It's almost always easier and more practical to build a project with plywood. The drawback to using this type of "sheet good" is that the edges of the plywood must be covered so that panel will look as close as possible to a piece of hardwood lumber. The two most common solutions are hardwood edging and veneer edge banding.
Hardwood edging can be a simple as gluing a wood strip to the edge of the plywood and flushing cutting the top edge to the plywood surface. This method allows the builder to use a wide array of router bits to create a pleasing edge design. The downside is that it's more time consuming than using an iron-on edge banding material.
If the project calls for a basic straight edge on the plywood, veneer edge banding may be just what the doctor ordered. Edge banding is real wood veneer that is pre-sanded and available in a 7/8" width. This is ideal for 3/4" thick sheet goods such as plywood and MDF because it allows a bit of overhang and makes it easy to trim it to a flush edge.
Applying Edge Banding: A Hot Topic
Edge banding is very easy to work with. The only tools required are a clothes iron and an edge-trimming tool. Any cheap clothes iron will work but I've found that the smaller travel size versions are the easiest to work with. For goodness sake, you might consider buying one instead of "borrowing" the one that your spouse uses to iron your Sunday best. There's nothing quite like the look of confused disgust when there is hotmelt glue coming off the iron and spreading onto a clean pair of pants. Especially when you're already late for work or church!
Cut a piece of edge banding about 1" longer than the length of the panel that you are banding. You can use scissors to cut it or simply fold it in half and it will snap apart. If you're planning to use a dye or any high-penetration stain, you'll want to pay attention to splice lines in the edge banding. These zig-zag lines occur randomly throughout the roll and are mostly invisible if you are only applying a clear coat. A stain will often make them more visible.
If you are applying the edge banding to two joining sides, its best to work with the least visible side first. For example, if you are placing the edge banding around the 4 edges of a square or rectangular piece of plywood, start by edge banding the left and right sides then move on to the front and back sides of the material. This will help hide the joint since the front and back edges will slightly overlap the edge of the sides.
Heat It Up!
Turn on the clothes iron and set the temperature to the "medium" or "cotton" setting. If possible clamp the panel in the upright position so the clothes iron can be held horizontally. Starting at one end of the banding and work towards the opposite end. Move the iron slowly along the banding while applying downward force.
You should be able to see a small bead of adhesive expand out from the underside of the banding if the adhesive is activating. To get the best bond possible, pressure should be applied behind the iron with a block of wood. Apply pressure until the adhesive cools and hardens.
Occasionally the side edges of the banding can lift slightly from the substrate. To fix this, simply use the block of wood (held at a 45 degree angle) to press the edge back onto the substrate while the adhesive is still warm.
Leaving the iron in one place too long can result in burning the edge banding so be certain to keep the iron moving.
If you are using a pre-finished edgebanding, place a cotton or flannel cloth over the edgebanding to prevent marring the finish.
To trim the ends of the banding, it's easiest to stand the panel with the banded edge against a workbench. Hold a 1" chisel tightly against the side edge of the panel and strike the chisel handle with a mallet. This should cleanly slice off any banding that overhangs. There are a few hand-held "end chopping" devices on the market. Don't waste your money on them. A chisel and a mallet are all you need.
Trim The Edges
When the edge banding has cooled off, you can flush trim the top and bottom edges of the banding with any of several methods.
A flush trimming tool is inexpensive and definitely makes the trimming process easy and 99% fool-proof. Simply press the trimmer against on to the face of the panel and slide it forward so that the blade cuts off the excess banding. To get a clean edge, you must pay attention to the direction of the grain. Most edge banding has a reasonbly straight grain but there is always a slight angle. The best cut comes from sliding the trimmer in the direction of the grain as shown below. Cutting in any other direction will cause tear out.
- A sharp chisel can also be used to trim the edges. Be sure to skew the chisel so that the pressure forces the banding against the wood edge as shown. This method often leaves a bit of tear-out on the banding but the next step will smooth them out with very little effort.
The white arrows above show the slight angle of the grain direction.
The blue arrows show the correct direction that the flush trimming tool is used.
- A flush cutting router bit will do a fine job of trimming the edge banding but to use it, you'll need to stand the project panel on its edge which can be tricky for larger panels.
You can now lightly sand the top and bottom faces of the plywood where it meets the edge banding. This will smooth out any irregularities left from the edge trimming tool or chisel.
To finish up, lightly sand the corner edges of the project panel. Use your hand to conform to the edge if you want a soft rounded edge. Or if you prefer a micro-beveled edge, you can use a sharp block plane or sandpaper wrapped around a wood block.
Veneer edge banding can be stained and finished with any conventional wood finishing products including lacquer, danish oil, and oil based stain and polyurethane.
Be sure to unplug the clothes iron when you have finished the edge banding process.
Make Your Own Edgebanding?
It can be hard to find some species of edgebanding. When this happens, the best option is to make your own. Use scissors (for paperbacked veneer) or a veneer saw (for 2-ply and raw wood veneer) to cut your own edgebanding from the veneer stock used on the other parts of your veneered panel. Then use Heat Lock glue to bond the banding to your project. With heat from a clothes iron, you can bond any non-glued edgebanding, including one cut from a piece of veneer to any porous substrate.