Canadian Woodworking

Humpbacked whales

Author: Fred Martin; Intarsia design by Helen Martin
Published: February March 2003

A great advantage of 3D intarsia is that your piece isn’t limited to a wall mounting. It can be displayed on an easel, in its own stand or even hung in a window.

When I started out, I made my intarsia pieces just like everyone else. That is, I glued the finished pieces to a plywood backing. The more intarsia I did, the more I questioned the need for a backing.

Then, one day, a customer made me stop and think. He asked: “What are you hiding?” That did it. I realized the backing didn’t make it any stronger and it sure didn’t make it look any better. Since then, I have been doing what I call 3D intarsia – without a backing – so it can be viewed and enjoyed from all sides.


All the woods indicated here are suggestions only. You can use whatever is available to you. I chose bird’s eye maple for the throat of the adult to give it a textured look, then each segment was sawed, shaped, and glued back together to mimic the “throat grooves.”

To eliminate some cutting and shaping you can do the adult throat the same way that the baby’s was done – using only the grain of the wood to represent the grooves.

Make the pieces

Transfer the pattern onto tracing paper, making sure you include the grain direction and the lines on the “throat grooves,” tracing paper will allow you to see the wood grain when laying out the pieces. Select the piece for the adult whale’s body.

Note: If you don’t have a piece of walnut wide enough, glue up two pieces to attain the necessary width.

Using the traced pattern and transfer paper, mark and cut the piece to shape.

Sand the edges with an oscillating spindle sander or drum sander in a drill press, to ensure the edges are square.

Always remove the burr from the back of each piece as they are cut, this allows each piece to sit flat and square, a bow sander works great for this.

Select the wood for the next piece, slide transfer paper under the pattern and place the first piece in position. Mark the piece using the pattern and the edge of the first piece as a guide. Cut and fit.

When you are happy with the fit, then tape the piece in position with duct tape. Continue marking, cutting, fitting and taping until all the parts are done.

The eye

Remove all duct tape and drill a ¼” diameter hole in the adult whale body for the eye. Glue and insert a light colored dowel, trim it flush, then drill a ⅛” diameter in the center of it. Glue and insert a dark colored dowel. Repeat for the baby.

The “throat ridges”

Cut the segments on the throat ridges using a #5 (or smaller) blade. Cut to within ⅛” of the edge.

Note: not sawing the pieces completely apart allows you to shape the throat grooves as a unit.

Finishing up

Contour and shape the rest of the whale and finish sawing the “throat grooves.”

Shape each piece of the throat. (Of course, I use my trusty bow sander.) After shaping, glue them back together, using the whale’s body as a guide.

After the glue has cured on both the adult and baby whale, complete the finish sanding, including rounding the back edges.

Apply finish of choice. If you intend to display the whales individually, install hangers, and you’re done.


To mount them together you must mark and drill a dowel hole on the adult whale, insert dowel centres, place the baby whale in position, drill holes in the rear of the baby, cut dowels to length and glue together.

Install hanger and enjoy!

Fred Martin - [email protected]

Fred is an intarsia artist from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

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