Despite the ardent wishes of nearly all its population, the Pacific Northwest continues to nurture a fickle spring, characterized by periods of uncharacteristic downpours alternating with periods of gray skies and periods of bright, warm sun. Of all these scenarios, there is a certain amount of irony that the one I dislike most is also the one that is most productive for the work I set out for myself. More fodder for the theory that secretly I am a masochist.
When last we met, the story ended with another pause while I considered my options for leveling the underlay of the table top. After doing some research, I settled on Durham’s Water Putty, which is a powder that can be mixed to self-leveling consistencies. While waiting for my delivery, I took the time to strip the gross finish off the legs and cross bars under the table. It was at this point that I discovered the last surprise to forever taint my impression of the Lane Acclaim line: the feet are painted on. Admittedly, this should not have escaped my attention for as long as it had (especially given that we have a matching coffee table that we’ve been using for months), but was still pretty disappointing, nonetheless.
I also spent a few minutes filling in the largest gaps around the edge of the trim with some wood putty I had on hand, so that the self-leveling putty didn’t leak through and run out of the bottom. This was also a good opportunity for me to thoroughly assess the work that would be required to level the underlay. The warpage of the particle board resulted in some areas where the underlay was nearly flush with the top of the trim; in other places there was a difference of two-to-three thicknesses of the walnut veneer. I certainly didn’t want to waste a piece of veneer trying to mitigate that, so I strapped in for a lengthy leveling process.
“Self-leveling” may have been a bit of an exaggeration. Either that, or I balked at making it genuinely as liquid as necessary to self-level. The first application went on okay, but I could immediately see that this would not be the magic cure-all for my ailments. After waiting for the first coat to dry, I mixed up a second batch and made another attempt at it. Ultimately, it required three separate applications before I had all the gaps and low spots filled.
After waiting for the last application to completely dry, I found myself also waiting for one of those elusive breaks in the weather that would allow me to drag the power sander outside long enough to make quick work of smoothing everything down nice and flat. Fortunately, for the sake of this project, I didn’t have to wait too long.
Now there was little else left but to tackle the one part that would make or break this project: cutting the walnut veneer. I suspect that there is some trick to this that I have yet to learn. I also suspect that I did this backwards (see the Post Mortem below). I suspect that there was some other way to accomplish this task that would have resulted in better results. All those suspicions aside, it did turn out better than it could have. I’ve had my share of veneer disasters and near-disasters, but this one actually went okay. Despite taking a painfully slow and meticulous approach to cutting the veneer, I still ended up with some sloppy edges. Some of this I attribute to the sloppy edges of the trim I was trying to match; but some of this I have to attribute to my technique, which was to essentially taping down the three sides not being cut and slowly trimming away the excess of the remaining edge with a razor knife, making small, angled cuts. Perhaps it would have worked better on a table with straight lines and square corners, but there was too much warpage in this table.
Gluing the veneer down was actually a breeze. For the bulk of my projects, I’ve used adhesive-backed veneer: the kind where you peel off the paper and stick it on the wood. This is designed to be a “no muss; no fuss” solution, but I’ve often struggled with bubbling, rippling and glue failure that have caused me headaches and heartaches. The walnut veneer was simply wood and nothing else. I brushed contact cement on the veneer and table, covering all of the area to be glued, waited a few minutes for it to get tacky and dropped it in place, using a rolling pin to smooth it down. No bubbles. No rippling. No glue failure.
There were still some seam issues that needed to be addressed. A combination of wood putty and sanding was used to help match up the seams, though the putty was a little more visible than I had hoped and the sanding was a little overzealous in places, which caused the veneer to discolor very visibly (and right at the dovetail, of all places). I decided to try something different with this project and used tinted Danish oil instead of my usual stain and polyurethane.
After a few coats, the color really came through and the grain looked beautiful. Ultimately, the project didn’t turn out perfect and doesn’t really hold up well when compared to our coffee table, but when compared to what it looked like when I first bought it, I definitely succeeded in accomplishing something good.
Post Mortem: This project was extensive enough that I feel it warrants some consideration and reflection. I’ve learned a few valuable lessons from the restoration that I wanted to document in the hopes that they stick for future projects. The biggest takeaway from this project is that I probably should not have tried to save the dovetail feature. In removing the old walnut veneer, I didn’t encounter any terrific problems saving the oak, but as the project wore on, working around the oak became increasingly problematic. It was also the primary impetus for leveling the underlay UP, because I needed to accommodate for the difference in thickness between the old oak veneer and the new walnut veneer.
Had I opted not to save the oak dovetail, I probably could have applied the walnut veneer before reattaching the oak trim around the sides. This would have minimized all the sloppy trimming around the edge of the walnut veneer. I also could have leveled the underlay DOWN, by simply sanding or planing, and then taken advantage of the fact that the trim is solid wood to sand that down to match the veneer at the seams.
Barring those, I need to do some more research to learn some better tricks for cutting veneer to match awkward shapes.
The Danish oil was wonderful for bringing out the character of the wood grain, but ultimately didn’t do much to help even out the overall look of the piece. Given the 50+ year age difference in the walnut veneer and all the other wood, it took the oil differently and despite several coats did not even out well. I ended up using a wipe-on polyurethane to help even things out. But, the trade-off there is the glossiness of the polyurethane tends to highlight any imperfections that were present under the veneer (of which there were a few around the dovetail feature, because it was so difficult to sand around them).
Using the unglued veneer was such a breeze. It adds the extra step of having to apply glue, which is odorous and sticky, but the application was so much easier and less fraught with peril. I’m planning to stick with this product for all my future projects.