The Art of Sedefkari

Sedef is the Turkish name of mother of pearl and is widely used in traditional wood crafting as inlay. Sedefkari is a traditional Turkish art and very fine examples of this art are found during the Ottoman period between the 15th and 19th centuries, where it became very popular in Palaces and great mosques as architectural features, furniture and embroidery. Today, there are few artists that can continue this traditional work. Gaziantep is one of the few cities where this tradition lives on.

The quality of the mother of pearl is very important. All shelled molluscs contain some sort of mother of pearl, however freshwater molluscs produce the best, large, flat, pearl blanks and are milky white in colour to create a pleasing contrast on the dark wood. It is for this reason that they are used. It is not easy to convert an arched shell to flat pieces for inlay blanks, but the skill and mastery of the craftsman comes to the fore here. The Sedefkar (craftsman in Turkish) cuts the mussels shells into required sizes using only pliers. Using a saw would cause cracks on the shell during the cutting process and render it useless. Each piece is then flattened using a grinding wheel.

The wood used must be good quality, and for this reason only walnut, mahogany, beech wood, apricot, ebony or rose wood are used. Once the appropriate wood is selected a carcass is created using special techniques. The most intricate items are created using 'Kundekari' techniques. In this technique no glue or nails are used to create the wooden frame, only smaller wooden pieces are crafted individually and fixed to each other to create the complete frame. As this technique is very labour intensive and requires a lot of skill, only select objects are made this way. The wood is dried and treated to prevent warping and bug infestation in the long term for all techniques used.

In the Sedef inlay technique, the Sedefkar first draws his design on the wood. Traditional Ottoman and Selchuk motifs as well as modern motifs featuring flowers, leaves and curly branches are used in sedefkari. Once the motifs are drawn, the Sedefkar punches very narrow channels using chisels to embed the metal wires around the areas where the mother of pearl is to be embedded. The beautiful solid lines seen around the mother of pearl pieces are not paint or drawn by a brush or pen but wires that are hammered in place. This process is also known as 'Telkari" or "Tel cekme". The channels must be narrower than the diameter of the wire to ensure the wire is firmly embedded using only a hammer. Various metals can be used in "telkari" including brass, copper, aluminium, silver and even gold. Once "telkari" is completed, the Sedefkar applies diluted glue over the metal wires to ensure no gap is left under the wires and leaves the item to dry before moving onto the next stage.

The next step is embedding the mother of pearl into the wooden item. The Sedefkar carves the areas where the mother of pearl is to be embedded using various chisels up to a couple of millimetres in depth. Using purpose made paste that contains walnut wood dust, mussel shell dust and wood glue, the individual pieces are glued into the carved grooves. It is critical that the individual mother of pearl pieces fit perfectly into the carved grooves, therefore both the groove and pieces must be fine tuned prior to gluing. The glue is allowed to set for a minimum of 24 hours before the items can be sanded to achieve a smooth surface finish. Different tools including sandpaper are used to achieve the perfect finish on the surface. The Sedefkar must be very careful during the sanding process to avoid dislodging the wire or damaging the pieces of mother of pearl and wood. The items are then cleaned thoroughly to remove dust prior to the next stage.

If the item is to remain in its natural wood colouring, a special solution is applied and the item allowed to dry before an application of olive oil prior to final sanding. However, if the item is to feature a darker colour prior to oiling, it is burnt using a gas torch to the desired degree. The item needs to be cleaned again prior to polishing.

The final stage of sedefkari is polishing where the item achieves its final look. Purpose made special Shellac varnish (prepared using Shellac oil, spirit and alcohol) is applied on the item using cotton pads or cloth.