Shop-Made Wood Veneer – Part 3

Applying the Veneer

If you missed Part 1 and Part 2 of this series and you have no veneer to apply, go back and check those out. If you’ve been with me the whole time and are ready to apply your veneers, then read on!

So now you’ve got a stack of veneer sitting on your workbench. You may even notice that it’s already starting to curl. To prevent that, stack some plywood and weights on top to keep them flat. Now – let’s start veneering!

Adjacent Veneer Pieces

Before we make a traditional veneer press, you’ll want to join any adjacent veneers together. 

If you need two (or more) pieces of veneer to cover your substrate – as you would for a bookmatched panel – tackle the veneer seams first. It’s important your veneer edges are flat and square. I jointed and ripped my stock edge before resawing, so I didn’t have any trouble with this. If your veneer edges aren’t lining up properly, clamp them together vertically and square them up with a hand plane.

Lay those pieces on your bench with the resawn side up (this will be your show side). To attach them, use painter’s tape to “stitch” the seam. First, apply several pieces across the seam horizontally, and then one long strip vertically down the seam. Once taped, flip the piece over, bend the veneers back at the seam slightly, and add glue to the seam. Reclose the seam and lay the stitched veneers—taped side down—on two scrap pieces of wood to hold them in a slight “U” shape, as shown below. Be sure to wipe off any excess glue or squeeze out, and leave the pieces to dry. Leaving the veneer seam in this slight U-shape will allow the tape to act as a clamp, keeping pressure across the entire seam.

Gluing adjacent veneer pieces
Exaggerated depictions of joining adjacent veneer pieces

The Traditional Veneer Press

When I first starting researching this, I was under the impression I needed a vacuum press to do it well. I don’t know why, but it didn’t occur to me that it’s been done for hundreds of years without a vacuum press. I discovered that the traditional method is really quite simple. 

While your seams are drying, it’s time to move on to building your veneer press. To make a traditional press, you need the material mentioned in Part 2. The press is made up of multiple layers—battens, clamping caul, platen, veneer, substrate, veneer, platen, clamping caul, battens. This is shown below:

Veneer Press

The Layers of a Veneer Press

The clamping cauls are solid boards meant to distribute pressure evenly and keep everything flat. I used 3/4” plywood as my clamping cauls; thinner material might not distribute clamping pressure as evenly as you’d like it.

The platens are an additional thinner piece, usually waxed hardboard or melamine, that help prevent glue from bonding your veneer to the cauls. In my veneer press, I tapedwax paper to the cauls to act as the platens. Although this didn’t add anything in terms of pressure distribution, it did keep the glue from sticking, which is the primary goal. Make sure the pieces of each layer are bigger than the final dimensions of your substrate—you’ll need room to cut it to size.

This multi-layer stack has hardwood battens on top and bottom used for clamping. To make the battens, cut a few pieces of scrap hardwood to about 1” by 1 1/2” and a few inches longer than your camping cauls are wide. The most important part of the battens is that they need to be curved; since you’ll be clamping at the ends of the battens, having a convex curve will ensure pressure is applied evenly across the batten and in the center of the piece when clamped from the ends.

Rather than curve the hardwood strips themselves, I added some 1/16” thick pieces that don’t span the full length of the battens and used painter’s tape to hold them in place. After some trial and error, I found it’s best to use a pretty dense hardwood for this so that the wood doesn’t give when clamped. I tried poplar and butternut, but ended up having the most success with maple, which was the nicest scrap I was willing to use for this task. 

The Glue-up

When gluing the veneer to the substrate, always be sure to add the glue to the substrate and not to the veneer. The glue will cause the veneer to curl before you get it attached to core and will be much more difficult to get flat. 

To glue up, place the first set of battens on a flat work surface, curved side up. Lay down the first clamping caul, then the platen on top of the caul. Next, add your veneer to the stack, placed show-side down. In other words, the resawn side towards the platen and flat/jointed side up.

You want to veneer both sides of a substrate (even if the second side won’t be seen) to ensure dimensional stability; if only one side of the core is veneered, you risk the piece taking on moisture unevenly and warping.

Add glue to the substrate and roll or brush it out evenly. Don’t use too much glue or it’ll want to slide when you apply pressure. Of course, you also need to use enough glue to cover the substrate thoroughly. Lay the substrate down on the veneer, then add glue to the other side of the substrate. Add your second veneer show-side up (flat side on the core and resawn side up), then the second platen and caul. Place the opposing battens on the caul, curved side down, and clamp together.

Like Watching Glue Dry…

There are lots of differing opinions on how long to let your glue dry. Some say 30 minutes to an hour, and some say several days. I split the difference and left the clamps on for 24 hours. The idea here is that you want to make sure the glue sets, but if you leave it pressed for too long, restricted air flow will keep the glue from drying and can actually allow mold to form. I had no issues with this over several glue ups at 24 hours or a little more.

Once your veneer has set and dried, you can sand the resawn faces perfectly flat. As long as you didn’t have too much deflection when resewing the veneer, you’ll end up with a smooth surface others will think came from a drum sander.

Veneering Outside the Press

If you’re veneering something other than a flat panel you’ll have to approach this a bit differently. This was the case with the drawer (pictured below) that I’ve been working on for 6 weeks. I veneered the main drawer panel sides in the press, as described above. After completing the drawer joinery and glue up, however, I still had to veneer the top and bottom edges of each drawer panel.

Veneered Drawer
Each piece of the drawer box is veneered on four sides

To do this, I went back to the masking tape. I cut the thin strips of veneer using a straight edge and a razor blade. Cut them slightly oversized, so they’re big enough to trim down later. But don’t leave them so oversized that the veneer wants to crack or bend when taped down. Then just trim or plane them down to final size after gluing them on. Depending on your application, you may have to do this in several stages to ensure everything lines up properly. But regardless of the extra effort, the end result is definitely worth it. 

And there you have it – a veneered whatever-you-made!  It’s an addictive process, and one that I plan to use in my work more and more. Happy veneering!

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