It’s so common to come across damaged wood veneer in the world of furniture refinishing. Fixing and repairing damaged wood veneer is an easy, albeit time-consuming, process. It’s worth it in the end if you want to create a quality finish that will stand the test of time.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links to products and tools I use on a regular basis. Should you choose to purchase these items through the links I have provided, I will be compensated with a small commission for recommending and testing these products for you in advance.
What is Wood Veneer Exactly?
In the world of woodworking and furniture, veneer refers to thin sheets of real wood that are glued onto larger slabs of wood. Veneer is often made with high quality decorative wood, like mahogany, and is glued over lesser quality wood like oak or poplar.
Furniture with veneer paneling was very popular in the 1920’s through the 1940’s.
This method of furniture manufacturing allowed companies to create high-quality looking pieces without having to use decorative wood all throughout the construction. It is a more efficient and cost-effective method of furniture production.
What Does Damaged Veneer Look Like?
Oftentimes, when you find vintage furniture pieces that have veneer, it’s missing, chipped or warped.
On this vintage china cabinet, I had several pieces of veneer that were missing.
Here’s an example of veneer damage due to water and moisture exposure.
Water damage can also cause discoloration and vertical rippling underneath veneer.
How Do You Remove Damaged Veneer?
The best way I have found to remove damaged veneer is to patiently use a heat gun or hair dryer to loosen the glue. Then, slide a putty knife under the veneer and slowly lift it up.
You can watch a video of that process below.https://www.facebook.com/1448140932153648/videos/1770818259885912
That desk turned out beautiful by the way!
What’s Underneath Wood Veneer?
What lies beneath wood veneer can vary. Sometimes there is absolutely gorgeous wood that looks better than the damaged veneer!
Such was the case with this dresser in Driftwood by General Finishes.
and this typewriter table top.
Other times, a lesser quality wood lies underneath. On this depression era dresser, I removed all of the damaged veneer on the top and found Poplar underneath.
Poplar was a commonly used wood for dressers of this era and mine did NOT stain well. This was my attempt at staining that dresser top.
Other times, the wood underneath veneer may have holes and knots that will need to be filled to create a smooth surface. You can see them on the bottom drawer of this dresser.
What lies underneath your piece can be a treasure or a terror! If it’s a terror, I have some tips for making it pretty again.
How to Patch Damaged Veneer & Fill Holes
Sometimes, removing large portions of damaged veneer isn’t necessary. If you’re lucky, your furniture piece may have a small patch that need to be repaired. Those spots like this:
These small areas of missing veneer can easily be patched with a filler. In my experience, I have found a few fillers that provide consistent and durable results.
Bondo All Purpose Putty
Bondo is a professional strength all-purpose filler that repairs metal, masonry, concrete, painted wood, plastic and drywall.
It chemically bonds with surface for a permanent solution. It’s paintable but not stainable. (I have a product suggestion for that below.) It’s GREAT for vertical surfaces like the sides of dressers and buffets. It dries quickly and can be applied in multiple layers for a level finish.
How to Use Bondo All-Purpose Putty
Unfortunately, Bondo has a VERY strong chemical odor, so I only recommend using it if you have excellent ventilation. I don’t suggest you use it in your home with the windows shut. Wear a quality respirator to protect your lungs from the fumes and use a fan to blow the fumes outside.
Bondo comes with a little tube of hardener.
To use, scoop out some Bondo on a scrap piece of wood or cardboard. Squirt a 2 inch long snake of the hardener on your Bondo.
Mix quickly and thoroughly because Bondo dries fast!
Apply Bondo in the areas you removed the damaged veneer. You should mix your Bondo in small batches because it hardens fast, and you don’t want to wind up with waste.
Timbermate Water-Based Wood Filler
If you would like to stain your wood after you’re finished making repairs, or want a less smelly solution, consider Timbermate.
It’s a quick drying, water-based grain filler and wood putty that accepts stain beautifully or can be tinted. It comes in lots of different colors too including Walnut, Oak, Maple, Alder, etc. This allows you to match your filler with the type of wood you’re refinishing. If you’re not sure what kind of wood your project is made from, buy the natural color and mix in your stain of choice to create your own custom tint!
Timbermate also never goes bad! If it freezes, simply put it in the microwave to warm it up. If it dries out, just stir in water. This makes it much more economical than wood filler, which can easily dry out if your lid is not tight.
Clean up Timbermate with blue Dawn dish soap and warm water. Timbermate doesn’t shrink, crack or fall out. It’s also very forgiving. If you’re ever unhappy with the way it looks, just water it down and remove it. Here’s a helpful set of instructions for using Timbermate.
DAP Latex Plastic Wood Filler
DAP’s Latex Plastic Wood Filler is a high quality, latex-based wood filler.
It’s formulated to match various wood species ranging from a natural pine to dark walnut and several shades in between. It also has a white option too! DAP is ideal for repairing cracks, gouges, holes and other surface defects on furniture, woodwork, molding, cabinets, paneling, plywood, windows, doors and even painted surfaces.
What makes this filler better than other wood fillers on the market is that it won’t shrink or crack, which is a common problem with other brands (like Elmer’s). DAP is suitable for indoor or outdoor projects, and is water-based for easy cleanup. Plus, it doesn’t have the strong chemical odor of Bondo, making it much more suitable to use indoors.
It does have a longer dry time than Bondo. It takes 2-6 hours for shallow fills and up to 36 hours for deeper holes.
What NOT To Use
The one product I DO NOT recommend using is wood filler with a dry time indicator dye that is tinted pink or purple.
Even though the product will dry clear, the dye will reactivate every time the product gets wet. That means it will turn pink or purple when you apply primer, paint or a topcoat.The dye may disappear, but it also may not.
You’re better off using the products I suggested above. Trust me.
Sanding Your Veneer Repair
After you have finished patching all of your repair spots with the filler of your choice, you need to sand them smooth. Save time and energy by using a power sander, such as a palm sander (which is square shaped) or a random orbital sander (which is circular), will help you
I don’t recommend using a belt sander because they remove too much wood and are overkill for patch work like this. Doing this sanding by hand will take a long time, and you won’t wind up with as smooth of a surface as you would with a power sander.
When I first began refinishing furniture, I used this DeWALT 5 Inch Random Orbital Sander.
This 5 inch piece of heaven was my partner in crime on hundreds of pieces of furniture. It’s powerful enough to grind through even the toughest surfaces but gentle enough to provide you with a fine furniture finish.
Back in March of 2019, I upgraded to a Festool Random Orbital Sander attached to their Mini Dust Extractor.
Now if you’ve never entered into the world of Festool products, prepare for sticker shock. They’re very expensive and it took me YEARS to build up enough money to afford one. It’s not a beginner’s tool by any stretch, but it is such a luxury if you do a lot of interior sanding (like me). This system lets me sand inside without creating any dust because the dust extractor sucks it up as I create it with my sander.
When you sand filler, you will create a LOT of dust! So if you can’t hook your sander up to a shop vac or a dust extractor, then I suggest you do this dirty work outside.
Tips for Sanding Filler Smooth
When you sand filler smooth, use a grit that is appropriate to the amount of filler you applied. In the photo below, I applied a small amount of Bondo on the back of an antique settee. I used 220 grit sandpaper to smooth this out, because I wanted to sand it gently.
If you had a big patch to fill in, then you can use a more aggressive grit, like 100, to remove most of the filler. Then switch to a softer grit to smooth it down.
Sometimes, you may find that your first round of filling didn’t quite do the trick. You may need to apply another layer of filler, let it dry and sand again. It all depends on your application and how deep of a gouge you are filling.
Repairing Damaged Veneer Isn’t Always Necessary
I don’t always repair damaged veneer on my pieces. Sometimes, I leave it alone and embrace it as a part of the piece’s character.
Take this makeup vanity done in Queenstown Gray Milk Paint by General Finishes for example.
There were small patches of missing veneer, but I didn’t bother to repair them.
In the end, you really couldn’t tell they were there, and I thought they complimented the character of the piece.
I did the same thing on this Empire Dresser I painted in a custom mix of Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint.
It too had small patches of missing veneer, and I let them stay to enhance the character of the piece.
Whether you repair damaged veneer or not really depends on your personal preference. If you want a perfectly restored piece with no visible flaws, then these steps will help you make the necessary repairs. If you’re more flexible, you can determine where and when you want to remove and fill in damaged veneer.
Whichever way you choose, I can’t wait to see what you create! Tag me on Instagram at @eight.hundred.furniture to share your work.