Friday, 28 January 2011

Hide glue & hammer veneering - round I

About 6 months ago, a good friend of mine in Oregon called to ask if I had ever considered the adhesives I use in my woodworking. I could tell by the pace of the question that he was a bit concerned about it. I told him that for furniture I usually use PVA glue - “why do you ask?” He proceeded to tell me about a conversation with one of the conservators at a pretty well known museum. The conservator said he was amazed by the quality of the fine furniture being made at some of the fine woodworking schools... too bad they rely completely on modern adhesives as the pieces will not last more than 2 generations. It was his opinion that many of these objects will literally fall apart because they rely totally on modern adhesives for their structure. “It is a shame that no one uses hot hide glue anymore”.

This prompted a very long conversation. We noted that North Bennett Street school might be the only institution we could think of that still promotes the use of hot hide glue. We talked about the fact that many of us might have visions of our furniture outlasting us - and that our grand-kids will be fighting over it. I know I certainly do. And I think many of the students who have attended any of the fine woodworking schools would feel the same way. We both agreed that we really ought to explore using hot hide glue.

Not long after hanging up the phone, I jumped onto youTube to see if there was anything to do with hide glue or hammer veneering. I came across a familiar name - Rob Millard. I have admired Rob’s work for years (I have a bit of a thing for Federal furniture) and seeing his name was like seeing a familiar face at the airport. I watched his 2 part series on hammer veneering.

He made it look very straightforward, almost easy (and I know that as soon as someone can make something look easy... they are really good at what they do). So in typical fashion - I jumped in up to my neck.

I ordered a glue pot from Joel (tools for working wood). As I was waiting - I decided on the first project. Our sunroom has been mostly done for a few years now. All that was missing were the 3 lift up doors in the upper cabinets. These doors were to hide the “ugly stuff’. The doors were going to be veneered with Macassar Ebony. What stopped me from making them was the fact that I had a hard time wrapping my head around work with mdf or chipboard. I was not sure how any fasteners were going to hold in any of these materials and to be honest - I cannot stand working with them. What was so appealing about hammer veneering, was the fact that Rob uses a solid wood core. This instantly appealed to me. I have always collected quarter sawn material whenever I find it. It is perfect for drawer sides and all sorts of other applications. Rob usually uses quarter sawn poplar but he suggested that most any wood would work. I went to Rob’s site to see which of his DVD’s I might get for further instruction. He suggested Making a Federal Inlaid Candlestand.

As I was waiting for the glue pot and DVD to arrive, I realized I needed some glue and a veneer hammer. I considered buying a veneer hammer for about 3 seconds and thought making one would be more fun and much faster. Once again I followed Rob’s advise and used a piece of UHMW plastic for the edge. Here is my veneer hammer made from scraps from the Shaker bench restoration.

A luthier friend of mine generously donated a bucket (literally) of ground hide glue. Thanks again Mark. Once the pot arrived - I was set to go.

This is the Macassar Ebony veneer. I had already inlayed some of it into the visible ends of the upper cabinets - I wanted the veneer to wrap around the entire built-in. The rest of the sunroom is done in cherry, so it was a no-brainer to veneer cherry onto the insides of the doors.

Here is a shot of the quarter sawn core.

One of the tricks to successful hammer veneering is to use a layer of cross veneer. This layer is placed perpendicular to the solid wood core. It is also a great opportunity to test out hammer veneering before you use the good veneer. I used some quarter sawn Sapele for the cross veneering. You can see the cross veneer in the above photo as well as the off-cut from the core. Another critical tip from Rob was to apply a coat of sizing to the flat surfaces and a few coats of sizing to the end grain. This was a great tip as I would have never thought of doing this. It made veneering the edges quite easy.

I edged the visible end and bottom edge of the door with some of the Ebony.

Two ends showing the face veneer continuing around the corners.

2 of the doors ready for the pulls.

Just when I was feeling all proud of how well everything went, I screwed it up in the finishing stage. I applied a coat of varnish directly onto the Macassar ebony. Three days later - it was still a bit tacky. I sent a sheepish email to Jameel to see if he had any advise. His response was something to the effect of “dude... I always put a coat of shellac on first! Are you nuts?” I have put finish directly on Rosewoods and ebony many times, but this time it clearly did not work.

Thankfully - I was able to remove the finish in less than 10 minutes and I was back to square one without damage to anything but my pride. This time I did apply a coat of shellac and the next day, the finish went on perfectly.

Our sunroom is quite small so I had to take 2 separate photos and splice them together. The lighting is not ideal, but you can at least see how the doors fit into the cabinets. On the left side you can see how the Macassar wraps around the cabinet.

(And a shot taken during the day)

(the door pulls)

In hindsight - I was kind of an idiot for cutting my (hammer veneering) teeth on 11" wide Macassar Ebony veneer - but it worked wonderfully. Here are some observations about hide glue and hammer veneering in general.

First - get Rob’s DVD. The first disk alone is well worth the cost of admission. Rob has a very no-nonsense manner about him and watching him work is an incredible education. He works methodically and is very good at explaining everything that is going on - including what to do with cracks in the veneer or if they develop part way through the process. I thoroughly enjoyed the DVD.

Hot hide glue does not smell bad at all.

Getting the correct consistency of the glue is very important. As I was mixing my first few batches I was running back and forth from the house to re-watch the DVD to get a sense of the consistency of the glue running off Rob’s brush. It was only after I stopped running back and forth that I realized I could have just brought my laptop into the shop.

Making a veneer hammer is really easy compared to making planes.

Working with hide glue is really quite pleasant and I will absolutely try to switch over as time permits. As my friend Mark said as he handed me the bucket of ground hide glue, “be careful... you will find yourself just gluing stuff together just because you can”. He was right - I was gluing all sorts of stuff to see how it bonded. It was very impressive.

In Rob’s DVD, he often lightly sprays the veneer to keep it from curling. As I was working with the Macassar - I was having to apply at least 3 times more water to keep the veneer flat. But... it did work and the veneer went down very well. I should also mention that this veneer was very thick - it was not the typical “spit-through” veneer that is available now. I am sure that increased the need for more water.

You can successfully plane veneer if your planes are set for a light cut.

I would like to offer my deepest thanks to Rob Millard for all his email correspondence during this first adventure with hot hide glue. He was very generous with his time and advise. If you have any interest in working with hide glue but are not quite sure where to start - watch his youTube video as a primer and then pick-up one of his DVDs. That will get you well on your way.


Blogger mike said...

A great first go at hammer veneering! Be aware that there are different gram strengths of hide glue, some of the instrument grades have a lower gram strength so the instruments can be disassembled for repairs. Patrick Edwards has a good clip on hide glue on Woodtreks,
and one on hammer veneering
The best one I have seen for making it look simple is this one on youtube by Bazcabinetmaker
and this one

29 January 2011 at 14:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great results, Konrad. You would probably find Stephen Shepherd's book "Hide Glue - Historical & Practical Applications" of interest. It's also available from Joel

Cheers ;-)

Paul Chapman

29 January 2011 at 14:48  
Blogger Albert A Rasch said...

Every time I visit your site I walk away saying, "You know, if I tried, I could do that too." Which translates to, "Man, that Konrad sure makes it sound easy..."

Best regards,
Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
Scouting for Hog, Chronicles Style!

30 January 2011 at 16:36  
Blogger JoePowers said...

Perhaps you could share a bit more about this claim that modern adhesives will not last more than two generations. The only glue that would reliably break down in my awareness is contact cement. Are you saying that epoxies and PVA glues will also break down? Can you provide your source for this information?

30 January 2011 at 18:56  
Blogger mokusakusensei--woods teacher said...

I had a pleasant experience with hide glue. However, I still hate the smell. My dog went crazy when I was preparing it.

30 January 2011 at 22:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That Macassar veneer is sick! I'm always impressed at the wood you come up with.

I've been similarly taken with hide glue and hammer veneering. For small to medium sized surfaces, it can't be beat. Yet another great tool at your disposal.

Glad to see the project worked out so well.


31 January 2011 at 11:06  
Anonymous Greg M said...

My interpretation of the lament that "[modern] furniture will only last 2 generations" is that modern adhesives are so good that woodworkers are relying on them instead of depending on solid joinery to hold their projects together. This may be true is some cases, but I doubt its the norm. Of course, some are doing cutting edge stuff that simply wouldn't be possible with older glues (where there's an envelope, push it ...).

I doubt there's any solid evidence that modern glues suddenly and spontaneously deteriorate after 60 years.

2 February 2011 at 15:49  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for all the links. I am working my way through them.

I was aware of the different gram strengths but thanks for the reminder - I should have mentioned it in the post.


4 February 2011 at 07:13  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the book suggestion. I will pick it up.


4 February 2011 at 07:13  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks Albert. Glad I made it look easy. It was not that bad really... but as with all things, there is a learning curve. I think the biggest one was the glue consistency.


4 February 2011 at 07:15  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Joe,

I have spoken with my friend in Oregon and he is hopefully going to jump in with a few additional comments. One addition is that hide glue is revearsable whereas the other glues are not. Some totally not, and some with varying degrees of success. If any joint fails on a piece of furniture, or if a lamination de-laminates, there is nothing that can be done about it. The rest of the piece could not be taken apart to repair the original failed joint. With hide glue, this is possible. Anyway - hopefully he will jump in and clarify or correct my comments.


4 February 2011 at 07:21  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Dan,

The Macassar is pretty spectacular. It was one of those things I saw a long time ago and had to buy some. Finds like that only encourage me to keep buying wood to put away for a rainy day.


4 February 2011 at 07:24  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Greg,

Excellent point about adhesives being relied upon instead of solid joinery.

I am not sure that modern glues will spontaneously deteriorate - but the issue may have more to do with what can be done once they do. As I mentioned in a previous comment - I am hoping my friend will jump in with additional comments and clarification.

Thanks for your comments.

4 February 2011 at 07:27  
Blogger Kerry said...

I have the same question about the "2 generations" failures. I work here,, and we veneer onto MDF for its flatness and stability, i.e., no grain movement whatsoever. We use Titebond's cold press glue in a glue press for at least 45 minutes. The 'if the joint fails" it's impossible to disassemble and repair' is true, but is this because of the adhesive used. (But I remain convinced that chairs should only be glued up with hide glue, though this is a special case, stresses from leaning back on the legs, etc.) Does the conservator recommend hide glue for edge gluing boards...? I suspect not. On the other hand, I thinik hide glue is wonderful for use on veneers, especially as it can be applied without the use of presses, vacuum or otherwise.

4 February 2011 at 08:11  
Blogger Konrad said...

JW has left a new comment on your post "Hide glue & hammer veneering - round I":

I can't speak personally to the 2 generation failure thing, but I do remember hearing Adam Cherubini mention somewhere that there are museum conservators who are finally seeing some of the early PVA assembled furniture. The way he tells it, these pieces typically don't restore very well. I'll have to send him an email one of these days to get more details.

He also said that some of the (historically) recent pieces segmented turning that's being held together with Cyanoacrylate is literally falling apart... I guess super-glue has a life-span, too.

Lastly, it sounds like hide glue is reversible decades down the road in a way that these two glues are not, so repairs to daily wear and tear are a lot easier, making repairs easier. So, some of the issue may be adhesive lifespan, some of it may be a question of how easily the furniture can be repaired to help it continue living on...

I, for one, am sold on the idea, but my experiences with 'bad' hide glue have left me feeling a little wary. (Behlen hide glue... smelled horrible. Apparently it's a mix of bone and hide glue, though, and it doesn't have a great reputation.)

5 February 2011 at 12:44  
Blogger JW said...

Link to Adam's comment:

7 February 2011 at 23:41  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

I must agree with the others... you do things so perfectly and I am inspired to work on my own projects too. I must say this is one of the best website that I have ever encountered today...I have bookmarked it and come back again to check on more readings.

8 February 2011 at 02:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post. Do you mind if I ask what your source is for this information?

16 February 2011 at 22:09  
Blogger Konrad said...

JW - thanks for the link to Adam's comment. More to think about!


16 February 2011 at 23:09  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Jeremy,

Welcome here - glad you are enjoying it.


16 February 2011 at 23:11  
Blogger Konrad said...


I am still waiting to hear back from my source for further clarification. The last think I want to do is put words in his mouth. I will report back once I have something to report. Thanks for your patience.


16 February 2011 at 23:12  
Anonymous John Walkowiak said...

Hi Konrad,

I worked in a furniture restoration shop for a long time and had plenty of experience repairing furniture that had been repaired with white or yellow glue. The problem is, that the glue has to be removed before it can be glued back together. Unlike hide glue, yellow glue won't stick to itself. As it can't be disolved like hide glue, it has to be scraped off. This results in some wood being removed - which results in a loose joint. That has to be addressed. So, if veneer that has been put down with yellow glue loosens, there is no way to glue it back down. If you want to be sure your furniture will be around for generations, use hide glue.
Also, I have used it for many edge joints on table tops, ect. and never had a problem. I do use the cold liquid glue for these however, as there is not enough open time in the hot glue for my comfort. Hide glue in any form will give you a joint that is stronger than the wood, that's all that counts.

16 February 2011 at 23:30  
Blogger Pat Megowan said...

As the unnamed Oregonian who started this, let's see if I can say what I meant to;-).

In conversation a couple years back with a couple of very experienced conservator/restorer types, there was the rueful opinion that much of the best studio furniture being made today--including many gorgeous pieces by top craftspeople--would have a relatively short service life, perhaps a generation or two if that. The principal reason mentioned was the non-reversibility and poor repairability of modern adhesives, although mediocre joinery, disregard for wood movement and/or likely use/abuse, and poor finish choices obviously feature in some work (even by hotshots).

A typical case is where a failed joint requires disassembly of other intact joints...but disassembly of the intact joints made with modern non-reversible adhesives virtually destroys them. Sort of like trying to work on a car engine held together with welds instead of bolts.

A Catch-22 ensues: if the piece is not repaired (e.g. due to risk, difficulty, or high cost) it deteriorates even more quickly or is simply retired, but if it is repaired (along with the other things broken in the course of repair) the piece is weakened, often cosmetically damaged, and similarly headed for early neglect and banishment.

For the record: no one predicted that the adhesives will widely fail in one or two generations, that was my lack of clarity w/Konrad. They did say that all adhesives fail eventually, and that the jury is not in yet on the current crop. It IS common for furniture to need repair w/in a generation, frequently the most used and stressed part, and thereby create an ongoing problem if the repair is weaker than original and also harms supporting areas.

One conservator suggested glueless mechanical joints could well give the longest service if designed properly, from classical chinese furniture to slabs of redwood joined with titanium bolts. Another suggested that obsessing over (furniture) immortality is pointless, the impermanence of all things having been established for millennia. Yet another opined that toilets (and other sturdy fired ceramics) may be our longest lived artifacts.

Most pointed out that while our best efforts will help, longevity is largely in the hands of the owners, and that museums are well stocked with items that got little use and unusually benign care. In support of benign care, Don Williams of the Smithsonian has written a book called Saving Stuff: how to care for and preserve your collectibles, heirlooms, and other prize possessions.

After digesting all this, I considered simply meditating on a mountainside for the remainder of my life. Eventually I realized that this wouldn't pay for chocolate or pizza, and that I still liked making useful and beautiful things--though that may not pay for them either:-(.

Here is the most compact and sound advice I heard for making normal indoor furniture to give good service for a long time:

1) Design with structure and joinery that will endure likely use and abuse, with a generous allowance for wood movement, and with provision for what's likely to need repair over time.

2) Fit joints well, and fasten mechanically or with adhesive that can be repaired (which will vary with application: hide glue makes great sense where disassembly and cleaning are a challenge, but use whatever you like to join a plank table top (w/out breadboards), where a failure can just be resawn, jointed, and glued).

3) Use finishes that slow moisture swings in wood and are reasonable to repair and refinish.

I also try to make work that is lovely and personal so someone wants to take care of it, and write notes (about adhesives, finish, etc.) where a repairman should find them.

In general conservators and restorers I encountered liked hide glue and shellac and intensely disliked polyurethane glue or finish.

Hope this clears a few things up.

As they say on the long trails, hike your own hike!

17 February 2011 at 18:03  

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