How To Give Veneer Tops New Life
Veneer damage is a flaw you'll find commonly in old furniture, but one you can fix with surprisingly little trouble. “Veneer repair is an easy job for woodworkers of almost any skill level,” according to San Francisco furniture repair and refinishing wizard Jim Kull. “It just takes a few tools and some care.”
With Jim's encouraging words in mind and his advice close at hand, we decided to give it a try. It didn’t take long to turn up the perfect subject—a little end table in a secondhand shop. The years had certainly taken their toll on the edges of the veneered top. Not only was the veneer itself loose, and even missing in spots, but the crossbanding—the thin layer beneath it—had delaminated from the tabletop, too, as shown in the photo above right.
Before we could repair the veneer, we had to get rid of the wrinkles in the crossbanding. We started that chore by cleaning out the old glue, dirt, and loose wood fibers between the crossbanding and the tabletop, using sandpaper, finishing scrapers, and a knife.
Then, using an old business card, we spread liquid hide glue between the layers, as shown above. With waxed paper and then a piece of scrapwood laid over the repair area, we next clamped the veneer and crossbanding to the top, as shown at right. We also added shims—pieces of some more of those old business cards—between the caul and the waxed paper to ensure contact between the crossbanding and the tabletop in spots where the veneer was missing.
For a nearly invisible repair along the edge, we needed to cut the damaged veneer back to a straight edge to match up with a new piece. We asked Jim for a foolproof way to make this cut accurately. “Use a router,” he counseled.
With a router, a 3/4" straight bit, and a quick-to-make guide, shown in the photo at left, it's easy to make the cut. This setup also mills the surface flat for a smooth repair.
To make a guide like Jim uses, we cut a piece of 3/4" stock longer than the edge to be routed and about 2" wider than the distance from the center of the router base to its edge. We screwed a piece of straight 1-1/2" wide stock atop one long edge.
We then chucked in the router bit. "Any size straight bit will work," Jim advised, "but wider works faster." With the bit extended below the bottom of the guide and the router base riding along the screwed-on cleat, we routed off the edge of the guide base. This resulted in a straight edge that shows exactly where the bit will cut.
Then, we clamped the guide to the tabletop, just less than the bit's width from the edge, as shown in the photo, above. Normally, Jim suggests placing the guide parallel to the damaged edge. But because our tabletop featured a diagonal grain pattern, we decided to align the guide with the grain to simplify fitting the new piece. (See the bottom of the page for another approach.)
With the bit set to just cut through the veneer and kiss the crossbanding, shown in the photo at right, we made a pass along the guide. (If we had needed to remove a wider area, we would have moved the guide back for another cut, making enough passes to remove all of the damaged area.)
All that remained was to replace the missing veneer. Our replacement veneer was the same thickness as the original, so we simply matched up the grain as much as possible. New and old veneer thicknesses won’t always match, though. In most cases, the new veneer will be thinner. To compensate, glue a layer of kraft paper under the new veneer.
Because the table’s edge is shaped, we resorted to more handwork to fit the new piece. We marked the approximate contour of the edge on the new veneer, as shown in the photo at left, and trimmed it.
Then, after gluing and clamping it in, we carefully sanded the edge of the new veneer to match the top. In a future installment, we’ll take on the task of matching the color of the new veneer to that of the old.
Instead of matching veneer along straight, damaged edges, Jim sometimes likes to add a border of ready-made banding. Though this may not be appropriate for fine antiques, it can dress up old, everyday furniture.
"Make identical cuts along all edges so the area to be inlaid is exactly the same size all around," Jim advises. "Cut the inlay area slightly less wide than the banding," he adds. Then, glue the banding in, clamp or weight it down, and allow the glue to dry. "Trim off the edges with either a flush trimming bit in your router, or sand it flush with the edges," he says. "Then, sand the surface flat, and you are ready to finish."