Veneer work or marquetry for the individual craftsman or small production shop can be a real challenge without some method of pressing the work uniformly during gluing. Makeshift methods range from pressing the work between two pieces of plywood and lining the perimeter with “C” clamps or weighting the plywood sandwich with lead, to jacking up your car and lowering a wheel onto the work. Though each of these methods shows a degree of success (and dedication), by far the most effective means of pressing is with a regular veneer press.
The large production shop can afford heated hydraulic presses capable of handling 4 x 8 sheets of plywood in great quantity, but small shops like my own need only a hand-operated press of 9 to 10 square-foot capacity. Beginning with 9- or 12-inch veneer screws (commercially available from a number of woodworking companies) it is possible to build a veneer press to match your specific needs. Described here is a press like my own. Your imagination and shop requirements will dictate how your own press will look.
Begin with the two halves of the press table itself and determine the dimensions required. I was fortunate to come by two matching marine deck doors of solid wood construction measuring 37″ x 41″ and 1-1/2″ thick. They were ready-made for a veneer press, being perfectly flat, of large overall size to accommodate most future needs, and not likely to warp with use. You may be able to find solid core doors at a local salvage yard. If not, build your table from 3/4″ particle board and 1/2″ exterior plywood.
Both halves of the table are constructed in the same way, with the particle board facing inward toward the work piece. Because of its extreme flatness and freedom from the internal gaps typical of plywood, particle board will give a very reasonable press to your work. Particle board nonetheless is not strong enough to take the full force of the veneer screws and must be laminated to a good grade of plywood of at least 1/2″ thickness. Both particle board and plywood for each half of the table can be cut together for an exact fit.
After cutting to size, hold the two pieces together with “C” clamps and mark points for screw holes on the plywood side one inch from the edge all around the perimeter at eight-inch intervals. Lay out points also in a cross shape through the center of the plywood. Drill and counter sink holes for one-inch #8 flat head screws while pieces are still clamped together. Separate pieces, applying yellow carpenters’ glue evenly to one internal side and realign together. Quickly set in screws and tighten. This operation must be done with all due haste while the glue is beginning to set up. I suggest having everything planned and ready. Use a Yankee Screwdriver to tighten the screws rapidly if one is available. Allow table parts to set and curve overnight, take a deep breath, and start on the press frames.
For this size of press, two frames are required, each holding four screws. I used 12″ screws which give the greatest capacity to the press for use in setting up curved panels which require special cauls. The top and bottom of each frame is made from 2″ x 4″ northern rock hard maple and the sides from 1-1/2″ x 4″ maple or oak. The overall dimensions are 18″ x 44″ so that the frames can easily fit over the end of the press table without binding.
The top of the frame carries the screws and must be bored to fit the female screw “nut” as well as the screw itself. Locate four points along the top edge of your maple beam 9-1/2″ apart and 8″ from each end. Bore a small pilot hole at each location through the width of the table board, using a drill press, if available, for accuracy. Using a 1″ spade bit, bore the bottom of the beam 1-1/2″ deep to fit the nut, and with a 3/4″ bit, bore from the top through the remaining thickness. The nuts need additional fitting to their holes due to two projecting flanges which are designed to prevent twisting in the socket when pressure is applied. This can be accomplished with a 1/4″ gouge chisel by making two long grooves into the nut hole 180 degrees apart.
The sides of the frame are cut with open mortise sockets to receive the maple cross beams and drilled through to fit 5/16″ x 4-1/2″ carriage bolts. Two carriage bolts with washer and nut are required for each joint. Then assemble the frames as required.
When in use, place a standard 2″ x 4″ fir between the feet of the screws and the top of the press table to absorb the damage caused by the extreme pressure from the screws. The screws can be tightened enough to cause the top of the press frames to bow. More pressure than this is possible, but would result in damage to the frames.
For most purposes the veneer press can either be mounted on the end of an existing workbench or used freestanding on the floor or table. When projected off the end of a workbench, bolt the edge of the bottom table half to your bench with counter sunk lag bolts. Provide additional diagonal supports underneath to carry the whole press weight.
In some cases it might be advantageous to have press frames which can be opened at the top so that the piece to be pressed and the top table half can be assembled without fear of the sliding actions required of the other setup. This, of course, requires the frames to be mounted either to the floor or table top. In this case, three of the four bolts holding the top of the press frame can be fitted with wingnuts for easy assembly and disassembly. The pivot end of this cross member must also be curved off so as to swing free of the side members.
The expected cost for such a veneer press should be close to $200 depending on your source of materials, but the results are well worth the expense and effort of construction. If you have ever been worried about those unsightly bubbles under your veneer caused by poor pressing or are simply tired of having to jack up the car each time you need to press your marquetry, try building a press. You won’t regret it.