Try your Hand at Basket-Weave Veneer

by Peter Marcucci

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After more than 30 years spent woodworking, award-winning furnituremaker Peter Marcucci has perfected his unique basket-weave veneer technique, which he integrates into some of his original furniture designs.
Dress up a box and create a unique and elegant look with a basket-weave veneer top. Like many woodworking techniques, it looks complex at first. However, once you understand the process, shown here in step-by-step simplicity, you’ll find it very easy.

Lay out the pattern

To create the basket-weave pattern, I used black-dyed maple veneer squares and lighter-colored cherry rectangles.   

The secret to creating the pattern is the ratio between the squares and the rectangles. The rectangles should be twice as wide and four times as long as the squares. By applying this 1:2:4 relationship, you can create basket-weave patterns of any size.

In the example shown here, 34 ×112 " rectangles complement 38 " squares. A 316 " black-veneer border and 1" walnut-veneer frame surround the weave pattern. Once completed, the oversize panel was trimmed to fit an 8 12 ×11" box top.

Cut the veneer strips

This panel requires 63 squares and 62 rectangles, but it’s a good idea to make some extras. To cut the parts, gather a razor knife, metal ruler, and a cutting board. (For the cutting board, use a scrap of plywood or melamine-coated particleboard, with a raised hardwood fence to butt the veneer against.)  

Begin by cutting a 38 " gauge strip from 12 " or thicker scrap. With a piece of black veneer against the fence, use the gauge strip to position the straightedge 38 " away from and parallel to the fence, photo below.

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A no-measure strip trick. A gauge strip quickly and accurately positions the straightedge.

Cut at least 24 lineal inches of veneer to use for making squares, photo below.

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Slice the strips. With the straightedge in place, hold the razor knife against its edge and make a few light passes to cut the veneer.

Then cut two more strips 12" long and set these aside. Tape together edge to edge the strips used to make the squares and crosscut them, photo below.

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Bundle the strips to crosscut. Tape several black strips together and square one end. With the gauge strip, set your straightedge; then, cut the strips to make squares.

To make a gauge strip for the cherry veneer rectangles, tape together edge to edge the two 38 " black strips you set aside. Cut at least 93" of 34 "-wide cherry strip. As before, tape these strips together edge to edge, square up one end and butt this end against the fence. Tape two of the 34 "-wide strips together and use this 112 "-wide gauge strip to position your straightedge for crosscutting the rectangles.

Add depth with a quick burn

Darkening the ends of the rectangles using hot sand simulates a shadow and creates the over/under basket-weave illusion.

Set an electric hot plate to medium-high heat, and place on it a small cast-iron frying pan filled 23 full with fine sand. Practice with scrap veneer to get a feel for how long it takes to char the cherry strips. Char both ends of each piece, photo below.

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Give each strip a dip. Briefly insert the ends of each cherry strip approximately 1⁄8" into the sand. Try to make all pieces consistent in appearance with minimal charring.

Assemble the panel

To keep the pieces of veneer in position as you build the pattern, place a sheet of contact paper, sticky side up, on a self-healing cutting mat or some cardboard, photo below.

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Lay out a sticky surface. Tape the contact paper to your worksurface, sticky side up, to prevent it from moving.

Draw two perpendicular reference lines on the contact paper, intersecting at the center of the sheet. Like the lines chalked on a floor before laying tiles, these will help you keep the pattern square. Place the rectangles and squares good side down, photos below.    

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Build from the middle. Continue to form “T” shapes with the cherry strips, filling in with squares. As you build out your pattern, check that it remains square to the reference lines.

If some pieces slide or pull away on the slightly sticky contact paper, use just enough transparent tape to temporarily hold them together. Complete the pattern and cut it free, photos below.

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Cover the face with tape. When the pattern is complete, remove any transparent tape and cover the pattern with painter’s tape.

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Free the pattern. With a straightedge and razor knife, cut the panel to 7  1⁄8×9  3⁄8". Don’t worry if it is not exactly these dimensions. You can adjust the final size of the panel when you add the border and veneer frame.

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Peel the paper. After cutting the panel free, carefully peel away the contact paper. Leave the painter’s tape in place.

Add a mitered border

Cut the 316 "-wide black border strips and 1"-wide walnut frame strips in the same manner as the black and cherry strips. Apply the border to the pattern, photo below, overlapping the strips at each corner.

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Wrap the pattern. Use transparent tape to affix the black border strip to the frame strip. Then tape that assembly to the edge of the basket-weave panel.

Miter the overlap, photo below. After cutting the miters on all four corners, flip the panel over and cover the border with blue painter’s tape. Remove the transparent tape from the front surface.

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Slice perfect miters. Cut diagonally with several light passes to miter each corner of the border.

Apply veneer tape

Before gluing the completed panel to the substrate, the painter’s tape must be removed. To do that, first moisten strips of veneer tape and cover the entire front of the panel, photo below. The wet veneer tape may warp and curl the panel. Don’t panic! It will flatten out when glued to the substrate. After the veneer tape dries, carefully peel away the painter’s tape at 45° to the grain direction and flat to the surface to minimize the chances of pulling out one of the pieces.

Tip! If a piece comes loose when removing the painter’s tape, put it back in and rub a drop of glue into the joint with your finger.

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Layer on the veneer tape. Run the tape over a wet sponge to moisten it, then apply it to the face of the pattern. The veneer tape shrinks as it dries, tightly pulling the joints together.

Glue up the panel

To secure the panel to the substrate, you can use a vacuum press, a veneer press, or simply clamp the work between platens, such as pieces of 34 " MDF. I use liquid hide glue because it allows me to reposition a panel after the glue dries by heating it with an iron, but any woodworker’s glue will work.

Cut a stable substrate, such as MDF or plywood, to the same size as the basket-weave panel. Then cut a backer veneer to the same size as the substrate. Choose a veneer that complements the inside of your box. Gluing a backer veneer to the bottom of the substrate will keep the finished panel from warping.  

Spread glue on the substrate and apply the backer veneer. Then flip over the substrate, spread glue on it, and apply the basket-weave panel, photo below. (Apply glue to the substrate, not to the basket-weave panel.)

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Glue it down and wrap it up. With veneer and basket-weave panels glued to the substrate, tape the edges to keep the panels from shifting in the press.

Insert the panel into the press and apply pressure, photo below. Leave the panel in the press for a few hours, then remove it and set it aside for 24 hours to let the glue cure completely.

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Place waxed paper between the panel and press platens to prevent sticking. A thin layer of cardboard between the waxed paper and platen compensates for any slight inconsistencies in veneer thickness, ensuring even pressure on all parts.

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