"Solid wood is better than veneer, right? But veneers are cheaper, aren’t they? Or is it the other way around? And what about laminate furniture?"
Questions concerning the benefits between solids and veneers often arise when a customer begins the search for the perfect piece of furniture. In fact, customers have been asking the same questions for about four thousand years.
The ancient Egyptians are credited as being the first to use veneers, a process that involves taking thin layers of wood--or other materials, such as ivory or marble--and permanently bonding them to a center core.
The purpose of this technique is to create a balanced or uniform surface design. Thin, consecutive layers from one log can be incorporated into a matching or repeating grain pattern--something inconceivable with solid timber.
Until the 1930s, veneer craftsmanship was undermined by adhesives of the time. Glue was simply not effective enough to compete with the stability of solid wood. But even then, veneers were regarded as more beautiful because of the balance and symmetry they achieved. Few people could afford its uniform beauty before advances during the industrial revolution significantly reduced production costs.
Before the late 19th Century, slicing such thin pieces of material was a costly, labor intensive process that required skilled hands and the most advanced cutting tools of the age. Despite the lower quality of past adhesives, many centuries-old veneer pieces have been preserved in museums and private collections for their beauty and craftsmanship.
Timber layers are placed so that the grain lies at a 90 degree angle to adjacent layers, which means that when the fibers shrink and swell, they do so uniformly in all directions. Solid wood is not as capable of withstanding this natural process, which makes it more prone to splitting and cracking.
When veneer became more affordable with advances in technology, it naturally became more popular. Today, nearly 80 percent of wooden furniture in every price range uses incorporates veneers. As a result of improvements in adhesives over the past few decades, veneers are more refined than ever, resulting in furniture that's even stronger and more durable than that made without any adhesives.
Unadultered wood imparts its own unique, natural beauty, though it's not as impervious as its name implies. This type of furniture is constructed of narrow planks cut to a desired width and laid side by side. It's simply not cost-feasible to carve an entire piece of furniture out of a single piece of lumber, even if the diameter of the tree used were sufficient.
So which method is better? Today the answer to that age old question is still not definitive. The former can incorporate beautiful symmetrical and consistent grain patterns. It can result in graceful curves and sharp lines not possible without the strategic addition of veneers. The finished piece is strong and durable. But there's something striking, too, about the nostalgic, natural beauty of furnishing made from solid timber. Let your taste be the judge.
To throw a curve into this debate, laminates have recently made enormous strides in popularity thanks to the latest technological innovations.
Laminates use photographic reproductions of genuine hardwood. An image is bonded to the surface of a composite, which is typically a type of particle board. The result is a material that resembles the orginal article, and if the image quality is high, identifying this sturdy alternative by sight can be difficult.
Laminates are highly durable, inexpensive, and low maintenance. While genuine wood fades under electrical light and benefits from a refinishing every five to ten years, laminate has a fifteen-year life span adn resists better against wear and fading. So why isn't furniture made with high-resolution overlays the obvious choice? For some, it still bears the stigma of a copy. For its practical merits, this versatile material continues to become better-received.
Look to your personal preference and your budget to help you decide. Who knows? In a few years, there may be even more alternatives to choose from.