Apply veneer easily with wood glue and an iron

Part of what kept me from experimenting with large veneer pieces was the cost of a veneer press or the sheer number of clamps required. While you could opt to work with contact cement, I knew my shaky hands would cause an issue and ruin the finished product. 

 

You can purchase iron-on veneer edging, so why not iron-on veneer sheets? While it is probably available in some markets, it isn’t here. So, when I read that you can use wood glue to iron veneer onto a substrate, I knew I had to experiment. 

Table of Contents

How Applying Veneer with an Iron Works

The idea behind the process is how wood glue, specifically PVA glues, can be reactivated when warmed up and will adhere to itself when it cools. Therefore, if you place a layer of glue on both the veneer and the substrate and use warmth, you could reactivate the glue and cause it to adhere to itself, gluing the veneer to the substrate. 

 

This process eliminates the need for a veneer vacuum press or clamps, making veneering large surfaces possible. 

 

Let’s dive into the materials needed and the process.

Materials Needed

measure out the veneer before you add glue

Wood Veneer

I have now tried ironing on Birds Eye Maple, Walnut, Teak, and Mahogany. The Birds Eye Maple split along all the “eyes” when heat was applied.

 

This taught me that some veneers are more sensitive to heat than others. Walnut worked the best with heat application. 

 

I have always used raw wood veneer, but this process should also work with paper-backed veneers, especially if you require the flexibility. 

Substrate or Furniture Item

The substrate material is often particle board, mdf or plywood. You can even use a cheaper softwood.

 

As a furniture refinisher, I tested this theory directly on a piece of furniture containing a particle board substrate. 

Wood Glue

Wood glue like Titebond is recommended. It should be a PVA glue that dries clear and solid. I tried this process with two different wood glues I bought from local stores and have recently purchased the recommended Titebond III for the next time I try this process.

TIP

Unsure if your white or yellow glue will work? Try this process using veneer scraps on a board.

apply glue to veneer with a glue roller

Glue Roller

I cannot recommend a glue roller enough. This handy tool will roll out your glue without leaving any bristles behind, which could ruin your veneer finish.

A standard household iron set on medium heat will work well. I specifically use a dry iron to avoid any issues with steam.

Additional Tools

Tack Cloth

Handy for wiping away all dust and dirt before applying your glue.

Utility knife 

Trim the overhanging veneer when you are finished. 

Sandpaper 

To smooth the veneer edges, use medium grit, such as 150 or 180 grit. If you need to sand your substrate, start with 80 and work up to 150 or 180 grit.

Sanding block 

Helps ensure an even sanding surface.

Rags 

For wiping away excess glue and wiping down with water to see any bubbles.

White Cotton Cloth

A white cotton cloth is to be placed between your iron and veneer. I have learned that white is always used to avoid dyes potentially bleeding onto your wood.

Prepare the Veneer

You must take a few steps before you glue the veneer onto the substrate. 

 

Firstly, you want to cut your veneer oversized. You should plan a little overhang, which you will trim away later. I usually plan a 1 cm overhang. Furthermore, heat can cause your veneer to shrink slightly, so consider this.

 

Choose the side of the veneer that will be right side up. Veneers from identical batches will have a “good” side and a “bad side.” Now, it’s not actually a bad side, but the shine and grain look slightly different from one side to the other. This faint difference may be noticeable if you are using multiple sheets of veneer. 

measure and clean veneer prior to adding glue

If you are going to veneer a larger surface, you may require multiple sheets of veneer. If this is the case, you want to plan your veneer out and create joints matching up when you place the veneer sheets next. You can hold the joints together with veneer tape or painter’s tape. And keep in mind to check that you are using the same sides up.

 

Clean your veneer thoroughly. I recommend using a tack cloth to remove all dirt and dust. Any small particle stuck on the veneer can ruin your smooth finish when glued into place. 

Prepare the Substrate

Similar to the veneer, you need to prepare the substrate.

 

You want the substrate surface to be smooth and free of dust and debris. To ensure your substrate is smooth, sand it starting with 80 grit and working your way up to 180 grit. I wouldn’t go higher, as you do want your glue to have a surface to grip to. 

 

Again, wipe down your surface with a tack cloth to remove dirt and dust. Do not reach for water at this step; it can raise wood grain. Instead, mineral or white spirits should be used, which will not raise the grain like water. 

 

If your substrate is a porous material such as particle board, you should first seal the surface. If so, use shellac and brush on 2 thin coats. Sand the shellac lightly and again clean thoroughly.

preparer the substrate by sanding it before applying veneer

Ironing Process

With your substrate and veneer ready for further steps, you can proceed to the next steps. These steps are time-sensitive. You do not want to leave your glue overnight to dry. Trust me—I know this from experience. 

Applying the Glue

apply glue to substrate with a glue roller

You must cover the veneer and substrate with wood glue for best adhesion. Work in a clean, dirt- and dust-free location and lay out your veneer and substrate.

 

Pour glue across the surface, and using your glue roller, roll out the glue until it is a thin, equal layer across the whole surface. I have tried applying both a single layer and a double layer of glue and found that a single layer worked better.  

 

Ensure the glue covers the entire surface of the veneer and substrate without gaps, drips, or uneven thickness. As veneer can curl when moisture is applied, you may want to tape it down to avoid warping. But if you do this, ensure you have enough overhang on the veneer to allow room for the tape.

Drying Time

I have applied pieces where the glue was a little tacky, where I did two layers with full drying time and where I forgot and left the glue to dry overnight. Which piece adhered the best? The piece which was still a little tacky!

 

Therefore, allow the glue to start drying. You will see patches turning from white or yellow to a milky clear, a sign that drying has started. You can also touch the glue lightly to see if it is starting to get tacky. 

 

The veneer is now ready for ironing.

apply glue to veneer using a glue roller. Glue roller is a key tool for refinishing veneer furniture

Iron the Veneer

Firstly, you want to position the veneer’s glue side on the substrate’s glue side, allowing for your planned overhang. Double check that all your joints are still tight, if you are working with multiple veneer pieces. 

 

Before you start ironing, take the time to use a clean cloth and apply gradual, even pressure across the surface. Start from a single point and work your way over the whole surface, squeezing out any air bubbles. The veneer will be flat, and this smoothing process will help minimize bubbles.

TIP

Because the glue is tacky, avoid moving or sliding the veneer once it is placed on the substrate, as this can smear the glue or wrinkle it.

Iron on veneer using a dry iron and white cotton cloth

Once correctly positioned, and you removed as many bubbles as possible, it’s time to use the iron. Set the iron to medium heat and place a clean, white cotton cloth on the veneer’s surface.

 

Do not place the heat directly onto the veneer. 

 

Use a pre-heated iron on the fabric, allowing the heat of the iron to heat up an area before moving on. This step requires patience. You need to allow the heat to activate both sides of the glue. Work in sections, starting in the centre or along a seam, and work your way outwards slowly, following the wood grain. You want to push out any further bubbles as you iron.

Iron on veneer using wood glue and a dry iron.

Apply firm downward pressure as you move the iron. You should hear small crackling sounds. These are the two glue surfaces against each other. As the glue melts, the crackling sounds should disappear.

 

If you have ironed a section and it has cooled down, run your hands over the surface, listening for the crackling noise. If you hear that sound, the glue did not melt in that area, and you must go over it again. Trust me when I say this process requires time and patience. 

 

Do not pull at the edges at this stage. Allow the glue 24 hours to cool and cure before aggressively testing, sanding, or trimming. This cooling and curing time allows the glue to reach full bond strength.  Now most glues even when bonded can still be reactivated by heat.  So if you discover bubbles later, it is not the end of the world. 

Working with Veneer Seams

If you are working with multiple veneer pieces, you want to iron them together. Heat can cause the veneer to shrink. So those joints that were perfect before applying heat can pull from each other as the veneer shrinks slightly. 

 

Work from the centrepiece and iron outwards until this piece is fully ironed and adhering. Place your corresponding veneer sheet down and line up the joint. You may even want to overlap the joint by a millimetre. If the veneer doesn’t shrink, this overlap can be sanded carefully away, easier than concealing a gap. 

 

Work on this new piece of veneer like you did the first. Push out all air pockets and apply the iron. Working from the centre outwards. 

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

Finishing the Edges

When you are finished and allow time for the glue to cure, you can remove the overhang and finish the edging.

 

Use a sharp, utility knife to cut off the overhang. Hold the knife at an angle and carefully slice along the edge of the substrate. Be careful not to gouge or cut too deeply. You cannot repair a gouge easily, but you can sand away any remaining overhang. 

 

Once the majority of the overhang is removed, take your sandpaper and sanding block and sand along the edge, preferably in the direction of the wood grain.

sanding the edge of new veneer, item has wood filler on a small crack
Sanding the veneer edges while wood filler (in teak colour) drying.

Next, you’ll want to smooth and finish the edges.

 

Carefully sand the edges with progressively finer grit sandpaper, starting with 120 or 150 grit and working up to 220 or 320 grit. Sand in the direction of the wood grain to achieve the best results. Apply firm but gentle pressure and frequently wipe away sawdust. Make sure not to sand through the veneer into the substrate below.

 

If the veneer is not fully attached and starts to move or lift, stop immediately. You want to get out your iron and white cotton cloth and start applying heat again. Two weeks later, I was able to reheat and glue a bubble that I missed successfully.

 

At this point it was still unfinished wood veneer, as I had not yet done a fine sanding or added my top coat.

Looking for Bubbling

The biggest issue you will most likely come across is bubbling. Your piece could look perfect, and you hear no more crinkling or crackling when you run your hand over the veneer. However, tiny air bubbles could be trapped, or the glue did not melt into each other. If so, the heat was likely too short on the spot. 

 

In my experience, the bubbling occurred when I went to add a water-based stain. Immediately, I found 6 small areas that bubbled in a variety of places. I was so disappointed. 

Mineral spirits on Veneer Wood

I had previously used mineral spirits over the veneer, which had no bubble. It was apparent the moisture from the water that raised the veneer and exposed the bubbles. 

 

Therefore, I recommend that you add a step. Take a damp cloth and wipe down the veneer. Any air bubbles should appear quickly. Now, don’t be discouraged. Consider this a step to look for areas where the glue did not fully adhere. 

 

I marked all bubbling areas with chalk and waited for the veneer to dry again. Then I went over the areas with the iron gain, for when. When I removed the iron, I placed a board on the area and weighed it down. The pressure helped to hold the veneer against the substrate as the glue melted together and cooled.

The Veneer Has Cracked Due to Heat

I have had this issue occur, unfortunately.  With Birds Eye Maple, it was so bad that I swapped out the maple for walnut.  

 

The walnut barely cracked.  I only experienced a few small sheers in the veneer due to the heat exposure.  These were easy to repair using wood fillers.

 

Specifically my favourite fillers from Borma Wach.  Their fillers come in a variety of different colours, which are closely resembling the base colour of the most popular furniture woods.  Small cracks filled with this filler are usually camouflaged perfectly.

My Honest Thoughts on the Iron on Veneer Method

I have experimented with the iron-on veneer method, and I am about 85% satisfied with it. I have yet to achieve perfect results. It’s an ideal process if you do not have enough clamps or a veneer press available and are working on veneering a large surface. This process could open up opportunities for many refinishers who have hesitated to re-veneer whole furniture pieces. 

 

I have used heat lock glue, a type of glue designed specifically for ironing on veneer. This glue gave a better result because I had only 2 bubbles over an entire drinks cabinet with many curves where an iron didn’t fit well. So, really, it was a massive success in my mind. So why don’t I use heat-lock lock glue for ironing on the veneer?

 

Well, it’s pricey and only available in the USA. I had it shipped over at a high cost. It’s an excellent choice if you aren’t subjected to costly shipping costs and regularly work with veneer on larger projects. But that is just not what my business is. 

Close up of jar of heat lock iron on veneer adhesive

So what about contact cement? Due to the finality of placing the veneer, I have yet to test out contact cement for large surfaces. I am sure I will misplace it, resulting in bubbles and crooked veneer. It’s on my list of experiments to try in the workshop, and I will share my opinions on it when I get around to trying it. 

 

The iron-on process requires a lot of patience and time. Larger surfaces have resulted in bubbles appearing when wet on the veneer surface. While I have solved the bubble issue with another round of ironing, I question the long-term durability and worry that more bubbles might appear over time. Therefore, I will continue to test the process until I feel more comfortable. 

 

I would love to know if you have tried ironing on veneer and if you were successful in your first go? Did you do anything different?

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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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