Understanding Wood Veneers

Posted In Design - 08/26/2016

The Truth About Veneers

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Solid Wood Versus Veneers

If you’ve been shopping for wood furniture, you may have been told that solid wood is better than veneers…or vice versa. In fact, solid wood and veneers are both good things. Knowing how they differ helps you evaluate what’s best for your home and your lifestyle, instead of guessing and hoping for the best. So let’s start with the basics….

The popularity of solid wood furniture arises from comfort level. What you see is what you get…although stains can give one wood the look of another, especially if the grains are similar. Solid wood construction indicates stability and integrity, the real McCoy. And so it is, especially with such woods as mahogany, cherry, birch, maple, and oak. Solid woods also have the advantage of being easily refinished, should the need arise.

However, much of today’s quality furniture is a combination of solid woods (providing strength to frames, legs, and other supporting components) and veneers, applied to solid wood or wood composition material. This prevents the warping and splitting that sometimes occurs when solid wood expands and contracts from humidity changes.

A veneer is simply a thin layer of wood, chosen for beauty and character, then glued or bonded to another wood surface. It’s not a poor substitute for solid wood or a synthetic material printed with a wood grain effect. In fact, bonding a veneer to another surface creates extra strength and allows for surface patterns or designs that would otherwise be impossible.

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End-matched veneering produces a continuous pattern.

Veneers: Since When?

The art of veneering goes back to ancient Egypt. It was reclaimed by the master furniture makers of the 18th century, who realized that sheets of expensive and exquisite woods – mahogany, satinwood, and rosewood, to name a few – could be glued to other surfaces to create beautiful and strong pieces of furniture.

During the Industrial Revolution, veneer lost some of its appeal as mass production led to shoddy manufacturing practices. Veneers were often low-grade woods, poorly applied to inferior materials. Understandably, such cheap veneers often warped or become detached, giving all veneering a bad reputation.

But, for those willing to spend the time and effort required to do it right, veneering remained the preferred technique for achieving artistic and beautiful surfaces. That’s still true, and not just for traditional or reproduction furniture. The simple lines of fine contemporary furniture also gain beauty and sophistication with veneers.

The Possibilities

Veneering expands design possibilities by allowing the use of the most beautifully grained wood, even such rare woods as yew and rosewood. Especially prized veneers include burl – a highly-figured grain that comes from a domed or rounded outgrowth on several varieties of trees – or crotch mahogany, cut just below the area where two major branches meet. Neither could be used to construct an entire piece of furniture, but each makes spectacular veneers.

New Technology

New technology has brought radical improvements to veneering. Laser techniques provide outstanding quality control and precision in cutting veneers, allowing craftsmen to make ever more beautiful grain matches. Improved glues have eliminated problems that once made veneers separate from their surfaces, making them even less likely to crack or warp than solid woods.

Despite such advances, veneering still requires great craftsmanship. Sophisticated inlays or marquetry involve several painstaking steps, including matching and joining, gluing, sanding, polishing, and finishing.

Got a Match?

Sheets of veneer can be combined on larger surfaces to form interesting patterns by using the following matching techniques:

Book matching: sheets of veneer are placed side-by-side, like the pages of a book, creating a symmetrical pattern.

End matching: sheets are placed end-to-end to produce a continuous pattern.

Four-way match: a combination of book and end matching.

Slip matching: sheets are placed into side-by-side patterns to produce herringbone, diamond, and checkered patterns.

Inspiration

Still a little suspicious of veneered furniture? Check out the 18th century master cabinetmakers like Chippendale and Hepplewhite. Their veneered furniture still graces museums and private collections, continuing to set standards for fine design as we move into the 21st century.

Then enjoy the wide range of modern day furniture that draws its inspiration from those old masters – whether reproductions of 18th century design or contemporary designs where elegant simplicity is the perfect setting for beautiful veneers.

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