At some point in the not-too-distant past, the word “veneer” became synonymous with “crap” in the minds of most Americans. It’s not hard to understand why. Just go to any national furniture chain today and look at all the shiny junk they’re hawking: cheap wood (or plastic) veneers over even cheaper wood (or particleboard) frames.
It wasn’t always like this though. Veneer has been used for centuries by the finest woodworkers and furniture makers. It allows the craftsman to use exotic and beautifully figured pieces of wood that might otherwise be too expensive. Because veneers are so thin, they can be curved and bent and cajoled into all sort of different shapes. They can also be used to inlay a pattern or design on an existing piece. That said, I never had any thought of working with veneer, nor did I particularly want to. But then we found this antique writing desk at a shop in northern CT.
It was made by the Grand Rapids Chair Company. It’s a nice little piece that looks to have mahogany veneer over a hardwood skeleton. There is a raised diamond-shaped onlay of mahogany on the fold-down desk. The desktop was in pretty good condition – a few scratches and a stain ring, but the sides had some peeling veneer.
My plan was to sand and re-stain the top, then either repair the side veneer or peel it off and paint. Like most of my plans, this one flew off the rails almost immediately. I
don’t didn’t have a ton of experience with veneer (just north of none), so I approached the desktop as I would any solid piece of wood: I loaded my sander with 60 grit and went berserk.
Things went well at first. The scratches and gouges that marred the surface melted away beneath my orbital machine. But, whoa! What the hell was happening in that corner? Why was the wood turning color? Maybe it would sand out? Better hit it harder. Nope. That just made it bigger. And why was the grain different?
The light bulb switches on…
The palm hits the forehead…
The spreading splotch was the wood underneath the veneer. Actually, it, too, is veneer. It’s what is called a backing layer. Rewind to when I started sanding: I did have the presence of mind to look at the thickness of the veneer to see how much room I had to sand.
But of the thickness I was looking at (maybe 2-2.5mm), only about 0.6-0.8mm was the nice mahogany veneer. The rest was a substrate, a backing veneer devoid of beauty, applied only to strengthen the gossamer sheet atop it.
It is during these times of failure and ruin that new plans stampede into my head with all the grace and subtlety of a wildebeest migration in the Serengeti.
Rip off all the veneer!
Re-veneer it yourself!
How hard can it be???
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