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Les Dimes

Our Cutter interviewee today is someone whose work you will have been very familiar with for many years, it is no other than that highly productive (he makes tons of pictures) member of the Harrow Group, Les Dimes. Les is rightly famous for the copious amount of marquetry pictures he manages to produce. Not only are they works of marquetry art, many of them are also very recognisable and extremely attractive portraits, which certainly take a lot of skill in producing.

Our Interviewee today is one of the most tireless practitioners we have ever met of this ancient and noble marquetry art of ours. He applies himself to the furtherance of our cause with a fervor few could match.



You may already be very familiar with Les’s work, it features heavily in the Marquetarian pages and here on our website, but you may not yet know the man, so let’s say welcome to Les and let him introduce himself:


Les Dimes

Cutter: Hello Les, could I ask you first, how did you initially get into marquetry, and did you have any background in woodworking of any sort?

Les: I don’t have any background in woodworking at all! My dad and I used to make aircraft models when I was a lad - he progressed to making dioramas (I remember a huge model he made of the battle of Rorke's Drift with hundreds of Zulu warriors) and I went on to making wooden ship models from plans, plank by plank. I spent eight years making one French frigate as accurately as I could. I bought books on 16th century rigging to make sure I got it right, spending six months making the various blocks and deadeyes alone. The craft did teach me about getting the historical facts correct, which stood me in good stead later on. After the third wooden ship (a Portugese wine boat from a kit) took me two years to make, I called it a day and started making ships in bottles. Quicker, but much more of a fiddle!. 

Cutter: What attracted you to the art and craft of marquetry?

Les: My wife gave me a Christmas present in the late nineties which was the first marquetry kit I’d ever seen. It was “Abersoch Harbour”. Although I enjoyed making it, I found a few oddities with it. Some of the shadows were lighter than they should be and some of the shapes were odd. I realised that I could do some marquetry using my own ideas. The only place I could find veneers, though, was from a nearby art store, which was charging roughly £4 a sheet. I started looking through books and magazines to find suitable subjects. Funnily enough, the first two pictures I did were portraits - Lester Piggot and Sitting Bull! 

Sitting Bull
Pendant Stands

Lester Piggot
Lester Piggot

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

Les: In 2002 or 2003 I came across a book 19 whilst on holiday. “The Marquetry Manual” by Bill Lincoln opened my eyes to what could be achieved in marquetry. Peter White’s “Tawny at the wheel” and Alan Townsend’s “Bluebell Wood” are both in that book and the two of them still consistently do amazing work. Because of the book, I decided to join the society in 2004.

Since then, I’ve also begun to appreciate the work of Alan Mansfield (Spike Milligan and Hancock works spring to mind), Mike Roberts, Frank Brant, Dave Middleton and John Jeggo, all of whom produce very clean, subtle work.

I also joined the Harrow group that year and learnt a lot of techniques from my great friend Chris Crump, whose detailed work inspired me to tackle anything. Sadly, Chris died a few years ago, but he left me bags of veneers and his bandsaw, so he’s often in my thoughts

Cutter: Some people have a liking for one particular type or style of design. Do you have any particular preferences in designs and what influences do they have on you?

Les:  I tend to veer away from anything geometrical (apart from the odd chessboard) as I seem unable to cut in straight lines! Most of my work doesn’t rely on using a ruler. I admire Martin Bray and Brian Freestone for their ability to create beautiful designs with such accuracy.

Cutter: Do you carefully plan the initial stages of a new piece of work? For example, if working from a coloured picture do you also take a monochrome copy to trace from - or look at tonal range?

Les:  I do a lot of planning. Most of the time I do a monochrome version to get a better idea of the tonal ranges - when I worked in advertising we always reckoned that the best colour photos were the ones that translated perfectly in black and white. As a print, artwork, platemaking and typesetting buyer in advertising, I was well aware of the reproduction constraints that existed at the time and was well used to colour correcting proofs etc. With modern printing techniques, however, this is no longer necessary. I sometimes spend hours trying to select the right veneers. This can be vital when doing a three veneer picture as they have to work with one another and you also need enough of each sheet.

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

Les: Most of the time it’s because I want to challenge my ability. I have also done quite a few for relatives who have specifically requested something (The Fab Four, for example, was a request from one of my sons, fairies for my sister-in-law etc).

I have had the odd commission (a Sandfly plaque for a workmate who nearly died from its sting was probably the strangest request) and it was a pleasure to do a picture of David Bowie for one of his fans. I don’t normally do commissions, unless I feel happy with the subject.

Middle East Market
Pueblo Street Market 1920
Cathy from Wuthering Heights

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

Well diggers daughter

Well Digger's Daughter

Les: I definitely prefer pictures. I have done a number of boxes, clocks etc, but I find them a bit of a chore as I am not naturally a maker of boxes etc.  

Fab Four
The Fab Four

Cutter:  Would you say that marquetry could be seen as a relaxation for you?

Les: Not really! I think it’s more of an obsession. There are so many pieces of work that I want to do before I leave this world. I am justifiably berated for doing too much too quickly (I’ve got 15 new pieces to date for entry in 2025 and we’ve still got a while to go!)

Cutter:  What piece of advice would you give to a beginner just starting out on his or her first piece of work?

Les:  From my experience (we have a one-to-one tuition at Harrow), I have found the best advice was to teach them the basics of the window method, let them decide what picture or work they would like to make their first project. Sometimes you have to point out how difficult their choice may be to produce. Go through the veneer choices with them. Trying different knives or scalpels to find what they are most comfortable with also helps. Working from background to foreground (i.e. doing the smaller details last). I would always advise going to a group if possible.

Church in the undergrowth
Church surrounded by foliage

Cutter: Marquetarians nearly always have a piece of work that is a favourite. Can you pick such an item, from all your work that has given you most satisfaction?

Les: As I have now done nearly 260 different pieces of work, I find this quite difficult to answer. There are a lot which I enjoyed doing that never took any award at national level (that includes “The Top Hand after Tom Stivers”, ”Lady Marmalade’s Bed and Breakfast - after B. Marriss” and ”Riding out” - (after Martin Grelle). Maybe the answer is “The Veteran - after Fred Fields”. Taken from a line drawing and it won best portrait and came first in Three Veneers. Another favourite Three Veneers is “Boats and Ruins”. Although it has never won anything, I think it is a perfect example of the harmony achieved by just using three woods.

Cutter: Has there been any piece of work, made by any other member or marquetarian, which has left you thinking I wish I had done that?

Les: Where do I begin? Anything made by the aforementioned!.

Cutter: Many marquetarians have mixed feelings about their finished work as far as keeping them for themselves. Do you keep all or any of your creations?

Les: I have room on my walls for approx 40 pictures.

I will change them occasionally. Looking through my records (I decided to make records as I realised that I didn’t have any photos of the ship models or bottled ships that I mentioned earlier), I notice that I have only twelve of the first 100 pictures that I did.

A lot of my work over the years has been given to a friend who has done funding for a hospice in Southampton for over 25 years.

A lot of relations and friends around the world also have some of my work. I freely give them to anyone who genuinely likes a particular piece. I usually say to my wife “Do you mind if I give this to so-and-so?” If she likes it then it stays with us!

Cutter: Well known for your expertise with portrait work, would you have any advice for other marquetarians who would like to try their hand at portrait work?

Les: Most important is to convert colour pictures into black and white to get the tone values as correct as possible.

Serious Case
A serious case

Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright

I also always work directly from this - in other words, I transfer the image to the wood directly. (This is again a habit from my advertising days - reproduction was always direct from original photos - every step away from the original was known as a “removal”) I usually only use a broad tracing to check against the background the image will finish up on. Contrary to what a lot of marquetarians believe, I find the mouth, nose and ears the most difficult - eyes are usually made from fewer pieces of veneer.

The old gunslinger
The Old Gunslinger

Queen of the Elves
Queen of the Elves

Cutter: Getting your work finished (varnished) by a professional – are you okay with that, or do you think the marquetarian should do everything themselves?

Les: I remember this discussion coming up - I’ve always felt that a little help with the finishing for the first three classes was in order. When I was a judge, I only really took notice of the finish in the higher classes when the marquetarian should have learnt how to do it by then. I personally always struggled with my finishing and have only reached a satisfactory level in the last few years. (In 2004, I asked for assessments and Pat Austin very kindly liked my entries - but a pity about the finishing!)

Cutter: Taking into consideration your talents as a marquetry artist, what is your stance on the long-standing debate about marquetry being an art or a craft?

Les: I’ve always felt that marquetry is both. Painting is also both! I remember seeing a programme a few years back when items were being judged for entry into the Royal Academy of Art for their summer show. I was surprised to see that photography which had been manipulated in the darkroom was eligible. Many painters also work from photography, so I can’t see why marquetry derived from photography is not allowed. My friend, who is a professional painter and has had many paintings accepted at the RAA, agrees with me. I think we will get there eventually.

Cutter: The ‘for or against coloured wood’ argument has gone on for years. What are your views on it?

Les: The problem I see with dyed wood is quite often there is little grain showing and it is often too acid a colour or too flat. That said, I have nothing against it being used sparingly or even largely as long as there are natural grained veneers nearby. After all, a lot of the Victorian furniture makers used them extensively. I’ve recently experimented using one strong dyed colour veneer as one of the three in three veneer pictures and the results are quite dramatic.

Cutter: We now regularly see the ‘Judges comments’ for the National Exhibition award winners in The Marquetarian, do you think these comments are helpful in any way?

Les: I believe these comments are helpful as long as, so the old saying goes, they are constructive and not negative.

Audery Hepburn

Cutter: We sometimes hear the suggestion that marquetry would be livened up by incorporating other methods. Do you think that there is any case for introducing any other media into marquetry, for example pyrography or mixed media?


Suspicious times

Les: I have seen plenty of work using paint with veneers which can be very interesting. If we had an exhibition class for mixed media, it would have to be judged by an artist rather than a marquetarian. I can’t see pyrography as a form of marquetry at all - I’ve seen some beautiful work by this method, but the veneer used is obliterated by the burning tool. It’s also taken me a little while to accept laser-cut marquetry, but I discovered that the work involved in creating a design by vectors can be very challenging. Laser-cut designs by artists work well, but heavily detailed slavish laser-cut copies of photos look heartless to me

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

Les: Before the advent of covid, I would regularly go fly fishing, making all my own flies (model-making again!). I also do the odd bit of carving, but most of the time, at the moment, is taken up with looking after an allotment and garden!

Cutter: Have you seen changes in style of marquetry since you started and if so, have you adapted your own work to follow any changes?

Les: To be honest, I haven’t changed a lot since my early work. I used scalpels at work, so I was used to them. MDF board has replaced the 11ply and fibre-board that I used. A couple of presses (a large one made and given to me by my friend Martin Bray) has replaced my ironing down of the picture!

Cutter: How do you think the craft of marquetry can develop to attract more people to it or do you think that, like many other crafts, we have reached a low that will take some time to recover from?

Les: I do believe it will take some time to recover. At Harrow, we were finding that we were getting more reaction from the public as we tried to sell smaller items (Xmas tree decorations, badges, fridge magnets for example) as well as pictures, chess boards etc at shows particularly near Christmas. We always tried to have demonstrations as well. Covid had obviously knocked us all back a bit. Just before the first lockdown, Harrow did have two new recruits and I hope we can get back to some work now that the recent International Marquetry Exhibition has finished for this year.

Cutter: Thank you for talking to us Les Dimes.

Let us end this interview by displaying five more examples of your wonderful marquetry pieces:

Lone Fisherman
Lone Fisherman
Looking Back
Looking Back
The Veteran
The Veteran
Young Sheila
Young Sheila
Hidden Church
Old Church in a decorative foliage study

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