History of Veneers
The Egyptians were the first people known to have used veneers. Wood was scarce in the desert climate and therefore highly valued. In an effort to extend the use of available woods, they developed tools to saw thin slices from logs to arrange into delicate surface patterns. Examples of ebony and ivory veneers were revealed in shrines from the tomb of King Tut. Later, during the Renaissance, detailed designs using a variety of exotic wood veneers formed intricate marquetry scenes and intarsia work. In the 19th century, thin slices of expensive woods such as mahogany and walnut were glued to less expensive wood varieties such as maple or ash in an effort to conserve resources and control price. In the 20th century, veneer production moved from being a handcrafting technique to becoming mechanized. Thinner and thinner veneers were possible; however, their fragility increased.
Real or Veneer
Real wood refers to furniture whose exterior surfaces are constructed of solid wood planks, with veneers used on the backs, shelves and drawer interiors. Solid wood takes a finish nicely; it wears well, can be refinished, and will last for generations. Veneers are thin slices of real wood glued to a substrate that is either solid wood, plywood, particle board or masonite. The quality of a veneer is determined by the quality of the substrate and by the the rarity and beauty of the natural pattern of the wood from which the veneer is cut. A heavier piece of furniture usually indicates solid wood or plywood construction and a better quality. Veneered pieces are generally more stable and less likely to warp; however, real or solid wood is often more attractive and can be easily refinished. Veneers use the natural grain patterns of wood to create beautiful surface patterns on furniture, sometimes with intricate details.
Hard and Soft
Real wood consists of both hardwoods and softwoods. Softwoods come from coniferous trees such as pine, spruce and cedar, while hardwoods come from slow-growing deciduous trees that thrive in colder climates. Softwoods are less expensive than hardwoods because they are more plentiful and grow quickly. While not as durable as hardwoods, they are superior to particle board and chipboard in furniture construction. Typical North American hardwoods are maple, oak, walnut, mahogany, cherry and hickory. These hardwoods will produce high-quality, durable furniture. Hardwoods also may be used to produce fine veneers.
Typical Veneer Substrates
Real wood is the most attractive substrate for veneers, although it may not be as stable as plywood. Plywood, consisting of thin laminates of wood glued in layers at right angles to each other to create strength and stability, is the best alternative to real wood as a base for veneering. The best plywood for furniture construction has at least nine layers. Medium density fiberboard -- MDF -- is made from powdered wood bonded with glue and pressed into sheets. Because it is soft, it is easy to sand and finish, making it an inexpensive and popular base for thin veneers. Chipboard is similar to MDF, but it is formed from wood chips and is often covered with a thin layer of laminate.
Making a Decision
Buying furniture can be an investment in a long-term relationship. However, if there are budget constraints, plenty of good furniture is available that will work well right now. According to one designer, better furniture will cost more and last 10 to 15 years, while the finest furniture will be even more expensive but will last a lifetime. A decision to buy the best quality you can afford, one piece at a time, is a good long-term approach. Understanding the factors that affect quality is essential to making a sensible purchase.