We hear the following phrase from customers all the time, “Does it have any veneer in it?” To many, the word “veneer”, when it comes to furniture, is like some sort of a plague that one should stay away from as far a possible. To those select customers, it doesn’t matter whether a piece of furniture is constructed from hardwoods or softwoods, as long as it doesn’t have veneer in it is the most important characteristic to them. Why such negativity towards wood veneer? Is it really that bad?
History of Veneer
One would think that veneer came about during the industrial revolution because that was a major turning point in history when new materials and new manufacturing processes originated but the use of it dates much further back. In fact, ancient Egyptians have used wonderful African ivory and ebony veneered work that was placed inside King Tutankhamun’s tomb, for example. The term “marquetry”, an art form of applying veneer pieces to form ornamental pictures and patterns, originated with these ancient Egyptian veneer artisans. The Renaissance as well as Baroque periods saw an extensive use of veneer as well. Over the years the use of it has evolved into an artful craft.
What Exactly is Wood Veneer?
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, veneer is “a layer of wood of superior value or excellent grain to be glued to an inferior wood”. Basically, veneer is defined as thin pieces of actual wood (usually 1/8 of an inch or even thinner) that are glued on top of a different species of wood, particle board, or MDF (medium density fiberboard).
Why is It Used when Constructing Furniture?
Although it is used for economic reasons, it is also used for beautiful, decorative purposes. The slicing of veneer can offer very distinguishing types of grains, especially with exotic woods. Without it, a unique opportunity to work with some of the most exotics woods that nature offers would be lost.
So why don’t manufacturers use solid wood for all furniture? One of the answers is price. Availability is another. There seems to be a global shortage of lumber. MDF and particleboard are so much more affordable than solid wood. The dimensional stability of MDF also makes it a perfect candidate as a substrate to place veneer on top of it. The price of MDF and particleboard make them both economical options as substrates for veneered work. The other advantages are the void of knots and the dimensions can be cut perfectly with MDF.
Select species of wood, especially the more exotic ones, are very unstable for use in furniture manufacturing. Burl is a great example with its characteristics of many knots and irregular grain patterns, but those burl grain patterns make this species so beautiful. By gluing woods such as burl, ebony, or primavera as veneered pieces onto other layers of woods of superior stability, a gorgeous piece of furniture can emerge.
Home furnishings pieces such as wall units, armoires, and larger dining tables, for example, require rather large planks of lumber and certain species of wood, although beautiful, have an inherent trait of warping over time. By gluing a veneered piece of wood with a stunning grain onto a much more stable piece of solid wood with a less eye-catching grain, the results are not only striking but durable as well.
Then there is the fine veneered craftsmanship. Some species of wood are simply scarce and if a woodworker wants to incorporate them into a design, the only way to use it is by veneering. Curved furniture work also requires it. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the chest or dressers with a serpentine shape and you guessed it, they’re done using veneered wood. There is also matching, where one side of a grain pattern looks like a mirror image of the other side. Inlaying contrasting wood adds an attention-grabbing design component to any project. Let’s not also forget marquetry where decorative pictures emerge.
How Did Veneer Get Such a Bad Rap?
It all started after World War II where fine lumber was in short supply and the use of veneer was a bargain alternative. That wasn’t the only problem. The adhesives used for attaching veneer were not up to par. Then in the 70′s, manufacturers decided to make veneer thinner and thinner and as a result the term veneer unfortunately became synonymous with inferior quality. The RTA (ready-to-assemble) veneered furniture during the 70′s didn’t help either.
It’s All About the Craftsmanship
The adhesives in woodworking industry today have improved drastically, to say the least. Just like with anything else, it all depends on the quality of workmanship. Even with solid wood furniture construction, there are quality discrepancies from one manufacturer to the next. Veneered furniture does not necessarily mean inexpensive or of inferior quality either.
When you hear the words grand piano, do you assume inferior, inexpensive materials and shabby workmanship? Of course not! And guess what? The rim of a Steinway concert grand piano is made from 18 laminations of hard rock maple bent to shape. Steinway has used this method for over a century. You may have also seen Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice and if you have, you’ve seen the rather large conference table around which they all get together to witness the firing of one of the contestants. That table has a unique inlay pattern on the middle of it. There is only one way to do that and it’s with veneering. So, would Donald Trump, himself, purchase an inexpensive conference table with mediocre quality? Of course not!
Next time when you hear the word veneer when describing construction of a piece of furniture, don’t be so judgmental. Instead, ask more questions about it. Is the frame made of solid wood and veneer is only used on larger surface areas? Is the veneer used simply to make an intricate pattern? If the furniture is veneered, find out what thickness the veneer is. Try to go for pieces that have 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick veneer. Stay away from anything thinner. And remember, next time you hear the term solids with veneers, keep in mind that there is nothing inherently mediocre or low quality about it. Sometimes, solid wood does not mean it’s always better. Check out our collections of home furnishings where some are solids and some even have veneer.