Why use veneer?

examples of fine veneered furniture | Heller and Heller FUrniture | Heirloom quality custom furniture in Charlottesville, Virginia

We get this a lot – in discussing a piece with a client we’ll mention the word veneer and they suddenly freeze with a questioning look. I know what they’re thinking – “Wait, isn’t this heirloom quality furniture?  Why on earth would we use veneer instead of solid wood, isn’t that inferior?” Dave is here today to clear up some of the misunderstanding, and some negative connotations you may associate with the word veneer! – Jenn

Why (and when) do I use veneers? They have a poor reputation. I didn’t use them at all for my first 20 years making furniture, because of the nasty cheap stuff that is called veneered furniture by the furniture-industrial complex. And yet much of the finest western furniture ever made is veneered. How to reconcile this?

Let’s talk a little bit about what exactly veneer is for a moment: Veneer is defined as a thin layer of something, in our case wood, that is laminated to a substrate to cover it. We are not going to be discussing any other type of veneer here, so forget about veneer made of plastic, or for your teeth!  Just wood on this blog people.

You can make wood veneer in several ways. It can be sliced around the circumference of a tree radially for very wide sheets that might be used to make plywood; imagine a setup similar to an apple peeler. You can also make veneer by slicing thin sequential sheets off sections of the tree – like slicing a loaf of bread. One important thing to note is that in both of these cases, veneer is genuine wood that is now only 1/42″ thick.

Veneer allows several things to happen that couldn’t otherwise. First consider material rarity. Ebony, kingwood, tulipwood, rosewood: all are available in solids, but at quite amazing(!) prices. That will get worse in the future, and was also true several hundred years ago, when these and similar exotic woods were first introduced to the West. Slicing the wood allows much more of the very expensive material to be seen and appreciated, and dramatically reduces its cost. As a variant on rarity/cost, ebony is quite unstable, and prone to cracking. Most burls are similar. Slicing them, then affixing them to a stable substrate, cures their instability.

That leads to the second opportunity: sequential veneer slices (think our loaf of bread analogy) are very similar to each other. Patterns can be generated by orienting these sequential slices. There are many options: slip-matches, book-matches and radial patterns are three of the more common. Diamonds and more complex shapes can be generated by orienting the right pattern pieces properly. There is literally a kaleidoscope of possibility.

Some of the pattern opportunities can also be done using solid wood. Sequential boards in a tree can yield a wonderful tabletop. I book-match my solid wood marquetry boxes and jewelry box drawers.

However, radial or four way matches are unstable in solids due to a fundamental property of wood: it changes size over time, continuously, as a result of changes in humidity.

As wood absorbs moisture from the air, it expands across its width but not its length. Solid wood furniture needs to be designed with that constraint in mind.  This is the driving factor behind many traditional furniture forms, such as frame and panel doors in solid wood furniture. The panel can move within the groove of the frame as it expands, while the door size (ie the frame) stays constant.

Veneer wants to move, but can’t when glued to a substrate.  Federal furniture, with flat case sides and fronts, is always veneered. Some parts of that look cannot be achieved with solid woods.

Marquetry is another way to generate patterns on the surface of an object. Sometimes the pattern is geometric, such as diamonds or lattices. In English this is sometimes called parquetry, though that can get confused with parquet floors, which are similar in concept but should be solid wood, for durability. Geometric patterns for furniture are cut with a flat sided saw, and use jigs to insure that the pieces are consistent sizes. Pictorial marquetry – traditionally flowers, ribbons, and rich peoples’ toys, is cut with a very fine jewelers saw. If the picture has simple edges it can be inlaid into a solid wood surface (though wood movement can be an issue) but mostly the background is also veneer, and the panel is the whole surface of the piece.

So those are the reasons we use veneer to make quality furniture. On to the negative associations: why is crummy furniture veneered, and why isn’t it durable?

It is veneered for cost reasons. Wood costs more than particle board, which is made from sawdust and glue. Less wood is less cost. Some “veneered” furniture uses no wood at all – the wood pattern is printed on plastic.  It’s not durable because it’s made to be inexpensive, not durable.

Real wood veneer attached with good glue on a flat and smooth and stable substrate is durable if properly finished and designed for. Edges also need to be protected – either with solid wood or some other durable material – since veneer edges are not impact resistant.

Veneered furniture is not as durable as solid wood furniture. The glue will fail eventually. Failure of the finish can allow water into the veneer or substrate, which will cause bubbling. In high use furniture – such as a kitchen table – a veneered surface won’t last as long. My kitchen table is hard maple, so my kids could “work” on it. They did, and it survived, when a veneered table might not have. However, for fine items that take limited abuse, the longevity of a veneered piece should be measured in generations. Many fine veneered Victorian jewelry boxes are available – so many that they aren’t all in museums. 18th century veneered furniture generally needs some work, if it hasn’t already been repaired. Hide glue eventually fails when veneering to solid wood (all that was available then). It is very repairable though, which modern glues are not.

For me, the design benefits available using veneers warrant their use. I protect the edges, and apply a durable finish if the surface will be exposed to moisture. Some decades from now, some of my pieces will need repair. I have recently switched to using hide glue for my veneer work, so that repairs will be possible.

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Fairfax Art Show this weekend – April 23 & 24

Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards
Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards
Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards and Marquetry
Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards and Marquetry

 

One last reminder to come out and see us at the Fairfax Corner Art Festival this Saturday and Sunday!  Elizabeth and Dave will be there from 10-5 each day with chopping boards, marquetry boxes, and brand new pictures – including this gorgeous dogwood design Dave finished last week in tons of wood variations!

You’re bound to find something beautiful for Mother’s Day – coming up on May 8th!

Fairfax Corner Art Festival

Saturday, April 23 & Sunday, April 24 from 10-5

4100 Monument Corner Dr. in Fairfax, VA

 

 

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Meet the Maker – 2016 Spring/Summer Show Schedule

2016_art_show_schedule

Just a quick post today – our first shows of the year are rapidly approaching! We’d love to meet you in person and answer any questions you might have about our work, custom furniture, and out wooden wares.  Here are the details of our spring/summer show calendar:

April 23-24 Fairfax Corner Art Festival 

  • Saturday, April 23rd, 2016, 10:00am to 5:00pm
  • Sunday, April 24th, 2016, 10:00am to 5:00pm
  • Free Admission & Parking!

At Fairfax Corner Center – 4100 Monument Corner Dr. in Fairfax, VA . Our first show of the year, we will have stacks of end-grain chopping boards, marquetry pictures and wall panel art, marquetry boxes, shaker boxes, and more!  And of course, Dave and Elizabeth will be on hand to answer your burning furniture-related questions.  Just in time for Mother’s Day – stop by and introduce yourselves and pick up something special.

From the festival website: “Producers of the Alexandria, Arlington and Virginia Beach Art Festivals are proud to announce the Fairfax Corner Art Festival! This exciting, new show will take place at Fairfax Corner, an upscale shopping and dining village. National and local artists will be exhibiting outdoors on the streets of Fairfax Corner with work such as painting, sculpture, photography and more!”

– May 7-8 Crozet Arts and Crafts Festival

  • Saturday, May 7th, 2016, 10:00am to 5:30pm
  • Sunday, May 8th, 2016, 10:00am to 5:00pm
  • Admission: Adults $6, Kids under 12 are free. Free Parking.

This fun-filled day out would be a great Mother’s Day treat in beautiful Crozet – Claudius Crozet Park, 1075 Park Rd in Crozet, VA 22932. From the festival website: “Today’s award winning festivals center around the Juried Art Show along with entertainment for the whole family. Great food and some of the best local wines are becoming a larger attraction each year. Entertainment is diverse and reflects the melting pot of tastes found in Central Virginia.”

– July 14-17 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts

  • More information coming soon on this one!

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etsy items-5

We’d also like to announce that each and every day you can find our work in the C’ville Arts Collective located at 118 E Main St, Charlottesville Va 22902. If you’re lucky, you might even run into Elizabeth while you’re there!

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ASFM Followup and Progress: Piece by Piece Marquetry

Piece by Piece marquetry work

Fig. 3 Piece by Piece marquetry work 

Wednesday we talked about the first part of Dave’s ASFM experience – today he’s back with more detail on piece by piece marquetry technique. – Jenn

Piece by piece marquetry is pretty intense. This is both mentally and physically more demanding than packet cutting.  Picture 3 shows the finished result so that the subsequent pictures make sense. The concept is pretty straightforward: multiple copies of the picture pattern are made, and cut up so that each piece has all of its lines visible. Three additional copies are made: one for the background, one to mark the shading, and a third one showing wood selections, which can also be studied while cutting then assembling the picture(s).

Figure 4 - Prepped & nailed packet

Figure 4 – Prepped & nailed packet

Veneer packets are made up in each wood used in the picture. There needs to be one layer for each desired final copy of the picture. We made three, so our packets had three pieces of the same veneer, with a grease paper sheet and a backer board. The packets we used were 6” square or so, big enough to allow many parts to be cut but easy to handle in the chevalet. Packets that are bigger than about 9” in any dimension are more difficult to handle, though the saw capacity is 28”. I haven’t worked a large packet yet. Anyway, each piece of paper is laid on the correct wood packet, oriented for the grain. Since you can’t see the figure on any but the top level, this technique works best if each layer is the same is grain and figure. All of the paper pieces are laid out and then glued to the top layer of the correct veneer packets. The packets are then nailed together, between the pieces. The packet gets floppy very quickly as it is cut, and the nails help to counteract that. The nails are cut off then clinched to hold the packet tight. Figure 4 shows the leaf patterns glued to the packet, which has been nailed. Each leaf piece is then cut clockwise, just cutting away the line. In theory you should leave half of the line, but it’s only 0.1 mm wide, far thinner than the blade. In practice even Patrice mostly cuts away the whole line. Patrick no longer does piece by piece – he feels that his eyes aren’t good enough. He uses Painting in Wood, and his work is stunning.

Since the outside of each piece is waste, the saw blade can be taken into the waste area whenever is useful. Most frequently this is done to turn the blade around, allowing very tight inside and outside corners. In principle one can be relaxed when cutting, since duplicate pieces can easily be made if the saw wanders. In practice, each piece takes long enough to make that making extras is very unappealing. Laserbeam focus when cutting is the result. Hand cramps are also common. Frequent breaks are necessary to keep your hands and eyes working well, as well as using Magnifer glasses.

Figure 5 - Piece by piece, foreground cutting completed

Figure 5 – Piece by piece, foreground cutting completed

Figure 6 - Shading completed

Figure 6 – Shading completed

Once all of the pieces are cut they are placed in the assembly tray in the correct place and orientation, figure 5. Once all of the pieces are cut they should be sand shaded, using the diagram you prepared as a guide. Traditionally the light source for shading is coming from 10 o’ clock – the upper left.  Figure 6 shows the sand shaded pieces.

Figure 7: Cutting the background

Figure 7: Cutting the background

Only now is the background cut, since it has a nasty habit of expanding or contracting. Contracting is particularly bad, given that our foreground piece cutting is as tight as we can manage. The background has nails through the foreground areas, to stiffen the packet. It is cut counterclockwise, so that the waste is to the right of the sawblade, the same as the foreground pieces. Since our view is unobstructed to the left of the blade, the right side is always the reject side. Lefties of course have a saw configured the other way around. Figure 7 shows the background in the chevalet, being cut.

Figure 8: Background cut completed

Figure 8: Background cut completed

Once the background is cut the packet can be disassembled. Figure 8 shows the background panel during disassembly of the packet. The pictures are immediately assembled the same way as packet cut pictures. The clearances are less regular though, so there is potential excitement. It is important to have knife to pry or lift pieces as needed.

Mastic is then applied, to fill in the vein lines (and any imperfections in the picture).  Once the mastic is dry the picture can be glued to a substrate. The paper on the front is removed once the glue has dried.

For a first piece, the result is impressive. The chevalet provided sufficient control by this point to make a decent picture, and that will only improve with practice. It would have been nice to complete a second piece, but some of the students labored on this one, so Patrick kept the pace moderate. It took 4 hours of prep time then 8-10 hours of cutting to make this piece. With practice it would take less than half as long. If 12 copies had been made that would translate to just more than an hour per picture even at my speed, which would translate to a reasonable price while I improve my technique.

Since we had some time on Friday, Patrick also demonstrated how to glue up columns and panels using hide glue. Since hide glue tacks very quickly but dries very slowly, it is ideal for sequential layouts. Piece one is glued, piece two laid next to and on top of it, then the overlap is cut off. Since both pieces of veneer are cut at the same time, there is no gap. This can be repeated for hours, so complex panels can be assembled, the bandings applied, and then crossbanding, all with no gaps or veneer tape.

Figure 9 - The Chevalet

Figure 9 – The Chevalet

ASFM’s teaching methods are accessible to any level of student, but I really feltl I got much more out of it by having some experience already. This was the best class I’ve attended, and I highly recommend it. Since returning home I have built my chevalet (figure 9) and am making marquetry pictures using both packet cutting and piece by piece approaches. My intent is to design modern pictures but make them using the chevalet, since it is more precise than any other I know of.

 

 

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ASFM Followup and Progress

working on a chevalet

Cutting a veneer packet on a chevalet

When Dave set out to write this piece I had only scheduled one post, but he got unusually verbose!  I decided we’d try for two posts, one today and one Friday – be sure to stop back then for a continuation of his discusson of piece by piece. – Jenn

The first week of the ASFM class teaches the students how to cut marquetry using a chevalet, and gives 15-20 hours of practice.  By the end of the week you can cut along the line and manage the very small pieces that are one of the benefits of using this approach. As mentioned in the prior review of the school, the chevalet automatically cuts identical pieces by insuring the saw is perpendicular to the veneer packet. If the cut line is very precisely available in identical multiples and the lines are followed precisely, piece by piece marquetry is possible. By the end of the first week, it is pretty clear how accurately each student can cut.  In week two, the more precise students do piece by piece marquetry, and the others learn “Painting in Wood”, a more sophisticated version of packet cutting. We had both in the class I attended, so I can comment on both.

Piece by Piece marquetry work

Piece by Piece marquetry work

Piece by piece marquetry is an early mass production technique.  If marquetry pieces could be cut very precisely, it would be possible to orient bundles of veneer, each of one type, so that a dozen or more of each piece could be cut at once with ideal grain orientation. All of the pieces would be cut this way. These pieces could then be sand shaded to add depth to the design. The background pieces would be cut last, then those shaded perfectly cut foreground pieces could be inserted into the background.  The fit could in concept be much tighter than in packet cutting, since there is no need to leave a saw kerf gap. The result is a dozen or more of identical pictures with ideal grain orientation, no gaps, and no limit on the use of material type- there is no reason that small amounts of many woods could not be used.  The key constraint to doing this is that the pieces need to be cut very precisely.

Laying out the design for a Painting in Wood piece

Laying out the design for a Painting in Wood piece

“Painting in Wood” involves inserting optimally oriented pieces of veneer into filler layers. Each layer could have 5-10 veneer inserts located only where they are required, and separated by filler pieces of veneer. Two layers are shown in Picture 1. When the pattern is cut, each picture element is in the correct color but very little valuable wood is discarded. A typical packet could have 6-8 layers but only produces one finished picture.  In the day, incorrectly colored pictures were not acceptable, so this technique minimizes the use of valuable materials but takes more time per useful picture than piece by piece, which was developed later.

Picture 2 Painting in Wood complete-1388

The key advantage of painting in wood is that your eyesight doesn’t need to be as good, and the picture always fits together, since the foreground and the background are cut together.  The second picture shows the completed Painting in Wood piece from my class. Also, if you only want one final picture, this uses expensive material efficiently.

Dave will be back on Friday with more on his experience with the piece by piece marquetry technique!

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ASFM Followup and Progress: Piece by Piece Marquetry | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] Wednesday we talked about the first part of Dave’s ASFM experience – today he’s back with more detail on piece by piece marquetry technique. – Jenn […]

Project Update: Oeben Desk | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] My chevalet only has an 18” throat so unless (until?) I make a bigger (and heavier, and more unwieldy) saw, so I am limited in the size of what I can cut. Since the pattern without the border was 17”, I made it without the border, and I plan on inlaying the panel into the border once I get some purpleheart, which should be soon. I may regret this approach, but that’s why you make test pieces. I hope to have the purpleheart within the next few weeks, and have time to work on the border in July? […]

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