Veneer a Curve

How to apply veneer to a curved surface

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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How to apply veneer to a curved surface? This was the question that I asked myself when I came into possession of a beautiful vintage drinks cabinet from Stonehill.  Obviously, you can veneer on a curve as the cabinet already had veneer, which was failing. 

The real question was “could a newbie veneer on a curve without the use of a veneer press”?

I absolutely wanted to restore this vintage piece to its former glory, so I dove right in.  A little to eagerly!

Table of Contents

My First Failed Curved Veneer Attempt

I initially wanted to try to simply repair the missing birds eye maple veneer.  Up until this point, all I had done with veneer was repair small chips and edge banding.  My first lesson was how difficult it is to colour match 60-year-old Birds Eye Maple veneer to new veneer.  And secondly, that veneering over a curve with raw veneer seemed impossible.  The veneer kept cracking or splitting on me. 

So, I tucked the cabinet away and dove into online research.  Which would have been the sensible first step.

60 year old birds eye veneer vs new veneer

Let’s Go back to the basics: What is Veneer and why is it used?

Before you can work with veneer, you should have a basic understanding of what is veneer. 

It’s simply a thin sheet of wood that is glued onto a substrate.  Often the substrate itself is solid wood, plywood, or chip board. 

The thinness of veneer differs.  It is usually less then 1mm in thickness.  This is why prep work for furniture refinishing will differ between veneer and solid wood.  Sanding veneer must be done very carefully to ensure you do not blow through the veneer layer into the underlay beneath.

More helpful Veneer Topics

Why is veneer used on Furniture?

There is so many reasons why veneer is used in furniture.  One of the foremost is due to the cost of ornate wood grain and its limited availability.  By slicing the unique wood thin, you cover a larger amount of furniture then if you built it from solid wood.

This also means that the piece becomes more cost effective to produce.  Solid wood can be very expensive, therefore taking a cheaper wood or using plywood, MDF or Chip board, results in gorgeous furniture for a smaller price tag then if it was built with solid wood.

Is veneer durable?

Veneer is still wood.  All wood can be prone to scratches, dents, and water damage.  Being that veneer is thin, when scratched or dented, it could go right through to the substrate (the surface which the veneer is glued to). It could cause the Veneer to eventually split or even break off. 

This is what had happened on this Stonehill drinks cabinet.

Furniture with failing veneer is fixable.  You can fix chipped veneer with simple veneer patches or swap out whole sections of veneer for new.

Veneer's bad rep!

In recent years veneer has received a bad rep, due to the poor quality and ultra-thin veneers used by big box stores.  Quality veneer used by experts and on vintage furniture can be museum quality! Just because that Mid-Century Modern Drinks Cabinet is veneer, does not mean you should pass it up. 

Vintage cabinet with dramatic veneer pattern and two columns with brass fittings
Midcentury modern after refinishing and restoration work, with water based top coat
small upcycled cocktail cabinet with bright line design on the front in 3 colours

All Vintage Furniture made with Veneer

The Challenge to apply Veneer to a Curved Surface

The challenge to applying veneer on a curve lies in the fact that raw veneer will crack when you bend it.  As wood is fibrous, it can split and crack along the fibres or the grains.

However, just because it’s a challenge, does not mean it’s impossible. 

The Tools I used to Achieve my curved Veneer.

There are two products which I believe is the reason why my project succeeded.  Especially as a newbie to veneer. 

Both Items I purchased by Joe Woodworker in the USA and had delivered all the way to The Netherlands.  Initially I was concerned ordering so far away, but delivery was smooth and faster then expected.  With Wood Worker Joe even finding a quicker delivery method then what was quoted on the website.

So, why did I order the products from so far?  I just couldn’t find similar products locally. 

Please Note:  These links are not affiliate links and I only share them as I believe in the products.

Super-Soft 2 – Veneer Softener and Conditioner.

This softener is simply sprayed onto your veneer and allowed to dry.  Almost immediately you will find that you can bend your veneer without any splitting.  Heck, I was able to bend the veneer right over a 90-degree angle without issue. 

This softener also helps protect the wood against the heat of the iron and doesn’t cause discolouring to the wood or finishing products used afterwards.

TIP: I filled an old spray bottle with this product.  Spraying was an easy way to apply.  I would wipe any access up and waited about 10 minutes before trying to bend.

Heat Lock Iron on Veneer Adhesive.

I opted to use this specially designed glue for home irons, as I wanted to create a durable project which would not see any veneer movement over the years.

Online you can read  of similar methods with any old wood glue.  Unfortunately, though, regular wood glue could see veneer slippage occurring from when the wood expands and contracts over the years.  I wanted to avoid this from occurring and therefore opted for a glue designed for veneer.

Other Tools Needed

Selecting the right Veneer for your Project

This is an important step in how to apply wood veneer to a curved surface.  As I applied my veneer with Heat Lock Iron on Veneer Adhesive, the veneer needed to withstand heat.  Each wood type will react very differently to heat application. 

I initially tried to replace the Birds Eye Maple with Birds Eye Maple again. The polk-a-dot affect Birds Eye Maple gives is gorgeous and I wanted to stay true to the original design.  Unfortunately, the defect in the wood which produces the grain pattern, did not stand up to heat well.  My first attempt split along the spotted grain pattern.  In total, I found 7 splits in a small section of the veneer.

I went back to the drawing board and decided to opt for Walnut Wood which is better resistant to heat in general and ended up with only 4 or 5 splits across the entire cabinet.  Each small enough to fill with a walnut-coloured wood filler.  Thus, masking the splits perfectly.

Walnut veneer laid out on my kitchen floor
Walnut Veneer laid out on my kitchen floor

Thought:  Looking back, I would now consider first trying to mask the splits in the bird’s eye maple with an appropriate coloured wood filler.  They may not have been noticeable after shellac and topcoat.

Step-by-Step How to apply Veneer to a Curved Surface

Clean Substrate Surface – You want to ensure that the surface which you will be adding your veneer to is clean.  Any old glue or veneer is removed.

Fill any dings and dents – Veneer is very thin and therefore any dents, dips or holes in your wood can affect how flat your veneer lays.

Sand – once you have filled any issues, you should sand your substrate smooth.  I recommend only going to 120 grit as you do want the glue to cling to the surface of the substrate.

Remove Dust – Again, remove all dust, dirt and debris which can affect your veneer.

Lay out Veneer – Take the time to lay out your veneer across the whole cabinet or surface you are working on.  If you are working with highly figured wood, you want to ensure that the patterns continue over the surface correctly. This is the time to plan how your veneer will be joined and lay across the item you are working on.

lay out your veneer and determine the pattern you wish to use.

Apply glue – I applied the Heat Lock Iron on Veneer Adhesive to both the substrate and the veneer itself.  Use a Veneer Glue Roller for applying the glue. It permits you to apply thin, even layers, without losing any bristles from a brush.  You should apply two thin coats and allow each coat to dry.  It doesn’t take long, and you can test with your fingers.

Use a glue roller to smooth out your veneer glue

Wait until the glue is dried – Only after the glue is dried, should you continue to the next steps.

Apply softener to veneer – I then flipped my veneer (if the glue is dried, it will not stick to anything.  If it is tacky, it could stick and ruin your veneer), and applied the Softener to the veneer.  Do this by spraying over the wood until wet (wipe excess softener with a cloth).  Permit time to dry and test if your veneer is more flexible.

Apply veneer to substrate – Carefully line up veneer in correct position to your substrate.  When glue is dried, it will not stick.  If tacky, it will stick and not permit you to adjust the position. I used both veneer and painters’ tape to hold the piece of veneer in place.

Smooth out the Veneer – I simply used my hands and the old cotton shirt and smoothed out the veneer to ensure there was no air trapped between the layers.

Iron – Place the old cotton shirt on the veneer and iron over the shirt.  You should iron on a low to medium heat setting.  Work with the grain and not against it.

Ironing on a shirt over veneer to apply veneer on a curve

Ironing over the curves – Take your time.  I would put pressure to the veneer over the curve and iron a small section at a time.

iron over the curve to apply veneer with heat

Leave for one hour – After the veneer was fully ironed.  I would leave it sitting for 1 hour then come back to check that the veneer was fully ironed on all edges.  If I found that an area felt loose, I would use the iron again.  (Note:  The ironing should be fully completed within 3 hours of the glue drying.  Which is why I would give it only an hour before checking).

Iron on veneer over a curved edge

Leave for 24 hours – Once Satisfied with the veneer application, I allowed the glue to sit and fully harden.  I came back the next day to finish.

Finish the Edging – The next day cut away the excess veneer and smooth the edges with a high grain sandpaper.  And that’s it!  I was rather surprised on how easy it was to apply veneer to a curved surface.

Cut Carefully with a sharp utility knife the edge of the veneer away
Sand the veneer edge smooth with sand paper

Other methods on how to apply veneer to a Curved surface

This is of course not the only method to use to apply veneer to a curve.  I  simply thought it was the easiest way to achieve veneer curves as a newbie to veneering.  Furthermore, it required the least amount of investment in equipment.

Some other ways that you could veneer are curve are:

Veneer Press or Vacuum

The traditional way to veneer is either with clamps or a veneer press or vacuum system.  If you are veneering regularly, you may want to investigate a veneer press.  It is a system which you can put your piece to be veneered into a bag which when the air is removed, will apply the necessary pressure to your piece until your glue dries. 

The downsides to these systems are possible size restrictions and the veneer slipping from position while the air is being removed.  Furthermore, it is an investment to purchase. Therefore, you need to ensure you will make regular use of the system.

Make your own Veneer Softener

I came across several recipes to make your own softener at home.  However, these softeners are made with glue, which will need to be considered when you go to refinish your piece further.  Glue can affect the colouring of stains and shellac when you go to finish your piece.

Flexible Veneer

You can also opt to use a veneer which is more flexible than raw veneers, when working on a curve.  Two-ply veneer already is slightly more flexible than raw veneer.  However, paper backed veneers would be your most flexible type of veneer available.

Paper backed veneers tend not to be as figured as raw veneers.  Therefore, if you are looking for that show stopping look, you will most likely not find it in a paper backed version.

Finishing your Piece

As I wanted the Stonehill Cabinet to be durable for years of use. I opted to shellac the piece for the amazing depth it gives the walnut and makes the grain pop.  However, shellac is not durable against alcohols and as this was a drinks cabinet, I added a topcoat to the piece.  To keep the glossy shine of the shellac, I went with a satin topcoat. 

You can finish your piece however you wish and with whatever materials you prefer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Technically you could. However, if you are using the iron on method some woods are more heat resistant than others.  The heat may cause the wood to split along the grains, as it happened with the bird’s eye maple I initially tried to use.  Walnut veneer, however, was more heat resistant and had little to no issues with splitting. 

Veneer Softener!  There are homemade remedies made with glue or simply soaking your veneer in water.  I do not recommend either.  I am not patient enough to work bending veneer with water slowly to fit the curve.  Nor do I recommend the homemade softener with glue, as glue can affect your stains and finishes later.

Concave curves or hallowed out curves are difficult to iron.  I learned this the hard way.  The flat iron does not work easily in the confined space of the concave curve.  Looking back, I would have tried to veneer these difficult curves with standard veneer glue and a large sandbag.  By placing the sandbag on the concave curve, it would work similar as a clamp across the surface.

Yes, you can!  I managed to veneer the 90 Degree edge of a board when I was practicing with the veneer softener and veneer glue. It was a fun attempt to see how far I could bend the veneer with the help of the Veneer Softener.

Birds Eye Maple Veneer over a 90 degree angle

Final Thoughts

If I could successfully re-veneer an entire drinks cabinet, I am sure you could too!  It requires patience and the correct tools, but the glamorous looks which you can achieve are endless.  Applying veneer to a curved surface is a skill that will open endless possibilities.

Just remember, that practice makes perfect.  I opted to practice first veneering a board before I moved onto veneering the Stonehill cabinet.  Don’t be discouraged if your first veneer curving project isn’t an immediate success.  Keep working at refining your techniques.  I am sure my second piece will be worlds apart from this first.

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