You may have been told that solid wood furniture is better than furniture with veneers - the fact is they are both good things. It depends on the type of furniture, its purpose, location, etc. Knowing the difference between the two will help you evaluate what's best for your home and your lifestyle.
The comfort people find in solid wood furniture comes from the "what you see is what you get". Although stains can give one wood the look of another, especially if the grains are similar. Solid wood construction indicates stability and integrity, especially with such woods as mahogany, cherry, birch, maple and oak. Solid woods also have the advantage of being easily refinished, should the need arise.
Today, much of today's quality furniture is a combination of solid woods and veneers. This method allows the furniture to have the strength offered from solid wood in the frames, legs and other supporting components, while veneers can be applied to solid wood or wood composition material. This prevents the warping, splitting and denting that sometimes occurs when solid wood expands and contracts from humidity changes. A veneer is simply a thin layer of wood, chosen for beauty and character, then glued or bonded to another wood surface. It's not a poor substitute for solid wood or a synthetic material printed with a wood grain effect. In fact, bonding a veneer to another surface creates extra strength and allows for surface patterns or designs that would otherwise be impossible.
The History of Veneers
The art of veneering goes back to ancient Egypt. It was reclaimed by the master furniture makers of the 18th century who realized that sheets of expensive and exquisite woods such as mahogany, satinwood and rosewood could be glued to other surfaces to create beautiful and strong pieces of furniture.
During the Industrial Revolution, veneer lost some of its appeal as mass production led to shoddy manufacturing practices. Veneers were often low-grade woods, poorly applied to inferior materials. Understandably, such cheap veneers often warped or become detached, giving all veneering a bad reputation. However, for those willing to spend the time and effort required to do it right, veneering remained the preferred technique for achieving artistic and beautiful surfaces. This is still true - and not just for traditional or reproduction furniture. The simple lines of fine contemporary furniture also gain beauty and sophistication with veneers.
Utilizing veneers expands the design possibilities by allowing the use of the most beautifully grained and exotic woods. Especially prized veneers include burl, a highly figured grain coming from an outgrowth on several varieties of trees or crotch mahogany, which is cut just below the area where two major branches meet. Neither of these woods could be used to construct an entire piece of furniture, but each makes spectacular unique veneers.
Laser techniques provide outstanding quality control and precision in cutting veneers, allowing craftsmen to make ever more beautiful grain matches. Improved glues have eliminated problems that once made veneers separate from their surfaces, making them even less likely to crack or warp than solid woods. Despite such advances, veneering still requires great craftsmanship. Sophisticated inlays or marquetry involve several painstaking steps including matching and joining, gluing, sanding, polishing and finishing.
Sheets of veneer can be combined on larger surfaces to form interesting patterns by using the a variety of matching techniques:
- Book matching: sheets of veneer are placed side-by-side, like the pages of a book, creating a symmetrical pattern
- End matching: sheets are placed end-to-end to produce a continuous pattern
- Four-way match: a combination of book and end matching
- Slip matching: sheets are placed into side-by-side patterns to produce herringbone, diamond and checkered patterns.
If you're still a little wary of veneered furniture check out the 18th century master cabinetmakers like Chippendale and Hepplewhite. Their veneered furniture still graces museums and private collections and sets standards for fine design as we move into the 21st century.