What is a wood veneer? When most people think of a wood veneer, they think of cheap plywood or particle board with a thin (roughly 1/8 inch thick) wood covering. Most think of solid wood as a sign of a quality piece of furniture. These people aren’t wrong, but they aren’t entirely right, either. Wood veneer has a long, beautiful and storied history.

Aren’t Veneers For Cheap Furniture?

Sometimes, furniture makers put thin slices of nice wood over lower quality wood and wood products, like particle board. That’s not why the veneering process was invented, though. In fact, many of the most durable and oldest antiques are wood veneers. Veneering offers an artistic freedom that can’t be found with solid wood furniture.

However, starting in the 1970s, furniture manufacturers starting attaching veneers that were as thin as 1/64th of an inch, making them just slightly thicker than your average sheet of paper. That’s where the well-deserved reputation for cheapness began. Such thin veneers can’t be sanded. They can’t be refinished. They are easily damaged.

That doesn’t mean that all veneers made today are of poor quality. Many are just as well built as those pieces that have stood the test of time. True veneering is very much a craft and it lets you appreciate the natural grains of a beautiful wood.

Differences Between Veneers and Laminates

The terms veneers and laminates are often used interchangeably, and it’s easy to understand why. Both are a thin material applied, often with glue, to the top of another material. Laminates, though, are not typically made of wood. Some laminates have a realistic-looking wood grain printed on a think layer of plastic. Laminates are durable, great for kids’ rooms, and easy to wipe down. If you want to change the look of a laminate, though, you may find it difficult. Some paints might work, but you can’t sand or stain a laminate.

Because veneers use a thin slice of wood to cover what’s beneath it, veneers can be less durable than laminates. The veneer can be scratched or gouged quite easily. But because it’s wood, you can sand and refinish it, to an extent. Remember that veneers are usually only about 1/8 inch thick (or often less), so there isn’t much room for error when it comes to sanding.

Wood Veneers Throughout History

Wood veneers date back as far as 3,000 BC in Egypt. Egypt, as you know, is in a desert and wood was especially valuable and rare. So, to create the look of wood, Egyptians shaved thin layers of wood and applied them over inferior woods or other materials. Many included elaborate applications of gems, ivory and ebony, which were often cheaper than wood. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in 1922, archeologists discovered several gorgeous examples of veneered furniture.

wood veneered furniture from the era of tutankhamun

Image CC by 2.0, by John Campana, via Wikimedia Commons

Veneers disappeared from history during the Medieval period, until around the 17th Century, in France. Veneers were painstakingly crafted and very expensive. Many were ornate and one of a kind. The French called it marquetry or intarsia work and much of it included rare and exotic woods, such as burl.

Italian and Spanish cabinetmakers began adding veneer surfaces, but not to hide the wood behind it, but to create stunning custom looks. In Germany, they developed technology to make veneering less time consuming and they began using glue to adhere the veneer to the wood.

After the rule of Louis XV, veneers became especially popular and artful. They even crossed over into England where carpenters began using decorative veneers, often made of walnut.

When veneers became automated

Veneers became much more common and accessible in the early 1800s, when a machine was invented that sliced exotic woods, like mahogany into thin strips. The veneers were then glued onto more common woods, like oak.

The heritage of furniture manufacture has been refined and perfected in modern times in response to demand, and has grown from a handicraft into a highly mechanized industry. At the same time, veneer manufacture, although an industry, has remained very much a craft.

As tool and machine making became more sophisticated, the sawing of logs was replaced by the much more accurate of slicing with knives instead of sawing with blades.

Source: Veneering.net

Why Wood Veneers?

Veneers have been a favorite for furniture aficionados for centuries and it’s easy to see why.

Better for the environment

Because veneers only use thin parts of trees, it conserves wood. While a single exotic tree might make just one or two solid wood dining room tables, it can make dozens of veneered tables. Because fewer trees need to be transported, the process and transportation use fewer greenhouse gasses and uses about 70 percent less energy.

Stronger

Solid wood is prone to splitting, cracks and warping. The top layer, and even the glue, add protection to the wood underneath.

Versatility and beauty

The beauty of solid wood is its unpredictability. Veneers can give you the natural patterns of gorgeously-grained solid wood, but it can also give the furniture maker the ability to play with the grain and create custom designs using the natural grain.

This look could not be created with solid wood. Desk attributed to Edward Priestly, c. 1825-1835, mahogany, mahogany veneer, satinwood, ebony, yellow poplar, white pine – De Young Museum – DSC01258.JPG Wikipedia Commons

Vintage Philco (Big Bullet) Table Radio, Model 37-610T, Broadcast & Short Wave Bands, Art Deco Design, 5 Vacuum Tubes, Walnut Veneer Cabinet, Made In USA, Circa 1937
Image rights CC2.0 Joe Haupt Flickr

With veneers, you can have the look of an exotic wood like black and white ebony, without it costing two month’s salary, simply because only thin strips will be used. With veneers, you can also combine multiple woods, giving you a custom and artistic look that can’t be duplicated with solid wood.

Types of Veneers

There are several types of veneers, each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Raw

Raw veneers have no backing on the thin veneer strip. Either side can be used, but each side has a different look.

Paper-backed

Paper backed veneers have thin strips of paper on the back. That allows the furniture maker to piece together several pieces of wood to make a more complex piece.

Laid up

Laid up wood veneer is a raw veneer that’s joined together to make large pieces. it is quite exacting and time-consuming, but not difficult.

Phenolic backed

Phenolic backed veneer is a plastic resin adhered to the back of the wood. This makes the wood more water resistant.

Wood on wood

Wood on wood veneer applies the veneered layer to solid wood, usually with the grain going in opposite directions. This helps add to the strength of the wood.

Reconstituted veneer

Reconstituted veneer uses fast growing tropical trees, cuts strips from logs and laminates them together to form blocks. While the look mimics natural wood, it’s technically a man-made product, with superior strength, durability and flexibility in design.

How to Find a Quality Wood Veneer

If you’re looking for wood veneer furniture, the first question you have to ask is how will it be used. For use in a child’s room, a veneer over particle board should be fine. If you are using it for the master bedroom or the dining room, your priorities might be different.

Wood veneers are even popular in office furnishings. As they allow for maximum wow factor at a more cost-effective price. Some places, such as the Furniture Factory, LLC, offer custom Millwork services that use veneers to create perfect furniture for your needs.

But regardless of whether you are shopping for a veneer or solid wood, you should always:

Check the drawers and cabinets

Do they open and close smoothly and evenly? Do doors remain open? Are the knobs loose?

Ask the thickness of the veneer

A quality veneer should be 1/8 inch thick. That allows you to fix scratches and stains and even to refinish it. Any less and you have an inferior veneer which can never be sanded. If the salesperson doesn’t know the thickness, quality is probably not the store’s priority.

Check the joints

Quality furniture uses wood joints, not nails or glue.

Drawing of wood joint via Wikimedia Commons

 

Future Uses for Wood Veneers

Because wood veneers make such efficient use of trees, they are far more sustainable than many building products, which means the sky is the limit, literally. Throughout the world, builders are using wood veneers to create sky scrapers.

“The tall buildings I’m talking about are made out of engineered wood – small pieces of wood glued together,” says (New Zealand structural engineer Andy) Buchanan. There are three main types. “There’s glued laminated timber, glulam, which is used for straight beams and columns. It’s been around for 50 years or more. Then there’s laminated veneer lumber, LVL, which has the same strength as concrete. But the newest material is cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is really starting to take off now.”

CLT is a true wonder material. Made from thin layers of wood criss-crossed and stuck together with fire-resistant glue, this “plywood on steroids” is claimed to be as strong as structural steel; alternating the direction of the grain offsets the weaknesses in any given plank and stops the material warping if it gets wet. It’s made into massive, flat panels up to six metres (20ft) wide and 20 inches (50cm) thick that can be used whole, to form entire walls, floors or part of a roof.

Wood is one of the most sustainable products on earth, to a point. While solid wood will never go out of style, a product that adds to woods’ natural sustainability and strength will have unlimited future applications.

Featured image CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication Wikimedia Commons