The Fear of Veneer

Is our fear of veneer really substantiated? Many of us do not realise that our furniture is indeed veneered although it may have been sold to us generically termed as oak, teak, mahogany, walnut etc. This is not I believe a deliberate intention to deceive on the seller’s behalf, more so an ignorance possibly on both the seller or buyer.
The term veneer is unfortunate as it can mean to gloss over or to cover up, yet the practice of veneering dates from before the time of the Pharaohs and it is not as some people mistakenly imagine, a cheap method of masking poor workmanship and/or materials.

There are several reasons to veneer and maybe by addressing these an understanding of why this technique is employed:-
(a) A more balanced construction is achieved free from the inevitable splitting, checking and warping of most solid wood.
(b) The availability and cost of rare and highly decorative timbers is vastly extended by using them in sheet form.
(c) Decorative effects can be achieved from the duplication of identical grain configurations to form matched panels and patterns which would prove extremely difficult or impossible with solid timber.
(d) Certain rare and costly burrs, burls, and abnormal grain effects have very little structural strength and therefore would split, buckle or distort if used in any appreciable thickness.
The ecological benefits however speak for themselves as fast growing or recycled substrates for the veneered pieces can be employed therefore not wasting unnecessarily solid timber which on many occasions adds nothing to the overall aesthetics.
The disadvantages are of course that veneered work can chip and the edges can lift which may result in an inherent fragility to surfaces during everyday use. Neverthless this can be overcome with the use of relatively modern surface finishes alongside highly developed and technically advanced lacquers providing hard wearing finishes for modern use. Failing this all is not lost, as most furniture can be repaired and restored effectively.

A subjective history……

More than 4000 years ago the Egyptians discovered how to use highly desirable materials economically because wood in hot desert regions was both rare and valuable they sawed tree trunks into the thinnest boards possible.
Box with very fine inlay of ebony and ivory Tutankhamun’s tomb. Valley of the Kings, Egypt. 18th dinasty (New Kingdom), 1332-1323 B.C.

In the later classical Graeco-Roman period, between 500 BC – 500 AD, the Greeks and Etruscans brought the craft of veneering to a high state of development. The Romans invented the bow saw which enabled them to cut much thinner veneers but after the collapse of the Roman Empire when Europe was plunged into the dark ages the knowledge was kept alive in isolated monastic orders such as the Carthusian, Cistercian, and Benedictine.
Bucksaw and crosscut saw from an altar in the Capitoline Museums, Rome;

in Italy the craft of veneering was kept alive during the Renaissance in the thriving art centres of Florence and Venice.An Italian Renaissance parcel-gilt walnut credenza 16th Century and later, Tuscan.

The Mohammedan Moors during their prolonged occupation of the Spanish peninsula from the 8th Century until their expulsion by Philip II in 1607 firmly imprinted their style of geometric mosaico de madera. The fusion of Christian and Moorish art is known as the Mudejar and to this day Hispano-Mauresque styles are still a feature of Spanish veneered cabinetwork. A 16th Century Hispano-Moresque Mudéjar Box.

Around 1562 the fretsaw was invented in Germany this permitted the interchange of two contrasting veneers cut simultaneously and brought veneering and marquetry into popularity.

In 1560 George Renner founded in Augsburg, the first veneer mill driven by water power to produce veneers in 1/8 of an inch (3mm) thickness which stimulated the importation of the exotic hardwoods from all over the world.

During the realm of James I of England and VI of Scotland 1603 – 25 furniture was lavishly decorated with veneers of walnut and ebony ornamented with a marquetry of fine veneers.

The rectinilear lines of the William and Mary period gave way to the graceful curving lines of the Queen Anne style. Furniture of stylish simplicity was veneered in matched leaves of walnut.
Queen Anne dressing table with cabriole legs. Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1730-1750

The severe winter of 1709 saw most of the walnut forests on the continent destroyed and cabinet makers turned to the new imported red mahogany. Matched figured mahogany was laid over pine groundwork and striped mahogany was used with herringbone veneer bandings and boxwood lines.

Someone whose name is synonymous with the very best in furniture used veneer extensively in his work; Thomas Chippendale (1718 – 79) was the son of a cabinetmaker and woodcarver from Worcester. Arriving in London in 1737 he opened his own shop in 1749 moving in 1753 to No 60 St Martins Lane where he remained for the rest of his life.

He was the first to introduce mahogany plywood when he found that solid mahogany had severe limitations when used on cabinets with delicately pierced or fretted galleries, slender curving traceries and glazing bars.

Mahogany’s crossgrained weaknesses prevented delicate styling and to overcome this he laminated three layers of mahogany to form a strong plywood which could be worked without breakage and also to form shaped plywood panels.
Thomas Chippendale mahogany pedestal cupboard 1765

(The earliest known use of plywood was found in an Egyptian sarcophagus of Dynasty III (2700 BC) in which six layers of thin veneers were laminated in alternate grain directions. The woods used cypress, pine, juniper and sidder were held together with pegs and glue).

The Adam style (Robert Adam 1728 – 92) developed from the French L’antique style. Classic contours, lightness, elegance and the delicacy of ornament were the inspiration and dominating influence in the remaining years of the 18th century. Adam was truly responsible for bringing the craft of veneering back into popularity. An Adam marquetry veneered commode. Circa: 1780 Material: rosewood–Commodes-An-Adam-marquetry-veneered-commode

There grew a shift towards handmade oak furniture and also a new style of Gothic oak furniture in the arts and crafts style following the firm of William Morris (1834 – 96).

Many new designers emerged toward the end of the Victorian era; the firm of Morris, Bruce Talbert, C.L. Eastlake, Philip Webb, T.E. Collcutt, W.R. Letheby, Ernest Grimson, C.F.A. Voysey, C.R. Mackintosh and Ambrose Heal were among many eminent furniture makers using veneers in their work particularly for inlays and design motifs in oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood furniture.

Between the two world wars from 1922 – 1940 veneering and plywood furniture manufacture developed in countries all over the world.

Architects specified veneered wall panels for shopfitting, restaurants, offices, banks, insurance companies and public buildings. The demand for veneered panels was huge for the railways and most carriages were decorated with veneers. Marine architects specified almost exclusively veneered panelling for shipbuilding and most of the cabins, public function rooms and staterooms on luxury liners were decorated in that manner.

Luxury cars were provided with walnut burr facias and cappings and plywood was used to form constructional veneers producing thin shaped panels for aircraft.

In the first half of the 20th century almost all domestic furniture including the early wireless and gramophone cabinets were of veneered construction chiefly in oak, walnut and mahogany. Murphy 146 designed by Gordon Russell c.1935.

In 1806 Marc Isambard Brunel patented the first veneer peeling machine making possible the production of constructional veneers, for plywood manufacture, and in 1818 Henry Faveryear patented the first veneer slicer to produce decorative veneers.

Before this all veneers had been saw cut and at last the craft of veneering was freed from the limitations imposed by sawing and all the techniques of cutting through logs in various ways to extract the best figure could be employed.
above; Illustration of an early method of cutting veneer followed by an illustration of a mechanized method of cutting veneer in 1806 when Marc Isambard Brunel received a British patent for the manufacture of the planer with manual transmission.

Post war years saw a mini revolt against the plastics age and a technique was evolved of printing exotic wood grains such as rosewood upon plain veneers. The panels would have the appearance of rosewood and the feel of real wood. Living rooms and dining rooms would have more modern furniture in completely matching suites in teak and walnut veneers then in any other style or type of finish.

In the commercial field almost all office blocks and public buildings utilised veneered wall panelling and flush door panels; office furniture often reflected the trend and combined metal framework, usually ebonised with veneered chipboard panels.
Waterfall Bedroom Set 1930-40 L.A.Period Furniture Co. Los Angeles.

Since the decline in the public’s preference to furnish their homes using what is now commonly termed as ‘brown’ furniture (generally the heavier and darker furniture of the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and later periods), there has been an increased appreciation and desire for the lighter, sleeker and minimal lines of what we now term as mid-century, vintage or retro. These pieces assume a distinct taste that fits in with our contemporary lifestyle at the moment but who knows or can predict what may be the next trend.

The most sort after examples are Danish, although they prove to be very expensive and not within most people’s budget there is however many excellent examples of this style less costly that exists within our own British manufacturers of the same period.Circa 1960 Danish rosewood sideboard.

Circa 1960 Mid-Century Teak Sideboard by Elliots of Newbury, UK.

In writing this I hope I have given the public a little insight and awareness of the virtues of real wood veneers and maybe the possibility to be more appreciative of the skills involved in the production of veneered furniture.

Elzbieta Lepa
The Complete Manual of Wood Veneering; William A. Lincoln.
The Technique of Furniture Making; Ernest Joyce revised by Alan Peters.

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