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14/04/2016

Understanding Materials Part I: Solid Wood and Timber Veneer

Different materials have been regarded as more or less valuable throughout history – often relating to how rare or readily available they are, and how costly or labour intensive they are to process or transport.

But changing fashions also play a key role; what is fashionable can be completely removed from the practical side of supply and production, yet nonetheless inform people’s choices and perceptions just as much in determining what is worth more.

When buying or commissioning a piece of furniture, the question as to whether it is made with solid or veneered timber is often one of the first things people ask. Both types of materials and techniques for making have been in use for centuries, but with the modern assumption that solid timber furniture is superior many people might be surprised to discover that veneered furniture was generally valued more highly historically, and seen as more of a luxury.

So which is ‘better’?

Contrary to popular belief in the present day that solid timber furniture is higher quality, and the historical view of veneered furniture as more desirable, neither material can be seen as preferable for construction in itself. Often a combination of the two materials will be most suitable.

Why?

Both choices of materials have advantages and disadvantages – in terms of practicality, functionality and longevity as well as appearance. Several different factors need to be considered to decide what will work best in the interior environment the piece of furniture will be placed in, and what is required from the piece in the longer term.

What needs to be considered?

  • How much, and what type of use/wear will it be subject to (for example a kitchen table will get much more wear than a dining table that only gets used on special occasions!)
  • What the piece will look like in terms of design/construction
  • What type of wood, grain, colour and surface finish it will have
  • Is it being purchased more as an investment or to be used
  • The heating and humidity of the room the piece will be going into

Solid Timber

Furniture made with solid timber has a reputation as being sturdier, stronger and lasting longer. Traditionally it was used for more simple rustic pieces, fitted joinery, or statement pieces with elaborate carving. It is associated with traditional construction methods such as dovetail joints, and there are many finishes such as liming, staining, waxing, ebonising and polishing which can be applied. Up until the 20th century most houses did not have central heating, but in the modern day when almost everyone lives in centrally heated houses using only solid timber is not always a better choice. This is because wood expands or contracts with changes to heat and humidity, so if the piece is not made properly there is a chance of it ‘moving’. Regulations on forestry mean that trees are often harvested younger, so the grain is less tight and can be more susceptible to atmospheric change. Different types of woods, and different ways of cutting it also affect how it will respond to relative humidity – for example quarter sawn wood moves less than flat sawn, and cedar will move less than oak. So it is very important that you maker knows exactly what they are doing when it comes to selecting the timber to be used, the design of the piece and the best techniques for construction, which will ensure that the piece remains stable and can last for decades or even centuries.

So for a finely crafted piece of furniture for a modern house it is not necessary to use only solid timber to ensure it will be stronger or last longer. To restore surface damage it can be seen as preferable as unlike with veneer the surface can be sanded down more effectively. The suitability of using solid timber largely depends on the design of the piece itself. This is something to consider from the beginning of the commissioning process, and the Rupert Bevan team are happy to advise on the best way meet your requirements and the most appropriate materials to use.

Veneered Timber

Use of veneers is not a modern phenomenon. Their use actually dates all the way back to ancient Egypt, then they were later used in Roman times! Many highly valued antiquities are made with veneers of precious and rare timbers; beautiful burr woods and marquetry inlays. The finest specimens of timber from all around the world are sourced by veneer companies, as there is greater potential for appreciation of exceptional grain and character in the wood when it is turned into veneer – each log can be used on many more pieces of furniture, dividing up the value of the precious timber to make it more accessible to makers.  Techniques such as ‘book-matching’ to create a symmetrical mirrored effect with the grain are associated with veneers, and there are even more options for the colour, tone and texture of the surface finish due to the greater variety of veneers readily available than solid wood, which can be harder to source to exact specification.

Because of the artistic potential, veneered furniture was historically viewed as a luxury, not a cheaper alternative. It is only since the later part of the 20th C that it became regarded as inferior to solid wood. This was due to the mass production of cheap veneered furniture which used poor quality substrates and careless machine manufacturing, and gave it a bad name – often the veneer would separate or deteriorate, revealing an ugly substrate underneath. However when a skilled cabinet maker or joiner uses veneers along with other materials of consistently high quality, providing it is looked after by the owners the piece of furniture will have as much chance of lasting as long as a solid timber piece and could well become an antique of the future. While it will not withstand as much heavy surface wear and damage as solid timber, for a finer more decorative piece it can be a more suitable choice.

Using a Combination of Solid and Veneered Timbers

This is often the best choice for construction, as it allows both materials to be used to their potential most effectively for both appearance and functionality. Many modern cabinet makers take a pragmatic approach and use a combination of solid and veneered timber. They select the most appropriate technique to use depending on what is most suitable for the design and use of the piece.

The designers and makers at Rupert Bevan Ltd are experts in understanding both materials and methods of construction. They will guide you through the process from the very outset, advising and informing at every stage and providing samples of all the materials and finishes, to create a unique bespoke piece of furniture which is sure to stand the test of time.

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