This is the first in a three-part story, each showing a different way of applying veneer to a substrate. When veneering wood, it is important to remember a couple of things. First, and foremost, veneer always needs to be counterbalanced, meaning, ALWAYS apply veneer to both sides of the substrate. When glue is applied between two surfaces, it shrinks, or contracts when it dries. This contraction pulls the surface in tension and cups it. To balance this out, the exact procedure should be done to both sides, balancing out the tension created by the glue drying. Taken from experience, I cannot emphasize this enough!
Second, it is important to get an even bond between the veneer and substrate. Take your time applying adhesive, making sure each surface is evenly covered. While each coat doesn’t need to be thick, it should be nice and even. Lastly, while we all have busy shops, it is a good idea to control dust when veneering. Wayward dust has a way of finding its way into the glue. Not only does this affect the quality of the bond, but if the dust is large enough a bump can telegraph through to the surface, making sanding and finishing a nightmare. This is particularly true with table-tops, when viewed under raking light. Again, trust me on this one!
The quickest way to veneer a surface with wood, plastic laminate or phenolic or paper backed veneer is to use contact cement. This is a great solution if you rarely intend to veneer, as it requires little set-up, few tools and is relatively low-tech. It doesn’t require clamping, but rather, pressure in the form of a J-Roller or shop-made burnishing tool. It is also ideal for large, full-sheet sized veneering jobs, where even clamping pressure across a large surface is difficult to achieve. The downsides are it is expensive, is a bit messy if you aren’t careful, and requires learning the nuances of a new adhesive. It is also rather unforgiving if you misplace the veneer, as the contact cement bonds the two surfaces immediately and can rip the veneer if you try to adjust it once the surfaces come in contact with each other. Oh, and one last thing: it has a strong odor. You need to work in a well-ventilated area and away from any ignition sources.Make a burnishing tool out of waste plywood or MDF. You will use this to apply pressure to the surface of the veneer to work out air bubbles and force the bond of the veneer. It is simple a 10″ board about 4″ wide, with two “handles” glued and screwed. Round over the bottom leading edge so it doesn’t tear the veneer.
Lay the two surfaces to be bonded on a table next to each other. Pour the contact cement onto the two surfaces, taking care to not drip on the table. Set the contact cement somewhere safe so you don’t knock it over, (again, from experience!).
Roll a layer of contact cement onto each surface using a small trim roller. Wait for it to become tacky, about 20 minutes. The goal is to have each surface tacky and glossy but not wet. Each substrate and veneer differs in porosity, so every material needs to be treated differently. For this project, I am bonding phenolic-backed maple to MDF. The phenolic is not very porous, but the MDF can be very porous. I anticipate applying one more coat to the MDF than the phenolic veneer.
As you pull out the dowels, rub the veneer with your custom burnisher. The instructions on the can may recommend a J-Roller, however I find this tool to be an expensive and less effective for the job. If you see a bubble, use the burnisher to force the bubble out the side or end. I vigorously burnish the surface in every direction to ensure a good bond.
Remember, you are only halfway done! Flip the piece over onto a clean piece of cardboard or rosin paper, and repeat. The second piece of veneer counterbalances the adhesive on the other side and helps keep the panel flat.
In the end, using contact cement is only one option for veneering. It is a quick method requiring little or no preparation, and minimum investment in tools. It is ideal for infrequent and larger projects. In the next weeks, look for part two of this story, where I use cauls, clamps and woodworking glue to apply veneer to a substrate.
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