Intarsia Santa

Saw and sand with care; St. Nick will soon be there.

Looking for a way to get into the holiday spirit? With the help of intarsia expert Judy Gale Roberts, we’ve come up with a fun project that fills the bill. At first glance, this merry wall hanging appears hand-carved, but the illusion of depth comes from sawing small pieces of wood with a scrollsaw and then sculpting them on a drum sander. The piece-by-piece approach is easier than it first appears, and should you remove too much material, you can quickly make a spare part.

It’s hard to find a project that’s so rewarding and that uses so little material. All the parts for this project are sawn from pre-milled 3⁄4" stock. Surprisingly the project’s palette comes from the woods’ natural colors. Here, we used aspen for the lightest sections and found the rest of the shades in a stack of western red cedar at our local home center. Exotic hardwoods can be used for a more colorful Claus, but realize that they are harder to saw and shape than cedar.

Cut out the parts

1 Make five enlarged copies of the pattern from onlineEXTRAS (below). Referring to the cedar color key in the Sanding Guide, arrange the paper cutouts onto your wood so that the arrows correspond with the grain direction. Affix the patterns in place using a glue stick or by lightly misting them with spray adhesive.

2 Start sawing along the edges of the outermost parts, like the top of Santa’s hat or the outer edge of the boot, to get a feel for the wood. At first, focus on staying just outside of the lines. As you gain a little confidence, make the inside cuts so that the blade splits the line (Photo A).

3 Sand the back of each piece to remove any burrs left from sawing, and then assemble and check the fit. If a piece doesn’t fit, try sawing back to the pattern line; if the line’s gone, recut that part. Next, write the part number onto the back of each piece to help with future assembly. Peel off the paper patterns.

4 From 1⁄8"-thick hardboard, cut the spacers to fit under the nose, eyebrows, mustache, and lower lip. Glue the spacers to their matching parts (Photo B).

For perimeter cuts, use a #5 or #7 reverse-tooth blade. Switch to a #2/0 for tight curves and interior cuts that define details, such as the lines that define the nose and eyes.

Two-Second Saw Set

If your scrollsaw’s blade isn’t perpendicular with the table, the parts won’t fit like they should. Every now and then while working, set a machinist’s square on the saw and check the gap between the blade and square. Adjust the table until the two are perfectly parallel.

Try to leave at least half the line when making interior cuts. If the pattern line is gone, you’ll wind up with a gap between the finished parts.

Gluing spacers to the face pieces offers extra relief that will be further refined with contour sanding.

Draw contouring arrows on the pieces to identify the edges that need shaping and to help track your sanding progress.

Sanding more from the top of the boot helps the trim stand out; just be careful not to sand the toe lower than the ground pieces.

Attach the small parts to a sanding shim so that they can be shaped as a single unit.

Sand and shape

1 Referring to the Sanding Guide, draw arrows on the parts to indicate the edges that will be sanded (Photo C). Bigger arrows indicate sections that should receive more sanding than the adjacent piece.

2 Using an inflatable drum sander or Flex Drum Sander outfitted with an 80-grit sleeve, sand off the penciled arrows to create the illusion of depth. (For the drum sander and other tools and supplies used for this project, refer to the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide.) Start by sanding the ground/shadow part around Santa’s boots, then his bag and the top of his hat to 1⁄4". Begin rounding the edges of the top faces (Photo D).

3 Continue shaping and tapering the pieces, working from the background to the foreground. After shaping a piece, put it back in place and mark the edges of the adjacent parts. When tapering or rounding the edges of the thicker adjacent pieces, do not sand past the edge guidelines. Refer to the photos below for tips to help create the illusion of depth

Use light glancing passes against the Wonder Wheel to create the effect of creases in the boot and coat. Apply more pressure to darken the lines.

Offering more control than a saw or sandpaper, a fine-tipped woodburning pen is the perfect tool for tiny details.

4 To sand the face, cut a 3⁄4"-thick scrap piece 

of wood to make a sanding shim (basically, a 

thicker piece of wood that holds smaller parts together so that they can be sanded as a single unit). Affix the face section onto the shim with double-faced tape. After sanding the face 

(Photo E), remove the nose, and taper the face down about 1⁄8" toward the mustache. Reinstall the face pieces and mark the thickness along the sides of the mustache and sides of the nose.

5 Assemble and inspect your work. Now using a 120-grit sanding sleeve, erase sanding scratches and soften any remaining hard edges between the pieces.

6 Referring to the dotted lines in the Pattern, add creases to the bag, jacket, and boots using a grinder outfitted with a Wonder Wheel (Photo F) or a rotary tool outfitted with a saw blade. (To accentuate the creases, hold the Wonder Wheel against the stock until it starts to burn the surface.)

7 Use a woodburner with a fine-point tip to establish the eyelids, referring to dotted lines around Santa’s eyes as a guide (Photo G).

Finish and assemble

1 Hand-sand each piece with 180 grit to erase scratches left by the drum, and then finish up with 220. Remove dust with a tack cloth, and finish each piece with polyurethane. I apply three coats for looks (see the tip below) and to seal the wood to minimize movement that occurs due to seasonal changes in humidity.

2 Spray a light coat of adhesive onto a sheet of paper so that the parts won’t slide around, and then reassemble your Santa. Trace around the project to make a pattern for the backing. Remove the pieces and affix the paper onto a piece of 1⁄8" tempered hardboard. Cut the backing 1⁄16" inside of the line so that it won’t be seen after assembly.

3 Assemble your Santa one last time, and center it on the backer. Without shifting the surrounding parts, remove a 

few of the outermost pieces, 

such as the ground/shadow, hat, and bag, apply a few drops of glue, and reinstall (Photo H). Allow these “anchor points” at least 10-20 minutes to dry before attaching the remaining pieces.

4 Glue on the remaining pieces, filling in between the outer anchor points. Once the piece has had time to dry attach wall-hanging hardware to the hardboard back, hang the plaque, and let the holiday festivities begin.  

Gluing the outermost pieces onto the backer helps anchor the project, preventing the parts from shifting during assembly.

About Our Builder/Designer

Judy Gale Roberts has been making intarsia projects for over 30 years. She teaches intarsia from her classroom/studio in Seymour, Tennessee. For additional patterns or information about upcoming classes, visit or call (800) 316-9010.

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