Solid wood vs. veneer: why veneer is simply better
I belong to a number of online woodworking groups. One of them is about working in a small shop. Recently, a member posted about their dislike for plywood and veneer.
“I’m a beginner woodworker and refuse to build furniture out of plywood and veneer, except for drawer parts. I’d rather work with SPF (spruce, pine and fir construction grade lumber). Am I missing something? I think furniture made out of fake wood is just fake furniture.”
This is a common sentiment among woodworkers of many skill levels, but especially with beginner woodworkers. The thought that using anything other than solid wood in a project will somehow create a fake, or less true, project is understandable, but only if you don’t know the benefits of using plywood and veneer.
The cons of using solid wood
Before telling you how much I like veneer, let’s quickly go over the shortcomings of solid wood. As much as I love solid wood, it has a number of downsides, the main one being that it moves with the seasons. Increased humidity in the air means solid wood expands, only to shrink once the dryer months arrive. This causes internal stresses within a piece of furniture if it isn’t engineered properly. As an aside, this is why doors are made with frames and panels. The outer frame stays essentially the same size year-round, while grooves in the inner edge of the frame allow the floating panel to fit into the frame and freely expand and contract with the changes in humidity.
I’m sure some of you are thinking of that one solid wood frame and panel door you have that sticks in the summer and is fine in the winter. If the two side frame members were made a bit narrower, there would be less movement in that door and it likely wouldn’t stick at all. Another reason is that the wood that makes up your house may have expanded slightly, causing the door to stick.
Okay, back to the drawbacks of solid wood. Aside from the fact that it moves with the seasons, another drawback is expense. Purchasing enough solid ebony to make a project is going to cost a whole lot more than purchasing enough veneer and plywood to complete the same project, even after you account for the fact that you will likely still purchase some solid ebony to be able to build the project. This is true for most wood species and in most situations.
The third drawback of solid wood is sustainability. Using solid wood for all furniture components would mean more wood would be needed and more forests destroyed. This is especially true when using figured or exotic woods. Using a 1-1/2″ thick slab of curly maple for a door will use up a lot of this gorgeous material. And since it’s only the two outer faces you see, the argument could be made that the vast majority of it was wasted.
Yet another drawback is the fact that solid wood, even when it’s all of the same species, and even when all the boards you’re using are from the same tree, is not uniform in colour or grain. I’ll admit, this drawback is subjective. While I might want a more uniform colour and grain across a piece I’m making, you may not, and that’s perfectly fine. Most commercial projects prefer a more uniform look, though every project is different.
The pros of using veneer
To me, veneer is a wonderful material to use, opening up all sorts of doors. Simply put, it counteracts all the cons of solid wood. It doesn’t shrink and swell like solid wood, it’s cheaper to purchase, it’s much more sustainable, and you can purchase veneer in “flitches,” which allows you to create a uniform look. A flitch is a stack of veneer that’s been put back together to mimic how it grew on a tree. As it’s sliced, it’s stacked with one piece on top of the next so the end user can use multiple pieces of veneer that look almost identical.
And when you get into the artistic side of things, some furniture made with veneer simply couldn’t be made with solid wood. I’m thinking of curved laminations or other highly artistic or complex workpieces or projects.
Speaking about the man-made boards that veneers are adhered to, there are advantages to these, too. In order to obtain the raw materials to create these boards, species of lesser quality and beauty, woods that grow faster, and waste products from other wood manufacturing are used. Using veneers is just a more efficient and effective approach overall.
All this doesn’t mean veneer is without its challenges. Machines or techniques to cut a straight edge on veneer so it can be joined to another piece of veneer are required. Then, once the straight edges are cut, the pieces of veneer need to be joined together so they can be pressed. Speaking of pressing, dedicated machines are needed to press veneer onto plywood, MDF or particleboard panels. All of these challenges are easily overcome in a production setting with dedicated machines, but even in a small shop setting these challenges can be dealt with. Shop-made trimming jigs will leave a clean edge on domestic, exotic and figured veneers. And whether you’re using the cauls and clamps method of pressing veneer onto sheet goods, or you’re using a vacuum press, both techniques are approachable in a small shop setting.
I’m not saying solid wood is useless and should never be used. Nor am I saying veneer should cover every visible surface of the next project you make. There’s a time and a place for both.
Most of the best pieces of furniture in the world are made using veneers. And Egyptian furniture makers used veneer for thousands of years, and some of those pieces are still around today. Veneer is just another tool we have in our toolbox. If we understand when and how to use it, the furniture we make will be longer lasting and more beautiful. The fact that it will be cheaper to produce and more sustainable is also a huge bonus.