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Flat surfaces of wood furniture as top, side panels
and drawer fronts are considered solid wood, even
if the surface is made of narrow planks of wood
bonded together to prevent splitting and warping.
Because wood can shrink and warp, legs, arms and other structural
components are cut and shaped from solid pieces of lumber. Each
component of a table, chair, or other—must be of the same wood
species as it’s flat surfaces.
Wood veneer is a sheet of thinly sliced wood, laminated to a substrate.
When the substrate is wood, labels for the wood veneered furniture read:
solid wood veneered furniture.
If the substrate is not wood, the furniture can not be labeled solid wood.
Appreciation for the beauty and application of wood grain veneer dates
back to ancient Egypt, but veneered furniture was not common until the
Solid wood furniture of the last three centuries, made with applications of beautiful wood veneer, is highly valued by antique dealers; and splendid new wood furniture continues to feature wood veneers.
Whether to peel or saw veneer depends upon the desired grain.
Peeled veneers are made by spinning a wet, trimmed log on a rotary lathe against a sharp blade to produce a continuous roll.
Sawn veneers are cut across or lengthwise to reveal different patterns of natural grain.
Whether peeled or sawn, veneers are meticulously applied to a wood substrate.
Consecutive slices of sawn veneers laminated to a substrate can create consecutive panels of almost identical grain.
Wood veneer may be as thin as 1/32”. The natural beauty of the wood grain is further exploited by positioning sections of veneer with the grain sliced, matched and facing in different directions as: book matching, end matching, slip matching and herringbone.
Unless you know the species of the veneered wood
and the composition of the substrate,
you cannot determine its’ quality.
Today, plywood is used from furniture to buildings.
Layers or pliés of wood —stacked (as pancakes)— and laminated together,
become 1/8” to 1” inch thick plywood.
The grain direction of each plié is alternated in right angles to the one beneath, resulting in a strong workable material with uniform strength of width and length and capable of being molded by heat and pressure—a technique used to make grand pianos since the 1830’s.
Veneers or pliés of wood may also be laminated to a core of wood as birch, ash and Douglas fir. The most attractive grain of wood veneer is used for the top layer.
Veneering/ Laminating Processes:
Veneers of wood OR sheets of plastic —can be laminated (glued and pressed) over a core or substrate of solid wood, plywood, OR man-made fiberboards. Diverse combinations run the gamut of both price and quality.
Fiberboards are inexpensive man-made substrates
marketed as particleboard, hardboard and chipboard.
They are invisible beneath a visible surface veneer
which may be natural wood veneer–or a man-made
Durability and cost of fiberboard varies greatly because
the particle size and density of which they are composed
ranges from natural wood particles, chips, shavings and
wood waste from a mill or plywood factory to synthetic
particle products compressed with heat and pressure and
bonded with synthetic resins.
Even though the furniture industry uses man-made fiberboard products as ‘legitimate’ substrates for furniture and cabinetry: many are less-than-good. Substrates are beneath the surface veneers—so it’s impossible to view their particle size and density—or to know the kind of glue and pressure with which they are compressed.
There are no labeling laws for furniture substrates.
I suspect the furniture industry doesn’t want labels to reveal less-than-good substrates. Surface laminates as wood veneer, plastic and engineered paper ‘hide’ man-made substrates which cannot be drilled or joined by traditional joinery methods.
Shopping for a computer desk (in dozens of furniture stores), answers to my questions about veneers, substrates and joinery were unsatisfactory. One store owner showed me a picture of a well-designed desk and told me it was cherry veneer over a solid wood substrate. Before considering it, I had to see the quality of the manufacturer’s work.
I located furniture made by the same manufacturer in another store but a ‘depression’ in the top flat surface of their table was a ‘red flag’ that the substrate was not wood. My call to the manufacturer confirmed the use of particleboard substrates for ALL their furniture. After my negative experiences with man-made substrates, I passed.
Finally, I found a desk where the style, scale, finish and hardware suited my needs. Told it was solid wood with mortise & tenon joinery, I nevertheless checked the manufacturer’s web site which listed all raw materials and production methods for their products. So far, so good—but I still phoned the manufacturer to dispel any doubt.
My desk cost little more than the one made with a particleboard substrate.
I spend hours at it every day, including writing this post.
MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is a dry-formed panel substrate made by gluing wood fibers together with a synthetic resin using heat and pressure. MDF is very dense and has no knots, so it can be drilled and traditional methods of joinery can be used.
Although some better cabinet makers use MDF as a substrate for fine wood veneers, know that MDF is a man-made fiberboard substrate and the furniture cannnot be sold as solid wood. Ask for written proof that a substrate is WOOD.
Plywood and all varieties of fiberboards have traditionally been made with wood binding adhesives, synthetic resins and finishes we now call VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) which vary greatly in safety by releasing fumes causing eye, skin, nose and throat irritation in addition to creating hazardous waste. Their vapors can depress and damage the brain and nervous system, and some are carcinogenic—especially if they contain formaldehyde.
The U.S. federal government classifies formaldehyde as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen although California has classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen– and declared fiberboards made with formaldehyde, illegal.
The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, signed into U.S. law by President Obama, July 7, 2010, establishes limits for emissions from composite wood products: hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard and particleboard.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post: FURNITURE COMPONENT TERMINOLOGY