Pop Quiz: What Do You Know About Veneer?
Which of the following is true and which is false?
1. The presence of veneer on a piece of furniture indicates recent production?
2. The presence of veneer indicates inferior quality?
3. A piece of furniture with veneer on it cannot be stripped, sanded or refinished?
4. When veneer chips, it’s best to remove the old veneer and finish what’s under it?
They are all false, of course, or at least mostly false.
1. It is true that a recently made piece may be veneered, but the presence of veneer in and of itself does not mean the piece is new. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians were familiar with veneering techniques, based on furniture retrieved from their tombs. The Romans also used the process, which has fallen in and out of favor over the centuries. It was the absolute rage in the 18th- and early 19th-centuries, as evidenced by the magnificent Regency furniture of France in the 1720s, the Georgian mahogany output of England and the colonies in the late 1700s, and the American Federal outburst in the early 1800s. But the technique fell out of general use after that and not revived until the early 20th century, when it was used as a conservation method as an effort was begun to use less of the world’s hardwood resources.
Generating a piece of veneer is a technology-driven process, extremely dependent on the quality of the saws used to slice a log. Early hand-operated reciprocal saws wasted about as much wood as they cut, and the veneer slices were necessarily thicker than what we usually think of. Water-powered rotary saws came along about 1825 and enabled the slicing of an entire log into a long, thin, continuous sheet of usable, albeit usually bland, veneer. Advances in technology have changed the thickness of veneer from the 1/8 inch of 1725 to the standard 1/64 inch or even 1/110 used in some modern productions.
One sure sign of the presence of is the repeated, matching pattern seen on the front of this Colonial Revival sideboard. It is almost impossible to create this pattern using solid wood.
So it is not the presence of veneer that indicates a particular period of production, but rather the thickness of the veneer and its corresponding underlayment.
2. It is true that a piece of inferior-quality furniture may be veneered, but again, it is not the presence of the veneer itself that determines that inferiority. More important to quality is the overall design and construction of piece, e.g. blocked corners in the case, good dovetail joints in the drawers, etc. But, perhaps more important than any of these items, is the underlayment of the veneer. In the 18th century, thick veneers were applied to solid wood under-layments, and secondary woods using primarily hide glue. Expensive mahogany veneer was applied over less costly woods such as pine and poplar. The veneer was so thick that slight imperfections in the underlayment did not “telegraph” through the veneer. As veneers became thinner, the sub surface became more important. In the early 20th century, the five layer process known as lumber core plywood (pages 68 and 69 in my book) came into general use solving that problem.
This shows the five layers of 20th century lumber core plywood.
For example, a well-made drawer front of 1925 started out as a piece of solid poplar or oak with its grain running the length of the drawer. A sub-layer of inexpensive veneer, gum or poplar of 1/20 inch thickness, was then applied to both sides of the core with its grain at right angles to the grain of the core. Then a face veneer, walnut or mahogany of 1/28 inch was applied to the drawer front with its grain running the same direction as the core. Another inexpensive face was applied to the inside of the drawer front to finish it off. With the sub-layer of veneer to cushion it, the expensive face veneer can be very thin. Of course, modern production solves that problem another way. It is very common to see veneer laid over a perfectly smooth manmade material, such as particle board, chip board or even highly compressed paper known in the trade as “medium density fiber core,” a fancy name for cardboard. What’s UNDER the veneer is more important than the veneer itself.
3. A piece of furniture with veneer on it can be stripped, sanded and refinished successfully as long as reasonable care is used. Water is the mortal enemy of veneer and must be avoided since most veneers are laid using water-based or hide glue rather than solvent-based glue, such as contact cement. This is because most factory finishes are solvent based and will loosen solvent-based glue. Solvent-based stripper will not harm sound veneer, but avoid water-based or water-rinsed strippers, which might dissolve the water-based veneer glue.
Most veneer is only 1/28 of an inch thick, but that is plenty thick to allow reasonable sanding if required. Using your hand and a piece of sandpaper, you would have to work awfully hard to sand through a standard piece of veneer. A machine sander will do it quickly, though, so you must be very careful. Other than that, treat veneer as regular wood in your preparation and finishing procedures.
4. When veneer chips or peels, it usually is indicative of structural problems such as drawer runners being worn out, or it indicates a glue problem. None of these problems can be solved by removing the old veneer and finishing the underlayment, which, as we have seen, is usually much less desirable than the original veneer anyway. First, you must determine why the veneer is chipping and peeling and solve that problem first.
This veneer problem is not a veneer problem at all. It is a drawer problem. The drawer must be fixed before the veneer can be fixed.
It may be as simple as re-gluing a loose length of veneer that just dried out or gotten damp. Or it may be as complicated as rebuilding drawer runners or stabilizing a loose top or case. In any event, this has to done first or you are wasting your time trying to patch and touch up the veneer. If the veneer is not salvageable and must be removed as a last resort, use household vinegar in a mustard squeeze bottle to get under the veneer. Use a long, dull knife to gradually work the veneer loose as the glue is dissolved by the vinegar.
The point of all of this is to rehabilitate the good name of veneer, which sometimes gets wrongly maligned by the uninformed and perpetrates some the old “furniture myths” that still circulate.
Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address.
For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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