Charms Where None Exist: On Veneering, II

Last fall, I defended the economic and aesthetic value of working with veneer – both in the 18th and the 21st century.

What I didn’t talk about were the brass tacks of actually making your own by hand. The fact is that producing and working with thin stock will sharpen your craft like almost nothing else. It’s definitely been an escalator for my skillset as a hand-tool woodworker. So you, too, should consider learning how to resaw veneer. Plane veneer. Prepare veneer with a toothing plane. Nervously hammer veneer on a curved substrate while butt-clenchingly praying to every pantheon that the hide glue will hold. String, band, and inlay veneer, And then – Yes! – finally finish veneer.

Carving off thin stock from a board, to begin with, narrows your margin for error. It really makes you pay attention to the material on the bench. The fat 18th- century veneer glued onto panels sometimes approached 1/8", an opulent thickness that’s a far cry from the paper-thin “veneerite” that coated the most heinous furniture of the 1930s and 40s and that gave veneer its reputation for cheaply peeling off and being impossible to repair. But you might guess that even 1/8" of an inch – to say nothing of the more typical 1/16" thickness found in period pieces – is a tall order when it comes to accurately resawing off a thin slice of a board, though. There’s a reason people pay thousands of dollars for precisely tuned 17" Italian band saws with dual dust collection ports and tall resaw fences.

You don’t need to go into debt buying machinery to resaw, though. By way of analogy: There’s a gangly teenager at the sub shop near my house who runs salami and mortadella through an old, temperamental meat slicer with the kind of artistry and attention to detail normally reserved for people in museums who clean paintings with Q-tips and lasers. The sandwiches at this place are correspondingly spectacular. I think of him whenever I’m slicing off an expensive piece of holly or rift-sawn cherry or mahogany for a drawer front or whatever. You’ve got to bring that eye-of-Sauron degree of attention to resawing, especially when things start jibber-jabbering from side to side. Or when you’re not sure if the vise is tight enough as the weak side of your cut looks increasingly sketchy with each stroke. Having a narrower board helps, though, since anything over 6" in width can be a major pain to resaw even remotely accurately by hand.

With apologies to Tim Fidgen and Bad Axe and Shannon Rogers, a coarse-tooth ripsaw is my preferred tool for the job for me here, not a Roubo frame saw. If I had a second seasoned pitsaw helper in the shop, using a frame saw to precisely julienne trees sounds appealing, but I’ve never been able to get the body mechanics quite down with my own frame saw. (Adam Cherubini articulated some of his own problems with these fun-to-build exotic saws in a contentious post for Popular Woodworking years ago.) And I like the additional control my regular Disston D-8 with the thumb hole offers, even if it might be smidge slower. By carefully cutting out corners first, flipping the board regularly, making sure I’m only cutting down sight lines, and (sometimes) kerfing the cut ahead of time with a kerfing plane or even just a really heavy knife line, I’ve been able to keep my fancypants veneering boards relatively unmangled and cut free the pieces I need.

If you haven’t resawed this kind of stock by hand, though, it’s worth spending a Saturday afternoon with some construction lumber, a saw, and a willingness to make some banana-shaped boards only a mother could love. It’s not easy, but once you get over the initially steep learning curve and develop muscle memory for resawing with relative precision, it’s a deeply satisfying technique.

Once I’ve got a piece sawed out with relatively uniform thickness, I don’t stress too much about planing the backside of veneer perfectly smooth, especially since it can be a pain to hold down on the bench. (Anchoring the 1" waste ends of a piece with a holdfast, then planing towards me tends to work better than trying to plane veneer against a stop, since thin stock buckles and snaps easily.) I might knock off some of the more egregious saw marks, but as long as it’s basically flat, it’ll work, especially since I usually hit each piece with a toothing plane next to add texture for the glue to grab hold of anyway.

And then you’ve got some veneer: the angelic wisp of exotic treestuff with which to enclose in darkness forever your more boring, less sightly wood.

Break out a veneer hammer, some hot hide glue, and—if you want insurance—some clamps, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to apply to flat surfaces like drawer fronts, cabinet panels, or boxes, especially.  

-Cameron Turner


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