Over the years, veneer has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. You can find examples of old furniture with cracked and/or peeling veneer, which has led many to believe that it is not a good choice for furniture, especially heirloom quality pieces. We would like to put your fears to rest. But first, an explanation as to why grandma’s veneer peeled and yours will not.
For thousands of years, until the early 1980s, the dominant glue used in furniture-making was a product called hide glue. Makers would apply glue to the wood surface, press the veneer to the glue, and voilà a beautifully veneered piece was created. What happens over a few decades is that the hide glue dries out and becomes brittle. When brittle, bumping an old veneered table top or face of a door causes the dried out glue to (in essence) shatter, which weakens the glue’s adhesive properties, making the veneer prone to peeling and chipping. Water, including humidity, can also mix with the dried glue, making the glue pliable once more. That may seem like a good thing, but this pliability also weakens the glue’s adhesive properties, again, allowing the veneer to bubble, crack, and peel.
Advances in glue technology (yes, there’s tech in glue!) have radically changed the use of veneer. When designed properly, a veneered piece is just as well-crafted and durable as a solid wood piece, if not more so. Why? Glad you asked.
First, any time you want to create a pattern, for example, see the grain running in different directions within a wine cabinet door, you must use veneer. If you created a door by gluing together pieces of solid wood with the grain running in different directions, the joints (places where two different grains of wood meet) would break over time as the solid wood expands and contracts. Remember the bit above about hide glue? Modern wood glue never completely hardens. This means that it allows the wood to expand and contract. That’s a good thing when bonding pieces of wood in which the grain is running the same direction. However, when the grain runs in opposite directions, the wood expands and contracts in different directions, eventually overstressing the adhesive properties of the glue, causing the glue to fail.
Third, modern veneer glue is so much stronger than hide glue. Remember those advances in technology we mentioned above? They have made all the difference in the world when it comes to the longevity of new veneer. The modern glue forms a different type of bond between the plywood and the veneer. This chemical bond is much more stable and enduring than the hide glue adhesion.
Last but certainly not least, we encourage the use of veneer because is inherently a better use of the material (wood). In other words, veneer is a more sustainable option than solid wood. Instead of using a ¾ inch thick piece of mahogany to create a cabinet door or a coffee table top, you can apply a 1/32 inch piece of mahogany veneer atop a hardwood plywood substrate that is either GREENGUARD or FSC compliant. High quality plywood (what we use) is composed of fast-growing hardwoods, like poplar, that are managed for sustainability. Our company conservation ethic holds sustainability as a core principle. While we love working with sustainably harvested woods of all kinds, we also see veneered plywood as a sustainable option for custom furniture.
We hope that this post has given you some good food for thought when it comes to furniture design. Again, we love working with solid hardwood and often do. Our goal here is simply to educate our clients (and others) about the available options in our industry today. Thank you for taking the time to enjoy our blog. We wish you and yours all the best in 2019. May your year be full of unexpected blessings and bountiful surprises!