Learning how to apply veneers with an iron can open up your woodworking world. It allows you to use expensive, exotic species on surfaces without tools like a vacuum press. Once you get the hang of it you’ll find it’s pretty easy to do.
My sculpture representing grasses and a spider-web was created specifically for the “Fine Works in Wood” exhibition given by SAWS in Alberta in 2013. I decided that the small Baltic-birch plywood base would be veneered with commercial Makassar ebony scraps that I had on hand. A situation such as this is perfect for the iron-on-veneer technique.
Normally, both sides of panels should be veneered, and with similar if not identical species of wood. However, in situations where the panels are thick, or small in length or width, or are perhaps supported by internal bracing, only the visible surface need be veneered. The resulting cup (which will always be present to some degree) is negligible. Of course, this technique can be used on both sides of a much larger panel if you do not have access to conventional veneer presses.
A note on materials – this technique works well on thin commercial veneers. I have tried it on thicker (1/16″) veneers with mixed results. Don’t bother trying with 1/8″ stock. I have had good luck with both “white” and “yellow” PVA and Aliphatic Resin woodworking glues. This technique is not for contact cement, epoxy or plastic powdered resins. What’s required is a glue with thermoplastic qualities – when not yet fully cured, they can become soft with the application of heat. If you need a waterproof glue, don’t hesitate to use an adhesive like Titebond III, or another similar option. I would wholeheartedly recommend testing your iron-on veneering technique with scraps to become familiar with the process, and gain the confidence to use this technique with your next project.
Apply the Glue
Apply glue to both the inner surface of the veneer, and the surface of the substrate using a roller. Kubash likes to tape down the veneer so it doesn’t have a chance to curl.
Apply the Heat and Pressure
Once the glue has dried, Kubash puts the veneer in place and, starting from the center, applies heat to the veneer and uses a block to press the veneer to the substrate. Pay special attention to the edges, as you don’t want to roll the block over the edge, cracking the veneer.
Trim the Excess
Kubash uses a sharp knife to carefully cut most of the waste off, ensuring he works with the grain. With the majority of the waste removed he then trims the last 1mm with a sharp block plane.
With the main surface complete, Kubash uses the same technique to apply the edges to the substrate. You will need one hand to work the iron, and the other to apply pressure with the block, so make sure your workpiece is fixed in place.
Because Kubash wanted the grain to line up he was careful to not ruin the offcuts during the initial application of the large face veneer. He uses tape to align the grain, and then the piece can be ironed in place for a perfect grain match.
Secure the veneers
I find it helpful to tape the veneers down, so they don’t curl and roll away. Apply the glue to your veneer and substrate. I use a simple roller. I like to roll enough glue that it looks like a very thin layer of paint. Wait until the glue is almost dry, with just the slightest bit of tackiness left. The glue sheen will be dull. Make sure not to start applying heat too early, or a weak bond may result. You can even leave the glue to dry for a few hours, sometimes more, depending on the type of glue you’re using.
Add some heat
With the iron set to “cotton”, place the glued panel over the glued veneer and press down, being careful to align the work properly. It may not stick all that securely, but flip it over immediately and start to iron it. Work from the center out. Don’t move frantically, but slowly and methodically. Don’t linger so long that the veneer burns. Once again, test if you are uncertain. After a few seconds I start to follow the iron with a hard block, so I am using two hands at the same time. Make sure the edges are well heated, and pressed with the block. Remove the iron, and continue to rub with the block, until the heat subsides. You will know when you can stop, because the veneer will stop lifting.
If you find a spot that didn’t “take” you can try passing the iron over it again a little longer, and finishing up with the block. If you start pressing from the center, you should not have problems with air bubbles.
Trim the waste
When the piece has cooled off, you can trim it. I use a sharp blade to carefully remove most of the material (remember to cut with the grain). I try to stay away from the edge by 1mm or so. You don’t want to cut through the edge, or this will show up as a flaw in the final product. I remove the last 1mm with a sharp plane (again paying attention to the grain) or sandpaper on a hard block. Be careful to remove the excess just up to the edge, and not to unintentionally round-over the edge. By the way, this technique can be used to apply veneer to rounded surfaces … but that’s the subject of another article.
The remaining sides of the base are treated in a similar fashion. With thin veneers, it generally doesn’t matter which side is finished last. I try to plan my process so the alignment of adjacent sides is simplified. For this piece I decided to do the large symmetrical surface first, then the back, and finally the two smaller sides. This gave me the chance to align the sides perfectly where they met up at the front.
Tape may be used to align pieces of veneer before you iron them in place. The veneer can be flipped out of the way, glued, and finally pressed, with the tape there to facilitate alignment.
The veneering is finished, and all that’s left is some sanding, and finishing. The alignment is good, and the process was quick and easy. This took me two hours to complete, including all the camera and tripod manipulations to shoot some images of the process. With practice, you will be doing this work in under an hour.