“Woodworker’s Guide To Veneering & Inlay”

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Professional furniture builder and veneer expert Jonathan Benson shares his secrets for making gorgeous furniture with veneer, while saving money, in this comprehensive guide to making the most of an age-old technique.

Benson writes: “During the past three decades, I have been lucky enough to work at a craft I love, to continue to explore new ideas in the studio, and to pass on that knowledge.”  His work has been exhibited in 40 galleries around the country, he has taught woodworking at the college level for 10 years, held workshops and given lectures across the country, and written for and contributed to many of the well-known woodworking magazines. He also wrote a chapter in Furniture Makers Exploring Digital Technologies.

Veneer, an attractive but thin slice of wood, can be glued onto furniture or a wall panel to achieve a high-end wood appearance at a fraction of the cost of solid wood. A technique dating back to the ancient Egyptians, veneering offers lots of options for unusual designs using book-matching, pictures (marquetry), geometric patterns (parquetry), inlay, and curved and bent features – all covered in-depth in Benson’s 160-page beautifully illustrated book.

Benson uses pictures of furniture and veneering techniques, illustrations, lists of veneer terms, demonstration projects like “Shooting Veneers for the Tabletop,” sidebars like “Choosing Tape,” and STEP-BY-STEP explanations like “Hammer Veneering” to tell the story of veneering.

With the exception of the two-page book spread and the mirror photo, the photos used in this blog were provided by the publisher, Fox Chapel Publishing.

In Woodworker’s Guide to Veneering & Inlay, Benson puts to rest two misconceptions about modern veneering: it’s a complex art only mastered by the finest of craftsmen and it’s a glossy cover-up for shoddy materials and poor construction. He explains and demonstrates how woodworkers of all skill levels can produce very fine veneered furniture using basic woodworking tools, without a huge investment of money or work space.

History & Why Veneer?

Benson opens his book by tracing the history of veneering to Egypt, noting that examples of veneered pieces dating back to 3500 BC were discovered in the pyramids. Veneers about 1/4"-thick were cut with an adze, a tool similar to an ax with its blade turned perpendicular. Veneer was used because fine woods of interesting and contrasting figure had to be transported great distances, making them scarce, so cutting the wood into thin layers made it go farther. Also, veneer prevented problems like checking and warping in burls and the effects of wood movement.

Over the centuries, man learned to cut thinner and thinner veneers. In the Industrial Revolution, the circular saw made it possible to cut 1/16" veneer in large quantities, so veneer soon became available to far more people. Unfortunately this resulted in some cheap, shoddy construction, which came to be associated with all veneering.

Technology over the centuries has reduced veneer thickness to 1/28" in the US today. That means veneer can cover more surface area and far more veneer with a matching pattern can be produced, so larger areas can be covered with the same uniform pattern. The popularity of exotic woods in the first half of the 20th century resulted in some of the finest furniture being produced using veneers.

As a result, Benson writes that for the last 200 years veneer has lived a dual existence as the best and the worst that wood furniture design has to offer. Fortunately, he says, contemporary furniture artists have turned again to veneer for both the beauty and luxury it offers, as well as economy and practicality. 

Author and professional furniture builder Jonathan Benson crafted this Desert Sun Sideboard that combines vintage Brazilian rosewood, curly maple, and ebony veneers. The 36" x 62" x 22" sideboard was created using simple tools and techniques covered in this book.

Advantages of Veneer

•The yield advantage of using veneers is 30 or 40 times that of a using a regularly sawn log, resulting in the best logs going to the veneer mill
•Veneers may be the only form available for types of wood affected by deforestation and other environmental issues
•It takes less lumber grown in the tropical rainforests to cover the same surface area when sawn as veneer; renewable and waste materials can be used as substrate
•Design advantages: veneers make it possible to combine different woods in an infinite number of ways, regardless of the grain direction, making veneers omni-directional. If glued down properly, the veneer is just too thin to move in any direction, regardless of seasonal weather changes.

Jonathan Benson’s set of three nesting tables combines purpleheart veneer with stained curly maple turnings. Although it might have been possible to make the curved side panels in solid wood instead of laminated veneers, Benson writes that the cost would have been prohibitive.

From Forest to a Mirror Frame Project

In the remainder of the book, Benson takes the reader logically through the veneering process: how the characteristics of wood affect its use in veneering; the art of cutting, matching and taping veneers; how to select and use substrates, adhesives and pressure and presses; edge treatments; problems, repairs and finishing; details of using inlay, marquetry and parquetry; bandsawing veneers, and finally, a Curved Mirror Frame project.

The reader who is serious about learning to work with veneer should read this book from cover to cover before buying veneer, because as Benson moves through the chapters, he offers many pieces of advice that will avoid problems as a veneer project proceeds.

For example, in “From Forest to Shop,” Benson offers a lot of helpful information about wood growth and movement, how veneers are cut, and finally storing veneers, where he offers what could be critical information if overlooked. Veneer that comes rolled tightly in a box should be unrolled when it arrives while still slightly moist and less likely to crack or split. If left rolled, it will likely dry in the rolled shape. Once unrolled, it then needs to be stored flat. 

Numbered Veneer Sheets

Taped Ends of Veneer Sheets

Benson suggests numbering the sheets in one corner with a pencil or chalk to allow you to create perfect matches later, no matter how mixed up the sheets become. If long-term storage is anticipated, he recommends taping the ends across the width with veneer tape or high-quality masking tape the day the veneer arrives, before it can dry out at all, to prevent splits.

Cutting, Matching & Taping Veneers

In this chapter, Benson introduces the creative steps. After rough cutting, “laying up” involves cutting, arranging, and taping veneer to a single sheet ready to glue down on a substrate.

The two-page spread above includes four examples of arranging veneer:
•The Club Chair by Pollaro Custom Furniture Inc. of Union, NJ, features book-matched burl veneers on the back and sides.
•Noted furniture artist Silas Kopf used marquetry to create a school of fish picture that wraps around his curved desk.
•The veneered chessboard in progress is an example of parquetry (cutting and assembling small veneer pieces into geometric patterns).
•The light-colored maple band was inlaid into the veneered tabletop before the top was glued to a substrate.

Benson writes in the chapter introduction: “There are not always hard borders between the four categories, and many creative ideas come from combining them in new ways. My motto is, ‘If you can imagine it, you can make it.’ ”

The two leaves of Macassar ebony at right are book-matched, while the two at the left are slip-matched.

The most common types of matching are book-matching and slip-matching, which rely on sheets or leaves of veneer cut from a log being kept in sequential order because each sheet resembles the next.

In book-matching, two sheets are opened up and placed next to each other like pages in a book (above right). The figure patterns of the two sheets will mirror each other almost exactly, and the match can be continued by adding sequential leaves from a veneer flitch (a stack of veneer sheets sliced from a log and kept in sequential order).

In slip-matching, the sheets are laid out next to each other in sequential order with the same side up, producing a repeated pattern (above left). This results in a pleasing design, a gentle unity that works in many applications.

The remainder of this chapter describes and illustrates crosscutting veneers to length and ripping them to width, followed by creating a seamless joint between each sheet – a process known as shooting.

Benson writes that shooting a straight, square and clean edge is essential to avoid ugly gaps in the finished surface.

Benson prefers to use a shooting jig that is run over the jointer for shooting a straight, square, clean edge on veneer.

Selecting Substrates & Working with Adhesives

The substrate is the material the veneer will be glued onto. Benson writes: “A veneer surface can only be as good as its foundation. For centuries, the most common veneering substrate was solid wood, which has the problem of wood movement and consequent damage to veneer surfaces. Other substrates developed primarily to solve the problems of solid wood include plywood, particleboard, MDF and lumber core.”  Benson offers criteria for substrate selection, as well as detailed information about the various types of substrates available.

In the chapter about adhesives used for gluing veneer to a substrate, Benson discusses the history of glues, which were eventually replaced by other types of joinery in woodworking because of their long-term ineffectiveness. “Clever joinery, however, was never an option for veneering applications – veneers were usually attached using hide glue. Many antiques in my shop had only dust where the hide glue was originally, until I reglued the veneer,” he writes.

More effective long-lasting synthetic glues were developed in the early 20th century. Benson includes tips for choosing a glue and discussions about several adhesives, along with a demonstration of how to spread glue.

Pressing the Glued Up Panel, Edge Treatment and Final Steps

Vacuum pressing veneer

Benson next takes the reader through the pressing process that binds the substrate, adhesive and veneer together. While large industries use hydraulic presses, Benson writes that since the Industrial Revolution, smaller woodworking operations have used presses featuring screws made of wood or metal. In the mid-1980s, vacuum presses began to replace screw presses in some workshops.

In vacuum pressing, as the pump draws the vacuum, the bag flattens over the panel. A hard rubber roller is used to encourage it.

For anyone just beginning with veneering, Benson says a few clamps and cauls (thick wood pieces to help distribute pressure) will work nicely. All pressing processes can be used to create curved forms or flat panels. The key to success is applying uniform pressure to the entire veneer covered area long enough for the adhesive to set and achieve a proper bond between veneer and substrate.

The chapter about edging is another good reason to read this whole book before embarking on a veneer project. Benson writes: “Before applying the veneer to the substrate (covered in Chapter 6), you need to consider what type of edge your panel will have. This decision is important to make before you apply the veneer because in many situations the veneer will partially cover the edge. It is nearly impossible to slip the edge material under the veneer once the veneer has been glued down.”

To determine edge treatment, Benson lists two considerations: visual impact and functional impact, and explains each one.

Fixing any defects in the newly glued panels, followed by finishing, are next steps in the veneer process. After the veneer tape is removed, repairs are made if needed, and then the panels are scraped or sanded to prepare for finishing, which Benson writes is similar to finishing a solid wood surface.

Non-penetrating finishes such as lacquer, varnish and shellac work very well on veneered surfaces. However, penetrating finishes that need to sink deep into the surface of the wood cannot make it past the glue line that bonds the veneer to the substrate and so do not get deep enough to work properly. A finish for veneer, Benson writes, needs to be hard enough to protect the surface of the wood on its own.

Matching, Inlay, Marquetry & Parquetry In-Depth

Next, Benson devotes two chapters to an in-depth look at methods for arranging veneer pieces that were introduced earlier in the book, beginning with complex matching – four-way match, four-way burl match, and radial match – as well as how to use inlay and borders with veneer.

Marquetry – the use of small, thin pieces of wood to create a picture in wood – involves some special sawing techniques, which Benson covers, along with types of saws used, marquetry patterns, and “The Marquetry Sequence,” a series of sequential steps in the process of transferring a design to veneer.

A Step-By-Step Parquetry Chessboard project is used to illustrate using the parquetry technique – cutting and assembling small pieces of veneer into geometric patterns.

Tulips & Bees, a 54" x 20" x 35" side table by furniture artist Silas Kopf, combines elaborate marquetry techniques for the tulips and the bees themselves, with simple parquetry for fitting the veneer blocks containing the bees.

Advantages of Bandsawing Veneers

Benson includes a chapter about the benefits of bandsawing your own veneer, which he believes offers options not always available on the market. For example, he writes that only a few types of 1/16" veneer are available, and thick veneers are not available with unusual types of figure. A step-by-step guide to bandsawing veneers is provided in this chapter.

Curved Mirror Frame Project

Benson ends his book with a Curved Mirror Frame project to demonstrate the basic skills necessary to create a bent lamination using veneers in a small project, with only clamps to press the veneer.

The curved frame pieces are a face veneer bonded to a bendable MDF and bending plywood inner layers.

Benson describes this project as a good way to learn the basics of creating a curved panel and finishing off the edges, skills that will give you a new sense of freedom, creating design possibilities you might never have imagined.

This blog just scratches the surface of all the veneering information that Jonathan Benson included in this “keeper” book. If you are interested in trying veneering or would just like to learn more about it, the Woodworker’s Guide to Veneering & Inlay is worth the investment.

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