Balance veneers are often lower grade sheets that are inexpensive and easy to work with. They are critical to achieving and maintaining a perfectly flat panel. If the back of the panel will show, most craftsmen would choose to use a veneer of similar color, grain, and species. When the back side of the panel will be unseen, a balance grade veneer is the way to affordably complete the panel. You can find cheap sheets of veneer on the VeneerSupplies.com website.
The normally-visible side of a veneered panel is often called the "face" side and obviously it is an important part of the project. But there is no point in making a beautiful veneered panel if warps. Unfortunately, most woodworkers don't realize that both sides of a panel must be veneered in order to avoid the tragic effects of an unbalanced panel. To balance the panel, a "backing" or "balance" veneer is unused on the opposite side of the substrate. This guide will explain the what and why of using balance veneer.
Why Balance Veneer is Needed?
In most parts of the world, ambient humidity fluctuates from season to season. Changes in humidity cause wood cells to expand and contract which can cause the entire veneer part of the panel to grow and shrink. The movement occurs even when the panel has a urethane, lacquer, or other finish applied.
A balance veneer evens the stress on the substrate caused by the expansion and contraction of wood cells in the veneer. When a veneer is bonded to both sides of the panel, each side is equally expanding and contracting and thus the panel is "balanced" - the stress of the wood cell movement is similar on both sides of the panel.
Here is a deeper explanation of both reasons for using a balance veneer.
Short Term Veneered Panel Stability
Most veneer glues contain water which causes wood cells to expand upon contact. When a panel is removed from the vacuum press (or other clamping method), the moisture from the adhesive will evaporate and the veneer will shrink slightly. By this time, the adhesive will have set its "grip" on the substrate and veneer. The shrinking veneer will pull on the substrate and cause it to warp.
A balance veneer is used on the opposite side of the substrate. It is called a "balance" veneer because it balances the pulling action of the face veneer and helps keep the substrate flat while the glue dries. It is important to allow both the face and back side veneers to dry evenly once the panel is removed from the press. See this page for details.
Long Term Veneered Panel Stability
Veneering both sides of the substrate is also important to the long term durability of the panel. Seasonal changes in humidity will cause wood cells to expand and contract. A coat or two of lacquer, varnish, or polyurethane will significantly reduce the speed of moisture change in the panel but it will not completely eliminate it. When the moisture content of the veneer changes, it will again place stress on the substrate. By balancing the panel with a veneer on the back side, those stresses are kept even and panel stays flat.
When to Apply a Balance Veneer
A balance veneer can be applied immediately after the face veneer is pressed (but before the glue dries completely). If you work quickly, you can just press the balance veneer and the face veneer at the same time.
Other Things You Should Know
- Almost any veneer will work as a balance veneer. The key is to use a veneer of similar thickness and grain orientation. It should also be noted that the balance veneer should not be a paperbacked or 2-ply veneer unless the face veneer is also paperbacked or 2-ply. In other words, if the face veneer is a raw wood veneer, then the balance veneer should also be a raw wood veneer.
- There are some adhesives which contain little or no water. The advantage is the slight decrease in warping potential while the downside is that these adhesives are notoriously harmful to your health and the environment.
- PPR veneer glues do not dry through evaporation. Instead this type of glue cures through a chemical process. Most PPR adhesives require 4 to 6 hours of pressing. During that drying/pressing time, the panel is kept flat by the clamping means (a vacuum press is the preferred method) so it usually comes out flat and stays flat for several days. However both sides of the panel should be veneered for long term stability. Learn more about veneer glue by clicking here.
- Thinner substrates are more prone to severe warping than thicker substrates.
- While it's true that the thickness of the substrate has an effect on the amount of potential warping, it should also be noted that some substrate materials are less likely to warp than others. Plywood (3/4" thick) is less prone to severe warping. MDF and particle board lack the strength of plywood and may allow more warping. Learn more about substrates at this link.
- Very thick or very long substrates often can be forced to lay flat on your project framework with screws, clamps, or glue if a balance veneer is not used.
- Paperbacked and 2-ply veneers are more dimensionally stable than raw wood veneers and do not impose as much stress upon the substrate. Many cabinetmakers do not veneer both sides of a panel if they are using this type of veneer.
Common Questions About Balance Veneer
- Do I still have to veneer the back side of my panel since it will be made from a high grade of plywood?
- Since my panel will be very large, do I still have to use a balance veneer?
- The back side of my panel will not be visible so do I have to use a balance veneer?
- I'm using a quartersawn veneer on the face of the panel so I don't need to use a balance veneer, right?
- My panel will be coated with a high-end finish on both sides so I'm not going to use a balance veneer. Will that be ok?
- If I use two ply veneer on 3/4" MDF, do I still have to use a balance veneer?
- I will be veneering with the iron-on method, do I still have to use a balance veneer?
- I will be veneering in a space capsule orbitting just outside the earth's gravity field. So do I need to use a balance veneer?
One Common Answer
The question really should be "Should I use balance veneer?" The answer will always be a resounding yes! You should always use a balance veneer.
The next question then becomes "Do I have to use balance veneer? The answer to this depends on your tolerance for warping. If you are using a thick substrate, the panel is small and you don't mind a bit of warping, then you might get by without a balance veneer. Is it worth the risk?
The only exception to this concern is a speaker box because it has a tendency to be thick and well-braced inside. In most cases there is no need to use a balance veneer on a speaker enclosure.
substrates will warp if you only veneer one side. The question is
how much it will warp. With the information in the chart below, you would find that a flat cut maple veneer applied to a large, thin MDF substrate that is not braced, balanced, or cured properly would warp tremendously. A small and thick plywood substrate with a quartersawn walnut veneer will not warp nearly as much.
||MDF, Particle Board
|Panel Balanced Properly
|| Others (especial crotch grain)
||Flat Cut, Rotary
|Panel Cured Properly