Canadian Woodworking

Make A Veneered Tabletop Tray

Author: Steven Der-Garabedian
Photos: Steve Der-Garabedian
Published: August September 2019

There are times when you need to elevate things such as napkins, a sugar dish or even salt and pepper shakers on a table. This project will leave you with the perfect solution. It will also teach you a lot about using a simple shop-made press to work with veneer to make wood parts for all sorts of situations.

  • COST

Sometimes you have the perfect piece of veneer for a small project like this. And I know you now have a new veneer press table to complete it on. You did read my article in the June/July 2019 issue about making a veneer press, right? Good. While this veneered panel ended up being a tray, the same process could very easily be adjusted for size and thickness to become a box or a door for a small cabinet.

Trim it to Size
Using the oversized piece of plywood core as a guide, a sharp knife can be used to cut the face and back veneer to size.

An Even Layer
Applying an even, but not too heavy, layer of glue onto the core is important. You want enough glue to adhere the entire sheet of veneer to the core, but not so much a lot squeezes out and seeps through the veneer, causing problems during finishing.

Cauls Even Pressure
A flat caul, used on top of the glued workpiece, spreads out the clamping pressure, and helps ensure the finished workpiece is flat.

Air Circulation
Once you take the veneered panel out of the press ensure there's airflow all around it so each surface can dry out evenly.

One Good Edge
In order to cut the veneered panel to size you need to obtain one straight edge. The first step is to use a file to take much of the glue and overhanging veneer off.

Nice and Straight
Once the majority of glue and overhanging veneer is off, you can use a jointer to create a perfectly straight edge.

Cap the Edge
Although masking tape would work in a pinch, Der-Garabedian opted for using edge clamps to secure the capping in place until the glue dried.

Clean the Capping Up
A block plane will flush the solid wood edges with the veneered surface. Just be careful not to plane into the veneered surface and ruin your project.

Napkin Holder
Use a French curve to draw a pleasing curve onto the napkin holder. A band saw can take care of making the cut.

Lots of Options
Der-Garabedian used a Festool Domino to machine the small mortise that holds the napkin holder in place, but you could also either use a router that ran against a straightedge, or even use a few dowels to hold this part in place.

Mark the Location
A piece of tape and an awl help mark the location of the feet.

A Solid Foundation
5-minute epoxy will make quick work of securing the feet to the underside of the tray. You will likely find it easier to apply a finish to the tray before installing the feet.

Finish it Up
To enhance the grain, and to protect the tray, apply a few coats of your preferred finish. Notice the tape across the napkin holder mortises. This is so the finish doesn't affect the glue during assembly.

A whole new world

Veneering opens up many possibilities. Although this project could be made with solid wood, why not pick up a new skill and keep it both stable and flat for the long run by veneering it. Some see it as an inferior method of working wood, however, I think it’s just a lack of knowledge about the pros and cons of veneer. To keep things simple for this tray, I chose a wide and long enough pair of curly black walnut veneer sheets to make a pressed piece 3/4″ thick by 5-1/2″ wide and 18″ long. I opted for some stainless steel box feet (Lee Valley Tools – 05H31.02) to give the tray a slight lift off the table’s surface.

First steps

For the substrate I ended up using some 18mm Baltic birch plywood and made sure there were no bumps or dents in it. Start off with a piece that’s approximately 1/2″ longer and wider than the final size. When cutting your piece out of a larger sheet arrange the grain to run perpendicular to the grain on the veneers. This keeps the piece in balance, prevents warping, twisting and limits wood movement. Using a scrap piece of MDF for a cutting base, I lay the veneer sheets down and the plywood on top, using it as my cutting pattern. Attach a strip of masking tape across the grain of the veneer where you will crosscut, as the veneer will be prone to tearing with the grain. Slicing with the grain usually poses few problems. Using a knife with a sharp, high quality blade will simplify things considerably. A veneer saw will work as well. With either method make multiple scoring cuts rather than one right through both sheets.

In order to spread the clamping pressure of the press prepare some cauls to sandwich the veneers and core. I generally size the cauls about 3/8″ wider and longer than the actual piece. For this pressing I used two pieces of 3/4″ MDF and another two pieces of 1/4″ hardboard. When pressing veneers, sometimes the glue bleeds through and you don’t want the cauls to become a permanent part of the tray. Use either paste wax or clear packing tape as a glue resist on each inner side of the 1/4″ hardboard cauls. If you’ve used wax wash your hands before touching the veneer as you don’t want any part of it resisting glue.

Adding adhesive

While almost any PVA glue will work, I find that Titebond’s Cold Press for Veneer is perfectly suited for this job. Using a roller, spread the glue over the substrate then lay down a sheet of veneer and top it off with the thinner caul, making sure the waxed or taped side is down. Don’t apply the glue to the veneer as this will make it curl and hard to handle. Flip the piece over and add glue once more and complete with the veneer and the second caul. Sandwich these pieces between the thicker cauls and place the whole package onto the pressing table.

Start adding pressure from the clamps a little at a time, all while making sure everything is lining up rather than slipping this way or that. Once under full pressure take note of the time and make sure to leave it pressing for at least two hours, however longer will not hurt in any way. Finally, remove the panel from the clamps and let it rest to fully cure overnight. Balancing it on its edge, or at the very least supporting it at both ends so airflow can circulate around the two faces is important.

Cleaning and capping

In order to square up the panel we need one clean edge. Use a smoothing file to clean one of the long edges that will be run on the jointer. Hold the file at a slight angle and make sure to file towards the plywood core. Alternatively, you can use a knife to clean any overhanging veneer. While the surface of the veneers will get sanded later, it’s not a bad idea to lightly scrape any glue or remnants of the cauls off the veneers now. Next, move to the jointer to clean up the freshly filed edge. Use the table saw to crosscut the ends before ripping along the last untouched edge.

In order to cap the exposed plywood edging mill up some black walnut, or another complimentary wood, to get a piece that is 1/8″ thick by approximately 1″ wide and about 50″ long. Cut this piece into four sections that are slightly longer than each of the edges. Starting with the short ends, glue and clamp the caps onto the core using cauls. This is where the extra width and length come in handy. After about an hour or so trim these flush to the surfaces and ends with a block plane. Next repeat the preceding steps for the long edges, ending with cleaning them up as well.

A custom holder

While the core is in the clamps, mill a piece of black walnut to 1-1/2″ x 1-1/2″ x 10″ long. The final height will be 4″ but having the extra length allows you to hold the pieces securely for mortising. Using a French curve, draw a pleasing shape onto one of the 1-1/2″ edges leaving about 7/8″ for the base. Also draw a straight line for the rear part of the napkin holder at 3/8″ thick. Use the band saw to cut these pieces out and clean them up using a sander and block plane.

Next clean up the surfaces of the veneer with a random orbit sander. Start off with 220x or 180x at the most, as you do not want to sand through the veneer to the plywood. Finish up with a light sanding of 320x either by hand or the random orbit sander once more. A light touch is usually all that’s needed. Use a block plane to clean up the solid wood capping.

Bore away

The smallest Festool domino sized at 4mm x 20mm is perfect for securing the two pieces of the napkin holder to the tray. Holding the small pieces securely is a breeze with the trim stop attachment. In the case of the flat rear member, you will need a couple of veneer pieces to shim it up so the mortise gets placed in the center of the part. I find plunging slowly creates a very clean mortise. Trim the pair of holders down to 4″ at this time. In order not to mar the freshly sanded surface of the tray, lay down some masking tape and mark the positions of the matching domino mortises. Use the vertical support bracket to steady the tool as you make your plunges, taking into account a gap of approximately 1/2″ between the two pieces.

Next, flip the tray over and apply four pieces of masking tape at the corners. Using an awl, mark a centre point 3/4″ in from both edges for the box feet. With a 1/4″ drill bit chucked in your drill press, and the depth stop correctly set, create four holes that are 5/16″ deep.

Finishing up

I find it easier to apply a finish before completing the final assembly. Mask off the bottom of the napkin holder parts, as well as their matching locations on the tray top. Using some scrap wood to create temporary stands for these parts will aid in applying the finish. Plug the box feet holes with 1/4″ dowels that are approximately 1″ long, creating a stand for the tray that allows all surfaces to be finished together. This also acts as a filler to stop finish from seeping in and preventing the glue from doing its job later on.

Since the tray might see some liquid spills in its life, I chose a Danish oil that is very easy to apply. After leaving it to cure overnight, I applied a fine furniture wax as an added layer of protection. Use a quick setting epoxy to secure the feet into position. A large clamp with cauls will hold the napkin holder pieces in place while the glue dries.

I wanted to keep this tray nice and simple and this is why I chose not to add handles. The tray is also raised enough by the feet to allow me to slip my fingers under and pick it up, so the lack of handles works out nicely. As mentioned before, a pair of these veneered panels, with a slightly thinner core, could end up becoming the sides of a very nice looking box, or possibly the door on a small wall cabinet. Being veneered it is both stable and flat and will stay that way for its entire life.

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