Help refinishing an old inlay tabletop

A co-worker of mine asked me to look at an old table given to her by her mother years ago. She described an inlaid table top with pieces of veneer missing, and asked if I could do anything about it ... and in the process, see if I could clean up the top.
I've done limited work with veneer, but I told her I'd give it a shot. After looking at it, taking some fine sandpaper and cleaning off the top doesn't seem to be a big deal - as long as I don't sand through the veneer. But the more I look at it, the more I'm not sure if I should tackle trying to replace any missing veneer. You can see a few pictures of the table at: http://www.woodenschu.com/tableshots.htm .
My fear is that by trying to replace the missing pieces, I would actually draw more attention to them than if I just left well enough alone, and stuck to the table top.
If anyone has any suggestions, either for how to make the repairs, or whether it's worth making repairs at all, I'm all ears. I think that with some TLC, the table could be an awesome piece of furniture again.
Thanks in advance for your suggestions ...
tms
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I would first try and determine what type of finish it has. If it is shellac, you may be able to strip it without sanding. Otherwise, I personally would opt to gently go over it with a finely sharpened scraper, being careful of frayed edges. If you do too much sanding, you will loose all the patina it has achieved over the years. The veneer may be applied with hide glue, which is repairable. I'm no expert, I'm sure many here could give you better advice. A lot of things to consider, especially if the piece has value.

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On Wed, 03 Sep 2003 01:15:59 GMT, "Tim Schubach"
I'd be very wary of touching this. If it was my own table, I'd jump at the chance - but doing it for someone else is a different matter. It's a huge amount of work, you don't get to keep the piece afterwards, and there's no real reward for having done it. The only sensible reason to have a go at it is that you want to have the experience.

Try wiping the top with white spirit. This hides surface imperfections and gives you a good idea of what it might look like if refinished. If scratches disappear, then you'll hide them when you re-finish. If dirt is still visible, then it needs removing before the finish goes on.
Personally, I like to strip pieces like this with the aid of a broken glass scraper. You can use a steel scraper, but use a square edge, not a hook.

I'd replace the larger bits, then use shellac to hide the minor bits. "Larger" is very subjective ! If it's big enough to feel by brushing your finger lightly over the top, then it might be large. If a piece isn't too small for you to repair, then it might be "large".
For patching veneers I use an ancient pre-war marquetry set, containing many colours and timbers - many of which are dyed. The black veneer won't be ebony, as ebony is near-impossible to cut veneers from. Veneer has been dyed for centuries and simulating ebony was one of the prime targets.
Old recipe books like "The First American Furniture Finisher's Manual", now available as a cheap reprint <(Amazon.com product link shortened)> contain many veneer dying recipes and are an interesting read.
Hide glue, ideally used hot, is the adhesive of choice. You'll need one or more veneer hammers (make them yourself) in different sizes. and also some good paper veneer tape that's easily removed afterwards. Cold hide glue in a tube is an alternative, but I like the instant tack of using it hot.
For fixing the tiny holes, use shellac sticks, hot-melted and then scraped flush afterwards. These are available in mixed-colour sets from makers like Liberon.
Finish afterwards has to be french polish really, nothing else would do.
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Andy Dingley wrote:

Unless she's really good looking... :)
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