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.