Many years ago, I began the quest for a consistent and easily repeatable method for veneering pre made drum shells. I needed a method that did not limit me to costly backed or wide sheet veneer. One that did not involve contact cement so I could use high gloss lacquer. One that would not give me welts from a hot iron. One that yielded tight almost invisible seams. One that allowed me to create intricate patterns with a hard and machinable glue line. What I needed was a vacuum press and after a lot of trial and error I finally achieved it. I have been using and teaching the following method for the past eight years with great success. With a little practice and attention to detail you can achieve amazing results.
For this demonstration I dug up a 1960s ‘swiss cheese’ Slingerland Kit. It had been the beneficiary of numerous heinous experiments in my drum building classes, and I figured It is probably high time it gets a face lift.
Step 1 - Backing Veneer
Generally If I am going to be veneering over a substrate that has seen some abuse I like to back my veneers. Using a backer has a blending effect for blemishes and adds strength to the face veneer. I usually use Aspen as a backer as its extremely stable.
a- First I cut the Aspen to length adding six inches to the circumference of the drum I intended to cover. I also use nominal measurements as I want to err on the side of having a sheet thats too long not too short. Note: Backed sheets will remain six inches longer than the shell circumference until till step eight.
b- I use a veneer saw butted up against a straight board to make my cross grain cuts.
c- Because my drum is taller than my veneer I tape two pieces together to reach the appropriate width.
Step 2 - Face Veneer
I am using Australian Walnut which has pronounced black stripe to it that will look really nice as a twist. To achieve the “twist effect” I cut the ends of the veneer at 45 degrees.
a- I use a scrap of ply wood to secure the veneer in place on my chop saw as I cut the 45 degree angles. Don’t worry about tear out here as this angle will be cut clean later on.
b- I get the length of each strip of veneer by laying it over the Aspen and marking a cut line.
c- Once I have a stack of sheets I tape them together on the back side with masking tape using the Aspen backer as my layout guide. I will be removing this tape in a later step.
Step 3- Veneer Tape
For a tight seam face, veneer must always be taped with veneer tape. Veneer tape is a lot like a postage stamp it becomes tacky when wet. I generally use “three hole” tape to tape my face veneer.
a. I wet a sponge and gently run each small piece of veneer tape over it to activate its glue.
b. I apply it to each seam of the face veneer in criss-cross pattern followed by taping the entire length of the seam
Step 4- Glueing the face veneer to the backer
I use my vacuum bag to glue the face veneer to the backing veneer. I use melamine for my platen as the PVA glue I will be using will not stick to it. I also use breather mesh to circulate air over my veneer. (See Step4-Mesh.) My vacuum pump is set up for continuous run operations. My clamp time will only be forty five minutes because the pump is continuously circulating air over the veneer through the breather mesh. Note: This is ample time for a tack dry glue up in Colorado, however, if you live in a more humid climate it will take longer and you may want to extend the time to an hour or more. Also this method can only be used with a continuous run pump.
a. After I remove the masking tape from the back side of the face veneer I roll glue onto the backing veneer. I never put glue directly onto my face veneer as it will cause my veneer tape to release itself. I generally use Titebond 3 PVA glue as it has a slightly longer open time than other PVA glues and if I get an uncured glue bubble in my press I can flash cure it with a hot clothes iron.
b. I place the face veneer with the veneer tape facing up on top of my backer. I slide it into my vacuum bag underneath the breather mesh.
c. As the vacuum bag pulls down I use a hard roller to roll out any bubbles in the veneer.
Step 5 - Thinning shells (Optional)
Sometimes when I am working on vintage shells, I find that they are a bit oversized and need to be thinned before being veneered. I use a standard dado stack in my table saw to remove the outside ply from the shell. Note: Poplar is a very unstable wood. If your shells have a Poplar core you may find when you remove the outside ply that the Poplar has deep splits in it. Before veneering you must fill these splits.
a. I use a dado stack in the widest configuration I have to remove the outside ply from the shell.
b. I leave one inch of the outside ply on either side of the shell to ensure I have a consistent depth.
c. Using a flush trim bit in my router table I remove the one inch strips.
d. I sand out the mill marks from my dado cuts paying special attention to sand evenly.
Step 6. Cutting the veneer to size.
a. I measure the exact height of my shell and subtract one sixteenth of an inch. This will be the final width of my veneer.
b. I use a long straight edge and my veneer saw to trim the excess of my veneer sheet.
Step 7. Veneering the shell.
When I first started to veneer shells in the vacuum bag I had had an awful time veneering the whole shell at once. I could only get one half of the shell to press correctly. The bottom side almost always had wrinkles or bubbles in it. Then one day, while as I was lamenting another failed press, it occurred to me that if I can only get one half the shell to press correctly at a time I should only press one half of the shells at a time!
a. In order to prevent the bag from crushing or warping my shell I use an exercise ball as an internal air bladder. I inflate the exercise ball inside of the drum paying special attention that it does not extend to far beyond the top and bottom of the shell.
b. I tape just below my half way marks on either side of the drum.
c. I also tape a centerline marker on the ball so I know where the top of the drum is in the bag.
d. I use a roller to roll on PVA glue making sure I stop at the tape.
e. I peel the tape off the shell.
f. I center my veneer on the shell.
g. I use masking tape to tape the bottom wings of the veneer to the shell. It is important to make sure they are taped very tightly otherwise the bag can crack and split the un-glued side as it pulls down.
h. I wrap the drum in breather mesh and use a very long piece of masking tape to hold it in place.
i. I center the drum in the bag using my centerline as a guide.
j. As the vacuum is pulling down I hold the bag far below where I am gluing. This ensure I have good pressure where I am gluing.
k. I use my roller to roll out any bubbles in the veneer. Again just as in Step 4 I will only be clamping in the bag for 45 minutes.
Step 8 Cutting the seam.
After my 45 minutes is up I remove the drum from the bag and inspect it to see if I have any bubbles. It is important to remove the ball and the breather mesh from the shell as soon as it comes out of the bag in order to accurately inspect it. If there are any bubbles of uncured glue I can iron them down and cure them with a hot iron pressed directly over the bubble.
a. I over lap and re tape the unglued veneer tight to the shell. If it is not flush with the shell my seam will not meet correctly.
b. I clamp a thin straight edge over top of my overlap. Note: If you want really invisible seam you can use a very flexible thin strip of wood and place it in the same diagonal as your veneered pattern. I use my veneer saw to cut through both pieces of veneer.
Step 9 Gluing the other half.
Once my seam is cut it is very important to re-inflate the ball inside the shell before I apply the glue. This ensures I am not waiting for my compressor to fill as the glue is tacking up on my shell.
a. Instead of using the roller which could crack my veneer I use a paint brush to apply the glue.
b. Once the glue is applied I secure both ends with only one piece of masking tape. The pressure of the bag will make the seam tight. If I were to use more than one piece of tape my seam would bulge or separate.
c. I wrap the drum in breather mesh and center in the bag using the masking tape on my seam.
d. I roll out any bubbles as the bag pulls down, paying close attention to the area where my first glue up meets my second as there is usually an excess of glue here.
10. Sanding and finishing.
After another 45 minutes in the bag I remove my shell and again inspect for bubbles. I generally let my shells set in the open air overnight at this point as my glue is only tack dry not cured. Once cured I sand off the veneer tape with 150 grit and they are ready for the finishing process.
As a word of caution stay away from using oily veneers like rosewood or teak to start. No one ever gets it perfect on their first try so find a few beat up old drums to mess around with. Most raw veneer is very affordable. Create a crazy experiment and have some fun!
I’d like to give a special thank you to Harland Goldstein and Chris Sonnier for assisting me for this project even though none of us know whose fault it is.