A Guide to Veneering Wood: Part 1

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!

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Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementThe 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.

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementStir the contact cement. Put on latex gloves to protect your hands. Cover your bench with cardboard or rosin paper to protect it from contact cement residue, which is sticky and difficult to remove.

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementLay 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!).

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementRoll 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.

 

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementCheck for glossy and tacky. I tap the glossy surface after 20 minutes and see if it grabs my finger just a little bit. If it does, I am ready to bond the surfaces.

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementSet 3 or 4 clean dowels down on the MDF. These dowels suspend the veneer above the MDF so you can position it perfectly.

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact Cement Place the veneer on the dowels and orient it so it sits directly over the substrate. As I mentioned before, the initial grab of contact cement is REALLY strong. You want to get this right.

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementOnce the veneer is in place, gently pull or roll the dowels out one at a time, taking care to not leave any air bubbles.

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementAs 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.

 

Veneering Woodworking Projects with Contact CementRemember, 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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Discussion
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10 Responses to “A Guide to Veneering Wood: Part 1”
  1. Mike Davis

    Nice series of articles, Seth. Thanks for writing them.

    I have a question about the counter-balancing veneer on the opposite side. I’m assuming it’s okay to use a different type of veneer, so long as it’s the same thickness as the first one. Is that correct? Sometimes you want to use an expensive, exotic veneer on one side but the other side won’t be seen as much (or at all), so you would hate to waste an expensive veneer on the non-showing side. Know what I mean?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Mike. Yes, it is an acceptable approach to use a different type of veneer, provided it is the same thickness.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
  2. Meryl

    This is great. I will probably never veneer, but you did answer 2 questions I’ve always had. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Ken

    You should mention that the veneer should be larger than the substrate and then trimmed with a router and flush trim bit. Also, do you expect that the MDF will cup like a solid lumber substrate?

    Reply
  4. bob

    OK, understand the logic of veneering both sides, but what if one side is not easily accessible such as a 42″ round antique table with lions head feet? It has expansion arms underneath when collapsed plus other encumbrances.

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Bob. My first recommendation would be to see if the top can come off the base in a simple way. Tabletops are almost always removable from the apron, and this would be my first choice. If not, then (I assume) you are most likely going to utilize contact cement. I’d attach the top veneer first. Then, I’d flip the table over onto its top, and apply an inexpensive counter veneer or backer veneer around the apron. It may not be pretty, but will prevent warping better than none at all.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
  5. Joseh

    Does the counter-balancing principle apply to natural wood veneers only? I’m about to apply a Formica- type surface to a 2′ x 6′ X11″ mdf counter top. I hadn’t considered laminating both sides.

    Reply
      • Customer Service

        That rule applies to natural wood veneers only. I haven’t done very much work with Formica, but I’ve never seen a counter top that was covered with Formica on the bottom.
        Paul-WWGOA

        Reply