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Don Watschke of Osakis created this rendition of The Last Supper using a woodworking technique called intarsia. Approximately 800 pieces of wood were used, each piece cut, sanded and assembled by hand. Watschke said he's not sure if he'll keep it, give it to a local church or sell it. (Photo by Amy Chaffins)

Stunning intricacies of intarsia

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Piece by piece, Don Watschke of Osakis is mastering a uniquely intricate hobby. "To me, it's like a big puzzle," he said.

Intarsia is a woodworking technique that uses small, individually cut pieces of wood assembled to create an image - much like a wooden mosaic. A variety of woods is used to create color, depth and texture.

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What's particularly unique about Watschke's hobby is his latest project - an intarsia depiction of Leonardo da Vinci's painting, The Last Supper.

Watschke intricately cut, sanded, assembled and glued about 800 pieces of wood to recreate the masterpiece.

"The Last Supper is probably the hardest [pattern] I've ever seen and I thought, well, before I quit this altogether, I'm going to try this thing," he said. "I started out by making one or two of the apostles to figure out if I could handle that. I wasn't sure I was going to finish, but I continued on and finally, it all came together."

Working a little bit each day, it took him about three months to complete the piece.

Watschke uses a band saw to cut each piece - some measuring less than half an inch.

"Some people use a scroll saw, but I chose the band saw because it's less vibration and I can handle the cutting better," he said.

Yes, all 10 of his fingers are still intact.

Flexing his fingers to prove it, he laughed and said, "I've never cut myself, but I've broken plenty of band saw blades."

Watschke's process is very detailed, but, briefly, he described the steps involved in creating intarsia: "First, I choose a pattern, copy it and cut the copy into pieces. Then, I start figuring out the type of wood I want to use. Next, I use rubber cement to attach the paper pattern to the wood and I cut each piece, fitting as I go; I do some adjusting if I have to. Then, I do some rough sanding and start looking at where I want to do rounding, adding dimension and sometimes adding backing. Then, it all gets sanded again with multiple grits of sandpaper. I get them in place and start gluing them all together. I add backing for more support, about one-quarter inch plywood. The final step is to use about three coats of good varnish, put hangars on the back and hang it on the wall."

VARIETY OF WOOD

Watschke has been doing intarsia for 15 years and through the years he's used 50 different kinds of wood in his projects.

"Naturally, I've used woods from North America - walnut, oak, hickory and aspen - but also zebrawood from Central America, wenge from Africa, cocobolo from Central America, lacewood from South America and others," he explained. When it came time to give it a go with The Last Supper, Watschke had a lot of scraps from previous projects. He used 20 species of wood in the piece, like purpleheart and padauk.

There's no painting involved in Watschke's work. The color variation you see comes from the grain, texture and depth of the wood pieces, which makes each project come alive.

Watschke's wife, Sheila, watched the large-scale project unfold last summer.

"I never thought he'd make The Last Supper to the end because the first apostle he made he came in and laid it on the table and said, 'Here's one if I never do any more.' A couple days later he'd come in with another one," she said with a laugh. "After he got the hang of it and got a few done, he did it.

"I think it's great. I think he's does a wonderful job. I tell him he should get into quilting with me because it's kind of the same thing," she said.

Watschke said when people see his rendition of The Last Supper they ask what he's going to do with it.

"I don't know yet whether I'll keep it, give it to a church or even sell it, but selling is probably the last choice," he said.

The 30x38-inch piece weighs about 25 pounds.

KEEPING IT A HOBBY

Watschke has sold nearly 200 of his intarsia pieces. He's made everything from a stoic heron and cute clown photo frame to an impressive eagle with a 36-inch wingspan and sweet portraits of children. It usually takes him about two weeks to complete these smaller projects.

"People try to talk me into doing craft shows, but I tell them I don't want to get tied up so I'm full-time at this; I'll do it as a hobby and enjoy it, rather than start working again," he said.

Watschke worked for 40 years in the computer industry in Minneapolis before he and Sheila retired in Osakis in 2003.

He said intarsia doesn't require him to be at it constantly. "I can start it, let it lie awhile and go back to it. The pieces are small enough so that if I make a mistake or they don't fit or they're not the right color, I can cut another one. You have to be a little patient with this. Sometimes you have to wait until you get further into the project to know how it will turn out. I guess I've learned to never give up."

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Amy Chaffins
Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper. After graduating from St. Cloud State University, Amy’s first job was at KSAX-TV working as an anchor and reporter. From 2003-2010, Amy worked as an editor and reporter for the Pope County Tribune and Starbuck Times newspapers. During her journalism career, Amy earned writing and photography awards from the Associated Press, Minnesota Newspaper Association and Society of Professional Journalists. Amy and her husband, Brandon, live in Alexandria and together write “He Sez, She Sez,” a humor column in the local women’s magazine, Chicz. Away from work, Amy and Brandon spend time bass fishing and keeping tabs on their charismatic dog, Cash, who has been known to jump out of the boat to “retrieve” the bass lures.
(320) 763-1242
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