Decorating wood with veneers has been around for thousands of years. Veneers of African ebony with inlays of ivory and other exotic materials were commonly used to decorate artifacts of the Pharaohs in Egypt 5000 years ago. Over the centuries and especially over the past few decades, wood veneering has been on the upswing. Today veneering techniques and equipment have been perfected to the point where veneer is an extremely reliable choice for producing natural wood surfaces for furniture and cabinets.
For those who don’t know, wood veneer is defined as wood which is cut in a very thin sheet. Veneer is used to cover an existing material with a new surface. For example, the top layer of wood in a plywood is a veneer. With modern technology veneers can be cut as thin as a piece of paper. Today veneer is a way to make expensive wood cover a larger area for an economical cost. Wood veneers are easy to apply but do require some knowledge, tools, skills, and time. In this article we will cover some basic things about wood veneers and we will show you how to apply wood veneer yourself.
Types of wood veneers
The first distinction between wood veneers is in the way that they are cut. There are several different ways of cutting veneer and we will try to explain the most common ones. Quartersawn or Sliced veneer is made from a quarter log that is mounted on the slabs table so that the growth rings of the log strike the knife at approximately right angles, producing a series of stripes. A natural distribution of ray flake is a characteristic of this cut in red and white oak. Quarter Sawn wood veneers can be produced with many wood species and has a linear grain outcome. Plain Sliced Veneer is made from the half log which is mounted with the heart side flat against the table of the slicer and the slicing is done parallel to a line through the center of the log. Plain sliced veneer have cathedral or straight grain patterns. Rift Cut Veneer is made by cutting the slices slightly across the medullary rays, accentuating the vertical grain and minimizing its flaky appearance. Rift grain veneer is restricted to red and white oak only. Rotary Cut Veneer is made from the log that is center mounted on a lathe and peeled along the general path of the growth rings like unwinding a roll of paper, providing a generally bold random appearance. The log is mounted centrally in the lathe and turned against a razor sharp blade. Since this cut follows the log’s annual growth rings, a bold variegated grain marking is produced.
The second distinction between wood veneers is in the preparation for application. There are four different types of wood veneers: thin-cut wood, paper backed sheets, pre-glued-peel-and-stick sheets and wood glued to wood sheets. Thin-cut wood veneer is as it comes from the log and that is the old fashioned tried and true way. Usually this veneer is as thick as 1/16″ and comes in variable sizes depending on the tree it came from. Paper backed sheets are wood veneers with paper glued to the backside. That kind of wood veneers come in thicknesses of 1/64″ and in full sheets of 4′ x 8′. Peel-and-stick wood veneers or PSA (pressure sensitive adhesive) is available on veneer sheets as a means to simplify the installation. This method is often used to resurface an existing kitchen without having toxic and flammable fumes released in the house. Real wood-on-wood veneer has a layer of wood with the grain running cross-ways glued to a layer with the grain running long-ways. The advantage here is extra thickness, durability, and it shows less tell-tale glue or paper lines at the edges of a project. This method takes a little more skill to apply since it usually requires power tools to trim off the excess.
How to apply wood veneer
There are many different ways for applying wood veneers and we will explain four most common methods: hammer veneering, veneering with hydraulic press, veneering with vacuum press and veneering with contact cement.
Veneering with hydraulic press is a straightforward process. You need to position the veneer on an adhesive coated substrate, a flat piece of wood used to help distribute the pressure evenly is placed on top of the veneer, and the three are clamped together with hydraulic or mechanical veneer press clamps. Using hydraulic pressure for applying veneer is a reliable method, but the presses can be time consuming and unwieldy to use. In addition, a good sized mechanical press is heavy and takes up a lot of room in the shop.
Veneering with vacuum press is done with vacuum press that consists of a vinyl bag with a pump attached to evacuate the air from the bag. The press relies on atmospheric pressure to press the veneer against the substrate while it’s being glued. Unlike mechanical clamping systems, a vacuum press applies even, consistent pressure over the entire surface of the work piece, creating “intimate contact” between the veneer and the substrate. Additionally, a vacuum press actually draws air out of the cells of the wood, which is replaced by adhesive.
Hammer veneering is the oldest method of applying wood veneer to a substrate. A veneer hammer, which is really more of a stiff, blunt metal scraper attached to a long handle, is used to smooth out the veneer on the substrate, and to squeegee out excess amounts of the heat-activated glue used in the process. Traditionally, hide glue in the pearl form is used for hammer veneering because of its consistency and long open time.
Veneering with contact cement is the most inexpensive method and the best method to apply veneer by yourself. Besides peel-and-stick veneers, this method is the easiest to apply and everybody can do it without any professional help. Therefore, we will explain this method in detail.
How to apply wood veneer with contact cement
There are few steps in veneering with contact cement which must not be skipped. First of all, you need to climatize the veneer and the substrate before installation. That means that you need to put the sheet or sheets of veneer and the substrate in the environment where it will be applied for 48 hours before starting the installation process. We don’t need to mention that you need to be certain that all surfaces are wiped clear of dust before application. Also, you need to use a good quality contact cement with the highest level of solids. Keep in mind that flammable contact cement works better than non-flammable. While the better contact cement will be most expensive, it is cheaper in the long run to have a successful seal the first time. The MDF (medium density fiberboard) is the best substrate for veneer application with contact cement. The second best choice is particleboard and plywood can be used also but it tends to soak moisture and we don’t recommend using plywood for veneering projects. The least suitable wood surface is hardwood because it doesn’t soak the glue well and it is extremely hard to get a flat surface. Also, always cut the veneer two inches longer and wider that the substrate because it’s always easier to cut off the substrate than to realize that your veneer doesn’t cover the substrate completely. One of the most important things is to get yourself a good veneer roller or veneer scraper with which you can apply the correct amount of pressure.
First you need to prepare the surface of the substrate and the back of the veneer. Clean the surface of the intended area with denatured alcohol, the back of the wood veneer and MDF of dust, oil, grease or other foreign materials that may affect the binding of the materials. You’re now ready for contact cement, we advise that you use water based contact cement. Mix the cement thoroughly before application and apply a thin coat of cement on the substrate and the back of the veneer. Use a roller, brush or putty knife to apply thin even coats on both substrate and the back of the veneer. We advise that you put two coats of cement on the substrate and one coat to the back of the veneer. Don’t worry, contact cement is much more consistent than regular glue and it will not drip. You’re now ready to join substrate and the veneer together. Carefully place the two corners of the veneer on the substrate and press slightly. Beware that contact cement will hold almost immediately so you don’t have much time for corrections. If you’re applying bigger veneers you better ask another pair of hands to help you because you can’t correct mistakes later. It is best that you slowly place one side on the substrate while your helper holds another side above the substrate. Now you slowly place the entire veneer on the substrate.
Immediately after that start to even out the veneer with veneer scraper or veneer roller starting from the center and to the edges. Apply the maximum force that you can because you must make sure that all the surface of the veneer is properly glued and that there are no bulbs of air underneath. After you rolled or scraped the veneer, scrape the excess veneer with a razor knife and you’re done. Veneering with contact cement is actually an easy process, you just need to take your time for each step and you will succeed.
If you prefer video tutorials, you can learn how to apply wood veneer with contact cement in the video below.