How to Repair a Tambour Door Properly: Material, Glue, and Techniques

Repair, Tambour -

How to Repair a Tambour Door Properly: Material, Glue, and Techniques

Whether it's for a roll top desk, a Hoosier cabinet, or an appliance garage, tambour doors can wear out over time.  Sometimes it's due to the material backing breaking down or an excessive amount of friction in the tambour channel.  I will show you how to choose the right material, the right glue, and the right techniques to repair the tambour door so it will last for decades to come.

In this YouTube video, I show each step of the process, from taking the tambour apart to reinstalling it into the Hoosier cabinet.  If you're a visual learner, this will allow you to see how it's done.

Let's start with getting the right supplies.  Here are the specific supplies you will need.  I explain why later in this article.

  • Straight scraper
  • White vinegar
  • Soap and water
  • Cotton fabric with a twill weave (not a plain weave)
  • Hide glue (not white glue or PVA glue)
  • Plywood pieces for clamping the tambour strips
  • Wood wedges for tightening the tambour strips together
  • Small paint roller to apply the glue
  • A candle

Taking the Tambour Door Apart

When removing a tambour door from a cabinet or case, there are sometimes access panels on the back of the furniture.  On a roll top desk for example, separating the gallery from the desktop allows the tambour to slide out of the gallery for servicing.  In other cabinets, there may be stops that unscrew to allow the tambour to be pulled out of the cabinet.  For the Hoosier cabinet I'm working on, there isn't an access panel but the cabinet is coming apart at the front corner, which is partially why the tambour door failed, but it also allows me to pull out the door.

Once the tambour door is pulled out, it's easier to see why there are problems.  There are only two parts to a tambour door; the wood slats and the flexible fabric that attach all the tambour slats together.  Most problems come from the fabric splitting, which allows the slats to separate and bind in the cabinet channel.

The first step in the repair is to remove the old fabric so the new fabric can be glued to the tambour slats.  On a piece of furniture that was build before the 1950's, the glue used to adhere the fabric would be hide glue, also known a protein glue.  This is easy to remove because hide glue is the only type of glue that is reversible, meaning it can be reactivated to unglue something.  The technique I use is to remove as much of the fabric as possible by pulling it off.  Then I simply apply household white vinegar to the remaining fabric, let it sit for 3-5 minutes and scrape it off.  The added benefit of hide glue is that hide glue will stick to hide glue, unlike other types of glue that will only stick to bare wood.

For more modern tambour doors, such as appliance garage doors, the glue used is a polyvinyl acetate (PVA), which is slightly rubbery and fills the pours of wood.  While white vinegar can soften this type of glue, it won't remove enough to get down to bare wood, which is essential in repairing the door.   The glue must be fully removed as nothing will stick to it.

Cleaning the Door

While the door is apart, now is the best time to clean off any dust, grease, or oil that may be on the tambour slats.  The mildest cleaner for wood furniture is warm water with a bit of dish soap.  I dip a cloth in the soapy water and wring it out well before wiping down a door slat.  After I wipe off one slat, I immediately wipe off the moisture with a clean cloth.  For most repair projects, this is sufficient.  If you're repairing an appliance garage, and it's near a stove, it may also have some grease on it.  If the soapy water doesn't remove the grease, a mild grease cleaner may be needed to clean it up.

Clamp Up the Tambour Door Slats

To prepare the door for gluing on the fabric, the slats need to be clamped tightly together.  This way you won't have gaps between the slats after the new fabric is attached.  It's also important to assemble the door square, so it will ride properly in the tambour door channel.

I use a piece of plywood as a base to lay the slats on, face down.  I attach a straight piece of wood along one edge, then screw down another straight piece of wood square (90 degrees) to the first edge.  This is the start of the form for clamping.  The next step is to lay all the slats on the plywood, face down, against these two edges to align all the parts.  A third straight piece of  wood needs to be attached to sandwich the tambour pieces together.  I screw it down to the plywood and leave about 1/8 inch space to allow for wedges to be installed.  With this clamping structure assembled, I simply use a pair of wood wedges in several spots to apply pressure on the tambour door slats.

In some cases, the door slats may want to pop out of the form.  This is due to the profile that's been cut on the edges of the slats.  This can be controlled by clamping down a thin strip of wood on one edge across the slats - the strip of wood needs to be thin enough to not cover the area where the fabric needs to be glued.

What Type of Fabric to Use for Tambour Doors?

This is where there's a lot of confusion.  If the fabric options available, most will cause a tambour door to fail early.  Why?  The durability of fabric used for tambour doors is determined by the type of weave pattern.  Cotton and canvas typically has a "plain weave" pattern to it.  This means that the threads are woven across each other at 90 degrees.  If you snip this fabric with scissors and pull it apart it tears easily in a straight line.  This is the weakness of a plain weave fabric and this weakness allows tambour slats to separate as the fabric wears.

A twill weave pattern is very different than a plain weave.  The threads are woven in a way that creates a diagonal pattern.  Denim is a common example of this.  It creates a very strong fabric that is durable.  What you need to purchase is a twill weave fabric that is flexible enough for the door you're working on.  An average fabric weight from a fabric store is sufficient for small to medium size doors.  For larger doors, such as a roll top desk, a heavier weight fabric is more appropriate.

Some doors are assemble with strips of fabric, but they tend to wear out quicker than doors with fabric applied to the full back go the tambour door.  I suggest using enough fabric that is slightly larger than the door you're preparing.  It's easier to trim off extra fabric than to try to control the positioning of a smaller piece.

What Kind of Glue to Use on Tambour?

First, let me tell you what type of glue not to use on a tambour door.  Don't use contact cement.  Don't use PVA glue.  Don't use polyurethane glue.  Don't use spray adhesive.  Why?  They will all work to adhere the fabric to the door slats, but when it's time to repair the tambour the next time, they will cause a great deal of work for someone - either you or a furniture repair professional.  The only glue I recommend you use for tambour doors is hide glue, because:

  • Hide glue is the only type of glue that can be reversed, meaning it can be "unglued"
  • Hide glue will stick to hide glue, so it doesn't need to be fully removed to re-glue a part
  • Hide glue is non-toxic 
  • Hide glue cleans up easily with water

How to Glue Up the Tambour Door

With the tambour door slats clamped in place, and the fabric cut to size, it's now time for the glue up.  Before opening up the glue bottle, use masking tape to tape off the areas where you don't want the fabric to stick.  As the ends of the tambour slats travel in a channel, you want to keep the fabric  away from that area.  If you plan to reuse your clamping form, apply tape to it as well. 

The first thing to understand is that the glue should not be squeezed out of the bottle on to the tambours.  This will allow puddles of glue to seep between the tambour slats, making more work for yourself to clean up later.  Instead, roll the glue on to the slats with a small foam paint roller.

Start the glue up process by wrapping some tin foil around a board or block to create a surface for the paint roller to roll on.  Apply some hide glue to the tin foil and roll the roller to coat it with glue.  Move the roller over to the tambour slats and roll it on.  You have about 5 minutes of working time, so work efficiently to coat every part of the wood and then lay on the fabric.  Press the fabric on to the wood, working from the center and smoothing it toward the outside edges while removing any wrinkles.  As you do this, you will start to see the shape of the slats through the fabric.  To ensure good adhesion, use a clean paint roller and press down firmly as you roll it over the fabric.  Lastly, cover it with waxed paper or parchment paper, lay a piece of plywood on top and add weight to clamp it down.  Let it sit for 24 hours.

Lubricate the Tambour Door Channels

While the glue is drying, take a few minutes to lubricate the tambour door channels.  This will ensure they operate smoothly and will reduce the tension on the door when it slides open and closed.  I use a candle to lubricate the inside edges of the channel by simply rubbing it on.  Avoid using spray lubricants or oils as they contain chemicals that do not react well with wood furniture finishes - silicone is very troublesome when refinishing furniture.

Trim Fabric and Reinstall the Door

Once the glue has dried, simply trim the fabric with a utility knife with a fresh blade.  Pop the wedges out of the clamping form and you can admire you're work!  Reinstalling the tambour door is usually a simple task of putting it back into place.  In the Hoosier cabinet I'm repairing, it tool a little extra work to disassemble enough of the cabinet to make room to slide the door back into place.  I added some hide glue and clamps to put the cabinet back together again.  The door operates very smoothly and it will last for decades to come.

If you have questions, add comments to the YouTube video and we're happy to answer them.