Making progress. Those top and bottom pieces are bookmatched. The sides are too, and they were a real bitch to make because of the wood grain. And after all that work on the sides, I had to toss them in the end because they didn’t fit. More on that later.
And here we are, all the pieces cut and laid in their proper places. Everything fit perfectly. Little did I know at the time that this was a colossal mistake which would add hours of work and vigilance to an already over-long project.
It was time to start gluing the veneer to the desk. I started with the back edge. I applied wood glue to the veneer, laid it in its place, covered it with cling film, laid a piece of hardwood on top of the cling film, and clamped the whole thing down tight. I let the glue set, then un-clamped it a few hours later.
Next I glued the main panel in place.
My clamps did not give enough clamping force to the middle of the piece, so when I took them off (fortunately the glue was not 100% dry), there was an air bubble under the veneer. There were also a couple of spots near the edges that weren’t properly adhered. I solved this by placing scraps of hardwood on the bubbles and clamping the ones near the edges. But since the clamps couldn’t reach the middle spot, I used an old iron hook and pulley that must weigh about 50 or 60 pounds.
I noticed something after gluing that piece of walnut. It was something that I also noticed with the first piece I glued, but I dismissed it then as random error. The glued pieces of veneer that I oh-so-carefully measured, cut and placed had surpassed their penciled constraints in all directions. It didn’t take long for the “ah-ha” moment, followed immediately by the “ah, sh!t” moment. Veneer is wood. Glue has water. Water makes wood swell. I may have cried then. I may have swore. I may have just closed my eyes and accepted my fate. I don’t recall. But what I needed to do was trim all of the pieces after I glued them. To do that in the least painful manner would mean timing the glue-curing cycle so that I could un-clamp each piece before the glue had fully set and turned rock-hard, so I could make those cuts a little easier.
Moving on, I glued on and sliced away, making slow and steady progress. I got creative with clamps and weights when needed.
A final word about gluing the veneer: for almost all of the pieces I glued to the desktop, I applied the glue to the veneer, and then placed the veneer onto its spot. As I mentioned, I had problems with the veneer swelling, but I also had problems, especially with the long strips, with the veneer curling. This made it very difficult to align the veneer properly and to get it to lay flat on the desk. I mentioned this to Handan when I was all but done with the veneering, and she said that I should apply the glue to the desktop, and lay the veneer on top of that. She told me that she had learned this method by trial and error when she was first learning how to decoupage. Her pieces always turned out better when she would apply Mod Podge to the work surface, and then stick the pieces of paper onto the glue. The reason I hadn’t used this method until then is that I was trying to keep my pieces of veneer within the lines of the pattern I had drawn on the desk, and putting glue on the desk obscured those lines. But I only had a few more small pieces to glue, so I tried her method, and you know, it seemed to work much better! I noticed less swelling of the veneer, and it was certainly easier to place since it wasn’t curled from the water in the glue. By spreading the glue carefully on the desk, I was still able to see my guide lines.
Of course there were more problems along the way. Sometimes a piece would shift while I was trying to clamp it. Two arms were not always enough for this job. I was left with a few gaps. One I filled with tiny strips of veneer.
For the others, I relied on an old woodworker’s hack: fill the crack with a paste made from the sawdust of the wood you’re using and wood glue and sand it down when dry.
After the cracks were filled, I sanded the whole desktop with a random orbital sander with 150 and 220 grit. This had to be done lightly and carefully lest I burn through the veneer I just spent month applying. This was, after all, how this whole business got started, as you may recall.
In keeping with my long and storied tradition of making sh!t up as I go along, I decided to try using some grain filler before applying polyurethane. One of my main problems with the fold-down desk panel featured in Part 2, was that the grain of the walnut was so pronounced that it sucked up the polyurethane and left dimples and ridges all over the surface. Sealing those pores with grain filler would solve this problem, I hoped. I opted for CrystaLac Wood Grain Filler as it dries clear, is stainable (not important for this particular project), and has good ratings on Amazon.
This stuff is like mayonnaise, so what better way to apply it than with my hands. Um…right? I slathered it on, troweled off the excess and let it dry.
Dries clear, except for big holes, like this one that I missed with my sawdust and glue hack.
After lightly sanding and cleaning the veneer with mineral spirits, I was ready to start finishing with Minwax Clear Gloss Wipe-on Polyurethane. I really love this stuff. It is easy to apply and gives very good results. Like all things, it takes a bit of practice to get it perfect, but for smaller pieces, you can’t beat it.
I poured on some poly and spread it around. This is okay when applying the first coat, but after that, I prefer to add a little to the rag and wipe it on.
Here is the first coat finished. As a note, I will say that I refinished this top 3 or 4 times before I was satisfied. I sanded up to 1500 grit with the orbital sander, both wet and dry. I kept chasing that elusive perfectly flat finish. I came very close. By my last time finishing it, I only need one coat of poly, applied sparingly from the rag.
Click on ‘Next’ to continue.