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Veneers and Veneering

Updated on November 13, 2010

Veneer is a thin sheet of ornamental wood, or occasionally other material used as a surface to give a handsome exterior finish to cabinet articles or other work, which are made with a basis of cheaper and it may be of stronger materials. Veneering is an ancient art. The British Museum contains some examples of Egyptian work which are many thousands of years old. From that time to the present this art has influenced the construction and design of household furniture. Pliny states that it came into general use in Rome in his day. In that wealthy capital tables veneered with rare woods were the choicest and costliest pieces of work. At a later day in Italy cabinets were veneered with ebony, ivory and tortoise-shell and inlaid with pearl and precious stones. In the Dutch and French work of the centuries that followed veneering took a prominent place in furniture decoration. In the England of the 18th century the masterpieces of Hepplewhite and Sheraton show the degree of perfection to which this art had then attained.

To the average man today the term "veneer" means to cover up cheap and shoddy work, or to make a whitewood cabinet or other piece of furniture look like a mahogany one. From this false conception has arisen the idea that all veneering is bad work. It must be admitted that bad work is done, and it is in consequence all the more difficult to convince the public that veneered work, when properly done, and shows that it is veneer, is the best and most effective work for the following reasons: (1) It is the only way to use the rare woods such as "curls" in satinwood and mahogany, burrs in amboyna or walnut, and cross-grained but pretty work which would only twist if used in the solid; (2) the layer of veneer tends to strengthen and preserve the wood on which it is laid; (3) veneering gives the only opportunity for flat decoration in furniture, by using the grain of the wood for designs in panels and on wide surfaces; (4) the process needs more care and thought in the selection of wood, its preparation, application and finish than is required in ordinary solid work.

Wooden chairs made from molded veneers.
Wooden chairs made from molded veneers. | Source

Cutting Veneers

Veneers are cut in two grades or thicknesses, known as saw cut and knife cut. The first named are the thickest, and vary in thickness from 1/32 to 1/16 of an inch. They are cut from the log with a large circular saw, and usually yield about 12 sheets to the inch. Knife cut veneers are much thinner, modern machines making it possible to get from 50 to 100 sheets to the inch, the very thin ones being used as picture mounts. These are cut with rotary and flat knives. In saw cutting the log is well steamed and placed between two stocks, like a leg in a lathe, and under a knife for its whole length. The log is now forced round and against the knife which drops the required thickness at each revolution. By cutting spirally the grain is accentuated and enlarged. In knife cutting a flat knife is used somewhat like a plane. The log is fixed on a rising table and the blade works backwards and forwards, taking off a sheet horizontally, the knife being parallel with the grain. Formerly veneers were cut by hand and were usually one eighth inch in thickness and were planed.

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