Sunday, February 12, 2017

In Defense of Veneer

One of the most common misconceptions that I encounter, second only to "People who paint furniture are demon-spawn seeking only to ruin antiques and history", is that veneer is an indication of cheap construction and poor quality.
An early 20th century tall chest with wonderful bookend mahogany veneer drawer fronts.
Refinished in fall 2016 for a client. 

         This couldn't be farther from the truth! Take it from a gal who lives and dies by selecting and refinishing good furniture that will last for many generations, veneer is A-Ok. It's a non-factor when I'm deciding whether a piece is worth purchasing and re-inventing.

Incase you're curious, here are some actual detractors that will steer me away from a piece of furniture:

1. Severe shrinkage cracks or warps to the case. This is almost always caused by long term exposure to moisture (think damp basement), though every once in a while warps and cracks are caused by poorly chosen materials with original flaws. Once your boards start warping, there's very little that can be done to save a piece.

2. Bad drawers. Can drawers be fixed? Yes. There's any number of reasons why a drawer sticks- from missing or worn runners, to loose sides, protruding drawer stops, saggy bottoms, to warps in the case (see above), and sometimes they stick just due to asinine stubbornness. I fix sticking drawers all the time, and it's hands down my least favorite part of the job.

3. Cockroach infestation. This happened once ONCE but it was the most upsetting and shocking experience of my entire furnituring life. I hauled the thing (a vintage maple hutch) to the fire pit, and stood back while it burned, then I stripped naked, burned my clothes, and took a bath in paint thinner (some of this may be hyperbole). I never purchased another piece from that picker again. The poor lady was a bit of a hoarder, and I wonder if her whole house was crawling with the wee beasties, urgh.

          Anywho, veneer is never a deterrent. At least half of my favorite pieces I've ever worked on were veneer, which isn't surprising because I'd say about half of all the furniture I've refinished has been veneer. It's very common, especially in nice early 20th century case pieces.

An early 20th century classical style tall chest with magnificent tiger oak veneer drawer fronts.
Finished last summer for a client.
         I suspect a lot of the veneer hate stems from a lack of understanding. So, what is veneer? Veneer is not laminate. Laminate is a 20th century invention cooked up in a mad villain's wicked workshop to undermine the quality of furniture. Laminate is plastic,  but it might as well be a blurry polaroid photo of wood, scotch taped crookedly to the top of a piece, for all it resembles real wood. Veneer is not composite. Composite is wood pulp, or, even more horrifyingly, cardboard stuff, that's been reformed into a board-shape. It's about as solid and reliable as building a piece of furniture out of marshmallow. Often laminate is applied over composite for an atrocity that now passes as furniture on the modern market. The stuff doesn't even have the decency to burn properly, and a roaring fire is really the only appropriate place to store laminate and composite furniture...

         Veneer is wood. And a veneered piece of furniture can still be considered solid wood. It's all wood. Just that some of that wood is an 1/8th sheet of something very special, thoughtfully selected, and applied over a 'secondary wood' (usually pine, poplar, or chestnut). Using veneer allows the cabinetmaker far more flexibility in terms of design and material. Exotic hardwoods such as mahogany and teak are expensive and rare, as are highly figured pieces of common wood such as birds-eye and tiger maple. By using veneer, a little hardwood can go a long way, preventing unnecessary waste. Veneer patterns such as crotch or flame mahogany can be matched, paired, and set at angles for spectacular plays of movement and figuring. Simply put, veneer ups the ante big time.
Here is a delightfully earnest but surprisingly entertaining vintage video on veneer production. Well worth the watch!

          For those of you who are like "Oh hell no, I'm not watching a 15 minute video on veneer" here's the quick and dirty: Hardwoods are selecting for their beauty and rarity, de-barked, soaked in water or steam at high temperatures for a day or so, and then cut with super sharp blades at specific angles which result in specific displays of the wood's natural graining. The slicers kind of look like giant versions of the meat slicers they use at deli counter.

        Veneer is in no way a new technology invented to cut corners and whittle away at the standards of quality in furniture production (ahem, looking at you, laminate). Believe it or not, veneer was already in common use by Egyptian master craftsmen three millennia ago. Check out these guys getting their veneer on in a reproduction of a drawing found in the tomb of Rekmire (c.1475 BCE).

          Veneer was elevated to perhaps its greatest altitude of beauty in 17th and 18th century Europe, when furniture makers created furniture so intricately veneered and inlayed that it makes my eyes water and my heart ache. JUST LOOK AT THIS SUCKER- a 17th century Charles II Dutch olive oyster-veneered and floral marquetry chest on stand. Holy smokes. 

          Veneer has been used in American furniture production pretty much from the time colonists hopped off their boats in the 17th century. Just as today, the use of veneer allowed early American cabinetmakers to maximize rare and fine woods to create symphonies of figuring and form. Here's an early 18th century William and Mary highboy in burled maple veneer with walnut herringbone banding.

And how about this c.1805-1810 Federal carved mahogany and bird's eye maple veneer dressing table and mirror attributed to Thomas Seymour of Boston. It sold at Skinner's auction about fifteen years ago for $312,000. Tell me again how veneer is only for "junk" furniture... *eye-roll*

Veneer was commonly used throughout the 19th and 20th century to create both original furniture designs and second period pieces that honor the forms and surfaces of the great master pieces of the previous centuries. Which is a good thing because, I don't know about all of you, but I don't have $312,000 sitting around. I do have a few hundred bucks from time to time, and that's more than enough to buy some seriously sexy veneered furniture. In fact, I just wandered through my house and counted- it's a pretty even split between antique veneered and solid wood pieces of furniture in my house. Here are two of my favorites in my personal collection. Both are early 19th century. Both were under $100.

And finally, here's some HAWT pictures of veneer, doing things solid wood boards can never do.
All pieces I've had the pleasure to refinish over the years.


1 comment:

  1. I learn so much from your blog and love your work!