Friday, January 16, 2015

Removing Veneer

Refinishing furniture never gets boring. I've been doing it for almost seven years now, and there are always surprises and challenges that keep it fresh. This vintage Lane cedar chest is a great example. I bought it two days ago and was chomping at the bit to get it underway. It's quite nice out today, so it seemed sanding the mahogany veneer top would be a great way to start the morning.

Here's the chest where it sat when I found it in an indoor flea market in the next town over.

I had to start by removing the faux mahogany contact paper that some genius slapped on the top (probably in the seventies).
I can just picture the thought process behind this... "Huh, wood top's looking a little tired- Oh, we'll just put a giant sticker that looks like wood right on top of it! Close enough!"

Right after I took this picture I removed the very last bit, and with the contact paper came up a significant piece of the 1/8" thick mahogany veneer. DAMN.

I love working on veneers. I don't judge, and you shouldn't either. Furniture makers have been using veneer surfaces on the finest furniture for well over 350 years. Some of the prettiest tops I've ever worked on were veneer. 

But with everything, veneer has its downsides. If it's not been cared for properly (generally long term exposure to moist conditions), the glue will give out and the veneer will start to flake off.
With a giant piece missing, there was no hope of saving this veneer top.

This means the veneer has to be removed entirely. It's never an easy process, but it's excessively satisfying. 

First I use a fairly flexible metal putty knife to remove as much as possible gently. Do not use a putty knife that's too stiff, you'll end up gouging the wood below. Work with the wood grain, wiggling the knife as you go. Sometimes a heat gun will help to loosen up the glue. 
On this top, that was not the case. So it was gentle persistence and patience the whole way.

You have to be patient, and work at it a little bit at a time. It's not an immense task though. The entire top from contact paper removal to stain application took about 1.5 hours.
In the picture above you can see that I've got about 2/3 of the veneer up. At this point I switched to using a hammer to gently tap the putty knife to get the more stubborn bits. Your knife blade should be  flat against the top, with handle almost horizontal to it. Just tap tap tap like you're a tinker at your trade. Listen to music or an audio book while you do it. As soon as you lose patience, you're gonna forget the important part - BE GENTLE, gouge the top something wicked, and all your previous work will have been for nothing. Once you've badly gouged a solid wood top like this your only option is wood putty and paint. 

Here's the top with all the pieces of veneer removed. You can see there's lots and lots of places where slivers of the veneer have clung to the secondary wood, which is tulip poplar.
This is almost always the case, don't at all be alarmed if it happens to you. 
Those pieces sand right off!

See? It comes off when you sand. The color difference is due to the old stain having bled through the veneer into the poplar wood below. Also, I really strongly feel that Tulip Poplar doesn't get enough love in the furniture world. Isn't that pretty!

The top fully sanded. The tulip poplar top is made from multiple solid wood boards with breadboard ends and front. It's really really beautiful. Tulip poplar is one of the easiest woods to identify as it has those unique green stripes throughout.

And finally, here's the top stained. The green stripes change to a darker wood tone when stained. I used first Minwax Provincial, and then Minwax Honey. Tulip poplar has a yellow under hue when stained, so to get a warm appealing tone, I balance that with a top stain with a bit of red in it (honey). 

As soon as I finish writing this post I'll be painting the piece. I asked my Facebook followers to pick a color for it, and a creamy buttercup yellow was the top choice.
 I'll be using Benjamin Moore's Wildflower as the base for my custom mixed chalk paint. 


  1. Oh my gosh, so gorgeous I am as I type this working on a table with lifting veneer. Can I ask what type of sander and sanding discs you have used please? Thank you so much, and I love, love your blog and furniture, you are certainly an inspiration.

    1. see previous blogs, maybe 2-3 back and you will see a photo of her sander, right atop the table she was working on. I don't know the grid type of the sanding paper... but I think it's in one of her blogs in the "how-to-section"