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Hammer Veneering a New Top


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Figure 1. The finished top, ready for the next stage of the restoration.

 The existing mahogany veneered top of my latest project, a refinishing of a 1928 Brunswick radio cabinet for use as an LP player stand, was in horrendous shape.  The years of misuse were particularly hard on it...  It appears that for many years it has served as a plant stand, and had many patches of veneer missing, dented, or discolored right through the veneer.  My original intent was to patch and refinish it, but the damage was simply too great.

I decided to re-veneer the entire top (figure 1).  I didn't want to disassemble the top from the cabinet, so a vacuum press was out of the question (if I even had one).  I decided to go old-school on it and hammer veneer a new top on using hide glue.  All the veneering I've done before has been for smaller pieces - I've not done it on this large of a scale before. So, this is going to be a bit of an adventure and a learning experience as there's a few new things I'll be trying.  

Now, I'm no expert, so if you are interested there's a great episode of The Woodright's Shop 28th season on hammer veneering and decorative veneer available online for those interested - look for the episodes titled "Hammer Veneer" and "Holly Wood Spectaculars".  Must see TV for the galoot, if such a thing there is.  There is also a nice pictorial of the hammer veneering process on John Thiesen's web site that has the fortune of being quite a bit more succinct than I am...

     Removing the Existing Veneer

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Figure 2.  An old iron has many uses when veneering - or when removing it, as shown.  A heat gun is another.

 First up is to remove the existing veneer.  It proved a little tougher than I hoped as the veneer had dried out quite a bit over the years and refused to come up in any large pieces.  To aid the removal, I got out my trusty old iron - just an old clothes iron that was being thrown out because - well, I don't really know why, it works fine.  Anyway, set on low, I used it to heat the veneer so the hide glue that holds it would release its grip.  I also used an old, dulled scraper to work under the veneer (figure 2) - a sharp one can gouge the surface and cut the veneer (what we don't want) rather than get under it and lift it from the substrate (which we do want).




     Smoothing the Surface

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Figure 3.  A fore and a smoother plane is used to even out the top.

Starting with a fore plane I flatten the surface of the top, working the plane generally diagonally in each direction.  When I have it flat enough, I switch to a smooth plane, taking light cuts to get the top as smooth as possible (figure 3). 

The top itself is made from a lesser, more stable wood - I'd say poplar - and is in quite good shape.  Poplar makes it very easy to work with a plane...  The only real difficulty I foresee here is trimming the new veneer to the ogee edge.

Once I'm satisfied the top is smooth, the next step is to rough it up again - the old timers would use a toothing plane to lightly scuff up the surface, but unfortunately I don't own one (something I'm working on rectifying).  So - without one I take the next reasonable solution and scuff the surface with some 60 grit sandpaper.

 Once the surface is ready, I size it using a thinned out mixture of hide glue.  This is a good time to use up any old glue you might have - glue that's lost it's hold.  It can be watered down and used as sizing.  Sizing serves a couple of purposes, but it's main purpose here is so that when you are hammer veneering the substrate wood doesn't soak up the water in your hide glue and shorten the working time you have - you have to work quickly, so every little bit counts.   

Because the top is mounted to the cabinet, I'm not going to need to size or veneer the bottom.  However, if this was a loose board, veneering each side becomes a necessity as the veneer will literally curve the top - veneering both sides balances the tug of war and keeps the piece flat.  It's good practice here to check that the top is truly well-secured underneath, as the force the veneer will put on it when only doing one side is truly surpising...  If there are any doubts, it's probably best to remove the top entirely and veneer both sides.


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Figure 4.  Sizing helps to keep the veneer from curling too severely when gluing.

 I also size the veneer I'm going to use.  Starting about a week before the job, I give each side of the veneer a coat of thinned hide glue, and repeat that a couple of times before doing the actual veneering.  It's not absolutely necessary, but I find it makes the job of veneering go a little easier as I'm not fighting the veneer as much, and it also helps to keep the veneer more flexible.  This probably isn't important when using a fairly stable veneer, but the more figured ones are going to behave much better if you can size them, and it can't hurt with more stable veneers like these are.

 You can see in the photo (figure 4) the two pieces I'm using...  The one on the left I've just finished sizing both sides.  The one on the right I've only sized one side - and in just the time it took to grab the camera, it curled just as you see.  Flipping it over, I sized it and it returned to a more flattened state.

To store the veneer after sizing, I used wax paper and placed the strips between two sheets of plywood with a little weight on it to help the wood hold it's flat shape. I need to set up a more permanent veneer storage someday, for now that's about all I do.

The sizing needs to be quite thin to work without building up on the veneer too much - about a fourth as much glue per volume of water or even less (depending on the stickiness of the glue) so it doesn't leave an excess of glue on the surface.

     Trimming the Veneer to Size

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Figure 5.  After veneering the first piece, I place some wax paper over it so it dries through more evenly.

After the veneer has been sized, I trim it a little closer to it's finished size using a straightedge and utility knife or veneer saw (figure 5).  I prefer the knife, but I don't have a  metal straightedge longer than 24", something I'll be remedying soon, for reasons yet to be revealed.  The main problem I have with a veneer saw is that the teeth always seem to get gummed up with glue and junk, and they have more tendency to rip out the grain during a cross-grain cut. In the end, the veneer is about an inch or so larger than the finished piece will be in each direction.

Once it's veneering day, I start by checking my environment first... since heat is a primary ingredient of "hot" hide glue (hot is also an unfortunate term, as your kitchen sink may produce hotter water), this means the colder it is the faster it will set up.  So, whenever I know I'm going to be working with a good amount of hide glue or will need a little extra setting time, I turn the furnace up in the shop to get it as warm as I can.   The earlier the better, as to warm up the surfaces of the wood as well.

I then make sure I have everything handy - the tools I'll need are well within reach, there's a bucket of warm water (I use water out of one of my glue pots).  A heat gun and the veneer hammer, of course...  and a rag or two, the type that when used against drying glue it won't leave little bits of fabric behind.

       Hammer Veneering the First Piece

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Figure 6.  After veneering the first piece, I place some wax paper over it so it dries through more evenly while I prepare to veneer the other side.


 Hammer veneering is, of course, a bit of a misnomer.  While it's called a veneer "hammer", the tool is really more of a squeegee in how you use it.  You don't have to have an expensive hammer, either - it can be made from simple materials, and I have a basic how-to located here on making your own - one of which you can see in the photo on the right.  Charles Hayward also has several texts where he documents making them you might investigate.  It is 6" wide - wider than most (most are 3" - 4" wide), but I found it was easy to use, perhaps even better in some manners.

First off, I heat the various parts to be glued up using a heat gun - not so much that it burns, the idea is just to warm the surface up enough so it will hold the heat long enough to extend the setting time of the glue.  Once finished, I check again that all I'm going to need is within reach, that I have enough glue ready to go, and then start the process.

I lay the glue on the half of the top that's going to receive  the veneer on with a cheap old 2" brush, trying not to let it pool in any area too much.  I then do the same for the bottom of the piece of veneer that I'll be using.  Once that's ready, I lay the veneer into place and again cover the top of the veneer - yes the top - with glue as well.  This serves a couple of purposes - first to equalize the sides of the veneer so it behaves well and lays down properly, and it also serves to lubricate the hammer.

     Both Sides Laid

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Figure 7.  The top, fully veneered but not yet trimmed.  The top half of the veneer is lighter because the glue is still fresh

 Starting at the center, I squeegee out the glue using a zig-zag pattern using a firm but not heavy pressure.  I keep going for as long as the hammer lets me - once the glue begins to set up the hammer begins to drag.  If the veneer is still not holding down as well as I hope, I use some warm water on a rag to lightly wet the surface to allow me to continue working the top with the hammer, working out the bubbles and getting the veneer to lay flat, using my fingernail to tap the top to find any hollow sounds, which indicate the veneer isn't holding down.  If needed, I can hit it with the iron or heat gun, or even add more hot hide glue to the surface to keep working it flat. 

When it finally starts to hold  - while the glue sets up quickly, it still seems like forever - I stop veneering and place some wax paper over the fresh veneer to keep the veneer from drying unevenly then lay some plywood and weight on it to hold it flat (figure 6).

The second piece is laid just like the first, overlapping the first by about an inch or so, allowing me to "joint" the two veneers together after it's dried for  a bit (figure 7).  Another option is to joint the two pieces using a shooting board and using veneer tape, tape the two pieces together and lay it as one large veneer...  This can be somewhat frantic if it gets too large, so I chose to do it in two pieces and joint them together after.

     Jointing Illustration

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Figure 8.  Illustrating the jointing process.  Top: the overlaid joint.  Middle: cutting through both layers of veneer.  Bottom:  removing the waste.

"Jointing" is simply cutting through the overlapped pieces, then - after heating the joint with an iron - pulling the waste pieces away as illustrated on the right (figure 8) - a graphic I drew with inspiration from a similar illustration in Charles Hayward's "The Complete Book of Woodwork" (I heartily recommend all of his books to the interested reader).  It illustrates the general idea of jointing, though it is a bit more elegant in presentation than it is in practice. Another of his books that are particularly suited to this project is "Antique Furniture Repairs", which addresses most repairs one will encounter in fixing up all kinds of old furniture, including veneer.




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Figure 9.  Lessons learned - get a metal straightedge.  This wooden one got me into trouble.

 When both pieces are laid, and the glue has had enough time to set up to where I don't have to worry about it curling up on me (about a half hour to an hour after finishing the last piece) it's time to joint the two pieces together.  Here's where I mess up...

I lay a straightedge across the middle of the overlap, and grab my knife to cut through both layers of veneer (figure 9).  Big mistake... the only straightedge I have long enough is wood - so instead of using the knife I should have used the veneer saw - because when I was pulling the knife along the wooden rule, it veered into the ruler and actually started cutting it!  Needless to say I messed up the nice joint line, right in the middle of the top.  I'll have to see if I can fix it - but as a luthier once told me, mess-ups like that are really just opportunities for inlay...  More on that later.

     Ironing the Joint

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Figure 10.  An old iron is used to heat up the veneer at the joint

 Once the cut is made through the overlapping veneers, I take the trusty old glue-covered iron and warm the joint sufficiently that the glue gives releases the waste (figure 10). The top layer is obviously easier because of its location and it lifts off easily (figure 11).

 The bottom is a little trickier - you must heat the glue enough to release its hold on the overlapping veneer enough to roll it back and give you enough room to work.  It's probably best to keep some glue handy as I found the hammering process had removed enough that hammering the top down again was more difficult than I had hope.  All this required my full attention, so I wasn't able to photograph the process, unfortunately.

     Jointing - Removing the Waste

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Figure 11.  Once the glue is heated up, I can remove the waste by lifting up the overlap

It's important to get the waste completely cleaned off, as well.  Pieces of veneer left behind will not sit will when you re-glue the top layer back down.  It might be that this takes a bit longer than the set time you have available - another reason to have glue handy.  Again, the alternative to this process is to do the jointing process beforehand, using a shooting board to trim the edges of your veneer then taping them together with veneer tape and gluing the assembled pieces as one, large veneer. This may be a more palatable approach to some, and one I will also try out for my next adventure in veneering.

Once the waste is removed, I make sure the two sides fit together as well as possible and reapply some hide glue to the substrate and to the veneer, then hammer the joint down again using the veneer hammer.  Once complete, I lay some wax paper over the whole affair and set some weight on it, then wait for it to dry - at least 24 hours - till I can come and doing the final trimming. 

     Trimming the Edges

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Figure 12.  Using a carpenters square and the veneer saw, I trim the edge of the veneer off, leaving about 1/8" overhang.

 Once the glue has sufficiently dried, giving the veneer enough strength to withstand a little working, I trim the veneer at the back of the top (where there was no shaped edge) to square using a block plane.   I then trim the remaining edges to within a 1/16" to 1/8" of their finished width.  I was too nervous to get it too close, afraid I would cut too far inboard, as its hard to tell exactly where the edge of the shaped ogee is under the overhanging veneer - and things are easier to remove than they are to replace, so a little patience and a cautious approach is in order.

I first clamp an old carpenter's square into place as best as possible (figure 12),  A veneer saw or a utility knife can be used to do the actual trimming, the most important things to remember are to use them to repeatedly score the veneer where you want to cut it using light strokes, and to always work inward from a corner, especially when working the cross grain at the ends.  If you are pulling the saw/knife outward, it's likely that the grain will pull out at the edge in an uncontrolled fashion, which could result in removing veneer where you don't want it removed, forcing you to patch your new work. This can be a nerve-wracking and ultimately disappointing process - a little care taken now will save you much frustration in the end.

     Trimming the Veneer

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Figure 13.  A shoulder plane helps remove the last of the overhang.

The ogee on the existing edge of the top proved frustratingly difficult to work.  I tried several methods, all of which have drawbacks... A scraper left large random tracks, rough sandpaper was too rough on the existing shape, and a shoulder plane wanted to dig a trench into the existing shape without holding it just so.  






     Cleaning up the Corners

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Figure 14.  Care was taken not do damage the corner or the underlaying ogee curve of the substrate during the trimming of the veneer.


In the end,. it was a combination of all the approaches that worked best.  I started with a scraper, removing the excess hide glue that had piled up.  A shoulder plane then was used to bring the veneer close to the finished shoulder of the ogee (figure 13).   Following that, I used sandpaper, both with a block and without, to remove the marks left by both the scraper and the shoulder plane and to get the edge to where it finally wanted to be.

Care was taken in all processes to always work from the outside in to avoid tearing out any veneer (figure 14).  It really it wasn't all that time consuming, but it was somewhat tedious work - not something you really want to save time on, as it will show in the final product if you do.

     Scraping the Top

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Figure 15.  A Stanley #80 is a great tool for removing the majority of the glue from the surface.

 Now that the tedious job of trimming the edges is complete, I can move on to the vigorous job of preparing the surface. Here, a Stanley #80 cabinet scraper (figure 15) is the best tool for the job.  Using a hand scraper is possible, but I find it very tiring to use, and also difficult to use consistently.  The #80, when set up properly, will only remove as much as you tell it to.  It also allows you to adjust the cutting depth when you need...  Invariably on old work like this, I find the top will have a slight variance across it's breadth after hammer veneering that wasn't there prior.  It's because of the same forces that warp the veneer, and because of the shallow depth the scraper is set to, it can skip over parts of the surface.

Once you can see raw wood throughout, the scraping is complete.  Scraping this top down took me about 45 minutes or so.  The only real difficulty I had was in securing the cabinet to allow me to run the scraper over it - I ended up sitting on the thing, scraping the far end, then reversing myself and doing the other.  When scraping the middle, I set the end of the cabinet against the bench and wrap my foot around the interior of the openings on the front and back to keep it from moving around while scraping. 

An additional note of caution is to watch that you don't scrape through the thickness of the veneer, especially at the edges.  As I've already mentioned, it's easier to remove the material than it is to replace it...

     A Bad Joint

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Figure 16.  Here's that center gap after scraping - it's still too visible.

 OK, the top did not go down without a few issues.  First was the jointing debacle - using the wooden straightedge with a knife was a bad idea, and one I knew was stupid, but I didn't think - which is usually what gets me into trouble.  I suppose I could blame it on the fact this was my first real veneer joint done with this method, but no, not really.  It was just the stupid part...

So, like I mentioned earlier, this is right in the center of the top, and you can see the result after scraping that it's a bit too wide to be filled with colored shellac stick (figure 16).  I've got a plan for this area that means I won't need to repair this section, but that is for the next episode - and I will fill the reader in then with the details.

 The other problem encountered I wanted to point out occurred while scraping the top - apparently the grain had a little runout right at the end where I joined the two separate pieces of veneer, and in the process of jointing them I weakened it substantially enough that it let go while I was scraping the surface (figure 17). 

     Another Problem...

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Figure 17.  While scraping, this piece at the joint came off and will need to be repaired, which I will report on in the next episode of this restoration.

 This also has some future work I'll be doing in this area, so it's repair will also wait until the next episode.  Had I not intended to do the additional work I'm planning, the fix for both of these would/will be similar to the previous articles on veneer repair, albeit with paying particular attention to grain, it's color, and it's orientation..  Being it's a new veneer, and I have more on hand, matching it will be much easier, making a truly invisible repair much easier to accomplish than with the 80+ year old veneer patched before.




     The Veneered Top

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The finished top, ready for the next episode.

 In the end, though I was a bit nervous about it at times, the top turned out well enough.  A little more care would likely have saved me from the last issues mentioned, but those are not so bad as to be unrepairable.

It's a very traditional method, one that I found quite a lot of fun to do - and one that others have told me is intimidating.  I didn't - and I hope I've had some success in dispelling a few of the myths that seem to surround it, and encouraged a few others to try it as well.   

Stay tuned, as there's more to come in the restoration of this old cabinet, including hopefully the foreshadowed additions to this very top and some of the refinishing processes and products I use for projects such as this.



Enjoyed your trip in veneering. 

Thanks for the time put into the artical.
Brings back my frustrations and joy upon completions.
The Sawdust Journal