Wood Veneers – More than Meets the Eye
Updated: Aug 22
This month’s blog is devoted to a product that has received a bad rap over the years – wood veneers. Many think that wood veneer finishes are a cheap alternative to solid wood furnishings, but nothing could be further from the truth. Veneers have a rich history dating back centuries. We carry on this tradition with the extensive use of wood veneers in the Leonardo – Tables by Design collections for good reason.
To understand the importance of wood veneers one has to first understand what a veneer is. In woodworking terms it is a thin cut of wood that is glued to both sides of a core surface (or substrate), most often furniture grade MDF (medium density fibreboard). The applied veneer seals and stabilizes the core material and eliminates any expansion and contraction problem that is commonly found in solid woods during temperature changes. This is why veneers have become essential in cabinetry and panelling where it is ideal for drawers and anything housing a mechanism where any warping or splitting would be detrimental.
The first recorded use of wood veneers dates back to the Egyptian pharaohs. The Egyptians were an industrious people and wood was a rare commodity, often imported from Syria, Lebanon and Phoenicia. They crafted tools to allow them to saw thin slices from their timber which maximised its use. Woods such as ebony was crafted into elaborate designs and used along with ivory inlays to adorn the tombs of rulers.
Image: Portable chest, from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, New Kingdom (cedar & ebony with ebony veneer and inlaid ivory) https://www.meisterdrucke.uk/
Blades replaced saws over the years as they eliminated the sawdust factor and increased the yield. It was the famous English designer Thomas Chippendale who truly popularised veneers in his outstanding furniture during the mid-1700s. He was a cabinet-maker in London, designing furniture in the mid-Georgian, English Rococo, and Neoclassical styles. In 1754 he published a book of his designs in a trade catalogue titled The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, which gave him renown and recognition.
Image: Exquisite inlay craftsmanship in this beautiful William & Mary Olive wood veneer cabinet. Attributed to Coulborn & Sons. Late 17C.
The popularity of ebony veneers in France saw these specialist veneer craftsmen being named ébénistes, a term now used for all woodworkers in the country. The first veneer cutting lathe was patented in the mid-1800s and was the inspiration behind today’s high-speed equivalents. With veneers being more obtainable their use gained popularity and the piano industry was the first North American industry to use plywood (also a veneer) as a key material.
The craft of cutting veneers is called millwork and, like all crafts, can be either well or poorly executed. An expert millworker will understand his material and make a veneer look seamless with perfect corners, a tell-tale area for imperfections. Considerations when choosing trees for veneers include the size, colouring, natural inclusions and growth rate. This gives the visual characteristic of the wood and dictates if it will be best used in doors and panelling, or detailed work and features such as inlays. Of the 90,000+ species of hardwood tree in the world only around 100 are used in the decorative veneer industry.
Image: A fine example of a Chippendale Sideboard
Many confuse veneers and laminates as the same thing and nothing could be further from the truth. Laminates are paper and plastic based material which is bonded under pressure with resins and applied to a substrate. It is regularly sold in ready-cut lengths and widths for use as shelving or counter tops. Some plastic laminates are printed with a wood grain finish which will wear and fade over time.
Although the production of wood veneer has become an industry over the years, the actual use of veneers has remained a craft. The bad reputation that veneers started to receive began in the 19th century when unscrupulous furniture manufacturers often used machine-made veneers to mask badly constructed furniture pieces made from cheap woods such as pine and poplar (matchwood). The advance in technology in the 1970s saw veneers becoming even thinner, some at a wafer-like 1/64th of an inch (0.15mm). Some of todays veneers are nearly transparent and the thickness of typing paper.
Image: The richness of wood at a fraction of the price. Leonardo Design's Piccadilly Coffee Table
Two major factors that must be taken into consideration when discussing wood veneers are cost and sustainability. Wood is an expensive material and when it comes to exotic hardwoods, the cost makes it prohibitive to use in all but specialist furnishings and fittings where price is not a consideration. However, veneers allow the average person to appreciate the beauty of natural wood without breaking the bank.
A good example that is that of Brazilian Rosewood, it is rare and extremely endangered but can be obtained at a price. To panel a room in this beautiful wood would be out of reach from all but the billionaire set. The same wood as a veneer would still be expensive but a fraction of the cost and, of course, more environmentally ethical than using its solid counterpart.
This brings us to the second factor, sustainability. Just as veneers were developed in ancient Egypt to conserve a scarce resource, centuries later the same consideration is at the forefront of furniture makers' considerations. The obvious advantage of veneers is the amount of useable material per tree which is crucial in our environmental and political climate. Many furniture manufacturers now specify the use of environmentally sustainable woods from renewable sources in response to clients’ modern expectations.
The use of MDF as a core material also has environmental advantages as it is manufactured from by-products of the timber industry. Just like veneers and laminates, MDF and chipboard (fibreboard) should not be confused with each other. In MDF fine wood powder is bonded with special agents and subjected to extreme pressure and a curing process. Chipboard comprises of wood particles and flakes that are bonded in a similar way, but due to the larger pieces of wood used, tends not to be as stable a substrate as furniture-grade MDF, and rots easily in damp conditions.
Solid wood and veneers both have pros and cons. Solid wood can be re-finished and sanded. However the furniture pieces tend to be heavy, costly, and prone to warping if exposed to extreme ranges in temperature. With veneers the craftsman has more control over the final look of the piece, being able to choose the best grains and markings. This is handy when trying to match a finish to existing furniture pieces. Because veneers are not prone to splitting or warping they can often outlast their solid wood counterparts. The downside is that veneers can’t be easily repaired if damaged.
Image: The Sandhurst Bedside Unit from Leonardo Designs
Nowadays you will find that most quality furniture uses a combination of both solid wood and wood veneers. This can be seen in our bedroom furnishings that combine the use of solid wood legs and bases with expertly veneered cabinetry. We treat all of our veneer finishes with Jax Wax, a specially formulated product for high-end furniture manufacturing, and a polyurethane coating that ensures that the inevitable spill can be easily cleaned with a damp cloth with no fear of marking.
We hope that you found this look behind one of the more technical aspects of our industry interesting and have a better understanding of the importance of veneers in creating our stunning ranges. View the entire collection on our website where you can also download out latest product brochure.
Wishing you all a stylish month - Frank
The monthly Leonardo Design blog posts are compiled and written by Andrew Knapp of The Design Train. All images are the property of Leonardo Design.