Tuesday, August 5, 2014

How To Veneer a Column

Damaged column with contact cement

I think it is probably obvious that I love antique furniture.  In particular, I am fascinated with the quality and variety of designs that were produced in Europe and America.  The high point of this period was during the 1820's and best represented by the Monroe Doctrine.  If you look at the furniture made in major American cities during that decade, you see rich Cuban mahogany, with highly figured veneers, and carved elements representing cornucopia, lion's heads and paws, stars, and other Egyptian, Roman and Greek motifs.  In addition to all this elaborate decoration one of the most common elements was the use of veneered columns, usually with a carved capital or imported gilt bronze mounts.

I was always fascinated with the veneered column as a form, and very early in my career as a furniture builder I did some research to try to duplicate it for my self.  I failed miserably.  Several times.

I began with hot animal glue and wet jute webbing.  I put the hot glue on the column, wrapped the veneer around and then added the webbing.  I tried to then heat the webbing on the theory that it would shrink and pull the veneer tight.  I remember reading something somewhere about this, and they suggested holding the column near the fire, but I live in San Diego, and it is not often that I have access to an open fire.

Next I tried to use bicycle tire tubes.  They were messy and applied uneven pressure, leaving marks.  Also, I couldn't work fast enough and the glue set before I was ready.  There was no way to add heat, since the tubes would distort and loose their stretch.

It was nearly 15 years after that when I was involved in a conservation group in Paris and discovered that I could modify the glue to give a longer open time.  I began experimenting with urea and, after 37 different formulas, found a mixture that worked.  That was the creation of Old Brown Glue.  It was designed to solve the problem I had struggled with all that time, and the first time I used it to veneer a column it was a success.

In December 2004 I wrote a column for Fine Woodworking (Issue Number 173) that was published in the Master Class area of the magazine, called "Low-tech method for veneered columns."  To go along with this article, they put one of my pieces on the back cover, the Bonheur du Jour.  This piece is one of my early favorites, and has large veneered columns on the base and small veneered columns on the top.  The veneer is some plum pudding Cuban mahogany I purchased years earlier in New York, and I didn't have enough to do the entire desk, so I used a contrasting Honduras ribbon mahogany in the upper section.  That meant that I had no surplus material if the veneering didn't work as planned.

I thought the article would create a bunch of interest and I expected a lot of phone calls about veneering columns.  The only phone call I got was from a person who wanted to know where I got the mounts and if I would sell him the blueprints to make the desk.  He was disappointed to learn that I don't use any plans or measured drawings when I build furniture, and the mounts were from Paris.

Recently a table came into the shop for restoration and it included a column which had been veneered using a cheap mahogany veneer and contact cement.  This table was English Regency and made with Brazilian rosewood.  The client agreed that I should remove the mahogany and use rosewood, which is now on the endangered species list.  However, I have a lot of rosewood, sliced very thick, which pre dates the ban.  Most of it was harvested over 50 years ago and the quality is amazing.  I purchased it from an old cabinet maker early in my career and have kept it for special projects.

As I began to do this job, it occurred to me that it would make a good video.  My partner, Patrice, has been successful at filming and editing videos here at work, and he set up two cameras to record the work.  Our videos can be seen on YouTube by searching for our channel.

The real breakthrough in my efforts to veneer columns was the direct result of my problems with my back.  All my life I lifted heavy objects and stressed my back without any problems.  However, when I was 48 I actually damaged my back and suffered a period of pain.  The doctor recommend that I use a stretchy band of rubber to exercise my muscles and rebuild my strength.  As he handed me a short piece of the stuff, my mind immediately realized this was the perfect solution to the problem I was having with inner tubes.  Sold as "Rep Band" (resistive exercise band for exercise, rehabilitation and conditioning) by Sammons Preston, it comes in different strengths.  The purple is the strongest (level 5), and a box has 50 yards.  Here is the link: Rep Band

Veneering a column actually is very simple with this process, but it takes a few days.  The reason is that the glue sets slowly, which is a good thing.  It allows time for the application of the glue, veneer and elastic bands.  Then, over night, the glue begins to set and the veneer shrinks to fit on the column.  The next day you can cut the overlap and make a joint, reheat the glue at the seam and wrap it up again.  One more day and it sets completely, even though if you have any problems you can simply reheat the area and fix it.

Sit down, get a cup of coffee and watch me veneer a column: Veneer a Column

I think if you watch the video you might be encouraged to try veneering a column yourself.  It is fun and rewarding and adds an element to your furniture design portfolio which you may not have considered previously.

Just don't call me and ask for plans to build the table.

Properly Restored with Hide Glue


Mike Lingenfelter said...

For this column you said you use some thick veneer. Was that 1.5mm - 2mm veneers you generally use? If you are doing a smaller column, like 1" you have talk about. Do you need to use a "thinner" veneer or can the thicker veneers be rolled around something that small?


W. Patrick Edwards said...

Since I understand most veneers available these days are quite thin, usually 1/40th or less, I mentioned that I used "thicker" veneer.

In fact, this rosewood was sliced to 1/28th inch some time ago, when this was the standard thickness.

If I were to use the sawn 1.5mm veneers, I would need to soak them for some time in very hot water to be able to bend them, and I would use a thin muslin on the surface instead of paper, as this would allow more pressure to be applied without tearing the paper.

For the Bonheur du Jour, I used also 1/28th veneers and the diameter of the small columns was less than 1 inch. Worked great.

Thanks for asking.

Mike Lingenfelter said...

Thanks Patrick. I've been working with the thicker 1.5mm - 2mm veneers for some marquetry and didn't think they would bend that easily :).


W. Patrick Edwards said...

I can give you two examples where I had to bend thick material.

First of all when I built one of my clocks, which was covered in marquetry using sawn veneers, I needed to apply marquetry to a large cove molding under the bonnet and a smaller cove molding at the base.

I made the marquetry panels as usual, gluing them face down to a paper assembly board. Then, after mastic was dry, I remove them and trimmed the paper to the edges of the panels. I placed them face down on my bench and clamped two pieces of wood along either side (lengthwise). Then I used a sprayer to add a fine mist of water to the marquetry (glue side only). In a few minutes the wood swelled and the marquetry started to curve up in the middle. I then pushed the boards closer and clamped them, applying another mist of water.

Using this slow and careful process I was able to achieve the concave bend I needed to fit the molding. When it was dry it stayed in that shape and I then glued it in place with hot glue and sand bags.

The other example is more complex. I had the occasion to restore some period LXIV Boulle clocks many years ago. These clocks had marquetry wrapped columns and the surface was tortoise shell, pewter and brass, laid around a column which was about 4cm in diameter or less. By gluing the marquetry to a thin muslin, I was able to wrap the column for the repairs.

I have a lot of respect for those guys who did it the first time in the 17th century.

Craig Thibodeau said...

Patrick, I have used your technique from that FWW article (and your Old Brown Glue) twice to veneer columns and both times it worked great.

I was using commercial veneer and it layed down flat enough to sand smooth without any issues. Thanks for the information. Any more article coming up for FWW in the future?

Mike Lingenfelter said...

Sounds like a good subject for next video :).


W. Patrick Edwards said...

Thanks for the note of support, Craig. Obviously the point of this post is to encourage other contemporary furniture makers, like yourself, to include veneering, marquetry and veneered column elements in their designs. You have done an amazing job in your "young" career. I am always happy to see your articles, which is often.

I just completed an article for the SAPFM Journal, which will be published later this year. It is titled "European Influences on American and Colonial Design."

I am always ready to contribute to FW but I represent a "niche" market share, and they tell me that they can only publish my material every few years or so.

Perhaps if readers of this blog were to ask FW???

Craig Thibodeau said...

Thanks Patrick, I enjoy writing the articles for FWW and have another one coming up soon. It's as close as I feel like getting to teaching. I can see how some of your info falls into the 'niche' market but some of the techniques, like column veneering, are perfect for a wide audience.

It was interesting listening to your interview on the FWW podcast, a nice chance to learn more about you and the history of Old Brown Glue. Asa and I had a good chat about you at the Del Mar Fair and he was excited about interviewing you and learning more about your work.

I think your Old Brown Glue has made hide glue much more appealing to contemporary furniture makers. I am surprised how many people I know use it for a variety of glue-ups. I'm also glad to see how much the market is growing and how many places are selling it. Soon you may only have time to make glue.

Luke Addington said...

The video was incredibly helpful. I've read your articles on veneering columns but was still hesitant about tackling this. There are small things you did in the video that cleared up questions and concerns I had. I hope there are more videos to come!