For more than a century, thin layers of solid wood with distinctive grain or color have been used to cover less desirable woods to get a particular look. This thin layer is known as veneer. In older furniture the technique was often used to mask inferior solid woods, such as fir or pine, with more desirable woods, such as oak. Veneer can run the gamut from fine furniture to junk. In recent years, veneer has earned a reputation for being cheap due to its use as a covering on medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, and other manufactured wood products.
Wood veneer is made by slicing or peeling very thin layers, typically 1/16 inch, from a log that has been steamed or soaked in hot water to loosen the grain to prevent tearing. It can be purchased or made in the shop with a band saw. Raw veneer comes in narrow pieces, just as cut from the log. Paper-backed and adhesive-backed veneers come in large 4-by-8-foot sheets and narrow rolls for veneering material edges.
Veneer on Solid Wood
Veneer can be adhered to a variety of substrates, or base materials. When properly applied to solid wood, a good veneer can last as long as its base material. The solid wood beneath has similar properties, allowing them to swell and contract together with changes in humidity. They also respond similarly to stain and finish products, giving a more uniform appearance.
Veneer on Manufactured Wood
Much of today's mass-produced furniture makes ample use of particle board and other manufactured wood products. While a good bond can be made between these and veneer, it is not as stable. Manufactured wood tends to respond more drastically to changes in humidity and temperature, and is more rigid than solid wood, making the bond less durable.
Veneer Pros and Cons
Many of the woods used in veneer manufacture have beautiful and unique exotic grains. These woods make beautiful furniture, but many are far too unstable or costly to use in lumber form. Applying these veneers to a project can lend an artistry that may not be achievable with solid wood alone.
No matter how it is applied, the joint between veneer and solid wood can never be perfect and is subject to failure. Veneers can also be damaged during sanding, and are more readily damaged by impact than solid wood.
Recognizing Quality Veneer Furniture
Recognizing solid wood veneer furniture is fairly simple. Look to the bottom and back edges of tabletops, drawers and shelves. Solid wood always has grain, whereas MDF and particle board do not. These unexposed edges will not typically be veneered. If these areas reveal grain, the piece is solid wood. Most newer furniture will also have labels pasted on it revealing the content, and must list manmade ingredients. Don't be afraid of purchasing quality-built veneered furniture in either case if it fits your needs. Manufactured wood products can provide many years of trouble-free service, but may require different maintenance and repair procedures than solid wood.
- "Quality Hardwood Veneer"; David Mercker and George Martin Harper; University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service; 2004
- Joe Woodworker: Why Use Veneer
- Photo Credit wood texture image by Aleksey Bakaleev from Fotolia.com
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