Why is Real Wood Veneer Used on High End Furniture?

Veneer – for many it is a byword for cheap and nasty. Don’t believe them. There are a lot of excellent reasons wood veneer is used on high-end furniture. Even Thomas Chippendale, up there along the most famous furniture makers of all time, used veneer when it suited him.

The reasons for using veneer are many and varied. It may be practicality or possibly for artistic reasons – most likely a mixture of both. It has, however, a long tradition as a reputable finish. If you look after it properly will be problem free.

What is Veneer

It is basically a layer of wood sliced thinly and glued to the frame of an item of furniture like the Stellar Works Blink Console. The way the original log is sliced affects how the veneer looks and the best way to use it. A lot will depend on whether the aim is to stabilise the underlying frame, enhance the appearance, or both.

Why Use Veneer?

Wood veneer is used on high-end furniture for a number of reasons. Here are a few of the main ones.

Top of the list is that veneer is used to keep wood stable on something like the Menu Androgyne Round Dining Table. Wood is a natural product that needs to retain a certain amount of water to keep its shape. There is a danger that even kiln dried wood will warp when conditions and atmospheric moisture change. If conditions get too dry, it shrinks; too wet, it swells. Neither is good for keeping a piece of furniture both stable and looking fresh.

The problem is that wood does not move evenly when it changes shape. To complicate things even more, the damage will depend on which way the fibres lie. That, in turn, depends on technical details like the exact cut taken. 

The three main cuts are: flat sawn (also known as plain sawn), quarter sawn and rift sawn. The first is the most common and uses the tree most efficiently but is also the least resistant to water. The middle is usually the most attractive and a bit more resistant but is also wasteful. The third wastes most wood and is the most resistant but can look boring.

The changes are never uniform. The fibres swell and shrink sideways, there is significantly less of swelling along the length of the fibres.The fibres, however, go in different directions in different pars of the piece of furniture. Uneven changes in the structure can pull joints apart and, in extreme circumstances, split the wood. 

Why Veneer?

That’s where veneer comes in. You take that thin layer of wood and glue it onto the surface below. This gives it some protection from moisture and helps to keep the underlying structure stable since it holds everything in place. It prevents the item it is stuck to from splitting or moving.

If you are buying proper, high quality veneer, it comes with a lot of guarantees and a lot of advantages. You might ask “why is wood veneer so expensive?”. One reason is that so few trees are good enough. The manufacturers do the rounds and pick out the most uniform ones with the best colour. They will rule out any with streaks, stains or significant defects like badly placed knotholes. 

The result is a surface that looks superb. It also adds to the item’s structural integrity. You can also mould veneer to odd shapes as Japanese designer Shin Azumi did when creating the Case Furniture Loku Chair With Tubular-Base with its light shell and tight curves.

You pretty much have to go with veneer if you need the grain to be arranged artistically or a finish where the patterns are matched or repeated.

Looking After the Environment

Being cut thin means the wood veneer on a high-end furniture piece like the Menu Turning Table is highly efficient in the way the tree is used. A single cubic metre of timber can produce 900 square metres of veneer. There is hardly any waste.

That also means it is environmentally responsible to take veneer from rare or endangered wood species such as macassar, ebony or rosewood because. It makes use of trees that have to come down anyway and encourages people to keep planting them. Veneer is often to mimic rare woods while still using sustainable varieties such as ayous or poplar. In Europe, a lot of furniture has acacia veneer, which has the advantage of both being sustainable and coming in a wide variety of colours and patterns. 

Whichever you choose, it gives you all the advantages of a high-end finish without having to worry about damage to the planet.

Why the bad press?

Veneer has a long history of use in high-end furniture. The bad reputation really only starts during and immediately after World War II. The problem was that good timber was hard to get and expensive so manufacturers were looking for ways to hide cheaper alternatives to real wood.

When we say cheaper alternatives, the emphasis really was on “cheap”. Often the frame was chipboard and that was not the worst of it. Inferior glue made the chipboard fall apart. The result was that the veneer was hiding a piece of furniture that was never going to last.

Then came the 1970s and a drive to cut costs even further. You no longer had any guarantees. Sometimes, cheap materials were used for the veneer itself. Cut-price laminates or paper foil can be printed to look like wood but do not have the strength of the real thing. Something that was already acquiring a bad reputation saw its standing plunge further.

Superior materials are used for modern laminates. They can be as solid and reliable as real wood. There are still plenty of cheap imitations out there, though.

Disadvantages of Veneer

That is not to say wood veneer is suitable for all items of furniture. It is thin, which makes it easy to damage it. You also need to factor in the glue — over time, it may start to lose a little of its strength, causing blistering or loose bits round the edges. It is less resistant to wear and tear, so really not suitable for items of furniture likely to face a lot of abuse.

If things do go wrong, it is harder to fix. The patterns and grain that makes it so attractive to start off with are almost impossible to replicate. That makes any patches pretty obvious.

Being as thin as it is, you cannot use sandpaper or any of the harsher techniques to clean off any stains or water marks without causing irreparable damage. 

Veneer Versus Solid Wood

There is a lot of wear and tear involved with furniture. If you can protect it, then you still have the choice. Veneer has advantages, but it is not as strong. Your dining or kitchen table is in daily use so if you want to keep the surface on show, veneer is only inviting trouble. Dropped cutlery and plates would almost certainly chip bits off; hot plates might melt the glue and cause blistering. 

Remember that as long as you don’t cut the fibres, there is a good chance you can repair most day-to-day damage to solid wood quickly and easily. It is incredibly resilient stuff. If you must sand it right back and reapply the finish, you have not done any permanent harm.

Veneer comes into its own in the more delicate pieces of furniture like the Stellar Works Dowry Cabinet or the less exposed sections of a more solid items. The layers of extra wood bond the parts together, meaning the joints don’t have to be so solid. High-end furniture makers will also match the pieces of veneer to form patterns and turn the item of furniture into a work of art.

Veneer Cuts

Like solid lumber, there are many different ways to cut veneer. You can simply lay the log flat and take slices from the top. You go along the grain and miss out own the growth rings in the appearance but it is the simplest technique and after a while you start to get good, wide slices. The quarter cut comes next. The tree is cut lengthways into quarters, then sliced. The rings show and add to the appearance on this cut.

For a rotary cut, mount the log and spin it against a blade to get one long slice going in towards the centre. The rotary setup is also used for the rift slice, but the wood is quartered first. The advantage is that it is easy to make every piece the same size. They are efficient ways of using the wood but it they make it tougher to match the patterns — rotary is harder than rift.

Adjusting the look

The most common patterns come when the veneer is laid in slices as you can see on the Stellar Works Lunar Square Coffee Table. Different techniques achieve different effects. Take some examples: the “book slice” method reverses alternating strips so the pairs look like pages in a book. “Slip match” means laying them in a sequence to create a pattern. Random match means laying the strips higgledy-piggeldy so the pattern looks more casual or chaotic.

How to Clean Wood Veneer

Regular cleaning is just as it would be for any bit of furniture. Just take a length of lint-free cloth to dust the surface. It is reasonably delicate, so it is best to go with the grain if possible and don’t apply too much pressure. If things start to stick, go onto the next stage.

You must clear up any spills of food or drink. Use a soft, damp — not soaking wet — cloth. Add a little detergent or white wine vinegar to the water to help clean and disinfect the stain. Again, wipe with the grain. Keep going until the stain is gone; don’t force things.

Every so often, you will want to polish the veneer. Try to avoid wax or silicone polishes, which can create a cloudy appearance or a white residue over the years. The big, big “no, no” is anything scratchy or abrasive, which will remove the veneer completely, or ammonia-based cleaners which will remove the finish.

Looking After Wood Veneer on High-End Furniture

For minor scratches or marks, a little high-quality furniture polish on the freshly cleaned surface will usually be enough to restore it to its gleaming freshness. The warning about wax or silicone still applies but there are plenty of alternatives on the market. Use a soft cloth and wipe with the grain until the scratch has gone.
If the dents are a bit deeper, they may take a bit more restoration. There are plenty of repair kits on the market that will allow you to hide the damage. The instructions come with the kit and vary depending on what sort you opt for.

Day-to-Day Care of Wood Veneer on High-End Furniture

A good wood veneer on high-end furniture comes with all the strengths and weaknesses of real wood. The strengths are obvious but to cope with the weakness be careful of sunlight, heat and moisture, which are wood’s three main enemies.

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The Sun and Wood Veneer on High-End Furniture

Just exposure to ultraviolet light is bad for your skin, it is also bad for real wood. Long periods to direct sunlight make the wood fade and lose its classy appearance. The remedy is simple — keep it out of direct sunlight. The easy way is simply to keep it in a more shaded part of the room, easy enough for something like the Case Furniture Valentine Bed. Elsewhere blinds, curtains, or a cloth on the table are all options. If none of those is possible, you can buy the equivalent of sunblock, an ultraviolet resistant finish. As with sunburn, this only delays the inevitable so prevention is still the best solution.

Water and Wood Veneer on High-End Furniture

Wood needs some water to hold its shape but too much will warp it. The water can also seep through the wood and weaken the glue that is holding the veneer in place. This would lead to lifting around the edges or blistering in the middle if left too long.

Fortunately, it is easy to keep it looking good. Dry the spills quickly. Use something like a paper towel or a dry tea towel that will absorb the water. Something like a sponge will only spread the water around, though. Dab gently at the surface until the liquid has gone. If necessary, a quick clean and polish will restore it.

Heat and Wood Veneer on High-End Furniture

Heat is often the main threat, though that depends on what the veneer is used on. Moisture from something hot, as with hot plates or cups, adds to the danger. The heat will weaken the glue holding the veneer in place and eventually it will start to come off. 

You are probably looking at a professional repair job once the damage is there. Luckily it is incredibly easy to stop it happening in the first place. 

When it comes to wood veneer used on high-end furniture, coasters, place mats and tablecloths all protect the surface on a dining table, sideboard, console or side table. Make sure these protections are used even when there are children around. You may need to reinforce the message from time to time, but it is worth it to keep your furniture looking its best.

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