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Closed top. With the folded hinged top closed, the cabinet acts as a chest of drawers. Notice my upholstery repair in the lower left corner of the top.
Veneer is only thin wood, so don’t be afraid of it.
I love repairing old furniture – the older the better. I find the repair more challenging and satisfying than creating new ones because someone else, or time and age, has set the parameters within which I have to work.
Open top. With the top open to rest on the supports of the removable lid, the chest of drawers becomes a desk. Note that the rear half trim may have been replaced at some point. The two halves are supposed to match the books, but they’re not.
I have written several articles in Popular carpentry on furniture repairs, including “Regluing Doweled Chairs” in April 2007 (# 161) and “Animal Hide Glue” in August 2007 (# 163). Both articles are available for free on popularwoodworking.com/finishing.
But I didn’t write on the liner and many things can go wrong with the liner. For some reason many carpenters, and even professional furniture restorers, are afraid to work with veneer (some stores even refuse to do this). I find this fear difficult to understand because veneer is only thin wood, subject to the same rules as thick wood.
Recently, I had the opportunity (joy, really) to replace some missing upholstery on one of the oldest furniture I’ve ever worked on: an early 18th-century George II bachelor’s chest with a hinged top opening onto a desk. The challenges were a little bigger than usual, so I thought I’d show you how I dealt with them.
One apart before starting. After working on a lot of old furniture, you become adept at spotting anomalies that indicate a fake or “marriage” of two or more furniture. I have not seen anything on this game table that made me doubt its authenticity.
The damage. Here’s the damage the owner wanted me to repair.
1. Straight edges. It’s much easier to style a patch when you’re dealing with straight edges rather than curved ones. So if possible, I always try to straighten the edges before applying the patch.
2. Removal of excess. It is often possible to peel off the scrap veneer like I am doing here. When I encounter resistance, I can usually overcome it if the glue is leather glue by using a syringe to insert some denatured alcohol under the veneer. Alcohol crystallizes the glue, making it easier to separate.
3. Cleaning. Although it is possible to glue directly onto the old leather glue using hot glue, it is best to clean the old brittle glue (and any contaminants, such as wax, that may be on the surface) before gluing the patch. Here I am washing off the old glue with hot water. All contaminants come off with glue.
4. The challenge. Above the hinge you can see the damage to the substrate that needs to be repaired so that the coating has something to bond with. Also, you can see that the veneer is considerably thicker than modern veneer by 1⁄32 “thick. Thick veneer is common on furniture made before the age of the machine. The veneer appears to get thicker the older it is. furniture.
5. Straight edges. Again, it’s always easier to work with straight edges. Then I cut one using a chisel.
6. Scrub the joint. One of the reasons I love hot leather glue is that I can create a strong bond by simply rubbing two pieces of wood together with the glue in between. The work proceeds very quickly using rubbing joints. Arranging a locking setup for this patch would clearly be difficult.
7. Shape the patch. After leveling the repair to the substrate using a chisel, I cut the backing patch and cut it to fit perfectly. The veneer is European walnut, which is considerably lighter in color (closer to light brown) than American black walnut. If I didn’t have any solid European walnut, I could use American walnut, but I’d have to whiten the color from the wood, then stain it to match, which might be difficult. I could also glue several layers of thinner European walnut veneer on top of each other to create thickness, but cutting the veneer from solid, as I’m doing here, is always best.
8. Scrub the joint. Due to its thickness, I can glue the veneer patch, which I cut thicker than necessary (called “leave proud”), quickly and simply using a rub. But the clamps wouldn’t be difficult to fix here.
9. Leveling. I use a plane, scraper, and sandpaper to level the veneer patch on the surrounding wood. It is important to avoid cutting the old surrounding coating. If you cut some of the aged surface wood, you may expose the wood that is lighter or darker and create difficult color matching problems. It may be helpful to tape around the patch. It is essential to work slowly and carefully.
10. Trimming. With the top surface of the patch level, I cut the end using a chisel due to the difficulty of inserting a handplane into the narrow area above the hinge. Note the missing trim to the left of the hinge. I took it off (by inserting denatured alcohol) to make it easier to shape and finish the patch. With the patch cut flush, I will reattach the veneer so that it covers the edge as it originally did.
11. Finished. Here is the repair completed with a wax finish applied. Wax was the common finish used in the early 18th century and continues to be the finish of this piece. The repair stands out slightly in this close-up, but disappears in the larger shot shown at the beginning of this article. Only someone who knows it’s there would find it, which is all you can ask for in a repair.
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