Old School Veneering

This gentleman's dressing mirror is a perfect introduction to traditional veneering.

This gentleman's dressing mirror is a perfect introduction to traditional veneering.

Veneering has been practiced for thousands of years. It’s a way to take some of the world’s most spectacular but unstable woods, cut them to paper-thinness and glue them to a stable foundation. By veneering, you can repeat natural patterns, create intricate borders and inlays, arrange grain direction and create surface designs that would  be impossible to make with solid wood.

Using veneer adds a new dimension to furniture making and offers wonderful opportunities to the woodworker. However, from a technical perspective, there is the problem of attaching this skin securely to a wood substrate. You don’t want a veneered surface to peel, crack or buckle.

From an aesthetic perspective, it allows the maker to design the “look” of his or her creation, almost like a painter working on a canvas. Veneer can change the perception of a piece. A delicate inlay can emphasize a feature: a cuff around a leg visually anchors a piece; bookmatched doors provide symmetry. Veneer can elevate your furniture from simple to sophisticated.

But, some woodworkers shy from using veneer. First, the term “veneer” implies to some people poor quality and shoddy, dishonest craftsmanship. Then, the process itself is so mysterious. Veneer is thin, fragile and prone to breaking apart. The tools and techniques used in veneering seem difficult and strange.

Veneer leaves should always be sequential for the best match in terms of figure and color. Most figured veneers will need to be flattened before use.

Veneer leaves should always be sequential for the best match in terms of figure and color. Most figured veneers will need to be flattened before use.

If a woodworker were interested, where would he or she start? What tools would be needed? How large and difficult a project should be attempted? As a teacher, I’m always searching for ways to make woodworking more accessible. A project such as this gentleman’s dressing mirror is a perfect introduction to traditional veneering.

I’ve taught this project class at the college level, and the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop is planning to put it on the schedule soon. (Complete plans for the dressing mirror are available through the school for $40 at philadelphiafurnitureworkshop.com).

Traditional Hot Glue and Hammer Veneering
There are several ways to apply veneer to a piece. And if you’re serious about veneering, it’s a good idea to become familiar with all of them. I think the best method to learn first is traditional hammer veneering.

Of all the methods, gluing veneer with hot hide glue and pressing it with a hammer can be the most challenging – and the most satisfying. To achieve success takes a generous amount of patience, a delicate but firm touch and a critical eye. Tackling this method on a small but manageable scale will build confidence and develop your skills.

To get the veneer to lie flat, spray it with a solution of glycerin, alcohol, glue and water then press it between sheets of paper and plywood.

To get the veneer to lie flat, spray it with a solution of glycerin, alcohol, glue and water then press it between sheets of paper and plywood.

For this project, I used mahogany crotch veneer. This is a rich and shimmering veneer filled with light that often features a feather-like grain pattern down the center. Because the cabinet is small, the feather should also be small, and scaled to the cabinet. Many veneer suppliers have photos on their web sites to help you make your selection.

I ordered several sequential leaves to ensure color and grain pattern uniformity – or in case I made a mistake. And having virtually identical leaves will make your inevitable patches almost invisible.

For this project, I ordered three 18″ x 30″ crotches from Ben Barrett of Berkshire Veneers (413-644-9696 or berkshireveneer.com), who searched his inventory and sent me some beautiful crotch leaves that were perfect for the project. These pieces provided all the veneer I needed.

Flattening the Veneer

Several strokes with the veneer saw held against a straightedge will create a clean edge on the veneer leaf.

Several strokes with the veneer saw held against a straightedge will create a clean edge on the veneer leaf.

When the veneer arrives it will probably be buckled and brittle. Veneer in this state is difficult to work, so you’ll need to flatten and soften it. This is easily accomplished with a solution of water, glycerin, alcohol and glue (fish or hide). For this project I used about 1 quart of the solution I typically mix; 3 parts water, 3/4 part glycerin, 1 part alcohol, and 1/4 part glue.

After soaking the veneer on both sides with the solution (dispensed from a spray bottle), I pressed the veneer leaves between sheets of plywood, using absorbent paper (either brown kraft paper or plain newsprint) between the leaves, and then weighted everything down for 24 hours. You only need enough weight to keep the veneer flat, so scrap wood or anything else you have around your shop will do.

Hide glue is generously applied to the back of the edge veneer with a brush.

Hide glue is generously applied to the back of the edge veneer with a brush.

If the veneer isn’t flat the next day, repeat the process. Or if the veneer is flat but still damp, change the absorbent paper and wait another 24 hours. When the veneer is completely dry, flat and pliable, it will cut easily and glue up nicely with minimal checking or buckling. 

Cut the crotches for the project parts (allow generous margins all around), reserving the most striking veneer for the sides, top and drawer front. Then lay out the sides and top so that the grain is continuous, running up one side, over the top then down the other side, without interruption. The underside of the cabinet is not veneered. Save the second leaf for the drawer front. Everything else can be cut from the leftovers.

Using a veneer hammer, press firmly down on the edge. Look for a tight joint and light glue squeeze-out. Let the veneer overlap at the corners.

Using a veneer hammer, press firmly down on the edge. Look for a tight joint and light glue squeeze-out. Let the veneer overlap at the corners.

Rest your veneer on a flat scrap of plywood and put a wooden straightedge on the line. Rest your veneer saw against the straightedge and gently pull it toward you. It will take several passes to make the cut.

When preparing the narrow strips for the cabinet edge, the mirror frame and the feet, I first apply veneer tape to the strips to protect them. This paper tape (activated by moisture and available from veneer suppliers) acts as reinforcement, helping to keep the veneer strips flat and in one piece.

Lightly wet the veneer strip on both sides, apply the tape to the top side, and press gently with a rubber roller. Then weight the strips down with a piece of scrap until they dry. Highly figured wood usually has small cracks or other defects and I also use veneer tape to repair these.