Wood Veneer: The Other White Meat

I always regarded wood veneer as something other than real.  Like it was just a sneaky cover-up, and a cheap way of adding some Pretty to hide some Ugly.  And you know, that’s sort of what it is.  And what’s wrong with that?

Wood veneer is real wood from real trees. It is applied with care by furniture artisans all over the world.  Hey it was good enough for Chippendale, and even adorns precious items in King Tut’s tomb. Veneer has a long history, a real purpose and some great benefits. No longer considered the “other” wood, it seems to be making a comeback. With renewed interest in vintage furniture (veneer was extremely popular in decades past) and easy access to supplies and instruction for making your own pieces using veneer, we are seeing it more frequently in many different applications.

wood veneerWood veneer is simply a very thin layer of wood that is applied to another surface, a substrate (which can be an inexpensive surface) creating much of the beautiful furniture we see today.  It allows us to use rare, often expensive and beautiful wood when we might not have that option with solid wood.  It also means we can recycle things like sawdust, creating plywood to use as the structure beneath the veneer.  But beware.  There is no room for error, and little to no room for refinishing.  Some of today’s veneer is only about 1/64 of an inch thick.  So get out the coasters and think about the function of any piece you’re considering in your home.

I just had my first experience with installing new veneer onto my own furniture.  It was an imperfect outcome. But it was a learning experience for sure.  And that is how you must think about projects, and be prepared for the first one not to be perfect.  Like the time I decided to save money by installing my own linoleum floor in my first apartment (a million years ago).  I pushed the refrigerator back onto the floor too soon, dragging the new, still pliable flooring with it. I looked in horror at the linoleum accordion that had formed at my feet.  My first call was to Dad (of course).  The second was to the flooring store, scheduling an install and ordering more flooring. It cost me twice as much as it should have, not to mention my wasted day.  Dad told me to think of it as $1000 in tuition to the school of “How not to install a linoleum floor.”  And he was right.  So I have now opened a second school called, “How not to apply wood veneer.”

Mom and Dad were going through some old things at their house recenty and found some tables they thought I might like. I think they had been in my father’s house growing up. They had been re-born many times with various paints and varnishes along the way.  One of the legs was being held together with electrical tape, and another leg was broken off completely.

They were interesting to me (the tables, not my parents) because they had an odd shape (my parents, not the tables) so I headed over to their house to take a closer look.  This is the kind of thing that excites me. Stuff that has potential and nobody else wants it. I see what it CAN be. And I love the challenge and mystery about that.

They were very MCM (mid-century modern) but not the classic kidney-shaped tables you normally see from that period. One table had tapered legs, McCobb-like, and had been painted black all over. The other had something similar to hairpin legs, each leg consisting of three spokes that fit into a round foot.  They were painted black as well, but the top on this one was finished in a dark stain.

Tables Before

And yes, the tops were veneer. That OTHER wood.

My plan was to strip and stain the tables. I wasn’t stripping, I was stripping the tables. Let’s just be clear on that.  Like most plans, things didn’t work out the way I imagined. I started with the black painted table and removed the paint, which is a rather tedious and unpleasant experience.  After removing the paint, I realized there were so many bubbles and cracks, that painting, not staining, would be my only option if I was to be faced with covering up repair.  So I removed the broken veneer, with a new plan to simply re-cover both tables with new veneer so it could be stained.

table 3At this point I went to Rockler, a woodworking store that I had passed many times.  Never did I think I’d be shopping there! The people who work there are great, and it’s one of those places where all the employees love the hobby that store caters to.  So we talked about all my choices for veneer, and I showed them photos of my tables on my phone.  One option is a veneer that requires an adhesive applied to the back, and the other option is one that is already backed with an adhesive.  This one that’s already got adhesive comes in a roll, so you get one long, continuous piece with no seam.  This is what I chose to buy.  It’s expensive (around $85) for a roll big enough for these two tables with a little left over.

The next step, and here is where I caution you, was to fill in where the veneer had been removed. I was instructed at the store to use regular spackle.  The key is to smooth it down so perfectly that the entire surface is level and smooth.  After it’s all dry, you have to sand it down then apply a stain or polyurethane in order for the sticky veneer to adhere.  The surface has to be free of any dust or moisture before you can apply the veneer.


Applying this veneer was logistically tough because you can’t move it once it’s stuck, and you have to make sure it’s overlapping the edges of the table a little. It’s a good idea to flatten the piece you cut, prior to using it. Otherwise it’s unwieldy, and once you remove the backing it’s all sticky, and rolling up onto itself. I got the piece down onto the table and, as instructed, used a lot of pressure with a special roller to get it secured onto the surface.  I then flipped the table onto its top and used a blade to trim around the outline of the table and remove the excess.

I think next time I may try the kind of veneer that requires me to apply an adhesive, because there is more control to move the piece around before committing to its final position.

table 7After the veneer was in place, I painted the edge of the table in black, and began working on repairing, replacing and painting the legs. When I was done, I was dismayed to see that the tops had both bubbled up and puckered  a bit. I got some help from the nice folks at Rockler, but we agreed that it couldn’t really be fixed.  I did place a cloth over the table and used an iron to reactivate the adhesive and try smoothing it out again.  It made it a little better, but not a whole lot.   I suspect the base didn’t get smoothed down enough after the spackle.  But I also think spackle was maybe not the best product to use.  Next time I will try the other type of application.

Below are some pictures of the finished pieces. You might not see the imperfections, but they are there.  I’m not too worried about it. The tables are still really cool looking. I have a new respect for wood veneer, not regarding it as the poor cousin anymore.

Phone is ringing. Mom and Dad.  More old stuff to look at. Yes please!



Kate Lowry is an interior designer located in Portland, Maine. www.katelowrydesigns.com 207-776-9558 info@katelowrydesigns.com


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