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???
A plan hatched without careful consideration is a plan doomed to setbacks and mistakes, if not outright failure. My plan to re-veneer the desk was conceived while panicking over a sanding error, with absolutely no thought given to what the job may entail. Before I really started any work, I had found a veneer supplier online (www.veneersupplies.com – awesome site!) and bought two different lots of veneer – a lot of European burled walnut and a lot of cedar bosse. A lot is a group of consecutive slices of veneer. Lots of two or more sheets are required for bookmatching or other designs made by joining identical sheets in different ways.
So down to the basement workshop I went, fancy veneers in hand. The first thing I noticed when I unrolled the veneer was how unbelievably thin it was. This stuff was like paper. But brittle!
Okay, no big deal. I’d figure it out. I put the veneer aside and got to work prepping the piece.
My first mistake was the method I chose to remove the old veneer. Had I spent some time at the computer researching the topic, I would have found all sorts of helpful tips such as ironing the old veneer to loosen the glue. But I didn’t, so there I was, chisel in hand, chipping and prying the old veneer off of the desktop.
I got the job done, but not without some damage to the desktop.
The gouges were not too deep, but the veneer I would be using is thin, so even these small imperfections would show through the veneer.
Here is the desk with the old veneer removed.
Veneering the top is a big job, and since this was my first time, I decided I’d start with the drawers, then move on to the fold-down desk (not pictured above), and finish with the desktop. Since I had such a difficult time removing the old veneer from the desktop (and since I hadn’t yet learned easier ways to do it) I decided to leave the old veneer on the drawers and just sand them down a bit before gluing on the new veneer. It is recommended to use a backing veneer with the new veneer, but since I hadn’t ordered any, and I was really impatient to get cracking, I just said “eh, probably not important.” I first measured the drawers, then carefully cut the veneer with a metal straightedge and a razor blade. I cut the veneer slightly larger than the drawer face, figuring I would sand down the excess. I applied wood glue to the drawer face and placed the veneer. The most critical part of gluing veneer is getting it perfectly flat. For the small drawers, it was easy. I covered the entire veneered area with a piece of scrap plywood and clamped everything down tight. I first laid a piece of cling film over the glued veneer so it wouldn’t stick to the plywood. The veneer is so thin that the wood glue seeps right through it.
Once it dried, I had a peek.
Wow, not bad! I sanded it down with 100 grit in a block until flush, then smoothed it out with 220.
I repeated the same process for the other small drawer, then turned my attention to the long drawer. This drawer posed a greater challenge since it not only required me to cut out a curved pattern, but I also wanted to bookmatch it.
That is, I wanted the left and right sides to be mirror images of each other. I had four consecutive sheets of the cedar bosse, so I played around with two of the sheets until I found a mirrored pattern I liked. I made two straight cuts where the pieces would join, fit them together, then taped the joint with painter’s tape. I then placed the drawer front on top of the veneer and traced its pattern.
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