Birdseye Maple Dressers Resurfaced

Birdseye Maple Dressers Resurfaced

Applying Fresh Veneers Over Damage Sufraces

Published: 1/16/2016
By: Jerome Vernon
About the Author: Jerome Vernon is a software developer/project manager and an avid antiques enthusiast. When Jerome’s not busy creating business related software products for his clients he’s restoring antiques and writing articles for Restoration News.
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Birdseye Maple Dressers Resurfaced

I’m a pushover for anything Birdseye Maple; particular Flash Figure Birdseye Maple with its wildly divergent grain structure. Birdseye Maple occurs in Sugar Maple (Acer Suchrum) also called Hard Maple and Rock Maple. The divergent grain that makes Birdseye Maple beautiful also makes it difficult to work and in the days when all furniture was made essentially by hand; Birdseye Maple was used by only the most capable cabinetmakers. Antique pieces in good condition are relatively rare and usually found at respectable prices. Modern high-speed woodworking machines can handle the material with ease however; Birdseye Maple is usually more expensive than other figured woods so it remains relatively uncommon in modern finished products.  Some examples of todays finished products using Birdseye Maple are high-end automobiles, musical instruments, jewelry boxes and fine furnishings.

Several months ago, I traded my efforts in restoring an antique apple press for the art deco influenced Birdseye Maple dresser set pictured left. The dresser set was manufactured by DORNBECHER Manufacturing Company of Portland OR and is dated to the late 1920’s. They primarily produced bedroom furniture with white maple, bleached, and French walnut finishes; this Birdseye Maple dresser set is somewhat uncommon for the company. DORNBECHER ceased operations around 1932, early-on during the great depression.

Unfortunately, this dresser set had seen some neglect over the years. The impressive Birdseye Maple veneers had become cracked and separated from its underlying ply and substrate. The finish had some penetrating dark stains and was sun bleached in other areas. The dressers also suffered from numerous scratched and gouges to the woods overall.

With this project, rather than attempting to repair the existing veneers, almost all surface areas will be re-faced with brand new highly figured Birdseye Maple veneers. Next, the entire set will receive a gorgeous amber/maple dyed shellac finish with a polished piano lacquer topcoat. This may sound like a ton of work however, using modern time-saving tools, materials and techniques, the results were spectacular and the job was completed in record time.

ART DECO Period and Decorative Style

The term 'ART DECO' came into general use and was derived during the 1920's from its formal introduction at the ‘International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts’ held in Paris in 1925. During the late 1920's Art Deco style design concepts gained world-wide acceptance.

In the USA, Art Deco was favored early-on over its predecessor, the Art Nouveau style. Historian Bevis Hillier defined Art Deco as "an assertively modern style that ran to symmetry rather than asymmetry, and to the rectilinear rather than the curvilinear; it responded to the demands of the machine and of new material and the requirements of mass production". Art Deco design techniques were implemented in many acclaimed architectures such as the Chrysler Building of New York City.

During its long rein of the interwar period (1919-1939), Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, exuberance and faith in social and technological progress.

Process Steps

Disassemble, Finish Removal and Bleach Woods

The first step is to dissemble, remove the existing finish and to bleach the woods. The existing dresser tops are removed and discarded and will be replaced using ¾ inch birch plywood. The existing tops are constructed of joined birch panels with a backer/balancer veneer applied to underside. When applied to solid wood and/or joined substrates, backer/balancer veneers are chosen with specific properties to match the decorative (top-surface) veneer which helps to prevent the substrate from warping.

Warping due to high forces is common during the glue-up curing process and when veneers expand/contract due to constantly changing atmospheric humidity and temperature conditions. To illustrate this point, shown left, the decorative veneer has been removed and the panel allowed to set for a few weeks under normal ambient conditions.  Notice that without the decretive veneer the backer/balancer has contracted and has caused the substrate warp and to crack along joint lines.

When working with a solid wood substrate, it’s commonly recommended to apply similar veneers to both the top and the bottom of the substrate simultaneously. Warping is usually less extreme when using thick cabinet-grade plywood as the substrate. For this project, the decorative veneer and edge banding will be applied and then the ¾ inch birch plywood substrates prompted reattached firmly to the dresser frames.

The existing finish was removed using a solvent washable liquid methylene chloride solution. The new replacement veneer is nearly white in color so the woods were then treated with Lite-N-Up. Lite-N-Up is a 2-part wood bleach by WOOD-KOTE PRODUCTS INC. This 2-part bleaching agent is highly effective and primarily consists of hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydroxide (lye) solutions. The sodium hydroxide decomposes any existing organics (stains) and the hydrogen peroxide as it bleaches. During the process, the mixture becomes self-heating and, although self-neutralizing, works best if gently rinsed with clean tap water then dried completely after treatment.

Surface Preparation

When resurfacing with fresh veneers any defects in the underlying substrate will likely show through after finishing. For this reason, adequate surface preparation is vital.

With this project, existing veneers will not be removed with exception to isolated areas that are cracked\check, lose or, lifted (areas where original glue has failed). Areas of adhesion failure are sometimes not visually obvious; pressing down on small areas of veneer and observing depression/rise in the surface can revel underlying adhesion defects. These areas of veneer are removed, scraped away using a putty knife, bent/cranked paring chisel, et cetera. These voids must then be filled and level to surrounding woods.

For many veneer projects, an automotive body filler such as Bondo® by 3M is used to fill both large and small voids. 3M actually has a special version just for wood. However, the standard body filler works fine for most applications. This type of filler is compatible with most all veneer adhesives.

When filling voids, multiple applications are often necessary. Sand the filler and test for a level surface using a straightedge between each application. Keep in mind that although the substrate may appear adequately level, veneer adhesives and application methods create a very thin glue-line. Any imperfections will show in the finish, especially when 10 mil veneers are used to cover defects. For antiques, when covering substrate defects, the better choice is 20 mil or 2-ply veneer which is much more forgiving and only slightly more expensive.

Cut Veneer Panels and Edge banding

In this step, all veneer panels and edge bandings will be cut to exact dimensions.  This is a tedious process where costly mistakes can easily happen. A 4ft by 8ft 2-ply Heavy Figure Birdseye Maple veneer sheet runs around $450 in the USA and, efficient layout of all panels is crucial to minimize waste. I started with the larger panels and when complete, had only a few square feet of remaining material. Another critical factor is cutting. Needless to say that measuring twice and cutting once is good advice with such expensive material.

Considering that maple is among the hardest of species, a really good veneer saw is important. For this project, I used a traditional French pattern veneer saw manufactured by Gramercy Tools and available from Tools for Working Wood. It comes pre-sharpened to a razor edge with the bevel on one side only (the waste side) and is probably the best saw currently available. Other important items are: a sharp pencil, accurate square and measuring tape, a flat/hard cutting surface, wooden straightedge and several clamps. A sheet of pristine ¾ inch MDF works great as the cutting surface. For my cutting surface, I used a 4ft x 2ft MDF sheet that has groves cut into the bottom so when needed, it also doubles as a vacuum press platen. The straightedge is a carefully selected piece of 1x2” oak, cut to 5ft in length.

Each panel is measured and then drawn onto the veneer 1/8” larger (overhang) than the actual panel size.  Prior to making the cut, the straightedge is clamped over the veneer, effectively sandwiching the veneer tightly between the cutting surface and straightedge. Note that the waste side of the veneer is exposed (right-hand as shown left) and the straightedge lays precisely over the line drawn. This saw cuts on the pull and, although the material is hard and relatively thick, the saw cuts cleanly through within three passes. While cutting ample pressure is applied laterally against the straightedge. The veneer cutting process was done methodically and was completed within about 6 hours. The backside of each panes is marked to identify the respective substrate to which it will be applied.

Apply Veneer to Substrate

Now that all replacement veneer has been cut, it’s time to glue the veneer to the substrates and trim edges flush. In this step, several types of adhesives will be used.  Better Bond Cold Press adhesive will be used to glue the veneer to the dresser tops using a vacuum press. Better Bond Titan DX contact adhesive will be used to glue the veneer to the remaining surfaces.

To apply the veneer to the dresser tops, an even and full coverage coat of Better Bond Cold Press adhesive is applied to the substrate only. Note that Cold Press adhesive is not applied to the veneer. Cold Press adhesive has high initial tack. A series of wooden dowels are laid across the substrate to prevent the veneer from coming in contact with the substrate. The veneer is pre-positioned over the substrate then, after aligning on all four corners, the dowels are removed, one at a time while laying the veneer evenly across the substrate. After all dowels are removed, a wooden veneer scraper is used to squeegee obvious bubbles/raised areas from the surface.

Next, one at a time, the dresser tops are vacuum pressed. A vacuum press consists of a vacuum pump, vacuum bag, platen (MDF sheet with groves cut into bottom for even air flow), and breather mesh (tough screen type material for even air flow). While the vacuum press applies high downward pressure, air pockets between the veneer and substrate are evacuated. Although the maximum achievable vacuum pressure on earth is around minus 15 PSI (absolute vacuum), when multiplied across a large surface, many hundreds of pounds of pressure is evenly applied. The dresser top is placed into the vacuum bag between the breather mesh and platen (top side up), the bag is sealed and vacuum pump is turned on. The dresser top remains under vacuum pressure for around 20 minutes, then removed.  

A vacuum press works well for large flat surfaces and reinforced curved surfaces. However, vacuum press could easily crush\collapse the dresser drawers. To apply the veneer to the drawer tops Better Bond Titan DX contact adhesive is used. The adhesive is applied by roller to both substrate and veneer then allowed to set for about five minutes. The veneer is then positioned and applied using dowels and a wooden veneer scraper as described above. All excess adhesive (squeeze-out) is promptly cleaned from the exposed woods using water and non-sudsy ammonia.

The edge banding is also applied using Better Bond Titan DX contact adhesive. Dowels are placed under the dresser tops to allow easy positioning of the edge banding. The overhang of approximately 1/16” protrudes upward and must be trimmed flush to the top surface. To trim the excess material a 1/8” Whiteside spiral type flush-cut router bit is used. The bit has bearing type surface on its tip to prevent it from cutting too deep. A layer of masking tape is applied around the perimeter to prevent pressure marks from the router bit bearing. Contact cement residue buildup will clog the cutting edge of the bit. When buildup occurs the bit is cleaned with an acetone dampened rag. After initial cut, the masking tape is removed and the edges are carefully sanded flush using a 3” MIRKA CEROS finish sander with ABERNET P280 abrasive discs. To prevent warping, the dresser tops are prompted re-attached to the dresser frames. 

Finish Preparation

In this step, the dressers are prepared to receive a finish. The knob and keyhole covers (escutcheons) and drawer pull holes are cut. For escutcheon alignment, during the disassembly process a template for the escutcheons was made from acetate film using cellophane tape, an indelible marker and X-ACTO knife. Shown left, the template is used to locate and mark the original escutcheon cutout. A small drill bit is used to remove the bulk of veneer. Next, a sharp chisel is used to remove the remaining material for an exact fit. The original drawer pull holes are located by drilling through from the rear of the drawer fronts.

All components of the dressers are reassembled for a dry-run. This is an important step because any misalignment found after finishing could risk damage to finish. The mirror frames are aligned to the dresser frames using card-stock shims so the woods of the frames do not come in direct contact with the dresser tops. The mirror frame swivels are tightened for a snug fit and; striped screw holes are filled with epoxy putty and pre-taped using gimlets.  In preparation for finishing, after alignment, all surfaces are lightly sanded using a sanding block with P320 abrasive then cleaned using an acetone dampened lint-free rag.

Apply Finish

Maple is considered by many to be a difficult wood to finish. Wiping stains tend to produce a blotchy finish and easily ends up to dark. Vintage maple finishes are typically light with contrasting darker grain and figure detail. The approach taken here will be a 100% spray finish using dyed shellac and lacquer while gradually adding color with each pass. Similar finishing approaches can be found in the Fine Woodworking article:  Three Finishes for Bird’s-Eye Maple by TERI MASASCHI.

First, the shellac is prepared by dissolving 250 grams of Liberon lemon shellac flakes in 1 quart of Shellac Finishes 200 proof denatured alcohol to obtain an approximate 2-pound cut. After fully dissolved, this mix is placed into a sealable plastic (HDPE) pail and further reduced by adding an additional 2 quarts of alcohol and then 1 ounce (2 tbsp.) each of Homestead Finishing Products Honey Amber and Dark Vintage Maple TransTint liquid dye concentrates. 

This highly reduced shellac/dye mix is spray applied in multiple light coats using an Apollo 8200 Super-Spray® gun by Apollo Sprayers International Inc. The Apollo 8200 is a high performance HVLP spray gun that provides superb atomization and precision fan control.

By gradually adding color with each coat, overall uniformity is easily controlled. In addition, the target color is gradually achieved so the likelihood of ending up with a finish that’s too dark is minimized. 

Being highly reduced, the first several coats amalgamate well and penetrate into the wood causing the figure to appear (pop) with ample light and dark contrast. The first coat was more heavily sprayed and allowed to cure for several hours, the dressers were sanded very lightly, scuff-sanded using MIRKA P320 ABERNET; sanded just enough to remove the fuzz.  Cure time between coats was about 15 minutes for the remaining 5 coats. The final coats serve to blend and darken the finish overall.

Following the application of the ‘Color’ layer, the dressers appear glossy and nearly complete. However, the shellac/dye mix was highly reduced so overall coating dry-film thickness is only around 2 mils. To improve durability and to enhance the appearance of depth, Mohawk Finishing Products Piano Lacquer is applied directly over the shellac. This Piano Lacquer is formulated to allow a high build (up to 7 dry mils) without sacrificing clarity. For this project, three full unreduced coats were spray applied while providing 2 hours of cure time between each coat. After applying the piano lacquer topcoat, the dressers were allowed to cure for three days @ ~75 degrees F. prior to rubout.

Rubout began using a MIRKA DEROS sander set to a modest speed with MIRKA ABERLON foam abrasive discs (wet) from P500 to P4000. Following wet sanding, the dressers was brought to a high gloss mirror finish. This was done using a RUPES Bigfoot polisher set to a modest speed with foam pads and RUPES polishing gels from coarse to ultra-fine. After polishing, cleanup was done using a pristine microfiber towel and Mohawk wash/wax remover aerosol. The final step was to re-attached the hardware and dresser mirrors.


Although extra effort was involved, considering the high level of damage to the original veneers and underlayment, resurfacing was the best option. In fact, these dressers were selected for this article to demonstrate several veneering techniques such as cutting and trimming, as well as vacuum press and contact cement gluing methods. A number of precautions along with suitable workaround procedures were also described. When considering veneer replacement/resurfacing, high quality equipment such as veneer saws, router bits, rasps and other fine tools will help make the process enjoyable and results impressive. I have found that the best brands like Grammercy Tools, Whiteside, Apollo Sprayers, MIRKA and RUPES are well worth the added investment.

Another key aspect of this project was the finishing technique. The goal was to create a beautiful antique maple finish that is reminiscent of those common to the Art Deco period. Prior to starting, I had reviewed several detailed articles and tested various finishing method using Birds Eye Maple test panels. I found that uniformity over large surfaces was more difficult and time consuming using the brush-on, padded and abrasive rub-in methods. I also found that padding and rubbing in the finish provided little benefit with respect to enhancing the figure.  For me, an ample dye ratio in the highly reduced shellac mixture and natural penetration via spray application was much easier and, provided the best results with respect to uniformity and figure contrast.  I must admit that I did cheat a bit with respect to the knobs. I felt the original wood knobs were just not impressive and contributed nothing to the overall appearance. After searching, I found a set of original 1920’s Art Deco style butterscotch colored Bakelite knobs and feel these match the period/style of the dressers and finish color well. I’ll let you be you be the judge.


MIRKA Sanders, Polishers and Abrasives
   MIRKA Website (North America)
RUPES Random Orbital Polishing Systems
Joe Woodworker - Veneering articles and supplies
   Joe Woodworker Website
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