Let’s start with what wood veneer isn’t. A lot of people think wood veneer is cheap or low quality, and this simply isn’t the case. This general opinion has come about because you often see veneers that look cheap, but in most cases what you’re looking at is usually laminate and not wood at all.
Of course, wood veneers themselves do range in quality, depending on the expertise of the woodworker. Someone with the right skills, knowledge, and experience will make wood veneers look seamless – and this doesn’t come cheaply.
A Brief History of Wood Veneer
The art of wood veneering dates back to ancient Egyptian times. We have evidence from sarcophagi that wood veneer is around 4,000 years old – some of the furniture from King Tut’s tomb is wood veneered, for example. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also practical. With a limited number of forests in Egypt, ancient Egyptian woodworkers sawed thin slices from the logs they had to make them go further.
Hand-sawing wood into thin slices was how wood veneer was made for centuries, right up to the 1800s when machines were invented that could cut wood into uniform slices.
Wood Veneer 101
Wood veneer is thin slices of wood that are usually glued to flat panels such as doors, cabinets, and walls. Today’s standard veneer thickness is 1/52”. Applying wood veneer means you can use a less available wood, which may be harder to get or more expensive, and veneer it over the top of something that’s more readily available and less expensive.
Advantages of Using Wood Veneer
Using wood veneer provides many advantages to woodworkers, architects, and their clients alike. Wood veneer is:
- Stable – solid wood is much more reactive than wood veneer because wood is hygroscopic – it takes on and gives off moisture so it expands and contracts – depending on the environment and humidity in a given space. Wood veneer is mounted on a substrate such as industrial-grade particleboard or medium density fiberboard with a glue line, and this makes it much more stable. It still expands and contracts but not as dramatically as solid wood, so it’s less likely to warp and split with the changing seasons or environment
- Environmentally friendly – when solid wood is sawn, you get a lot of waste in the form of sawdust. As wood veneer is sliced rather than sawn, no wood is wasted
- Aesthetically flexible – there are many looks you can achieve with veneer, such as grain matching, sequence matching, and end-to-end matching, that you could never achieve with solid wood
How to Specify Architectural Wood Veneer
Many architectural woodworking projects which require wood veneer are purely functional and therefore don’t need complex specifications. However, if a project requires decorative elements it can get very complex very quickly, even if the final appearance is simple and elegant.
It’s important for architects to provide detailed wood veneer specifications otherwise panels may not match, sequence matched veneer panels may not be consistent and the resulting fixes can be time-consuming and costly. This is especially important for those projects which specify rigorous sequencing of veneer over large areas, such as in wall paneling.
Specifying a project according to the AWI recognized industry standards can serve as a safety net, as it provides rules for woodworkers to follow in lieu of any particular veneering detail which may have been missed in the specifications.
What to Look for in Wood Veneer Specifications
Unlike most interior finishes, wood veneer has an inherent originality that cannot simply be specified with a product number and color. Proper details must be written into the specification to ensure control of the final appearance.
Knowing the average raw material dimensions can help guide design decisions:
- Maximum raw veneer length available is 17 feet
- Most common lengths are 10-12 feet
- Most veneer presses are maximum 10 feet
- Most particle board is 8 to 10 feet
- Most plywood is 8 feet
Therefore, most panel design decisions are made using 8 to 10 feet lengths.
The appearance of veneer is intensified by the protective finish of the surface, which can consist of
various clear coating materials. Variations of finish can affect the look by altering the way light is
absorbed or reflected on the finished product. These are the basic options, but architects and woodworkers should co-consult to finetune the finish specification:
- Stained veneer vs. uncolored veneer
- Open pore vs. filled pore (visible grain texture)
- Satin finish vs. gloss finish
A final word of warning: composite, or artificial wood, veneer isn’t meant to be a substitute for natural wood veneer. It is compressed blocks of dyed wood veneer and glue which forms “grain lines”. They are a less expensive alternative which can be used for some projects.
You’ll find a lot of information about wood veneer specifications in AWI’s 300 section of the standards.