Getting Clear About Veneer
Most of us purchase furniture only once or twice in our lifetimes. You’ll be living with your choices for a very long time, so it’s important to know what you are looking at, and ultimately, what you are buying.
During your foray into the retail world of home furnishings, you will encounter wood furniture boasting “solid wood” construction, and you will also see some constructed with “veneers”. In the following paragraphs we’ll clear up the common misconceptions surrounding veneer furniture, as well as some of the advantages and/or disadvantages of solid wood vs. veneer furniture.
There is definitely a prejudice (and great misunderstanding) out there against veneer furniture. It is inherited from our parents and/or grandparents who purchased (and had a bad experience with) mass-produced veneer furniture in the 1940’s. Inefficient adhesives and poor workmanship caused a number of problems, including a condition called “de-lamination” (in which the veneer actually lifted and peeled). For years afterward and even now, to many, the term “veneer” was synonymous with “cheap”, “inferior”, “mock” furniture. “Real” furniture, it was believed, could only be crafted from solid wood. The truth is that with the technology we now have to properly bond veneers to their sub-strates, veneer is a respectable alternative to solid wood furniture. In fact, much of the high-end furniture you admire, with its fancy inlaid “Marquetry”, using different wood grains and colors along borders or as central motifs, is done with veneers. It is labor and skill-intensive work, and is usually more costly to produce than solid wood.
Let’s begin with a clear definition of what a veneer is.
A wood veneer is a thin slice of hardwood. American hardwood veneers are 1/26” to 1/36” in thickness.
There are several techniques for slicing these thin veneers from a log in order to achieve a decorative effect. The most common is a “rotary cut”, wherein the log is revolved against a rotating blade which pares off veneer in thin, continuous sheets. Other techniques give varied effects. “Flat Cut”, “Quartered”, “Half Round”, “Back Cut”, “Rift Cut” all utilize the glorious grain of the wood in the most decorative and dramatic ways possible. Annual growth rings, pith rays, pigmentation, and color distribution of the individual tree, growth “accidents” such as burls, crotches and other grain irregularities, are all design tools for the craftsman. No two trees are alike. Hence, no two pieces of wood furniture can ever be exactly alike. Even in mass-production, your table is one of a kind.
When you see an exquisite piece of furniture flaunting book-matched wood grains, perfectly matched throughout, you are looking at veneer at its best. Without this process we could not create “Marquetry”, which is the term applied when an entire surface is covered with veneer inlays, forming a close fitting pattern. This technique goes back as far as Ancient Egypt, and is seen again and again throughout history. “Marquetry” is produced today in high-end furnishings, utilizing rare wood species of contrasting colors and grains to achieve rich, elegant patterns and stripes on dining tables, accent tables, secretaries, chair-backs, and many other furniture categories.
So it is clear that there is nothing inferior about veneers which are properly executed.
Value and quality depend on workmanship and materials used. In cheaper furniture, second-rate woods are sometimes used for legs and posts. In better quality furniture, straight-grain solid wood of the same species as the face veneer is usually employed. New glues and technology have been developed to enable the production of superior quality veneers, rendering our grandparents’ unfortunate experience a thing of the past.
As in all things, there are pro’s and con’s to owning either solid wood or veneer furniture. Let’s take a look at some of them.
The Pro’s of Solid Wood Furniture
Solid wood furniture can be highly practical in many ways. It’s durable and “forgiving”. Scratches, dents, dings, watermarks, and stains can all be repaired more easily and less expensively than repair on veneer furniture.
The Con’s of Solid Wood Furniture
Wood is a living, breathing material. Solid wood furniture has a thickness to it, which, in extreme climatic and humidity conditions, will expand and/or contract, causing it to split along the grain of the wood. Fine woodworkers take this inevitability into consideration, and engineer their construction to allow for natural atmosphere-induced fluctuations, enabling the furniture to expand or contract without damage. Even so, exposure to strong sunlight, direct heat sources, extreme dryness or humidity can bring out the tendency of the wood to react by splitting.
This fact is a practical reason why early furniture mass-producers gravitated toward the use of veneer in the first place. Before mass-production, furniture makers and craftsmen created “regional” furniture. It was made of locally grown trees, crafted for the conditions of that region, and utilized in that same, specific region. For instance, a table of solid wood made in and for New England, would never be able to withstand the heat and drought of Arizona. Conversely, furniture crafted in Arizona from local trees for the dry, desert climate, would surely have a short life in the cold, damp region of New England.
This brings us to the Pro’s of Veneer Furniture.
The Pro’s of Veneer Furniture
Veneer is stable. Veneer furniture begins with thin layers of wood glued together with the grain at right angles over a thick core, forming a criss-cross design. This cross-banding greatly reduces chances of splitting, warping, or cracking. In addition, the glue used in veneering is the same strong, waterproof adhesive used in aircraft and marine construction. The end result is actually stronger than solid wood. This enables a manufacturer in North Carolina to build and ship their furniture to all the differing climatic regions of the country, with no ill effect.
For a guarantee against splitting, warping or cracking, most manufacturers now use medium-density fiberboard as a sub-strate, which is much denser and harder than natural wood.
Veneers are beautiful. Actually the most interesting logs are selected to be sliced into veneers. The most decorative grains are highly valued for use in the special pattern work used in veneers. Burl, for instance, is structurally unsound and unfit to be used to make solid wood furniture. But the outstandingly beautiful grain of burl is prized in veneer-work.
Veneer is environmentally considerate.
There is far less waste with veneer. We get forty surfaces of wood veneer for every one of solid wood.
Veneer presents design opportunities far beyond solid wood. A starburst pattern on a round table, for instance, would be impossible to achieve in solid lumber, because the seams would open in winter and swell or buckle in summer. Cross-grain designs such as aprons and edge-bandings are also impossible in solid wood.
The Con’s of Veneer
Prejudice. As mentioned before, misunderstanding about veneer based upon some early mass-production problems, haunts furniture makers to this day. Construction techniques and materials have improved steadily in the last 50 years. De-lamination (blisters, peel-back) is no longer a legitimate concern. High-tech glues and vacuum presses insure good clamping and increase design potential by allowing veneering of curved surfaces.
Veneer can cost more. Production of veneer furniture requires special care and delicate handling. It is often more costly to produce and therefore, to purchase.
Damaged veneer can cost more to repair. Although veneer furniture is easy to keep and maintain, repairing damages is much more involved and costly than repairing solid wood.
Be cautious in the low-end area, where you are likely to find “photo-laminates”, wherein the veneer is actually a photograph of wood laminated onto a particle-board core. I consider this product just one more reason so many people distrust veneer. I also consider it to be extravagantly expensive in terms of cost vs.value.
Moral of the Story: No Need to Fear Veneer
As always, stick to quality manufacturers of good reputation. Feel comfortable in asking a lot of questions. Furniture is a “good”, “better”, “best” market. Quality does not have to break the bank. Purchasing quality always pays dividends in the end.
- Karen Saloomey
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