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Veneer is a fantastic product for woodworkers. The possibilities of what you can do with veneer are as amazing as they are endless. Veneer is really quite easy to work with, once you understand how to use it. In this article I will show you everything you need to know to get started with wood veneer. I will share all the tricks, techniques, and tools that I use. I learned from one of the best veneer artists in the country so these are proven methods, but I am not saying that my way is the only way. Other people might take a different approach and if it works for them, then who am I to argue!
To begin with, veneer is sliced off of the log with a knife, a very BIG knife, but a knife just the same. What is important about this is that there is no kerf, so when you buy a bundle of veneer none of the wood has been removed. Because of this we can perfectly match two pieces of veneer together. I will talk more about that in a future blog post.
When suppliers package the veneer they will keep it in the order that it was cut from the log. These are called sequential sheets. It is important to keep track of that sequence so the very first thing I do when I get a bundle of veneer is to number the sheets. While I am working with veneer I will cut it into any number of different pieces and sometimes the number of the sheet will be on the waste piece. For this reason I like to number each sheet in multiple locations. Typically, I will put a number in the middle of each sheet and again at each of the corners.
The next consideration is the substrate; what are you going to apply the veneer to? Traditionally, veneer was applied to solid wood. Of course, traditionally there were no other options. That said, using solid wood is a valid substrate material. I might add figured veneer across the front of a solid wood drawer front to give it some pizzazz!
My preferred substrate material is MDF. MDF gets a bad rap, but it is an excellent substrate for veneer because it is perfectly flat and extraordinarily stable. Plywood is another option. Plywood is stronger and typically more water resistant than MDF, but plywood is not as perfectly flat nor is it as resistant to movement and warping. Still, many people have great success with plywood.
Whole books have been written about selecting which pieces of veneer to use and in what order to use them. I will discuss more about that in my next blog post. For the purposes of Basic Veneering Techniques we will just select the first sheets off the pile and assemble them together.
Cutting the Veneer
I use a utility knife to cut my veneer. I don’t happen to own a veneer saw. I think a veneer saw might be nice to have and I will probably get one someday, but up until now I have gotten by with just a utility knife. I prefer to use a fixed blade knife because the blade is held more solidly in place than it is with a retractable knife, but it is a small point. If all you don’t have a fixed blade knife then a retractable knife will be fine.
I always put a cutting mat on the bench before I start cutting. This is not absolutely necessary, but it keeps me from prematurely damaging my bench top.
I use an aluminum straight edge, which is just a 48″ ruler that I cut down to 36″. What is special about the straight edge that I use is that I applied a strip of PSA sandpaper to the back of it. The sandpaper helps to hold everything in place and I highly recommend adding it to your straight edge. (and your push blocks, too!)
When cutting your veneer you want to hold the straight edge on the side that you are keeping and cut on the waste side. Pressing down on the straight edge as you cut will help to protect the cut line from chipping out. Also, don’t try to cut the veneer in one stroke. It is best to make multiple passes with the knife.
After I cut the veneer with the knife I joint the edges just as you would with solid wood. I do this with a sort of shooting board. Except instead of using a hand plane I use a piece of square aluminum tubing with some more PSA sandpaper attached to it.
I place the veneer just over the edge of a piece of scrap wood to hold it up off the bench. Then I place another piece of scrap wood over the top of the veneer to hold it in place.
Once the veneer is secured, I rub the square tubing with the PSA sandpaper along the edge of the veneer.
This does a great job of cleaning up the edge of the veneer. I run my finger along the veneer to test it and sand only until the edge feels smooth.
Taping Veneer Together
I temporarily piece the veneer together with blue painter’s tape on the back side of the veneer. The nice thing about this tape is that it will stretch just a bit. I place the veneer sheets together, then I firmly attach the tape to one side, then I pull it tightly across to the other sheet of veneer before pressing it in place. This “clamps” the two pieces together nicely!
Once the veneer is temporarily tacked together with the painters tape, I flip it over and add some veneer tape along the seams on the show side of the panel.
Veneer tape is a thin paper tape with dry glue on one side. it is available with perforations or solid, and it is also available in different widths. I usually use the solid, narrow variety.
To apply the veneer tape, tear off a piece, moisten the glue side and immediately press it in place. I know it sounds bad, but for small projects I just lick the back of the tape. If I am doing a lot of taping then I will put a sponge in a bowl and drag the tape across the sponge to moisten it.
Pressing Veneer on to Substrate
The most common way to press veneer to the substrate is with a vacuum bag. A vacuum bag is just two rectangular sheets of vinyl that are seamed together on three sides that has some kind of a fitting where the air can be sucked out. The panel is inserted into the bag through the open side.
Vacuum bags are available commercially or you can make your own with vinyl from a fabric store.
If you don’t have a vacuum bag you can press a small panel by putting it in between some cauls and clamping it with regular woodworking clamps. Some people use large (and expensive) mechanical veneer presses.
If you use a vacuum bag then you should put something over the top of the panel to ensure that the air is drawn out evenly across the entire panel. I use cloth window screen for this. You can even use an old bath towel.
Successful vacuum veneering requires about 23″ of vacuum or more. Fortunately, a decent vacuum pump will easily produce 25″-27″ of vacuum. There is now an AMAZING variety of inexpensive vacuum pumps available on Amazon! This one has a 4 star rating and it is under $60!
I bought a used refrigeration pump off of Ebay a few years ago, but if I were buying one today I would definetly look on Amazon first.
There are a large variety of glues available for veneering. I usually use regular white glue (PVA) for veneer. I like it because it is safe, inexpensive, it is easy to use, and it has a little bit longer open time than yellow glue.
Here is a list of other glues that you can use:
Urea Formaldehyde Glue This is one of the best glues you can use. It has a very long open time and it dries very hard. It is not as easy to use as the PVA glues and there are some toxicity issues with it.
Cold Press Veneer Glue This is another PVA similar to white glue except it contains fillers. The advantage is that it is less likely to get sucked through the veneer when in a vacuum bag. Good stuff!
Unibond Veneer One This veneer glue is new to the marketplace. It is advertised as a safer alternative to urea formaldehyde glue and it has received very good reviews from those who have tried it.
Hide Glue Hide glue is the original veneer glue! Prized by furniture restorers and traditional woodworkers. Hide glue has unique working properties and may be the best choice for traditional woodworking and some specialized applications.
Contact Cement Some people will use contact cement, but it is generally NOT recommended for veneer work.
Make it happen!
Spread some glue over the entire panel, but don’t over do it because too much glue will leave lumps under the veneer.
I add a few small pieces of blue tape around the edges just to ensure that it doesn’t slide out of place when I put it into the bag.
When veneering a panel, especially a thin panel, it is best to veneer both sides. If you veneer just one side then the stresses from the veneer on that side of the panel can cause it to warp. For this panel I added some book matched walnut burl to the opposite side. I will have another article soon on how I did the 4 way book match. Subscribe to my blog and I will send you an email when that article is ready.
Put the panel in to the bag
The panel needs to stay in the vacuum bag for at least 25 minutes with white glue, but I usually leave it in for 45 minutes to an hour.
The next step after removing the panel from the bag is to remove the veneer tape. I find that if I moisten the tape just a bit the glue will soften up enough that I can usually remove the tape with just my fingers.
There are usually a few remnants of tape left at this step. I remove the easy parts with a card scraper. The rest comes of when I sand the panel. Speaking of sanding, veneer is thin but I have no qualms about cautiously using a random orbit sander with 120 grit or higher paper.
I am always eager to see what the panel will look like with a finish on it. Here I am adding a coat of shellac to a small mahogany panel right after pressing.
I do hope you liked this article and that you found some value in it. Please leave a comment and let me know how you liked this. If you did find value in this article then subscribe to my blog and I will send you an email every time I post a new article.
This is part of a continuing series on veneering techniques. Please check out my article on How to Repair Holes in Figured Veneer. I also have a video on How to Flatten Veneer with Hot Plates and an Oven.