The History of Veneer Wood

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The word veneer, according to Merriam Webster's dictionary dates to 1702. However, adding a thin sheet of a superior wood grain to a lesser quality wood is much older craft. Today, adding a veneer of wood is commonplace on many high-quality solid-wood furnishings as well as less expensive items constructed from particle boards. A simple wood veneer can unify the appearance of a piece or serve the design of the furnishing as a work of art.

Veneer Wood Origin

  • The ancient Egyptians were the inventors of veneer wood according to the David R. Webb Company, a modern manufacturer of wood veneers. Though the Egyptians enjoyed the beauty of wood, trees were scarce in the Nile region. By carefully cutting exquisite wood into thin sheets, it could be crafted into delicate boxes, inlaid or applied to the top of less beautiful wood or materials. Ken Melchert of the Harp Gallery notes that “fabulous veneer work in ebony” a dense, black wood, was put into King Tut’s tomb. While Rockler Woodworking describes 5,000-year-old fragments of veneer wood found in King Semerkhet's tomb.

Renaissance Period

  • Beginning around A.D. 1300 in Italy, and continuing through Europe's Renaissance period, artisans developed sophisticated techniques for creating details with wood veneer and inlays. “Tiny pieces of exotic woods and burl grain” created intricate designs and pictorial scenes called marquetry or intarsia work, according to Melchert. This became the signature construction for the furnishings of royalty.

Seventeenth Century

  • During the 1600s, Rockler Woodworking describes how the development of better tools advanced the craft of veneering. Finer and thinner saw blades allowed for craftsmen to cut thinner sheets of veneer and more intricate pieces for inlays.

Eighteenth Century

  • Changes in the construction styles of furniture making began in the 18th century, leading to changes in veneer techniques. Rockler Woodworking notes how the changes in the case structure and drawer construction were more favorable for a "figured veneer" that was based on the beauty of the wood grain rather than artists' details. Nonetheless, by the end of the century George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton were among the designers still creating neoclassical furniture with meticulous inlays.

Nineteenth Century

  • “Veneer was employed to make valuable woods like mahogany or walnut go farther” by gluing them to the more common woods, as recorded by Melchert. Craftsmen were able to use any number of available less desirable wood species including maple and birch, or recycling wood from other furniture pieces. During this time, manufactures began producing plywood, which is a veneered wood made from layers of thinly sliced low-grade woods glued together and often topped with a lovely veneer of a better quality wood. The Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association (HPVA) records that it was the piano manufactures who first began using plywood in 1830.

Twentieth Century

  • Melchert describes how advances in technology for slicing a thinner veneer began in the1970s. Today, some wood veneer is easily sliced from the log, so that it is as thin as paper.

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