I was recently commissioned to refinish a small end table. It had been found in a thrift store and had a peeling veneer top, but was otherwise a nice sturdy little table with a lot of potential. Oftentimes with old furniture the damaged veneer can be removed relatively easily, but you have to know the trick to it...
Unfortunately, this happens to be one of those "hindsight is 20/20" situations. The table was completed before it occurred to me that I really should share this information. I have the "before" picture that was taken at the thrift store, and I have pictures of the finished paint job, but I do not have pictures of the veneer removal. Luckily it really isn't complicated at all.
The trick to removing old veneer is to dissolve the old adhesive that was used to attach it in the first place. Fortunately for those of us who like to refinish furniture, that adhesive is water soluble. While technically you can remove the veneer with enough water (and patience), the real secret is not just wet, but rather wet heat. So here is what you will need:
*a putty knife
* rags (something thick enough to hold water, towels work best)
** You don't want to use the same iron you use on your clothing. This can, and most likely will, make a mess of your iron. You can pick up a cheap iron for about $10 in most big-box stores. You may even be able to find one at a garage sale or thrift store. It doesn't need to be fancy, it just needs to get hot :-)
Start by getting a rag wet with warm water. You want it pretty wet, but not dripping. Lay the rag over the surface you want to remove. Let it sit there for at least 15 minutes before you get started.
You will be working one small section at a time. When you are ready to really get started removing the veneer, it is best if you can begin at an edge that has already started peeling up. Set your hot iron on top of the wet rag and just let it sit there for about 30 seconds, then set it safely aside. Pull back the towel and place your putty knife into the space between the veneer and the underlying wood surface. Push it in as far as you can while also applying gentle upward pressure to peel away the veneer. You should be able to feel that the glue has let go to some extent. If it doesn't seem to have changed, put the towel and iron back and let it sit longer this time. Each piece is different, and before long you will get a feel for how long the iron really needs to sit in order to be effective.
*Do not let your rag go dry or the hot iron could potentially cause a fire. You rag will need to be re-soaked frequently.
*Be careful touching the rag after moving the iron, it will be very hot!
*When you set the hot iron onto the wet rag it will likely create a lot of steam, be careful not to burn yourself.
*Do not be forceful with the putty knife. If the veneer is not ready to pull away yet, use more heat, not more force. You could accidentally slip and cut yourself, or your could accidentally pull up a portion of the wood underneath.
When the entire veneer has been removed, allow the wood surface to cool and dry thoroughly. You will likely need to sand off some residual glue but otherwise you are all done.
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask.
Good luck and be safe!
Just for fun, here is the re-finished table.