Tom Brewer Redbridge
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Longest Serving Member

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Tom at the Theatre

The reintroduction of the Cutter Interviews sees us interviewing the longest serving member of the Marquetry Society.

It is no other than that most friendly and wise of fellows, the Redbridge Marquetry Group's very own Tom Brewer.

Tom has been a member of the Marquetry Society since the early 1950's and still turns up regularly to the weekly Redbridge Group meetings with an enviable attendance record that few could match.

I am very pleased to be talking to the Marquetry Society's longest serving member, that true gentleman of the veneer world: Tom Brewer



The fine fellow you see ensconced in his very own seat at the dress rehearsals of Coppelia, is our own Tom Brewer. Tom has been a fan of theatre, ballet and musical works for nearly as long as his own remarkable marquetry career, which is well over half of a century long! He is truly a man of keen interests and impeccable knowledge, so you just know you are in for an interesting interview.

Let us now talk to Tom Brewer of the Redbridge Marquetry Group.

Tom Brewer

Cutter: Hello Tom, I understand you’ve been involved with marquetry a long time, so, how did you get into the craft?

Tom: The first example of marquetry that I saw was during World War 2, I was in the navy and a mess mate brought aboard a marquetry picture eight inches by six of a sailing boat. We were an artificer’s mess and were all, more or less, interested in it.

Being aboard a ship I wasn’t able to try my hand at it until I was demobbed after the war; and then only when after my wife and I had acquired a home of our own in 1952.

Cutter: What was the particular attraction of this craft?

Tom: Up until then (1952) I had always worked with my hands, learnt woodwork and metal work at school, done all sorts of jobs about the home and therefore it seemed to me to be something I would like to try and I thought I would be able to do it successfully.

At the time I was working on repairs to ships, you know, Navy ships, so that was good active use of my hands.

Floral Design
Floral Design
Hansom Cab
Hansom Cab

Cutter: Were you inspired by anyone’s work you had seen?

Tom: I had seen work by Cliff Penny and Charlie Good and surprisingly none of it inspired me more than all the others, I just like the look of any well done piece.

Cutter: So it wasn’t the maker of the piece, more the actual work?

Tom: Yes, that’s right, although I did like Charlie Goods work of course, everybody liked it - it was a definite improvement on those earlier examples.

Cutter: Has the craft changed in style, presentation or difficulty, for example, since you first started?

Tom: It has improved, helped along by exhibitions, group competitions and by the existence of the Marquetry Society which has been a big help in bringing marquetarians together and encouraging the spread of ideas.

One very noticeable improvement has been in the standard of beginner’s pictures. There can now be seen many pictures by beginners that would have taken top prizes in my early days.

Cutter: I can’t quite establish when the window method came into general use as opposed to the stick as you go method, which one did you start with?

Tom: I started with stick as you go because that was all I knew because it came naturally, I was more or less as a primitive artist, no one had taught me or tried to make me a marquetarian.

About the time I joined the society I read Cliff Penny’s 1954 book “The Fascination of Marquetry” from which I learned the window method and have used it ever since, except for some geometrical marquetry e.g. tables.

Cutter: From what you’ve just said, would you say that Cliff Penny was the originator of the window method?

Boat on a river with Church
Boat on a river with Church
Scottish Castle on a Loch
Scottish Castle on a Loch
Geometric Table
Geometric Table
Louis Cube design table
Louis Cube design table - plan view
TomI don’t really know, because I have no idea how long Cliff had been using it, or indeed, where he actually got it from. Although I have to say that I hadn’t heard of it being done prior to Cliff Penny, so it is possible that it could have originated with him.

Cutter: We have so many adhesives to choose from nowadays, we are spoilt for choice, which glued were used when you began making your pictures?

TomThe most reliable glue on the market was Scotch Glue, PVA was introduced about that time, but at that time no reputable craftsman seemed to want to use it. I even remember a very well known marquetarian of that time (who shall remain nameless!) who said it contained rubber and it would be bound to perish!
There was also Croid and glue that came in penny tubes called “Hold it Fast” – but I don’t know what’s happened to that since.

Cutter: The theme of the last question also applies to polishes, did you have a preference?

Tom: At first I used an amateur French polish known as “Speed an Eeze” French polish, which, with practice, gave a good finish. Perhaps not as good as real French polish, but still very good for amateur use.


Then I used Rustin’s Plastic Coating which gave me the best finish I’d ever had, but it can’t be used in doors owing to the fumes; but I have tried acrylic lacquer with varying success. But there are now very many new finishes available, so I’m still experimenting! 

Cutter: Early pictures from the 1950’s and 60’s seemed to use the grain of the veneer to great effect; do you think there is less of this nowadays, and if you do, do you think it’s a loss to the craft?

Tom: There is a loss, because people tend to use designs more complex with a greater amount of smaller pieces in them, but the grain direction is very important and veneer choice can make or mar any picture.

I think that at the start I would find a veneer with great capabilities (as Capability Brown would have said) and make a picture using it to its best effect. Nowadays I find a picture I like and choose veneers to suit.

Cutter: Do you think we’ve got as much choice in veneers as we used to have?

Tom: I don’t think there’s as many exotic ones now as there used to be. I think it’s because they’re not being exported anymore, and of course, they’re very expensive now; that’s if you can get hold of them of course!

When I started it was quite a cheap hobby, although it’s not too bad now. Green Cypress Burr is almost extinct, I used to have quite a stock of it, but it’s all used now.

Cutter: Did you have any particular preferences for designs, and from where did you derive them?

Tom: I was on the look out all the time for a picture I liked and thought I could do. This was before the days of fragmentation, sliverisation, etc. There was generally less complexity of design; all the geometric designs I used were my own designs, from whence my drawing office experience proved very useful.

Cutter: How did you plan the initial stages of a new piece of work, for example, if working from a coloured picture, did you also take a monochrome copy to look at the tonal range?

Tom: For pictures to be made by the window method, I traced the picture then transferred the design to the waste veneer.

Water Mill
Water Mill

Landlords Brew
The Landlord's Brew
For geometrical work I traced the design directly on the object to be veneered and proceeded by stick as you go, working out from the center, this I considered was the only way to go to ensure perfect accuracy when two or more veneers reached the periphery of the object at the same point. Sometimes you get three veneers meeting up at a point on the side which all have to meet up with no error, tricky indeed!

Lighthouse trinket box
Lighthouse Trinket Box

Design from top of box

Design from the top of the
Lighthouse Trinket Box

Cutter: Why did you choose to do any particular piece of marquetry, was it for yourself, a present, because it is a fascinating design or is it for the challenge?

Tom: Well, this is my hobby; as soon as one work is finished I am on the look out for other ideas. I think the challenge is the main consideration; it’s only one or two pieces that I’ve made specifically for presents. I think one to has like a picture or design to do it justice; and then only thinking of what to ultimately do with it once it is made!

Cutter: Do you derive more pleasure from making a picture or an applied piece?

Tom:  I just like doing marquetry, whether it is pictorial or applied, I just enjoy doing it to the best of my ability.

Cutter: Has marquetry been a definite relaxation for you?

Tom: Generally speaking yes, although there are times when, say, a picture is nearly finished and something goes wrong, or I make a mistake, it can become quite stressful if there’s a deadline to meet, such as a competition date to meet, but it is mainly relaxing.

Cutter: Which item from all your work has given you the most satisfaction?

Tom: Well, there are two of them. One was my elliptical table and the other was Lily. This is special because when I was making some pictures and I was giving them away, my wife said to me:

A safe mooring
A Safe Mooring
“You’re making pictures for everybody else, why won’t you make me one?” so I said “right, we will do that” and we went up to Art Veneers at Mildenhall and we picked a picture which we both liked and I said “right, this is your picture then” and we took it home and I made it. I enjoyed doing that, it wasn’t an easy picture, but I didn’t find it all that difficult, I just kept my nose to the grindstone and kept at it until it was finished.

Cutter: Has there been any work made by any other member of the society which has left you thinking “I wish I had done that one”?

Tom: I’ve never wished I’d done one, although I’ve looked at and admired other work and thought I’d liked to have done something along those lines, especially those of the Tigers like Patrick Levin’s work “One Cool Cat” or Gordon Baker’s “Spots in the Shade” that was a good picture. Another was Julie Canes “Tiger”, I liked the use of the veneers.

Rhine Maiden Box
Rhine Maiden Trinket Box

Design from the lid of the Rhine Maiden Box
The design from the lid of the Rhine Maiden Box

Cutter: Have you kept all of your creations?

Tom: No. I haven’t!

Cutter: I’m sure that you have seen this question come up many times before, but what is your stance about the long standing debate of marquetry being an art or a craft?

Tom: I suppose it’s an artistic craft! There are many differences between the art and the craft, for instance if two pictures in a competition are very evenly matched for quality, the judge will look at the back and if one has a fault, the other gets the prize, but if the two similarly worthy pictures were hung at the Royal Academy you would not expect the judges to favour one because of a bad mark on the back of the other, also, just a thought, we might be tempted to emulate the school of thought that tolerates a pile of bricks or tyres or a tap left running or an unmade bed, with this in mind perhaps we should concentrate more on the craft side.

Cutter: The for or against coloured wood argument has gone on for years, what are your views on it?

Tom: Artificial embellishment of marquetry has gone on for thousands of years, for example, jewels and precious metal, but more recently the scorching and coloured veneers, and even harewood; used judicially I think these make a definite contribution to the art. I’ve seen exhibited a picture by an opponent of coloured veneers, yet they used harewood, so I don’t think we should see the banning of coloured veneers without banning the use of scorching and harewood.

Cutter: Competition has been used to improve the standard of work since the society began, do you think it has used that over the years to see the standard improve?

Tom: All three things that have contributed include glues that are more convenient, veneers, well they don’t change, the introduction of MDF as baseboards has really helped. Any beginners that have joined over the years has had the benefit of free expert tuition and encouragement as necessary.

Cutter: What is the first thing you would look for if judging at any level, is it the artistic impact or technical workmanship?   

Tom: Initially the artistic impact, because that’s what we see first, when we see it closer we get a better view of the technical workmanship and then we can balance our judgement between the two.

Cutter: Competition has been used to improve the standard of work since the society began, do you think it has used that over the years to see the standard improve?

Tom: All three things that have contributed include glues that are more convenient, veneers, well they don’t change, the introduction of MDF as baseboards has really helped. Any beginners that have joined over the years has had the benefit of free expert tuition and encouragement as necessary.

Cutter: Do you enjoy judging?

Tom: No, I’d rather leave that task to others!

Cutter: You are the longest serving member of the Marquetry Society, what are the most memorable changes you have seen in that long time?

Tom: The general improvement in standards generally speaking; there has been a lot of progress made right across the board under the influence of the Marquetry Society.

Cutter: Do you think that there is any case for introducing any other media into marquetry, for example pyography?

Tom: NO!

Cutter: Do you have any other crafts, hobbies or interests that share your available time?

Tom: Not much now, I was a keen gardener and grew for show over many years, but I’ve had to give that up. I like woodwork and metalwork but don’t have much occasion to do that now. I got to the theatre quite frequently, with an eclectic taste from Shakespeare and Chekov to Opera and Kitchen Sink, Farce and Musicals. I never have time to do all that I want, so I try to do as much as I can for as long as I can. Also I like listening to my CD’s of which I have about two hundred. Once again it’s an eclectic lot ranging from Mozart to Scott Joplin and musicals.

Cutter: “Excellent, thank you very much Tom Brewer”.

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