Canadian Woodworking

Tropical fish

Author: Garnet Hall
Published: October November 2002

This tropical fish is a good way to play around with some colorful hard woods and warm up your winter months.

This past summer we started with a drought and by summer’s end it wouldn’t stop raining. All that rain seemed kind of fishy to me. The weather all over the world has gone strange. So why fight it? Make fish.

I used yellow, black and white. There are red, purple and green woods to try as well. Use your imagination. It’s also fun to make it in miniature – or make a school of fish in different sizes.

It’s a fairly straight-forward intarsia project: Find the woods of your choice or follow the pattern suggestions.

Transfer the pattern to the wood

Use one of the following methods:

• Trace directly to the wood with carbon paper.

• Make a template of the pattern from ⅛” plywood, MDF board or plexiglass. Trace carefully, holding your pencil or pen at a 45-degree angle and cut the pieces with a small blade such a #1 or #3 double tooth.

• Make photocopies of the pattern, cut out the pieces and spray glue them onto the wood.

I like to make a template. I find that I get a better fit.

Cut out the pieces

Cutting the pieces is done with a bandsaw or scroll saw. A band saw is faster, but leaves a rougher edge and a wider kerf. A scroll saw is better for intarsia and it is certainly safer. The kerfs are tighter and you get a better edge.

Make sure that the blade is square to the table. Cut carefully, right on the line. If you cut carefully the pieces will fit better and the whole process will be a lot more enjoyable.

I like a #7 P/S blade for the ¾ in. soft woods, a #9 P/S for the hardwoods and a #3 DT/R or #3 F/R blade for the backing plywood.

Assemble and check for fit

The fit will work if the pieces are within a saw kerf or 1/16”. Try using a light box to see which places are holding the pieces apart. You may have to sand, trim or even remake a piece to get an acceptable fit.

Raise and lower any pieces the pattern suggests. Glue some scrap to the bottom of the pieces to be raised. To raise the pieces, glue scrap ⅛” plywood to the bottom of the piece. I raise and lower in increments of ⅛”. To lower pieces just resaw them thinner or sand them thinner on a belt sander, again in increments of ⅛”. Resaw any pieces thinner to lower the piece.

After all the pieces are raised or lowered, assemble the project and mark on reference lines. These lines will help with the shaping.

Shape and sand

Try to achieve a smooth transition from one level to the next. Try to avoid flat exposed areas. Shape the outside edges of wood grain the fish right down to the bottom edge, to give it a real rounded look. I usually only sand to 220 grit to reduce the amount of sawdust I am creating. Wear a good dust mask.

Back and glue up

A ⅛ in. backing board would be adequate for this size project, or you could also use ¼ in. backing.

Assemble the project on the backing material. Trace around, remove the project and cut out the backing board shape.

Reassemble the project on the cut out back and glue it up. Use ordinary carpenters glue. Don’t put any glue on the edges of the piece, it can squeeze to the surface and cause clean up problems. Allow the glue to dry at least 30 minutes.


Any wood finish will work. Use a finish you like the look of and like to apply. I brushed on satin Varathane finish. Three coats on the front and one on the back.

Sand between coats. When the finish has dried, attach a hanger and it’s a done deal.

I hope you enjoy the project. It should make a good wall hanging for a child’s room. Play around with some interesting hardwoods or make it out of pine or spruce and paint the pieces. Have fun!

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