Why Veneer?

Crotch Mahogany

Where appropriate I freely use veneer in my furniture. Where veneer is inappropriate I use solid wood. I believe edging, legs, and aprons should be made with solid wood. Since veneer vs. solid wood in furniture is still an issue among retail furniture buyers I offer this page of my thoughts on the topic. Like most things in the world, both solid and veneer have their pluses and minuses. I am convinced that the pluses of veneer far outweigh its disadvantages. I give my reasoning below with some images of classic veneers rarely available in solid form.

Why You Should Want Veneer

Beautiful. The best, most interesting logs are cut into veneer. This is largely an economic decision–sellers and veneer producers can make more money from a veneer quality log sliced into veneer than they can from sawing it into boards. And certain cuts, such as burls and crotches, are structurally unsound in ‘the solid’. These beautiful woods can rarely be utilized unless they’re sliced into veneer

Environmentally kind. Saw timber is typically sawn into 1″ thick boards. The saw cuts a kerf between boards 1/16″ to 1/4″ thick that winds up as sawdust. Veneer is not cut from the log but sliced with a knife (like lunch meat) into leaves or sheets. That produces 42 veneer surfaces for every 1 that is gotten from a board and with no wood wasted as sawdust several more sheets where the sawblade would have gone. That’s over 42 surfaces of wood veneer for every 1 of solid wood.

Creates new design possibilities. Since veneer is so thin and is glued to a stable substrate it allows designs and arrangements of the wood that would fail in solid wood. Solid wood, even kiln-dried, moves or works from summer through winter through summer again. A sunburst table top would be impossible in solid lumber because the seams would open in winter and swell and buckle in summer. Cross grain designs such as aprons and edge bandings are also impossible in solids. Solid burls are also largely unuseable but frequently used in veneer.

Stable. Since veneer is glued to a stable substrate it produces surfaces not prone to warp or splitting or seasonal movement.

Substrates. Baltic birch plywood and medium density fiberboard, the substrates I use for my furniture, are made from lesser quality trees. This means a market is provided the landowner for these trees. This leads to better forests over time since the remaining trees grow better and faster with less competition for resources. Its like weeding your garden only a lot bigger.

The Veneer Bad Things

Nigerian Satinwood

Thin. This is more of a problem for the builder than the buyer. Sand-through in preparation for finishing is ‘touching the third rail’ of woodworking. Such pieces are almost impossible to repair and frequently involve ‘re-design’ (as in cutting off the sanded through area) or making a speculative, difficult repair which can be difficult to hide. Once the piece is completed thickness of the veneer is of no concern.

Blisters, delaminates, peel back at edges. These can only be satisfactorily prevented by proper construction materials and techniques. Early in the 20th century much mass-produced, low quality veneer furniture was made that haunts furnituremakers to this day. Construction techniques and adhesives have improved considerably in the past few decades to the point that delamination is no longer a legitimate concern. Hide glue is used only in a few special applications and has been superceded by aliphatic and resorcinol glues. ‘Hammer veneering’ and cumbersome, mechanical presses have been replaced by vacuum presses which insure good clamping (and facilitate design possibilities by allowing veneering of curved surfaces).

The edge thing. Since veneer is glued to a plywood or medium density fiberboard substrate the edges must be covered. The best solution involves a strip of solid wood that opens more design possibilities. The edging can be wide or narrow, match the veneer panel or contrast, can further incorporate veneer which can be cross grain or at a 45 degree angle, can be set off by a narrow strip of inlay, etc. A workable solution but one that I generally avoid is to run the veneer right up to the edge of the piece and cover the edge with a strip of veneer. This can make for ‘hard’ edges susceptible to peel back and is best avoided.

What Veneers

Fiddleback Makore

A huge variety. More veneers are available today to the American market than ever before. Veneers I have used:

  • crotch and ribbon-grain mahogany,
  • cherry,
  • bird’s eye and blistered maple,
  • Andaman paduak,
  • purpleheart.
  • Swiss pear,
  • sapele,
  • bubinga,
  • Nigerian satinwood,
  • Ceylonese satinwood,
  • Gabon,
  • makore,
  • beefwood,
  • chen,
  • bee-wing andiroba,
  • curly English sycamore,
  • American sycamore,
  • lacewood,
  • French walnut,
  • American black walnut,
  • butternut,
  • Hawaiian koa,
  • zebrawood,
  • eucalyptus,
  • pal dao,
  • New Guineau walnut,
  • narra,
  • madrone burl,
  • Japanese tamo,
  • Japanese ash,
  • East Indian laurel,
  • mozambique,
  • tropical olive,
  • limba,
  • Chilean laurel burl,
  • pau ferro.

Any of these can be used in a piece although they are not equally applicable in all installations. Some are difficult to match with a solid wood, some are visually overpowering and must used as accent woods, some come only in small dimensions. Some can be difficult to work or are typically supplied in a rough or distressed condition. If you would like to commission a piece in any of these woods, I would be glad to talk to you about possibilities and limitations.