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What is the best way to strip veneer off an old table?

I've been advised to use a piece of glass and scrape it off, and I also tried leaving a wet towel on it for a while then trying to rub it off (which works somewhat).

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    I'm presuming in my answer below that you don't want to salvage the veneer, if that's not the case then please clarify the question with a few further details. – Graphus Jun 14 '15 at 8:33
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I've been advised to use a piece of glass and scrape it off,

Glass can make a very effective scraper but not for this type of thing. I think it could pose a very real danger to the user.

When scraping off something that is firmly adhered to a surface it is quite common for the tool to 'stall', come to a sudden halt, because it meets a great-than-average resistance at one spot or along one edge. This happens frequently when scraping wallpaper for example, which is far less strongly adhered than veneer would typically be. So I think you should take it that this isn't a might happen when removing veneer, it is a will happen.

And when it does the piece of glass could shatter in the user's hands, with the evident danger of one or more nasty cuts. And although of really secondary importance it also poses a risk to the surface you're working on.

A steel scraper of one kind or another would be far preferable here (see bottom for specific recommendations).

I also tried leaving a wet towel on it for a while then trying to rub it off (which works somewhat).

This is a good start but it's only one half of the usual solution which is moisture plus heat. You can use an iron over brown paper or any thin cloth after saturating the surface with water, the iron forces steam through the wooden veneer and swells and weakens the glue layer, allowing the veneer to be peeled away from the substrate.

This is the theory at least. However, as is common with many things in practice it may not work as well as the description makes it sound.

The first assumption here is that "hide glue" was used. In traditional veneer work a form of protein glue was often used (not always derived just from hides) and this does respond very well to heat and moisture. But that is by no means the only glue used in veneering.

Since just dampening the surface does appear to have been beneficial I will assume you are dealing with a protein glue. So here's a brief description of the method I would use:

  • Use a sharp knife to deeply score the veneer. This serves two functions: first, it gives a certain entry to the water vapour in case there is a solid layer of finish still in place (which can be very water-resistant); second, it creates natural fracture lines that will allow the veneer to be more easily levered up in neat sections.
  • Wet the area to be worked well with a cloth or sponge. A drop or two of dishwashing liquid in the water breaks surface tension and can aid with penetration.
  • Apply a hot iron — set on Cotton or Linen setting, you want it as hot as possible to force steam into the glue layer. Usually ironing is done over a damp towel or brown paper rather than directly on the surface of the wood (this is as much to protect the iron from getting glue residue burnt onto the sole plate).
  • After the heat from the iron has had a chance to have an effect (maybe a minute or so) begin scraping, working from an edge of the veneer where possible.
  • Continue working in small areas until all veneer has been removed.

There are a number of types of scraper that you can use for this sort of work, but two good options are a triangular shavehook or a firm putty knife:

Two types of scraper

Safety note: wear gloves. This is to protect against the obvious danger of splinters from the fracturing veneer but also to prevent scalds as you are scraping up hot wet wood and glue.

Once all the veneer is off the substrate is exposed but will be covered in a thin film of glue, and likely a few lumps of it as well. This can be dealt with just by scraping dry if desired, a triangular shavehook is very good at tackling scraping of dried glue from a table surface.

If you would prefer to work wet, a nylon scrubbing pad or other pot scourer (a new one!) can be used with hot water to scrub the glue residue from the surface. Change water at least once.

Once every trace of glue has been removed, allow the wood to dry thoroughly before doing anything else (a few hours to overnight). Once the surface is dry you can smooth it off using a card scraper or by sanding, in preparation for whatever next step you wish to take.

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Older tables usually mean hide glue. Hide glue releases pretty well with warmth and a little moisture. I've used an clothes iron (steal one from the house) and a moist thin cloth towel.

Work a small 8-10 square. Get it lifted off the surface by inserting a putty knife or a small flat metal spatula, work well to loosen things - insert waxed paper or butcher paper in the lifted section between the wood surface and the veneer to prevent the veneer from re-adhering, and keep going. When you have a decent loose hunk, break it off unless you plan to try to reuse it.

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    For breaking off I think scoring the free veneer would make for an easy controlled break. – Matt Jun 11 '15 at 1:42
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I would try an iron as well. In addition, you can just use a scraper and sand off the glue when you are finished.

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