use is made of six pieces of inlaid flowers and 12 pieces of "too galoui" (2) or eight "inlaid flowers" and 18 "too galoui" (photo 9).
Inlaid work "lowz" is 62 cm long.
6 - The ordinary "lowz" is divided into 8 cm pieces and 8 pieces of them are glued side by side. In this way the whole "lowzes" will be in the form of parallelogram. We envisage two pieces of wood, in the form of trapezium to put at the two sides of the two parallelograms. When the two pieces of wood are placed at the two sides of the parallelogram an "inlaid qame" will be produced (photo 10). The inlaid "qame" is put under press for up to three days so that its constituent parts are firmly locked together (photo 11).
7 - When the inlaid qame is taken out of press, it will be uniform and strong. Its edges will be filed and polished. Then the piece will be cut in 2 mm pieces, or as inlaid workers say will be converted into "do zadeh" (double birth). (photo 12)
8 - At this stage two pieces of wood with the same dimensions as "do zadeh" are stuck to the front and back of "do zadeh." This process is called "lining" and is done so that the inlaid work would not get crushed when being sawed.
9 - The lined inlaid work is cut in the middle and into two pieces. In this way the designs of inlaid work will appear on the surface of each piece of wood (photo 13).
10 - The back of each piece of inlaid work obtained from stage 9 will be planed off by one mm (photo 14).
11 - Now the inlaid work is ready to be glued to the surface in question. In order to make the inlaid work flexible, its back will be "lined" by means of a saw. After this process the inlaid work will be bent and straightened (photo 15) and will be installed on the work.
If the inlaid work is to be installed on the convex or concave surfaces, then after the inlaid work has been lined at the back, it will be put in a strap which is made for curving, and will be hammered gently. This process is called "crushing or inlaid work." In inlaid handicraft, the concave and convex surfaces are called "too kast" and "posht gerd" respectively.
Installation of Inlaid Work
The object on which the inlaid work is to be placed will be prepared. The back of inlaid pieces will be glued and will be stuck on the work surface (photo 16). When the whole surface of the object in question is covered by the inlaid work, it will be smoothed and leveled by a mixture of bone powder and glue. Then the inlaid work will be polished by means of various sizes of files.
In the past inlaid work used to be covered by varnish or "sandalus" to protect it. Sandalus is obtained from pine tree and is inflammable. This substance lasts 10 to 12 years in arid regions. Later Hamilux oil was used, but this oil evaporated from the work surface. Today polyester is used for protection of inlaid work, and its manufacturers express the view that this oily substance is very durable. Polyester is applied on the work surface by means of a pump or pen, and like a glass layer covers and encompasses the inlaid work. It is anti-moisture and resists climatic conditions (photos 17 & 18).
In principle, the work surface is lubricated for two reasons:
1 - To make the inlaid work shiny.
2 - To protect the inlaid work against humidity, heat, cold, etc.; that is because the raw materials of inlaid work are glue and wood, which are very vulnerable.
Various Kinds of Inlaid Work from the Point of View of Flower (designs)
As the forms and designs in inlaid work are geometric, and the use of colored pieces will bring about a great deal of diversification, so a large variety of them is seen (photos 19, 20, 21).
Various Kinds of Margins
1 - Vahdati, Dr. Ataollah, School Subject, Introduction to the Traditional Arts of Iran, Faculty of Fine Arts, Tehran, 1985
2 - Behnam, the late Dr. Isa, Handicrafts of Iran, Kayhan Press and Publishing Organization, Tehran, 1962
3 - Anasori, Dr. Jaber, The History of Iranian Arts, Education Ministry's Publications, Tehran, 1981
Description of Photographs